First reports of the Monster appeared in 1788. According to the victims (most of them from wealthier families), a large man had followed them, shouted obscenities and stabbed them in the buttocks. Some reports claimed an attacker had knives fastened to his knees. Other accounts reported that he would invite prospective victims to smell a fake nosegay and then stab them in the face with the spike hiding within the flowers.
In all cases the alleged assailant would escape before help arrived. Some women were found with their clothes, cut and others had substantial wounds. In two years the number of reported victims amounted to more than 50.
The press soon named the maniac The Monster. However, descriptions of the attacker varied greatly. When people realized the Monster attacked mainly beautiful women, some women began to claim that they had been attacked to gain attention and sympathy. Some of them even faked wounds. Some men, in turn, were afraid to approach a lady in the dark lest they scare her. Some of the reports of the would-be-attacks were likely to be fabrications or results of a lady being afraid of an innocent man who had somehow attracted suspicion. Some men even founded a No Monster Club and began to wear club pins on their lapels to show that they were not the Monster.
Londoners were outraged when the Bow Street Runners, the London police force, failed to capture the man. Philanthropist John Julius Angerstein promised a reward of £100 for capture of the perpetrator. Armed vigilantes began to patrol in the city. Fashionable ladies began to wear copper pans over their petticoats. There were false accusations and attacks against suspicious people. Local pickpockets and other criminals used the panic to their advantage; they picked someone’s valuables, pointed at him, shouted “Monster!”, and escaped during the resulting mayhem.
In 1790 an unemployed 23-year-old man, Rhynwick Williams, was arrested on suspicion of being the Monster. After two trials, he was sentenced to six years in prison, but historians question whether the conviction was sound.
Arrest of Rhynwick Williams
On 13 June 1790, Anne Porter claimed she had spotted her attacker in St. James’s Park. Her admirer, John Coleman, began a slow pursuit of the man, who realised he was being followed. When Rhynwick Williams, an unemployed 23-year-old, reached his house, Coleman confronted him, accusing him of insulting a lady, and challenged him to a duel. He eventually took Williams to meet Porter, who fainted when she saw him.
Williams protested his innocence but, given the climate of panic, it was futile. He admitted that he had once approached Porter but had an alibi for another of the attacks. Magistrates charged Williams with defacing clothing — a crime that in the Bloody Code carried harsher penalty than assault or attempted murder. During the trial, spectators cheered the witnesses for the prosecution and insulted those for the defence. One of the claimed victims confessed that she had not been attacked at all.
Realizing the absurdity of the situation, Williams was granted a retrial. In the new trial Williams’ defence lawyer was Irish poet Theophilus Swift, whose tactic was to accuse Porter of a scheme to collect the reward, Porter having married Coleman, who had received the reward money. Despite the fact a number of alleged victims gave contradictory stories and coworkers testified he had an alibi for the most famous attack, Williams was convicted on three counts and sentenced to two years each, for a total of six years in prison.
Historians have speculated whether Williams was the culprit and have even questioned whether the London Monster existed at all beyond the hysteria. Reports of Monster-like attacks continued to be reported for many years, although they lessened somewhat while Williams was imprisoned.