London Monster

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The ‘London Monster’ was a criminal who attacked women in London in 1788-1790; the first reports of the monster appeared 1788.

The London MonsterAccording to the victims, all of them women from wealthier families, a large man had stalked them, shouted obscenities at them, and slashed at them with bladed weapons of one sort or another. Sometimes he would slash their buttocks and hips, sometimes kick them with knives fastened to his knees; other times he would invite them to smell a fake nosegay (a type of flower) and then stab them in the nose with a spike hidden within the flowers. He would make his escape just before the help arrived.

Luckier victims could get away with just their clothes cut, while others received substantial wounds. In two years the number of victims amounted to over fifty. The London press, always on the lookout for its next sensational story, soon dubbed the maniac ‘The Monster’. However, descriptions of the attacker were sometimes confusingly different from one another. When people realized that the Monster mainly attacked beautiful females, some women begun to claim that they had been attacked to gain attention and sympathy – some of them even going so far as faking wounds. Some men, in turn, were afraid to approach a lady in the dark lest they frighten her and be accused of being the reviled attacker.

Some of the reports of the would-be attacks may have been fabrications or the results of a lady being afraid of an innocent would-be-escort. Some men even founded a No Monster Club and began to wear club pins on their lapels to show that they were not the Monster. Londoners were outraged when the London police force failed to capture the man.

Philanthropist John Julius Angerstein promised a reward of �100 for the capture of the perpetrator. Armed vigilantes began to patrol in the city. Fashionable ladies began to wear copper pans over their petticoats. There were a number of false accusations and attacks against ‘suspicious’ persons. Local pickpockets and other petty criminals used the panic to their advantage; they would pick someone’s purse, point at him, shout “Monster!” and escape during the resulting mayhem.

On June 13, 1790, previous victim Anne Porter spotted her attacker in St. James Park. Her admirer John Coleman begun a slow pursuit of the man who obviously knew he was being followed. When the man, Rhynwick Williams, an unemployed 23-year-old, reached his house, Coleman confronted him, effectively challenging him to a duel for insulting a lady, and eventually took him to meet Porter, who fainted when she saw him. Williams claimed to be innocent but in the atmosphere of the time his protest was futile. He admitted that he had once approached Porter, but turned out to have an alibi for one of the attacks.

Magistrates charged Williams with defacing someone’s clothing, which in the contemporary law code carried a harsher penalty than assault or even attempted murder. During the trial, spectators cheered the witnesses for the prosecution and insulted those for the defense. One of the claimed victims confessed that she had not been actually attacked at all. The first judge granted Williams a retrial. In the new trial Williams’s defense was Irish poet Theophilus Swift, whose tactic was to accuse Porter of a scheme to collect the reward; it only made Williams’s case worse. He was sentenced for two years for three proven assaults, for a total of six years in prison.

Since the time of the attacks, and the subsequent disappearance of the threat of the once-feared assailant, there has been much speculation about whether there was ever any actual threat at all, much less the existence of a real Monster. The conflicting testimonies and the bizarre nature of the original reports leads one to believe that perhaps for a time the citizens of London, particularly its female denizens, let their imaginations create a terror which in reality never quite existed at all.

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