John Williams aka The Ratcliff Highway murders

Classification: Mass murderer
Characteristics: Robberies?
Number of victims: 7
Date of murders: December 7/19, 1811
Date of birth: 1784
Victims profile: Timothy Marr, 24, his wife Celia, their 3-month-old son, Timothy, and James Gowan, their shop boy / John Williamson, 56, his wife Elizabeth, 60, and Bridget Anna Harrington in her late 50’s, a servant
Method of murder: Beating with a pen maul / Cutting their throats with a razor
Location: London, England, United Kingdom
Status: Committed suicide by hanging himself, in Coldbath Fields Prison, on December 28, 1811

The Ratcliff Highway murders (sometimes Ratcliffe Highway murders) were two vicious attacks that resulted in multiple fatalities, and occurred over twelve days in the year 1811, in homes half a mile apart near Wapping in London.

The first attack took place on 7 December 1811, at 29 Ratcliffe Highway, in the home behind a linen draper’s shop, on the south side of the street, between Cannon Street Road and Artichoke Hill. Ratcliffe Highway is the old name for the road now called The Highway, in the East End of London.

The victims of the first murders were Timothy Marr, a 24-year-old linen draper and hosier, who had served the East India Company on the Dover Castle from 1808 to 1811, his wife Celia and their 3-month-old son, Timothy (who had been born on 29 August 1811); and James Gowan, their shop boy. Margaret Jewell, a servant of the Marrs, had been sent to purchase oysters, and escaped. This murder caused the government to offer a reward of 500 guineas for the apprehension of the perpetrator.

Twelve days later, the second incident, on 19 December, was at The Kings Arms in New Gravel Lane (now Garnet Street). The victims of the second murders were John Williamson, a publican, 56 years old, who had been at the Kings Arms for 15 years, Elizabeth, his wife, aged 60 and Bridget Anna Harrington in her late 50’s, a servant. Williamson’s 14-year-old granddaughter, Catherine (Kitty) Stillwell, slept through the incident and was thus not discovered. John Turner, a lodger and journeyman, discovered the murders and escaped out of an upper window, using a knotted sheet to climb down to the street below.
The victims’ bodies were buried in the cemetery of the local parish church, St George in the East.

A principal suspect in the murders, John Williams (also known as Murphy), was a lodger at the nearby Pear Tree public house in Old Wapping. He was a 27-year-old Scottish or Irish seaman. He had nursed a grievance against Marr from when they were shipmates, but the subsequent murders at the Kings Arms remain unexplained.

Williams was arrested, but committed suicide by hanging himself, in Coldbath Fields Prison. His corpse was dragged through the streets, in a cart, that paused by the scene of the murders. His body was pitched into a hole and was buried, with a stake through its heart, at the junction of Commercial Road and Cannon Street Road. In August 1886, the skeleton of John Williams (with a stake driven through it) was discovered during the excavation of a trench by a gas company. It was six feet below the surface of the road where Cannon Street and Cable Street cross at St George in the East. The landlord of the Crown and Dolphin public house, at the corner of Cannon Street Road, retained the skull as a souvenir.