Excerpt from The Invention of Murder by Judith Flanders, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Invention of Murder

How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime

by Judith Flanders

The Invention of Murder
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2013, 576 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2014, 576 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Judi Sauerbrey

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Half a century later, magazines were still reprinting these rumours, and creating new ones: 'Williams was so notorious an infamous man, for all his oily and snaky duplicity, that the captain of his vessel, the Roxburgh Castle, had always predicted that … he would mount the gibbet.' This comes from All the Year Round, Charles Dickens' magazine, and Dickens was evidently fascinated by Williams, and in no doubt about his guilt. As well as commissioning this article, he owned an illustration of 'the horrible creature', and had also touched lightly on the subject in Dombey and Son (1847–48): when Captain Cuttle, who lives down by the docks, keeps his shutters closed one day, the neighbours speculate 'that he lay murdered with a hammer, on the stairs'.

Meanwhile, the authorities had to decide how to respond to Williams' death. Most immediately, they needed to show the local residents that he would not escape justice by his suicide. It would be another century before a British judge decreed that it is 'of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done', but the idea was already well understood. So on the last day of 1811, an inclined wooden platform was placed atop a high cart. Williams' body was laid out on this, dressed in a clean white shirt (frilled, say some sources), blue trousers and brown stockings: in other words, in the neat, clean dress of a labouring man, although without a neck-handkerchief or hat, marks of decency and respectability. His right leg was manacled, as it would have been when he was in gaol. The maul was placed on one side of his head, the ripping chisel on the other.

At ten o'clock, a macabre and unprecedented procession set off at a stately walking pace. The head constable led the way, followed by

Several hundred constables, with their staves …
The newly-formed Patrole [sic], with drawn cutlasses.
Another body of Constables.
Parish Officers of St. George's and St. Paul's, and Shadwell, on horseback.
Peace Officers, on horseback,
Constables.
The High Constable of the county of Middlesex, on horseback
THE BODY OF WILLIAMS …

A strong body of Constables brought up the rear.

Crowds lined the route; more watched from windows and even the rooftops. Shops were shut, blinds drawn as a mark of respect to the Marrs and the Williamsons. The cart travelled first to the Ratcliffe Highway, where it stood for a quarter of an hour outside the Marrs' house. An enraged member of the public climbed onto the cart and forcibly turned Williams' head towards the house, to ensure that the murderer was brought face to face with the scene of his crime. Then the procession travelled on to New Gravel Lane, where again the cart rested outside the death site. Finally it processed to Cannon Street, on the edge of the City, and paused again. Then a stake was driven through Williams' heart (some reports say hammered home by the fatal maul), and his body was tumbled into a grave – some sources say a large one, so he could be tossed in; others that it was purposely made too small and shallow. Either way, the intention was to show deliberate disrespect. The crowd, which had so far watched in almost total silence, howled to see the last of the man who had killed seven people – half as many as had been murdered in the entire previous year throughout England and Wales.

This was not the last the world was to see of John Williams. Bodily, he reappeared in 1886, when workmen laying a gas pipe in what was now the heart of the City dug up a skeleton with a stake through its heart. Rumour later had it that at some point Williams' skull appeared in the keeping of the publican 'at the corner of Cable Street and Cannon Street Road'. In 1886 the Pall Mall Gazette further reported that Madame Tussaud's waxworks had a 'beautifully executed' portrait of Williams, drawn from life by Sir Thomas Lawrence. But when precisely had Lawrence seen Williams? In the two days between his arrest and suicide? Or perhaps in his final, cart-top appearance?

From Invention of Murder by Judith Flanders. Copyright © 2013 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC

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