THE LONDON MONSTER: A SANGUINARY TALE
reviewed by Steven Saylor
The facts in the case of the London Monster, who terrified the metropolis in year 1790, are so peculiar that no novelist would have dared to invent them. Book-browsers who come upon Jan Bondeson’s The London Monster: A Sanguinary Tale may be forgiven if they think the whole book, complete with period illustrations and popular song lyrics (all about the Monster), must be some sort of publishing hoax.
But Bondeson (a Londoner and previously the author of A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities and The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History) establishes the authenticity of his research at the outset, describing his pursuit of the Monster through long-defunct newspapers in the British Library. Along with cataloging scores of crimes attributed to the Monster, Bondeson researched the biographies of various persons involved in the search for the culprit and the two trials that ultimately resulted. As a visual treat, the book includes over two dozen illustrations, including several from Bondeson’s private collection of Monster-abilia. These hysterical handbills, satirical cartoons, and illustrated verses are sometimes quaint, sometimes shocking.
Who was the Monster and why did his crimes so terrorize London? He was not a murderer, like Jack the Ripper a century later, but he did victimize young women. Once his crimes became a cause for public panic, a flood of false sightings and contradictory testimony began to obscure the exact nature of the menace, but in a nutshell the Monster’s modus operandi went something like this: a well-dressed, respectable young man would pursue an attractive woman through the streets, dogging her steps and making obscene suggestions. Just as the victim reached her destination, the Monster would strike. He was, to put it bluntly, a buttock-stabber. His weapon was usually a hand-held knife, but on some occasions he wielded blades attached to his knees which allowed him to deliver a furious succession of blows.
Curiously, many of the victims failed to realize they had been stabbed until they later disrobed and discovered that their garments were bloody, and some managed to escape bodily harm even while their clothing was shredded. Fueled by alarmist handbills and breathless newspapers reports, Monster-mania descended on London. Print-makers, delighting in the subject matter, graphically illustrated how potential victims might protect themselves by strapping metal plates to their posteriors.
Eventually a suspect was tracked down, arrested, and brought to trial. Thanks to the bizarre state of laws in England at the end of the 18th century, stabbing a human being was a less serious crime than deliberately cutting a person’s clothinga capital offenseand the authorities, seeking the death penalty, arraigned the suspect on the latter charge. A colorful trial (Bondeson recounts all the juicy details) led to a conviction, which was followed by an appeal and a second trial. Coming to the defense of the accused was one Theophilus Swift, a professional trouble-maker and a collateral descendent of Jonathan Swift, who dedicated his considerable energies to making the case of the convicted Monster a cause célèbre.
Was the man arrested for the crimes of the London Monster, a maker of artificial nosegays named Rhynwick Williams, really guilty? Having been convicted once, would he be convicted a second time? And would the jury’s decision be the right one? Herein lies the suspense of Bondeson’s account, and while it would be unfair to reveal the outcome of that second trial, it seems reasonable to warn would-be pursuers of the London Monster that his trail, though colorful, has grown awfully cold after two hundred years. Bondeson has done a commendable job of assembling the bits and pieces of this curious story, but his judicious summation of the facts may disappoint readers hoping for a more satisfactory conclusion.
Was Rhynwick Williams the Monster? Did he, and the victims of the monster, ultimately receive justice? At this distance in time, determining the truth is simply impossible. Bondeson’s informed speculation is nonetheless intriguing.
Equally intriguing is his exploration of deeper questions raised by the case. Was the Monster one man or many, a single marauder or a composite of several criminals operating simultaneously? Did he fit the pattern of later criminals who exhibited the same fetish, otherwise impotent males whose only sexual gratification came from the act of stabbing a female victim? Did the Monster exist at all, or was he the creation of epidemic hysteria and a contagious moral panic?To tell his tale, Bondeson adopts a rather jocular tone, perhaps inspired by that urbane British master of true crime, Jonathan Goodman, who serves a cocktail of arch cynicism mixed with wicked wit even when recounting the most blood-curdling atrocities. But the tale of the London Monster is not really very blood-curdling. Compared to the outrages of Jack the Ripper or even stuffy Dr. Crippen, the crimes of the Monster are more pathetic than horrific. Farcical ribaldry, not black humor, is the tone that Bondeson sets, and the result at last seems rather disrespectful to the victims. The Monster’s assaults, which even some contemporaries mined for comedy, must nonetheless have been quite terrifying to those poor women. It seems unkind that their suffering should still be the butt of jokes, two hundred years later.