Humans have always believed in monsters. Our ancient ancestors told tales of giants, dragons, and less classifiable things lurking in the impenetrable darkness of the night. While the march of progress has shown these stories to be nothing more than collective nightmares, now and then real-life monsters rear their all too human heads. It turns out that the real monsters–with a few exceptions–take human form. From Delphine LaLaurie’s attic of horrors to the castle of the Blood Countess, tales of human savagery litter the historical record. Even today we are not clear on what goes wrong in a person’s mind to make them turn monstrous, although many have turned down dark pathways in an effort to figure out why. Some folks are just broken, and nobody can figure out how to fix them.
One such monstrous figure stalked the streets of London in 1790. Dozens of women reported being attacked by a boisterous, lewd man who slashed at their clothing and stabbed their buttocks with a dagger. Panic quickly spread through the city as citizens and police alike tried to track down the mysterious figure who came to be dubbed “The London Monster.”
The Monster’s first strike
The Monster’s first reported attack occurred January 19, 1790, on the Queen’s birthday. The Porter sisters–Sarah and Anne–were on their way home to their fathers hotel after enjoying the festivities when a strange fellow approached. He stared intently at Sarah before saying “Oh ho! Is that you?” and hitting her on the back of the head. Confused by the unprovoked assault, she ran toward her sister and the chaperone–Mrs. Miel– escorting the pair. The group hurried toward the hotel, but the man was not following. He appeared again when they were pounding on the hotel door. He stabbed Anne on the hip. He then left while the frantic women tried to raise the attention of those inside, but soon returned. He stared at the women, a grin on his lips. John Porter, their brother, let the group inside. He was the first to see the blood on Anne’s dress. He summoned servants to search for the attacker, but the mysterious assailant disappeared.
That night, four other women would reportedly be attacked by the strange grinning man. The Monster established his modus operandi that night. He approached pretty, well-dressed women, usually coming uncomfortably close. He spoke to them in a crude manner, making vulgar sexual comments and foul language. If they tried to walk away, he would pursue them, often for a good distance. Then he would stab them in the hips or thighs using a sharp instrument before running away.
While this constituted most of the Monster attacks, the mysterious pervert slightly modified his approach in later cases. Some women reported being approached by a man who asked them to smell an artificial nosegay. When they did so, he stabbed them in the face with an object concealed within the flower before running away.
A phantom with many faces
As reports of attacks flooded in after the initial spate on January 19, many different descriptions of the alleged assailant were given by his victims. Mrs. Mary Smyth, who was attacked two years before the Porter sisters, making her the first victim of the Monster, claimed her attacker was a “villanous” looking man with a narrow face. Another woman reported the attacker was a small, thin, big nosed man. A little less than a year before the Porter sisters were attacked, Mrs. Sarah Godfrey was attacked by a man of medium build wearing a good black suit. Miss Mary Forster was accosted six months later by a slender man with regular features and a big nose. Still another victim described her attacker as a six foot tall man with pale skin and sallow features. Investigators–both the professionals and vigilantes who later took to the streets–believed the Monster was a rich man who used disguises to commit his crimes, thus accounting for the varying appearance.
It seemed the Monster could be anyone. Panic was growing on the streets of London. By early April 1790, the incidents had attracted the attention of a Lloyd’s Insurance broker named John Julius Angerstein. He took it upon himself to interview victims. He found that there had been 30 attacks between May 1788 and April 1790. Eager to do his part to stop the scourge of the Monster, Angerstein and some associates pooled their money for a reward: 50 pounds for information that led to the arrest of the Monster, or for the capture of the Monster himself, and another 50 pounds if the culprit was convicted. The group plastered posters around the city advertising the reward. The already bewildered police were flooded with tipsters and men hauling in folks they thought were the culprit.
The Monster hunters taking to the street in search of reward didn’t seem to deter the London Monster, who continued to wage his campaign of terror against the female citizens of London. He began to prey on more homely ladies during that time. Panic grew into a flat out mania. Women were terrified to leave their homes, especially at night. Rich women began wearing copper cuirasses over their rear ends, while the less well off had to settle for girding their loins with copper cook pots. Men roved the streets, searching for the Monster and beating any man suspected of being the phantom assailant. Enterprising pick pockets took advantage of the hysterical climate. They would burgle an unsuspecting fellow, then denounce him as the Monster and run off while the mob descended. Others named their enemies the Monster and watched with satisfaction as the mob beat the tar out of the unfortunate.
With hysteria in the packed London streets, police had to act fast before they had a full scale riot on their hands. They snapped up a Welsh artificial flower maker named Rhynwick Williams, arresting him on suspicion of being the Monster. He was an average looking fellow who wasn’t very well educated. Four Monster victims could not identify him in the pre-trial hearing. In addition, his coworkers at the flower factory vouched for him, telling the judge that he was at work when the Porter sisters were attacked. No fewer than thirteen character witnesses came forward and vouched for Williams, telling the court he was a good man. Despite all this, Williams was found guilty on the testimony of the Porter sisters.
Strangely, Williams was not found guilty of assault. Cutting a person with intent to kill was considered a misdemeanor at the time, punishable by fines, prison time, or flogging. Prosecutors went for a felony charge–punishable by death or transportation to Australia–of cutting clothes. Yes, it turned out that in late 18th century London, cutting clothes was a worse crime than cutting flesh. The statute was instituted when weavers, who were angry over the import of cheap Indian fabrics, attacked anyone wearing clothes made from the foreign material. Under this statute, Williams was sentenced to 7 years transportation.
Theophilus Swift, relative of the great satirist and novelist Johnathon Swift, heard about the results of the charges and believed a great injustice had been done to Williams. He offered his assistance to the hapless Welshman, and managed to bluster his way to a second trial. During the trial, Swift contended that the Porter sister’s were using the courts to get revenge on Williams. He had approached Anne, and become angry when she rejected him. He insulted her about a past indiscretion with a mysterious figure named Captain Crowder. Swift also alleged that Porter was angling to get the reward money, since she’d married the man who captured Williams and netted the reward money. Furthermore, Swift argued that there had been two more Monster-style attacks while Williams was in prison, so it couldn’t have been his client who did the original crimes. In addition, women were coming forward claiming that they had faked their injuries in order to garner attention as victims of the Monster, casting suspicion on all of the victim’s accounts by association.
These arguments–and the pamphlets Swift published which trumpeted them to the public at large–were enough to cast doubt on the proceedings of the first trial. The felony charge against Williams was dropped, and he was charged with the lesser misdemeanor of cutting with the intent to kill. He was sentenced to two years of prison time for each offense, totaling six years. Williams served out his sentence, married and fathered a children, and basically dropped out of the historical record at that point.
A monstrous delusion?
London was a rough and tumble city during the late 18th century. The population had swelled to about a million, and more people meant more of the problems that plagued any large city, especially crime. The odds of someone falling victim to the swarms of footpads, pickpockets, and other nasty sorts were pretty good. So it wasn’t much of a leap for the city’s residents to believe that a monstrous madman might be on the loose among them.
They certainly did believe it, but that doesn’t mean that the London Monster actually did exist. What seems likely given the evidence–the varying descriptions of the attacker, the relatively minor wounds, the faking of wounds for attention, the fact that most victims were female–is that the London Monster was a type of mass sociogenic illness called a collective delusion. The term “delusion” in this sense does not mean that the victims were psychotic and hallucinating. In this usage, it simply means that a false belief spread through the population. There is no doubt that at least some of the women were actually victims of assault; it’s inevitable, considering that so many crimes were being committed daily in the London streets. But these assaults came to be lumped together as the actions of one attacker, rather than the random acts of anonymous hoodlums. The London Monster put a face on the problems plaguing the city; crime, overcrowding, and the low status of women in British society at the time. By putting a face on abstract issues, it gave people a way that they could act on these unconscious stresses and anxieties. It wound up that poor Rhynwick Williams was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He became a scape-goat, bearing the burdens of societal sin so that the larger community could believe justice had been done.
Bondeson, Jan. “The London Monster: A Sanguinary Tale.” Da Capo Press, July 2009