Chuck Lyons lives in upstate New York with his wife Brenda and a golden retriever named Jack who chases ghosts and barks at shadows.
On a Sunday evening in May 1788, Maria Smythe was walking on Fleet Street in London when she was approached by a “thin vulgar-looking man.” Smythe tried to ignore the man and kept walking, but when she arrived at her destination on Johnson Court, the man was still with her. As she knocked on the door, he jumped onto the stoop beside her and struck her beneath her left breast and in her left thigh.
Smythe later realized rather than just being struck by the man she had in fact been stabbed with some sharp instrument, probably a pen knife. Her whalebone stays had prevented any injury from the blow beneath her breast, but she was bleeding where she had been struck in the thigh.
The London Monster had arrived.
Between1788 and 1790 someone accosted more than fifty fashionable (and usually wealthy) women in London, following them through the streets shouting obscenities and finally stabbing them, often in the buttocks or thighs, or simply slashing their dresses. By the height of the attacks, mass hysteria had gripped the city, and some women even went to the extreme of wearing metal frying pans beneath their long skirts to ward off any intended attacks.
The man’s crimes were “rendered still more atrocious by the insult that generally accompanies the outrage, and by the savage delight he enjoys in the terror, pain, and distress of the lovely victim!” John Julius Angerstein, a wealthy London insurance broker, said with offended propriety.
London’s men began to take things into their own hands, and armed “vigilantes” roamed the streets. Angerstein began a subscription drive to raise money to create a reward fund. Eventually, fifty pounds were offered for the man’s apprehension and another fifty when he was found guilty. The award was advertised in London newspapers and with posters pasted on walls throughout the city.
But what was happening?
Modern science has suggested that the attacker was someone suffering from the perversion known as piquerism (from the French word piquer meaning to "to prick"). A form of sadism, piquerism is marked by a sexual interest in penetrating the skin of another person. The most frequently targeted areas of the body, as are seen in the London Monster’s attacks, are the breasts, buttocks, or groin, which are attacked with a knife, a pin, a needle, and the like.
By 1790, the rash of attacks had reached its peak with forty-three being reported including a whopping twenty-eight in May and June of that year. The attacker also began changing his method of attack, several times coming up behind women, grabbing them, and kicking them in the buttocks with his knee to which some sharp object was attached. He also invited woman to smell a small bunch of flowers in which a sharp object was hidden. Some of those attacks, police said, may have been launched by what today would be called copy-cats taking advantage of the situation or even been reported by women who had never been attacked but were swept up in the hysteria.
But many were real.
The case of the London Monster, as the British press called him, was not unique. He was not alone; such incidents have occurred at other times and in other places.
There was a rash of such attacks in Paris in 1819 and they have been reported in Germany, in Chicago, Brooklyn, and St Louis in United States, and as late as the 1920’s in Bridgeport, Connecticut and 1938 in Halifax, West Yorkshire where several local woman claimed to have been attacked by a man dubbed the Halifax Slasher who attacked them with a mallet, a knife, or a razor. More recently, in 2007 a New York City man was arrested after admitting he paid underage girls to allow him to stick pins in their buttocks and was charged with two counts of “second-degree assault as a sexual felony.” In 1990, again in New York City, a man the tabloids dubbed the “Dart Man,” was arrested after several women had been injured by thrown darts.
Serial killers Jack the Ripper and Russia’s Andrei Chikatilolso, who was executed after being found guilty of killing and mutilating more than 50 woman and children, may also have suffered from the disorder. And American serial killer Albert Fish practiced the perversion on some of his victims and on himself. After his 1928 arrest, he was x-rayed and as many as twenty-nine needles were found imbedded in his pelvis, apparently inserted by him.
In 2001, NBC’s “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” television show featured a segment on piquerism.
What Is It?
Over the years, police and other investigators have tended to dismiss such attacks largely as examples of mass hysteria, especially in such cases as the London Monster. One or two actual attacks, they reasoned, were followed by imagined attacks created from anxiety and fear or by copy-cats who took advantage of the situation.
Apparently little or no scientific research had been conducted on piquerism, then or now, and no one knows what causes the disorder or why it is so seemingly pleasureful for those who practice it. Dr, Mark Griffiths, a professor in the Psychology Department of England’s Nottingham Trent University who investigated the disorder wrote in Psychology Today that “I was quite surprised to find next to nothing academically” written about it.
In 18th century London, a man named Rhynwick Williams, an artificial flower maker, was eventually arrested in the attacks and was found guilty of “defacing clothing” for the slashed dresses, the only charge against him that British law allowed at the time. On December 16, 1790, Williams was released from prison and shortly afterward married a woman named Elizabeth Robbins who later gave birth to a son.
After that, Williams disappeared from history,
But piquerism remained.