I’m a sucker for some mass hysteria, and the London Monster is one of my favourite stories. Here’s a brief synopsis – hopefully you’ll enjoy it enough to go learn more.
Between 1788 and 1790, stinky old London was terrorised by a violent phantom. He stalked beautiful young women; sometimes he approached to offer a sniff of his nosegay, other times to spew profanity in their faces. He strapped knives to his knees, concealed a blade in his bouquet… and liked to stab women in the butt.
More than 50 attacks were attributed to the monster, who seemed driven by an insatiable lust for booty blood. Women took to wearing copper pans beneath their bustles. Men formed No Monster Clubs and wore special pins to declare their innocence (evidently working on the theory that monsters are not fans of brooches).
With the city in panic, soon every clothing snag or accidental shove was viewed as a monster attack. This resulted in many conflicting witness descriptions, which led some to conclude that the monster was a supernatural master of disguise. Pickpockets and other petty criminals were able to use this fear to their advantage; if they risked detection, they would scream “Monster!” and disappear amidst the ensuing chaos. It is also believed that some ‘victims’ faked injuries and lied about assaults in order to gain attention or acknowledgement as a beauty (although I personally believe their true motivation would have been much more interesting than just wanting to feel pretty!).
In June 1790, 23-year Rhynwick Williams was accused of committing the assaults. Williams, a former ballet dancer and artificial-flower-maker, had fallen out of work. Lacking a stable income, he’d been forced to share a two-bed room with three other men. This was considered strong evidence of his hatred of women, which supposedly fuelled the attacks.
Williams was eventually charged with defacing clothing, a crime which under the Bloody Code actually carried a harsher penalty than assault. The evidence presented against him was flimsy and he had solid alibis for many of the crimes, but unfortunately the people of London needed a scapegoat in order to feel safe again. Despite an ebullient defence by the poet Theophilus Swift, Williams was ultimately convicted on three counts and sentenced to six years in Newgate Prison.
If you’d like to learn more about The London Monster (and 18th-century English weirdness in general), I’d strongly recommend Jan Bondeson’s The London Monster: A Sanguinary Tale. You can order it through Book Depository, or if you’re feeling optimistic you can try to borrow my copy. Good luck with that.
Did I seriously just use the term ‘booty blood’? Ugh! I’m the one who should be locked up!