London in 1790 was not only vicariously experiencing the revolutionary turbulence of Paris; it also staged a dress rehearsal for Jack the Ripper. A woman would be approached, propositioned, verbally abused, and then stabbed about the buttocks with a sharp knife. Curiously, the assailant seemed more concerned to slash her garments than to inflict serious physical harm. There were some variations on the technique: he might make his victim sniff a nosegay of artificial flowers, in which a sharp instrument had been hidden, or would strap pointed blades to his knees.
The tale of the "London Monster", as he was soon dubbed, is chronicled by Jan Bondeson, author of a recent study of medical freaks, in a book that has evidently afforded him much pleasurable sleuthing in old newspapers, pamphlets and handbills. Thirty women were attacked; police efforts achieved nothing, but the announcement of a handsome reward by a wealthy art collector rapidly led to numerous men being turned in.
The public found its offender in Rhynwick Williams, conveniently an artificial flower-maker. Some identified this Welshman as a notorious sex-crazed prowler, but others, his employers included, pronounced him harmless and gave him alibis.
Williams's trial had its quirks. In hopes of getting a conviction on a felony charge rather than the misdemeanour of wounding, an antiquated statute was revived that declared the slashing of garments a transportation offence. Not surprisingly, this clumsy device collapsed, but the retrial proved less a reprieve than a mixed blessing for Williams. For in breezed as defence lawyer one Theophilus Swift, adventurer, duellist and polemicist. This great blustering kinsman of the dean of St Patrick's certainly added eloquence to Williams's case, but the archetypal stage Irishman had all too evidently involved himself primarily for self-publicising reasons and his bullying tactics did his client more harm than good. Williams was found guilty and served time in Newgate.
The case of the London Monster, here narrated in lavish detail, carries real historical significance. It is further proof of the ineptitude of London's policing and of the workings of the law. Furthermore, in a lineage traceable back to the Beggar's Opera and forward at least to the Krays, the invariable tendency of London's criminal activities to be turned into media hype and street theatre is confirmed.
Selling newspapers galore and becoming instant entertainment at Drury Lane, the affair also offered a host of Londoners their 15 minutes of immortality, telling their ordeals to reporters or denouncing their favourite knave. For a year, the Monster hogged the headlines. Then just as quickly he was forgotten: such is the way with urban sensations.
What Bondeson somewhat skates over is the salacious misogyny that pervades the reporting of the case. As with later "rippers", the press (and Swift for the defence) displayed prurient interest in the sexual reputations of the women attacked, demonising them too: what kind of a lady, it was demanded, would be out walking alone in St James's?
The London Monster unfortunately perpetuates this tone. Are there other London Monsters out there today, asks Bondeson in his concluding paragraph? - "Perhaps he is waiting for you?" comes his quite gratuitous answer. I also found tiresome his assumption that the stylistic conventions of Victorian melodrama are inherently entertaining - entries under a mock cast-list, such as "Typhone Fournier: A Frenchman with a silly name", are unworthy of a distinguished academic press. Nevertheless this is an absorbing contribution to our knowledge of metropolitan myths.
Roy Porter is the author of London: A Social History .
The London Monster: A Sanguinary Tale
Author - Jan Bondeson
ISBN - 0 8122 3576 2
Publisher - University of Pennsylvania Press
Price - £21.00
Pages - 237