England

Suspected killer found dead in cell after apparent suicide

December 28, 1811
Clerkenwell, London, England
Suspected murderer John Williams is found hanged in his cell

Williams, alias John Murphy, was suspected of killing seven in two separate attacks. The first, carried out December 7, 1811, involved the murders of Timothy and Celia Marr, their 14-week-old son, and apprentice James Gowan in the Marrs’ shop. Gowan was bludgeoned, his face bashed in and his brains scattered on the walls. Mr. and Mrs. Marr were beaten to death in a similar fashion, and their infant had blunt force trauma wounds to one side of his face and his throat was slashed so deeply he was nearly decapitated. No money was taken from the shop’s till, and a blood-stained shipwright’s maul was left at the scene.

The second attack occurred on December 19. Attention was brought to the murders when a naked man named John Turner climbed out a tavern window, sliding down a rope made of tied sheets while crying “murder!” Turner had been lodging in the tavern for several months, and had discovered its owners, John and Elizabeth Williamson, as well as their servant Bridget Anna Harrington, had been murdered. John had been bludgeoned with a crowbar, his throat slit, and his hands nearly severed. Elizabeth and Harrington had their throats slashed as well, with Elizabeth’s so deep her head was nearly severed. The Williamson’s 14-year-old granddaughter, Kitty Stillwell, apparently slept through the entire attack and thus was undetected by the murderer.

Williams was suspected on extremely loose circumstantial evidence: he was acquainted with Timothy Marr, he had been seen with money following the murders though he had little before, and he vaguely matched witness descriptions of a shadowy figure seen near the murder scenes. Though he professed his innocence, Williams is suspected to have killed himself before he was brought to trial, hanged with a scarf wrapped around an iron cross-bar in his cell intended for inmates to hang their clothing or linens. It was also noted his body showed signs of struggle during the hanging process.

Despite the fact the defendant was deceased, Williams’ trial continued. The court found his apparent suicide to be a confession of guilt and released the other suspects in the case. Williams’ body was then publicly displayed along with the instruments used to dispatch his supposed victims (pictured).

Sources:

  • “The Late Horrible Murders. Death of John Williams.” The Lancaster Gazette. January 4, 1812
  • “Death of John Williams.” The Observer [London, England]. December 29, 1811
  • “Identification of the Maul Found in the Late Mr Marr’s House.” The Caledonian Mercury [Edinburgh, Scotland]. December 28, 1811
  • “The Late Horrible Murders.” The Morning Post [London, England]. December 28, 1811

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