In the late 1780s, a violent pervert prowled the streets of London.
His strange and unique modus operandi was to stab his victims in the buttocks or thighs, all the while assailing them with a stream of filthy language. The women of the capital were understandibly terrified. These attacks occurred from May 1788 onwards. When the Monster (as he had become known) increased his attacks in the first months of 1790, the authorities became under increasing pressure to make an arrest. The problem was the huge variety of victim descriptions of the perpetrator. Short, tall, old, young, thin, stocky, vulgar, gentlemanly: there was hardly any consistency whatsoever.
London insurance magnate John Julius Angerstein put up a reward of £100 for the capture of the Monster resulting in a spate of false citizen’s arrests which simply confused matters further.
Eventually, one of the victims, Anne Porter, identified a man she saw in the street as the Monster and the man was detained and charged. His name was Rhynwick Williams, an unemployed and impecunious artificial-flower maker. At the trial, held at the Old Bailey, much of the evidence against Williams was contradictory or plain false. He had solid alibis for the Anne Porter and other attacks, he was supported by a host of glowing character references and even Angerstein himself was doubtful about his guilt. Despite all of this, Williams was found guilty.
But of what? The judge, Sir Francis Buller, could not decide whether the crimes were felonies or misdemeanours, so referred the case to an appeal tribunal which decided that the crimes were misdemeanours. The upshot of this was that Williams had to be re-tried and the same farce was conducted for a second time, with the same result: guilty.
Williams was sentenced to six years in prison at Newgate. It would seem that his stay there was not especially unpleasant. His unsought notoriety meant that he had plenty of visitors and he picked up his trade of making artificial flowers which he was able to sell. The happy ending to this tale is that his girlfriend Elizabeth bore him a son, conceived in the prison. The boy was baptised at St Sepulchre across the road, and after his release in 1796, Williams and Elizabeth were married.
You can read more about the Monster here. A more complete and entertaining account can be found in Newgate, London’s Prototype of Hell by Stephen Halliday, p192-204. There is also a whole book dedicated to this case: The London Monster: A Sanguinary Tale by Jan Bondeson.
Update: I have found several images of Rhynwick Williams, but unfortunately they are in the hands of Getty Images, whose prices start at £34 a pop. So go take a look on their site, here.