The maid who murdered her mistress...
Twice-widowed Julia Martha Thomas, 55, was a former teacher and devout churchgoer. After her second husband died in 1873, she lived alone in a pretty, two-storey house in Richmond, Surrey. Although not especially wealthy, she was snobby enough to consider a live-in servant an essential status symbol – and had a reputation as a picky, harsh employer who found it difficult to keep staff.
In January 1879, she hired Irish-born Kate Webster as a maid. At first, the two women seemed to suit, but Julia Thomas’ nitpicking, combined with Webster’s drinking and bad temper, would lead to Webster being fired and, ultimately, to Mrs Thomas’ murder…
Kate Webster, described by the Press at the time as a ‘tall, strongly-made woman of about 5ft 5in, with sallow and much freckled complexion and large, prominent teeth’, had spent much of her life in and out of prison and was just 18 when she got a four-year sentence in Liverpool for stealing..
On her release, she moved to Hammersmith, London, and worked for five years as a cleaner, regularly pilfering from her employers. During this time she had a son, although the identity of the boy’s father was not known, and she was again imprisoned for 18 months for theft.
On her release – and in a stroke of luck for Webster – a woman Webster knew was working for a friend of Julia Thomas, a Miss Loder. Miss Loder knew Mrs Thomas was looking for a servant. And, as Webster had done some temporary work for her, introduced the women.
And so, in 1879 Webster began working for Julia Thomas, who seems to have done little to check her employee’s character or her past – an omission that would cost her life.
On 22 March 1879, Mrs Thomas came home from church and she and Webster exchanged heated words over some wrong-doing. Then, ‘in a ‘fit of rage’ Webster apparently pushed Mrs Thomas down the stairs. A senior police officer working on the case recounted to the coroner how the horrific events next unfolded.
‘Webster, realising she had injured Mrs Thomas, proceeded to strangle her to stop her from screaming and getting her in trouble. Webster decided to do away with the body and used a razor to chop off the head. Having decapitated her she used a razor, a meat saw and a carving knife to cut the body up. The dismembered body was put into a copper laundry vessel and she proceeded to boil up the body parts of Mrs Thomas.’ Many of the bones, and some of the victim’s organs, were burnt in the hearth.
Records from the Old Bailey trial reveal that witnesses talked of a ‘stench’ and noticed Webster cleaning and making frequent visits to the nearby pub. Webster put most of Mrs Thomas’ body in a box, although she was unable to fit in her head and one foot, and enlisted the unwitting son of a former neighbour to help her carry the box to the River Thames close by.
As the young man walked away he heard a splash, but thought nothing of it until a gruesome ‘mass of white flesh’, at first believed to be off-cuts from a butcher, was discovered in the river at Barnes Bridge.
Webster dumped one of her victim’s feet in an allotment and assumed the identity of Julia Thomas, taking her money, jewellery and even her false teeth. It is thought she put Mrs Thomas’ head in a large holdall – which she carried with her as she sold off her former employer’s belongings – before dumping it.
However, it seems the police at the time never discovered where Webster buried or disposed of the rest of her unfortunate victim’s body, including her severed head.
The senior officer also told the court that, a few days after the murder, a couple of local children had said Webster had offered them some food. She had apparently told them, “’Ere, you lads, I’ve got some good pigs’ lard which you can have for free’.
The boys apparently ate two bowls of the lard – which was, unfortunately, some of the remains of Mrs Thomas.
Despite exhaustive attempts by the police at the time, they were unable to trace any of Julia Thomas’ family.
Kate Webster fled to Ireland with her young son, but was followed, arrested and brought back to England to stand trial.
Old Bailey trial
Kate Webster appeared before the Central Criminal Court – the Old Bailey – in London. Over the six-day hearing, witnesses pieced together what had happened in the sensational murder. When a jury convicted her after an hour’s deliberation, she claimed she was pregnant, although this seems to have been a desperate attempt to escape the death sentence.
As she awaited her execution, Webster tried to implicate a man who she claimed was the father of her son and who she said had helped in the murder, along with two others, who she claimed had led her into a life of crime.
When the decision was taken not to commute the sentence, Webster finally confessed her sole responsibility with a priest present.
Kate Webster was hanged at Wandsworth Prison and her body buried in an unmarked grave in the grounds. Still a better final resting place than that of her unfortunate victim.
Dubbed the ‘Barnes Mystery’ or the ‘Richmond Murder’, the case became one of the most notorious crimes in late 19th-century Britain.
In October 2010, workmen building an extension in the back garden of TV naturalist David Attenborough made the macabre discovery of a human skull. And, in a surprising twist of fate, a coroner ruled that it belonged to Julia Thomas, the victim of the gruesome Victorian murder.