John Julius Angerstein – Monster Hunter

What do we remember John Julius Angerstein for? A railway? A pub? A grubby industrial estate on Greenwich Peninsula? Starting the National Gallery? Some curious theories on interior ventilation? A faux-naive ‘accidental’ encroachment on Blackheath? As Catherine the Great’s illegitimate son? Being a Lloyds Name? Abolitionist slave owner?

I’m willing to bet that whichever of the above – or the many other curious things about his life stick in the mind, the one that hasn’t occurred to you so far, but will do forever more is as The Man Who Wrote The Monster Hunter’s Handbook.

Of course it didn’t have a title anywhere near as snappy as that. He named it An Authentic Account of the Barbarities lately Practised by the Monsters! Being an Unprecedented and Unnatural Species of Cruelty, Exercised by a Set of Men Upon Defenceless and Generally Handsome Women.

Now, those last three words will be important, as will the plural on the word ‘monster’ – but I think I’m getting ahead of myself. “Monsters, Phantom? What the bloomin’ hell are you talking about?”

Well, THE Monster, actually. The London Monster, to be completely accurate (which the rest of this post almost certainly won’t be…) A chillingly bizarre 18th Century precursor to all the other perverts, murderers and bugaboos that have stalked the streets of the capital ever since – and a direct link with Jack the Ripper a century later.

But more than that, he was a phenomenon – a classic example of mass hysteria that created its own monster between 1788 and 1790 – and, like all such things, with results that were ridiculous, comic and, ultimately rather tragic.

And in the middle of all this, John Julius Angerstein, a successful merchant living, at the time, in the heart of London’s fashionable St James, who volunteered to be the Van Helsing of the story and, in doing so, probably fanned the flames of panic rather than saving the world.

The Monster’s speciality was in stabbing women in the thigh or buttocks (naturally the papers and cartoonists of the day seized upon the buttocks-part) as they walked along the street. He’d follow them, muttering obscenities, then quickly plunge his knife into their skirts and disappear.

Sometimes he changed his tactics and carried a nosegay that he would invite girls to sniff. It contained a knife that would cut their faces. Personally I find it a bit odd that any girl would sniff a stranger’s posy (and that sounds much ruder than I intended) when all the town talked about was of a monster who got his kicks through such an act but hey – we’re not talking sense here, we’re talking the Mob.

The newspapers and coffee houses were full of it. Poems were written, ballads sung and lurid caricatures scribbled. Some women became so panicky about walking the same streets as the Monster that they started wearing specially-fashioned copper petticoats. Those who couldn’t afford armour contented themselves with cork-rumps (no, I’m not entirely sure what one of those is either) or even giant porridge pots placed over their posteriors – thankfully the fashion for massive skirts meant that the porridge pots probably didn’t show much.

Monster Mania only began to take crazy proportions, however, when John Julius Angerstein took it upon himself to start collating all the evidence (despite the handful of John Fielding’s Bow Street Runners, the police force was still a bumbling mixture of elderly beadles, useless night watchmen and part time constables, though apparently the Chelsea Pensioners weren’t to be crossed…) and create a reward for the capture of the Monster.

The grand sum of one hundred pounds was offered for the capture of the monster, and Angerstein created a series of posters declaring the reward.

Suddenly everyone went berserk. People were accused left, right and centre and it only took someone to point a finger for a mob to form out of nowhere and attack some poor guy for no reason whatsoever.

This had the unfortunate side effect that pickpockets who had been caught by their quarry, merely shouted “Ooh – look! There’s the Monster! Quick! He’s getting away!” and the poor gent would be chased and beaten up by a crowd of mad people while the pickpocket got away with the loot.

It got to a point where some doughty fellows formed their own group called The No Monster Club and wore badges to prove they weren’t the Big Bad, which of course worked really, really well and was completely unfakeable.

Angerstein did his own ‘investigations,’ which involved him interviewing each of the ‘victims’ (not all turned out to be – some lied or even cut themselves, for various sordid reasons, the most common being that the monster was only supposed to attack beautiful women, so being attacked by the Monster was a declaration that you were a gorgeous creature…) and making notes, much of which seemed to focus around how attractive he found each one.

His notes got more detailed the prettier the girl, but the annoying thing was that no real picture of the Monster appeared. He was tall, short, thin, fat, big-nosed, small-featured – in short, he could be anyone.

Eventually, just as Angerstein was creating his Monster Handbook, a guy was arrested, and charges (very probably) trumped up. Enough of the women agreed that artificial-flower maker Rhynwick Williams was their man to get him convicted. Despite his cast-iron alibis for several of the attacks and good character witness statements, in the eyes of the mob, he was the Monster.

Williams wasn’t actually hanged, which was what I was fearing as I read Jan Bondeson’s The London Monster – Terror on the Streets in 1790, (heartily recommended.) He was imprisoned, and people used to go to gawp at him in gaol – using the excuse that they were going to buy his fake flowers – and commented on how weedy and insignificant the Monster looked, unsurprising, since he probably wasn’t the Monster.

Reading Bondeson’s book, it occurs to me that the Monster was probably many-headed – that the hysteria provoked copycat attacks and there wasn’t actually any one Monster but a whole bunch of weirdos who got their kicks from poking women with sharp objects. Angerstein says as much in the title of his pamphlet. The attacks lessened when Williams was banged up, but they didn’t stop entirely.

For me this is as much the product of the times as one guy in particular. There was revolution and mass hysteria oing on in Europe; we had our own, almost Carry-On panic. And John Julius Angerstein, however well-intentioned, probably didn’t really help matters with his posters, leaflets -and that massive reward…

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