Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Ratcliffe Highway Murders

The Shadow of Death

Sketch of Marr house exterior
Sketch of Marr house exterior

On a cold December 7 in 1811, the same year in which serial killer Anna Zwanziger was beheaded in Germany, most people in London's East End area around the Ratcliffe Highway near the docks were about to face an ordeal unlike anything they'd yet known. Thomas de Quincey, who was in the area at the time, wrote about it in an 1827 essay, calling Ratcliffe Highway a "public thoroughfare in the most chaotic quarter of eastern, or nautical, London." One of the three central roads leaving London, it was a perilous region, full of seedy businesses, dark alleys, and run-down tenements, and, according to J. Ewing Ritchie, a place "where vice loses its charm by appearing in all its grossness." While he recognized its character-building qualities, he stated that he would not want a son of his to have been born and raised there. What went on in the inns and taverns "was sure to shock more senses than one."

Map of England with East London designated
Map of England with East London

The Timothy Marr family at number 29 Ratcliffe Highway (another source says #11 Ratcliffe Highway) was in their shop and residence preparing for the next day's business when an intruder entered their home. It was just before midnight on a Saturday, the busiest day of the week for area shopkeepers. Marr, 24, kept a linen draper and hosier's shop, says de Quincey in his "On Murder considered as one of the Fine Arts," and was a "stout, fresh-coloured young man of 27." He had served for several years with the East India Company on the Dover Castle and now had a young wife, Celia; a baby son, Timothy (14 weeks old)' an apprentice, James Gowan; and a servant girl, Margaret Jewell. All had been living there since April of that year.

Marr had asked the Margaret to purchase some oysters, and she had gone out to do so. As she opened the shop door, de Quincey writes that she saw the figure of a man framed in the light (although no other accounts support that, and it could be a dramatic incident constructed to add flair to his essay). Thinking nothing of it, as customers were always in and out, and the entire area was usually busy after hours, she went off on her errand. However, she found Taylor's oyster shop closed, so she walked back past the Marr home, where she saw Mr. Marr at work through the window, and went to the baker to pay a bill. She was away from the home for about twenty minutes, she later reported, and it was just enough time to save her from the fate that befell everyone else inside.

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