Item of the Month, December 2010: The London Monster

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By | From the Collections

On this day in 1790, this man, Rhynwick Williams, a young unemployed Welshman was convicted of three counts of assault and sentenced to six years in prison. This – seemingly – brought to an end a sequence of attacks on women in London over the previous two years. Images from the Wellcome Library’s collections will help us tell this rather odd story.

There were over 50 reported, seemingly linked, attacks on women in London between 1788 and 1790. Whilst some women received deep wounds, it does not appear the aim of their assailant was to cause life threatening injuries – the attacker at times seemed as concerned with slashing the garments of the women as stabbing them. Often he would attempt to stab the women in the buttocks, sometimes those attacked reported they were offered a nosegay to sniff, out of which a sharp instrument would emerge and at least one report suggested the attacker approached a woman with sharp instruments attached to his knees. The description of the assailant also wildly differed.

Understandably, the attacks received a certain degree of late eighteenth century media hype: THE MONSTER! was how the newspapers of the day dubbed the attacker. There was also a certain degree of sensationalism in how artists and printmakers such as James Gillray responded to the attacks.

In an etching by Gillray, The Monster disappointed of his Afternoon Luncheon, or Porridge Potts preferable to Cork Rumps, the Monster is a true Ogre: about to feast on his victim whose only protection is a copper pan covering her posterior.

The Wellcome Library holds a copy of this related etching by Gillray, The Monster going to take his Afternoons luncheon which was issued in May 1790. Here, the victim has no protection, bare skin is revealed and there’s a rather more salacious edge in how the victim is being portrayed.

There’s a similar ribaldry in another of Gillray’s prints of May 1790, Swearing to the Cutting Monster, or a Scene in Bow Street. Here, a victim shows her injuries – which the officials are making perhaps too close an examination of – to the Bow Street Magistrates. Note too the political connotations of the engraving: instead of our wild-haired ogre, here ‘The Monster’ in the Dock bears more than a passing resemblance to the politician Charles James Fox

In June 1790, one victim claimed she recognised her attacker walk past her in the street – this was Rhynwick Williams. Williams was arrested and charged with the attacks. After his first trial collapsed on a technicality, Williams underwent a second trial leading to his conviction on 14th December 1790.

However, the story doesn’t quite end there. In Jan Bondeson‘s The London Monster – the best account of these events – Bondeson talks of similar attacks to these in the centuries that have followed (for example, the ‘Brooklyn Monster’, depicted left); questions the reliability of Williams’s conviction and explores the possibility that the explanation for the attacks may even lie in a massive case of Mass Hysteria (it’s certainly the case that some ‘victims’ lied about the nature of their injuries).

Interestingly, Williams went back to his previous career as an artificial flowermaker after he left jail. His time spent behind bars did have one major transformative effect on him: by the time he left he was father to a child – which was conceived whilst Williams was behind bars (Williams would marry the mother of his child on release). As for the sensationalism of the ‘Monster’, it’s almost tempting now to see this as prefiguring in some ways the newspaper reporting of the Whitechapel murders of 1888.

Image credits:
1/ Renwick Williams, a man convicted of wounding women. Reproduction of a stipple engraving (Wellcome Library no. 1970i)
2/ Renwick Williams, a man who attacked women; represented by a grotesque fiend wielding an exaggerated knife and fork and holding a young woman up by the skirt. Etching by J. Gillray, 1790. (Wellcome Library no. 11193i)
3/ The dismayed Charles Fox in handcuffs, implicated by a woman who is displaying her wounded posterior to three Bow Street Justices; satirizing Fox as being ‘The ‘monster’. Etching by J. Gillray, 1790. (Wellcome Library no. 12176i)
4/ A man who stabs women in the leg. Wood engraving. (Wellcome Library no. 3411i)

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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