Between 1788 and 1790, panic swept the streets of London. Women feared to walk alone, and men feared approaching women lest they be caught up in the terror. What had occurred that was so terrible that it had the normally stoic British worked into such a lather?
The hysteria began in 1788, when reports began to surface of a predator lurking around the English capital. Several women, mostly in the upper class, reported that a large man had accosted them by shouting obscenities and stabbing them in the buttocks with a knife. Other reports surfaced of the same man enticing women with a nosegay (a type of flower) by asking them to sniff it. When they did, he stabbed them in the face with a spike concealed amongst the flower’s leaves.
In every case, the victims were found with torn clothes and some with substantial wounds. When help arrived, the attacker was gone without a trace. In two years, fifty women were allegedly assaulted by this phantom attacker. The press dubbed the fiend The Monster.
To say that the populace was panicked is an understatement. Women began to wear copper plates over their bottoms. Men, who were afraid that they would be confused with the attacker, formed an association called the No Monster Club, where they wore pins that designated that they indeed were not the Monster.
It is unclear whether or not there actually was a London Monster or not, due to the hysteria surrounding the so-called attacks. I say “so-called” because there was more than one account of women who used the panic to avenge themselves upon suitors, or as a way to get attention and sympathy. It was difficult to tell who had actually been attacked and who was caught up in the hysteria. The alleged victims weren’t the only folks to take advantage of the situation – pickpockets began to finger their marks as the Monster, and during the ensuing hubbub they’d escape.
Only one suspect was ever arrested in connection with the alleged crimes. His name was Rhynwick Williams, and one victim identified him as her attacker. The trial was a sham from beginning to end – witnesses and alleged victims gave contradictory statements, and Williams had alibis for all but one of the crimes. The judge realized the absurdity of the situation, and granted Williams a retrial. Regardless, Williams received a sentence of six years for his alleged role in the crimes. Oddly, Williams was charged with defacing clothing rather than assault or attempted murder. Under the laws of the time, defacing clothing carried a heavier sentence than either charge (which shows you their priorities back in the day doesn’t it?)
No one is certain whether Williams was really the Monster, or if the Monster even existed at all. Most historians who have looked into the matter fall back to that old standby – mass hysteria. There certainly was a great deal of hysteria back then, but there is also the fact that while Williams was incarcerated, reports of attacks by the Monster reduced a bit. But then there was the fact that the attacks continued at all while the alleged London Monster was in prison – you’d think if he were the true culprit the attacks would have ended completely.
To me what sticks out is not so much the hysteria, but the bizarre nature of the crime. Such crimes aren’t isolated to that time or place, and it turns out there is a name for the disorder that leads to such behavior – piquerism. The disorder is a paraphilia where the sufferer derives sexual satisfaction from stabbing women in the buttocks, breasts, or genitals.
It isn’t exactly a common behavior, but it could account for the continued attacks while the alleged London Monster was incarcerated. Maybe then the London Monster wasn’t one person, but rather a societal reaction to a bizarre behavior that wasn’t (and still isn’t) well understood. No one knows for certain whether a monster lurked the streets of London at the end of the 18th century, or if the true monster was only in the minds of its citizens.