During the late 1970s and early 80s, London was stalked by one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers- a seemingly unassuming civil servant named Dennis Nilsen who died in prison earlier this year.
I have now started a series examining Nilsen’s life and horrific crimes on my second website; The Crime Compendium.
To read part one, please click here (viewer discretion is advised)
Located on the Strand and originally dating back to 1806, the Adelphi Theatre (currently hosting a run of ‘The Bodyguard’) harbours a rather sinister story…
At the centre of this drama is William Terriss; a Londoner born in 1847 who was educated at a school attached to Tottenham’s Bruce Castle.
William’s early shots at establishing a career were adventurous to say the least, including stints in the Falklands where he farmed sheep, the States where he mined silver and Bengal where he cultivated tea.
After this incredibly varied graft, William eventually returned to London in 1886 where, being a good-looking chap with a dashing manner and harmonic voice, he decided to give the acting game a go.
When it came to treading the boards, the former Tottenham lad proved an instant success, quickly achieving a level of fame which was on a par with today’s celebrity culture.
Along with his immense popularity, Terriss was also noted for his tireless generosity and capacity to help others.
An extreme example of this was demonstrated when he turned up for work at the Adelphi one evening dripping wet. William made no mention of why he was in such a soaked state and it was only later that his puzzled colleagues discovered the reason… the actor had plunged into the Thames to rescue a drowning child.
One person in particular that William bent over backwards to help was Richard Archer Prince; a young actor struggling to make the big time.
Kind hearted as ever, William Terriss took the wannabe thespian under his wing, lending him cash when required and securing bit-parts in his shows.
Prince however was an erratic character whom many others steered well clear of. A heavy drinker, his violent unpredictability earned him a dubious nickname…‘Mad Archer.’
Despite the support from his mentor, Prince gradually became extremely envious and fiercely resentful of Terriss. Fantasising that he was the better artist, Mad Archer despised the fact that his benefactor always received top billing.
These dangerous delusions came to a tragic head in the December of 1897…
On the evening of the 16th, a horse-drawn Hansom cab rattled along the cobbles of Maiden Lane, coming to a halt outside the Adelphi’s rear stage door.
The punter on board was William Terriss, who stepped out, paid the cabbie and dug the special key out of his cloak which would provide access to the theatre’s private entrance.
Before he had a chance to unlock the door however, a figure pounced out of the gas-lit shadows… it was Mad Archer himself who, without warning, launched at William, stabbing the Victorian celeb several times.
Following the scuffle, a crowd quickly gathered and the famous performer was rushed inside the theatre.
Doctors were sent for from nearby Charing Cross Hospital (now a police station on Agar Street), but it was to no avail- William Terriss was dead within minutes.
Restrained by the growing mob, the murderer made no attempt to escape and sat quietly awaiting his arrest. He was marched off to a cell on Bow Street, apparently telling the cops that Terriss “knew what to expect from me.”
The murder shook Victorian society and, at the trial, Prince made the baffling claim that William had prevented him from advancing his career.
The jury were quick to find the culprit guilty- although he was spared the noose thanks to the conclusion that he was not of sound mind.
The disturbed bit-player spent the remainder of his days incarcerated in the Broadmoor asylum for the criminally insane, where it is said he liked to write and produce plays in which he always placed himself in the leading role…
William Terriss was laid to rest at Brompton Cemetery; the service attracting over 50,000 mourning admirers.
Legend has it that his ghost now haunts Covent Garden tube station (in William’s day, his favourite bakery stood on the Long Acre site, the station being built 10 years after the murder).
The first sighting of the phantom was reported in 1955, when a ticket collector allegedly spotted the shimmering actor, donned in an opera cloak with cane In hand, pass through a closed door.
Over the next few years, the ghost was spied on numerous occasions in the staff cafeteria…and, although the last recorded sighting was in 1972, tube workers still sometimes report bizarre, unexplained noises in the dead of night….(A version of this article originally appeared in ‘LTDA Taxi’ magazine).