On the 7th December 1811, a young linen draper and his family were cruelly murdered at night in their home at 29 Ratcliffe Highway in Wapping. Twelve days later, a publican and members of his household were slaughtered in similar fashion, just half a mile away.
The slaying of these innocent families created public hysteria amongst Londoners – whipped up by newspapers revelling in the gruesome details of the atrocities. Ill-equipped to investigate, on Christmas Eve the police hastily arrested the first suspect they could find, John Williams, and when he hung himself in prison on Boxing Day, it was taken as confirmation of his guilt.
180,000 people turned out to see Williams’ body paraded through Wapping, before he was buried with a stake through his heart at the crossroads of Cable Street and Cannon Street Road on New Year’s Eve. Yet it is now acknowledged that he was – in all likelihood – an innocent man.
At the birth of the British press, the Ratcliffe Highway Murders case was both the first national crime sensation and an early example of ‘tabloid justice’ – engendering a widespread terror that led subsequently to the formation of the Metropolitan Police.