By Robert Morrison
Two hundred and one years ago this month, along the Ratcliffe Highway in the East End of London, seven people from two separate households were brutally murdered. News of the atrocities quickly spread throughout the country, generating levels of terror and moral hysteria that were not seen again until three-quarters of a century later when Jack the Ripper launched his savage career in a neighbouring East End district. Britain had no professional police force until 1829, and so the task of apprehending the killer (or killers) fell to an ill-coordinated group of magistrates, watchmen, and churchwardens who were woefully unprepared for the pressures of a major murder investigation, and who struggled to reassure a terrified populace that justice would be served. “We in the country here are thinking and talking of nothing but the dreadful murders,” wrote Robert Southey in December 1811, safe in his Keswick home three hundred miles from London, but still badly unnerved. “I…never had so mingled a feeling of horror, and indignation, and astonishment, with a sense of insecurity too.”
The killing began near midnight on Saturday, 7 December 1811, when an assassin passed quietly through the unlocked front door of Timothy Marr’s lace and pelisse shop. Once inside he bolted the door behind him and then ruthlessly dispatched all four inhabitants. When the alarm was raised and the door unlocked, eye-witnesses saw Marr’s wife Celia sprawled lifelessly. Marr himself was dead behind the store counter. His apprentice James Gowen was stretched out in the back near a door that led to a staircase. Downstairs in the kitchen, three-month-old Timothy Marr junior was found battered and dead. All four victims had their throats slashed. Twelve days later — again around midnight, again in the same East London area — it all happened a second time, on this occasion in the household of John Williamson, a publican. Williamson himself was found dead in the cellar. He had apparently been thrown down the stairs. His throat was cut. His wife Elizabeth and maid Anna Bridget Harrington were discovered on the main floor, their skulls bludgeoned and their throats slit.
Authorities quickly rounded up and interviewed dozens of people. One of them, John Williams, an Irish seaman in his late twenties, was questioned before the Shadwell magistrates on Christmas Eve, and then sent to Coldbath Fields prison to await further investigation. Suspicion grew as circumstantial evidence mounted against Williams, but before the magistrates could re-examine him, he hanged himself in his prison cell. The circumstances of his death were widely interpreted as a confession of guilt — much to the relief of some of the magistrates — and on New Year’s Eve Williams’s body was publicly exhibited in a procession through the Ratcliffe Highway before being driven to the nearest cross-roads, where it was forced into a narrow hole and a stake driven through the heart. Several officials, however, immediately raised doubts about Williams’s guilt, and in The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders (1971), P. D. James and T. A. Critchley conclude that Williams could not have acted alone, if he was involved at all, and that he may even have been murdered in his prison cell by those who were responsible, an eighth and final victim in the appalling tragedy.
To Thomas De Quincey, the finer points of the investigation mattered little. What impressed him was the audacity, brutality, and inexplicability of the crimes, and in his writings he returns over and over again to the Ratcliffe Highway, always attributing the murders solely to Williams, and exalting, ignoring, or altering details in order to exploit his deep and diverse response to the crimes. In his finest piece of literary criticism, “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” (1823), De Quincey introduces the satiric aesthetic that enables him to see Williams’s performance “on the stage of Ratcliffe Highway” as “making the connoisseur in murder very fastidious in his taste, and dissatisfied with any thing that has been since done in that line.” Yet De Quincey also peers uneasily into the mind of the killer in order to reflect on the psychology of violence. In Macbeth, he asserts, Shakespeare throws “the interest on the murderer,” where “there must be raging some great storm of passion — jealousy, ambition, vengeance, hatred — which will create a hell within him; and into this hell we are to look.”
Williams is also at the heart of De Quincey’s three essays “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” In the first, published in 1827, De Quincey grazes the brink between horror and comedy as he argues with energetically ironic aplomb that “everything in this world has two handles. Murder, for instance, may be laid hold of by its moral handle… and that, I confess, is its weak side; or it may also be treated aesthetically…that is, in relation to good taste.” Twelve years later, in the second essay, he employs the same satiric topsy-turviness, but in this instance he inverts morality rather than suspending it. “For if once a man indulges himself in murder,” he observes coolly, “very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination.” Finally, in the 1854 “Postscript,” De Quincey changes direction, returning fitfully to the black humour of the first two essays, but concentrating instead on impassioned representations of vulnerability and panic, and in particular on the horror of an unknown assailant descending on an urban household which is surrounded by unsuspecting neighbours. In its coherence, intensity, and detail, the “Postscript” is De Quincey’s most lurid investigation of violence.
The three “On Murder” essays had a remarkable impact on the rise of nineteenth-century decadence, as well as on crime, terror, and detective fiction. De Quincey is “the first and most powerful of the decadents,” declared G. K. Chesterton in 1913, and “any one still smarting from the pinpricks” of Oscar Wilde or James Whistler “will find most of what they said said better in Murder as One of the Fine Arts.” More recently, the British television drama Whitechapel (2012) has exploited De Quincey’s fascination with the Ratcliffe Highway killings, as have authors including Iain Sinclair, Philip Kerr, and Lloyd Shepherd. “May I quote Thomas De Quincey?” asks the murderer politely in Peter Ackroyd’s Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994). “In the pages of his essay ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’ I first learned of the Ratcliffe Highway deaths, and ever since that time his work has been a source of perpetual delight and astonishment to me.” Most compellingly, in his forthcoming thriller Murder as a Fine Art, David Morrell makes De Quincey the prime suspect in a series of copy-cat murders that terrify London in 1854. Morrell’s two detectives Ryan and Becker discover that De Quincey’s “Postscript” has just been published, and that in it “the Opium-Eater described Williams’s two killing sprees for fifty, astoundingly blood-filled pages — murders that by 1854 had occurred forty-three years earlier and yet were presented with a vividness that gave the impression the killings had happened the previous night.” De Quincey’s response to Williams ranged from gruesomely vivid reportage to brilliantly satiric high jinks and penetrating literary and aesthetic criticism. In his hands, violent crime became a subject which could be detached from social circumstances and then ironized, examined, and avidly enjoyed by generations of murder mystery connoisseurs and armchair detectives who enjoy the intellectual challenge, rapt exploration, and satiric safety of murder as a fine art.
Robert Morrison is Queen’s National Scholar at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He has edited our edition of Thomas De Quincey’s essays On Murder, and his edition of De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings is forthcoming with Oxford World’s Classics next year. Morrison is the author of The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey, which was a finalist for the James Black Memorial Prize in 2010. His edition of Jane Austen’s Persuasion was published by Harvard University Press in 2011. His co-edited collection of essays, Romanticism and Blackwood’s Magazine: “An Unprecedented Phenomenon” is forthcoming with Palgrave. Read his previous blog post on John William Polidori and The Vampyre.
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Image credits: (1) Newspaper illustration depicting the escape of John Turner from the second floor of the King’s Arms after he discovered the second murders December 1811. London Chronicle via Wikimedia Commons. (2) The Funeral of the Murdered Mr. and Mrs. Marr and infant Son. Published Dec 24, 1811 by G. Thompson No. 43 Long Lane, West Smithfield. London Chronicle via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Ratcliffe Highway Murders Reward poster offering 50 pounds for information on the murders of the Marr Family, December 1811, London Chronicle via Wikimedia Commons. (4) Procession to interment of John Williams. Published Jan’y 10 1812 by G Thomson no 45 Long Lane Smithfield. London Chronicle via Wikimedia Commons. (5) Book cover used with the author’s permission.
The English essayist and critic, Thomas De Quincey, was one of the foremost figures in English Romanticism. De Quincey was born in Manchester of a mercantile family; at 17, he ran away from school and wandered through Wales and led an impoverished bohemian life in London. While at Oxford, he introduced himself to Coleridge and Wordsworth in 1807, having been an early admirer of their Lyrical Ballads. In an attempt to escape his creditors, in 1828, De Quincey moved with his family to Edinburgh, then a focus of literary activity. There the family was compelled to move into the Holyrood debtors’ sanctuary. The father of eight children, it was only in the last decade of his life that he achieved some financial success. His literary output was immense, including many brilliant but often digressive magazine articles. His most famous critical work was “On Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth,” a classic of Shakespearean criticism. Although he wrote on a number of different subjects—history, economics, psychology, and others—he is best known for the Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), an autobiographical account of his early life and opium addiction. His addiction was so severe that he left his wife to struggle almost alone with their debts and the responsibility for the children, while De Quincey himself lay in bed, tortured by nightmares. De Quincey continued to take opium for the rest of his life. The declared purpose of the work is to warn the reader of the dangers of opium, but it simultaneously describes the pleasures of addiction.
In this section from Essays in Philosophy entitled “On Suicide” (1823), De Quincey, disputing issues discussed by John Donne [q.v.] in Biathanatos and also by Kant [q.v.], argues that there are some cases in which self-destruction is justified. Such cases include the woman who chooses to die rather than be dishonored and the man who dies rather than suffer human nature in his person to be degraded by corporal punishment or by being forced to perform the labor of animals. As a sufferer of “suicidal despondency,” De Quincey argues that suicide motivated by personal self-interest is unjustified, but suicide that seeks to protect paramount interests of human nature is permissible.
Thomas De Quincey, “On Suicide,” in Essays in Philosophy. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1856, pp. 209-213. Quotation from De Quincey, Works, 2. 66.
from ESSAYS IN PHILOSOPHY
It is a remarkable proof of the inaccuracy with which most men read—that Donne’s Biathanatos has been supposed to countenance Suicide; and those who reverence his name have thought themselves obliged to apologize for it by urging, that it was written before he entered the church. But Donne’s purpose in this treatise was a pious one: many authors had charged the martyrs of the Christian church with Suicide—on the principle that if I put myself in the way of a mad bull, knowing that he will kill me—I am as much chargeable with an act of self-destruction as if I fling myself into a river. Several casuists had extended this principle even to the case of Jesus Christ: one instance of which, in a modern author, the reader may see noticed and condemned by Kant, in his Religion innerhalb der grenzenderblossen Vernunft; and another of much earlier date (as far back as the 13th century, I think), in a commoner book—Voltaire’s notes on the little treatise of Beccaria, Dei delilliedelle pene. Those statements tended to one of two results: either they unsanctified the characters of those who founded and nursed the Christian church; or they sanctified suicide. By the way of meeting them, Donne wrote his book: and as the whole argument of his opponents turned upon a false definition of suicide (not explicitly stated, but assumed), he endeavored to reconstitute the notion of what is essential to create an act of suicide. Simply to kill a man is not murder: prima facie, therefore, there is some sort of presumption that simply for a man to kill himself—may not always be so: there is such a thing as simple homicide distinct from murder: there may therefore, possibly be such a thing as self-homicide distinct from self-murder. There may be a ground for such a distinction, exanalogid. But, secondly, on examination, is there any ground for such a distinction? Donne affirms that there is; and, reviewing several eminent cases of spontaneous martyrdom, he endeavors to show that acts so motived and so circumstantiated will not come within the notion of suicide properly defined. Meantime, may not this tend to the encouragement of suicide in general, and without discrimination of its species? No: Donne’s arguments have no prospective reference or application; they are purely retrospective. The circumstances necessary to create an act of mere self-homicide can rarely concur, except in state of disordered society, and during the cardinal revolutions of human history: where, however, they do concur, there it will not be suicide. In fact, this is the natural and practical judgment of us all. We do not agree on the particular cases which will justify self-destruction: but we all feel and involuntarily acknowledge (implicitly acknowledge in our admiration, though not explicitly in our words or in our principles), that there are such cases. There is no man, who in his heart would not reverence a woman that chose to die rather than to be dishonored: and If we do not say, that it is her duty to do so, that is because the moralist must condescend to the weakness and infirmities of human nature: mean and ignoble natures must not be taxed up to the level of noble ones. Again, with regard to the other sex, corporal punishment is its peculiar and sexual degradation; and if ever the distinction of Donne can be applied safely to any case, it will be to the case of him who chooses to die rather than to submit to that ignominy. At present, however, there is but a dim and very confined sense, even amongst enlightened men (as we may see by the debates of Parliament), of the injury which is done to human nature by giving legal sanction to such brutalizing acts; and therefore most men, in seeking to escape it, would be merely shrinking from a personal dishonor. Corporal punishment is usually argued with a single reference to the case of him who suffers it; and so argued, God knows that it is worthy of all abhorrence: but the weightiest argument against it—is the foul indignity which is offered to our common nature lodged in the person of him on whom it is inflicted. His nature is our nature: and, supposing it possible that he were so far degraded as to be unsusceptible of any influences but those which address him through the brutal part of his nature, yet for the sake of ourselves—No! not merely for ourselves, or for the human race now existing, but for the sake of human nature, which transcends all existing participators of that nature—we should remember that the evil of corporal punishment is not to be measured by the poor transitory criminal, whose memory and offence are soon to perish: these, in the sum of things, are as nothing: the injury which can be done him, and the injury which he can do, have so momentary an existence that they may be safely neglected: but the abiding injury is to the most august interest which for the mind of man can have any existence,—viz. to his own nature: to raise and dignify which, I am persuaded, is the first—last—and holiest command* which the conscience imposes on the philosophic moralist. In countries, where the traveller has the pain of seeing human creatures performing the labors of brutes,*—surely the sorrow which the spectacle moves, if a wise sorrow, will not be chiefly directed to the poor degraded individual—too deeply degraded probably, to be sensible of his own degradation, but to the reflection that man’s nature is thus exhibited in a state of miserable abasement; and, what is worst of all, abasement proceeding from man himself. Now, whenever this view of corporal punishment becomes general (as inevitably it will, under the influence of advancing civilization), I say, that Donne’s principle will then become applicable to this case, and it will be the duty of a man to die rather than to suffer his own nature to be dishonored in that way. But so long as a man is not fully sensible of the dishonor, to him the dishonor, except as a personal one, does not wholly exist. In general, whenever a paramount interest of human nature is at stake, a suicide which maintains that interest is self-homicide: but, for a personal interest, it becomes self-murder. And into this principle Donne’s may be resolved.
- On which account, I am the more struck by the ignoble argument of those statesmen who have contended in the House of commons that such and such classes of men in this nation are not accessible to any loftier influences. Supposing that there were any truth in this assertion, which is a libel not on this nation only, but on man in general,—surely it is the duty of law givers not to perpetuate by their institutions the evil which they find, but to presume and gradually to create a better spirit.
- Of which degradation, never let it be never forgotten that France but thirty years ago1 presented as shocking cases as any country, even where slavery is tolerated. An eye-witness to the fact, who has since published it in print, told me, that in France, before the revolution, he had repeatedly seen a woman yoked with an ass to the plough; and the brutal ploughman applying his whip indifferently to either. English people, to whom I have occasionally mentioned this as an exponent of the hollow refinement of manners in France, have uniformly exclaimed—‘That is more than I can believe;’ and have taken it for granted that I had my information from some prejudiced Englishman. But who was my informer? A Frenchmen, reader,—M. Simond, And though now by adoption an American citizen, yet still French in his heart and in all his prejudices.
[written in 1823.]