Sunday, October 12, 2008

a piqueur is worth a thousand words

I’m not really an impulse buyer, but I am sometimes an impulse book borrower. One such impulse loan was The London Monster: Terror on the Streets in 1790. I recently read a biography of Madame Tussaud by Kate Berridge (which I didn’t review but might come back to) and its subject somewhat corresponds to this book’s: the time period, anyway. One might put it down, too, to my interest in Jack the Ripper and the rather Gothic fad in the 1830s of women in France throwing engraving acid in people’s faces, as the book is part history, part psychology, part media study. You may have noticed that two of my favorite periods are, broadly speaking, the 18th and 19th centuries, and the French Revolution straddles them both. Or maybe a better way of putting it is it’s like the train collision between the two centuries. It’s one of my pet subjects, and The London Monster is a fascinating look at its long-reaching consequences on the other side of the Channel.

The writer, Jan Bondeson, easily confesses in the introduction that he came across the subject of the London Monster while researching another book (The Feejee Mermaid, which is definitely on my to-read list). Like me, he found the subject of a mania and series of attacks by an armed man upon “helpless” London women of all ages and walks of life to be fascinating. I really like that Bondeson draws parallels between our contemporary life and that of London in 1790, but also makes the distinction that life is still very, very different from that of our ancestors. He does an excellent job of setting the scene for the attacks with a well-researched, broad survey of crime and punishment at the end of the 18th century. After the American Revolution, London was hit by a crime wave. The Bow Street Runners were about the only people actively pursuing justice; Bondeson makes a big deal that local watchmen were usually old and ineffectual, the lowest of the low because no one else would do their work.

In order to combat this rise in crime, the Bloody Code made many small-time crimes—mostly property-related—felonies, so that tons of people could be executed instead of imprisoned. Harsh human-rights violations that would make Victor Hugo apoplectic? Indeed. But from a purely logical point of view, efficacious in keeping criminals off the streets and out of overpopulated prisons. Britain could no longer dump its criminals in America, and Botany Bay was a few years off. Most of the long-term prisoners in British jails were debtors. Even worse, sometimes, were punishments like the pillory (immortalized by, heh, Hugo in Hunchback of Notre Dame, but cited in Bondeson’s case for punishment of two homosexual valets in 1790). Plus, as I’ve often said about the 18th century, “the sexuality of London was . . . earthy and abandoned.” Bondeson estimates 10,000 prostitutes, and the double standards in the last decade appear as bad as those in the late Victorian era. He is also eloquent about London pastimes such as men chewing up rats for sport (shown in Horatio Hornblower aboard ship, I might add) and eating living cats. It’s enough to make you hang up your time-traveling shoes.

It’s a wonder women Londoners dared walk out alone before someone (or several someones) began attacking them, first with filthy language (one such example that the victim dared repeat was “Damn you, you bitch, I would enjoy a particular pleasure in murdering you and in shedding your blood!”) as well as “making love to her all the way with a rather uncommon energy (!)
[1]” and then either stabbing them in the thigh or pricking their faces with knives concealed in artificial nosegays! As the “Monster” began accruing more victims (or else women complained that they were being attacked) common moral outrage grew to a feverish pitch, rewards were offered for capture, vigilante bands were formed, innocent people were attacked, and it didn’t even stop when an arrest was made and a trial enacted. Some Monster-hunters invested the fiend with Scarlet Pimpernel-like powers, that he wore stilts, wigs, and disguises.

The person eventually arrested, put on trial (twice), and convicted of being the Monster was a young Welshman named Rhynwick Williams. Some people at the time expressed unease at the conviction, for though it was clear Williams liked to pursue women and that his language became violent when they did not respond to his advances, no sharp weapons could be found in his possession, and his alibi for one of the Monster attacks, while not watertight, was at least corroborated by seven witnesses. Williams’ strange occupation was that of an artificial flower-maker, which seems to make a plausible connection with the Monster’s habit of stabbing-by-nosegay. In his second trial, Williams was defended by Irish eccentric and relative of Jonathan, Theophilus Swift. Theophilus was an incorrigible showman and chauvinist, and I can’t help thinking if, the London Monster became a musical, he would get to sing all the best bits.

Theophilus’ defense started strong but petered out, and Williams was convicted. He served a six-year prison sentence and then disappeared from all record. Was he really the Monster? The blurb on the back of the book seemed to suggest he was an innocent framed by a society looking for any scapegoat, but Bondeson is more equivocal. He is sure Williams wasn’t the Monster, as attacks on women continued while he was in police custody. He may very well have been one Monster with copycats. It is interesting to note that the Monster was immortalized in Mrs Salmon’s Waxworks Display, one of Madame Tussaud’s rivals upon her arrival in England in the early 19th century. The fates of Williams’ principal nemesises, the Misses Porter who claimed he attacked them and the man who claimed the reward for capturing the Monster, John Coleman, make it sound as if they manufactured the whole trial out of revenge and hatred against Williams, who once annoyed them. I can see them conspiring in a Crucible-like manner. Theophilus briefly joined Williams in Newgate when he was convicted on libel charges.

Bizarrely, men have gone around slashing, cutting, and stabbing women throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. One strange incident I have heard of that Bondeson points out is the 1977 “Skirt slasher of Picadilly” who cut open the back of women’s skirts on the Tube. Not cool. In Bondeson’s final and most analytic chapter, “Who was the Monster?” he builds up cases for the defense and prosecution in the Williams trials. He is inconclusive but circumspect, and in that way nicely ties up his book with reference to our great unsolved case of the Whitechapel murders (like many authors he thoroughly disapproves of us who go on the Ripper tours in the East End). Though Bondeson does not, like me, dare to make any conclusions about the Ripper, he is atypically biting about those who propagate the Royal Plot and other “far-fetched” conspiracy theories. In defense of the view that the London Monster may have been a moral panic/hysteria epidemic, he makes a rather stunning allusion to the 2001 New Delhi “Monkey-Man.”

All in all, a very well-researched, lively history book with welcome analysis. I am surprised Bondeson didn’t make any allusions to the current epidemic of knife crime in Britain, but since that is less about sadism and more about murder pure and simple, I guess it was out of the scope of the study.

[1] Bondeson’s exclamation point!

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