‘The skull was discovered, 130 years later, in David Attenborough’s back garden.’
Women committed only fifteen percent of murders in Victorian Britain. Females were more likely to be victims than perpetrators, and the few murders women committed were mostly in self-defence against abusive partners. However, some grim tales of Victorian murderesses are among the most disturbing and gruesome of the era. And the murder of Julia Martha Thomas was one of the most notorious crimes in the Victorian period.
In January 1879, Julia Martha Thomas took on Kate Webster as her servant. Thomas was known in her small community as an ‘eccentric’ lady. She had amassed a decent amount of wealth from the death of two husbands and lived alone. Kate Webster was a 30-year-old Irishwoman with a history of theft. Webster had a different upbringing to her mistress. Born poor, she was accustomed to a hard life of minimum pay and minimum expectations.
While Martha Thomas was a small, frail, elderly lady, Webster was tall and well built. After a while Thomas had enough of Webster and gave her notice to leave. Webster’s last day was supposed to be on the 28 February 1879, but she persuaded Thomas to let her stay three more days. It would prove to be a fatal mistake.
On 2 March Webster went out drinking. Her delayed return to the house meant Martha Thomas was late to a church service. Furious at her servant’s selfish actions, Thomas berated her and Webster flew into a mad, drunken rage. Thomas left to attend church and returned at 9 p.m. Webster followed Thomas to her room and confronted her. The quarrel soon flared into a huge argument. Using her strength to her advantage, Webster threw her elderly boss down the stairs. Webster then raced down the stairs and grabbed her throat to stop her screaming, and in a flurry of panic and anger, she choked Thomas to death. Webster rapidly formulated a plan. She needed to get rid of the evidence.
The body would be too big and obvious to hide as it was, so she got a razor and used it to remove the head. Armed with a meat saw and a carving knife, she cut up the remaining body parts into small, manageable pieces. Her next destination was the copper, usually used to wash laundry. She filled it with water and boiled it as if preparing to soak clothes. She then sliced open the stomach of Thomas with a carving knife and boiled up as much of the contents and as many body parts as she could.
Rather than making a hasty escape, Webster made a very peculiar decision. She took on the identity of the woman she’d slaughtered. Dressed in her mistress’s finest gown she posed as Thomas to visiting tradespeople, she even walked around town and attempted to pawn some of Thomas’ jewellery in the local shop. This is the point where legend intermingles with fact, the residents would later claim that Webster had made the rounds around the neighbourhood selling what they believed was dripping, but was actually the boiled fatty remains of their eccentric neighbour. One street urchin even claimed that Webster had offered him a bowl of the ghastly substance as an act of charity. Although these accounts were never proven in the trial, the chilling stories quickly swept the nation.
Over the next couple of days, Webster continued cleaning the house to put on a show of normality for people who called at the house. But behind the scenes, she was packing the dismembered remains into a black bag and a corded wooden bonnet-box. She could not fit the murdered woman’s head and one foot into the containers and disposed of them separately, throwing the foot onto a rubbish heap. The head was buried under the Hole in the Wall’s stables, a short distance from Thomas’s house, where it was found 131 years later.
She disposed of the black bag by dropping it into the Thames. They never recovered it. Then, as she crossed Richmond Bridge, she dropped the wooden bonnet box into the Thames. The following day, however, the box was found washed up in shallow water next to the river bank about five miles downstream. It was spotted by a coal porter who was driving his cart past shortly before seven in the morning. He initially thought the box might contain the proceeds of a burglary. He recovered the box and opened it, finding that it contained what looked like body parts wrapped in brown paper. The discovery was immediately reported to the police, and the remains were examined by a doctor, who found that they comprised the trunk and legs, minus a foot, of a woman. The head was missing and was later assumed to have been thrown into the river separately.
Neighbours were soon becoming increasingly suspicious, as they had not seen Thomas for two weeks. Realising she was about to be exposed, Webster fled, catching a train to Liverpool and travelling from there to her family home at Enniscorthy.
Police put out a ‘wanted’ notice, giving a description of Webster. Detectives from Scotland Yard soon discovered that Webster had fled back to Ireland aboard a coal steamer.
There was enormous interest when Webster was brought to trial at the old Bailey. The trial seemed an open and shut case. Madame Tussauds had already started producing a waxwork of Webster to feature in their chamber of horrors, before they issued the verdict. With a history of criminal behaviour, Webster didn’t help her case by appearing emotionless in court. The newspapers leapt on this, portraying the heavily built and tall Webster as a savage beast and describing her as repellent. The trial transcript is hardly better, where Webster is described as: ‘Not merely savage, savage and shocking, but the grimmest of grim personalities, a character so uniquely sinister and barbaric as to be hardly human.’
On the eve of her execution, Webster’s iron will finally broke. She admitted her guilt and gave a blow-by-blow account of her actions. Finally, having confessed her sins, Webster was hung. As the black flag rose outside Wandsworth Prison, the enormous crowd cheered and celebrated.
The real mystery surrounding the case became of Thomas’ head. It wasn’t found with the other body parts, and they presumed it missing at the bottom of the Thames. However, in 2010, over 130 years after the sensational murder, the partly boiled remains of the skull were discovered, strangely enough, in the back garden of naturalist David Attenborough’s house.
Carbon dating carried out at the University of Edinburgh dated the skull to between 1650 and 1880, while the fact that it had been deposited on top of a layer of Victorian tiles suggested it belonged to the end of this era. The skull had fracture marks consistent with Webster’s account of throwing Thomas down the stairs, and they found it to have low collagen levels, consistent with it being boiled. In July 2011, the coroner concluded the skull was indeed that of Thomas. They interred the skull in an unmarked grave at Richmond Cemetery on 24 August 2011.
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