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Kate Webster at the Old Bailey before she was sentenced to be hanged for murder - July 1879.

Kate Webster at the Old Bailey before she was sentenced to be hanged for murder – July 1879.

The Dripping Killer

Victorian Britain was horrified by a 30-year-old Irish woman who murdered her employer, dismembered the body, threw bits of it into the river Thames, boiled the head (and other body parts) and tried to sell the fat as “dripping” in local pubs. She blamed two innocent men for the crime and when that didn’t work, she pretended to be pregnant so that the judge wouldn’t give her the death penalty.

Such was her notoriety that Madame Tussaud’s rushed to create a wax statue of her which remained on display in London for 80 years.

Dubbed the ?Barnes Mystery? or the ?Richmond Murder?, the case became one of the most notorious crimes in the late 19th-century Britain. Julia Martha Thomas, a widow in her 50s who lived in Richmond in southwest London, was murdered on March 2, 1879 by her maid, Kate Webster, a 30-year-old Irishwoman with a long history of criminal activities.

Webster disposed of the body by dismembering it, boiling the flesh off the bones, and throwing most of the remains into the River Thames. The boiled fat from the body however, she retained for her own devious use.

In 1879, Julia Martha Thomas lived alone in a small cottage at?2 Mayfield Cottages?on?Park Road?in Richmond, just outside London. Thomas?was an eccentric widow, a former schoolteacher who had been twice widowed and travelled frequently, attempting to impress others by dressing well above her status as a lower middle-class commoner. Thomas was known to have an ?excitable temperament? and thus, couldn?t keep a servant employed for long.

When a friend told her about an Irish woman who was looking for a job, Julia hired Kate Webster without looking into her background?? a fatal mistake.

What Thomas did not know about Kate was that in Ireland, she had made a living as a pickpocket. Born Kate Lawler in Killanne,?County Wexford in 1849, she was described as ?a tall, strongly ? made woman of about 5 feet 5 inches in height with sallow and much freckled complexion and large and prominent teeth.?

Kate had been in and out of prison since she was 15 years old. She arrived in England in 1867, only a few years after her first arrest, and eventually fell in love with another thief, Mr. Strong.

According to Strong, Kate claimed to have been married to a sea captain called Webster by whom she had four children. According to her account, all of the children died, as did her husband, within a short time of each other.

When Kate became pregnant, Mr. Strong left her, forcing Kate to take jobs as a house cleaner in order to make ends meet. During her time as a maid, she would steal items from her employers and sell them off, and then move on to the next home before her crimes could be detected. Apart from stealing, Kate had two other hobbies: drinking and fighting.

The two women?s? personalities clashed often. According to Kate:

?At first I thought her a nice old lady ? but I found her very trying, and she used to do many things to annoy me during my work. When I had finished my work in my rooms, she used to go over it again after me, and point out places where she said I did not clean, showing evidence of a nasty spirit towards me.?

After months of constant quarrelling, Julia finally had enough and fired Kate. Kate begged to stay on for a few more days and Julia agreed to pay her through the weekend.

At church that Sunday, Julia told her friends she was scared of being alone with Kate, and she was going to end their professional relationship once she got home. Julia recorded her decision in what was to be her last diary entry:

?Gave Katherine warning to leave.?

To say the exit interview did not go well would be an understatement. Kate threw Julia down the stairs, and before Julia could scream for help, Kate jumped on top of her and strangled her to death. The neighbors, a woman named Ives (who was Thomas? landlady) and her mother, heard a single thump ?like that of a chair falling over? but paid no heed to it at the time.

Once Kate?had choked the life out of Julia, she?grabbed a razor and a handsaw, dismembered Julia?s body. She cut off the dead woman’s head with a razor and a meat saw and then hacked off her limbs. She par-boiled the limbs and torso in a copper pot and burned the organs and intestines in the fireplace.

Webster said later that ?even she was revolted by the enormous amount of blood everywhere.? She burnt or boiled as much of the body as she could, then packed the remains into a wooden box, except for the head and one foot for which she could not find enough space. Webster disposed of the spare foot on a manure heap in Twickenham but was left with the problem of the head which she placed in a black bag.

It took Kate several days to clean up the mess in the small cottage. Once she was finished, she changed into one of Julia?s dresses, and picked the head in the black bag, and took the morbid fashion accessory to a local pub for drinks with friends.

Kate still had to dispose of the body so she convinced a neighbour to help her carry the heavy sealed wooden box to a bridge over the River Thames where she told the neighbour?she was going to meet a friend. The man heard a splash shortly after he left but said he thought nothing of it.

The box containing parts of Julia?s body was discovered the next morning. Inside the box, police found a human trunk (minus its entrails) and two legs ? minus one foot. But without the head, police couldn?t identify the victim.

For the next few weeks, Kate continued to live as Julia, sleeping in her bed, wearing her clothes and jewellery?and selling her worldly possessions. She sold it all: the furniture, the house, and the gold fillings from Julia?s teeth. She even tried to sell the fat, rendered from boiling Julia?s body, to a restaurant in town. When that didn?t work, ?she fed it to some young boys, who ate two bowls full?

Finally, a neighbour put two and two together, and reported her suspicions to the authorities. Kate fled to Ireland, staying at her uncle?s home in County Wexford, to escape the police. The police searched 2 Mayfield Cottages and discovered blood stains, burned finger-bones in the hearth and fatty deposits behind the copper, as well as a letter left by Webster giving her home address in Ireland.

They immediately put out a ?wanted? notice throughout Ireland, providing?a detailed description of Webster and her son. Kate was quickly caught and on March 29, 1879, was sent back to England.

In her own testimony, Webster attempted to gain the jury’s sympathy by blaming Strong, the father of her child. She said: ?I formed an intimate acquaintance with one who should have protected me and was led away by evil associates and bad companions.??After a six-day trial, the jury retired to consider the facts, returning just over an hour later to pronounce a guilty verdict.

Judge Denmam asked Webster if there was ?any reason why sentence of death should not be passed? and Webster replied ?Yes, there is. I am quick with child? [pregnant].The Law Times reported that ?a scene of uncertainty and confusion ensued.?

The court’s clerk suggested using a ?jury of matrons,? selected from the women in the courtroom gallery, to rule on the question of whether Webster was ?quick with child.? Twelve women were sworn in along with a surgeon named Bond, and they accompanied Webster to a private room at the side of the court where she could be examined. They returned a few minutes later with a verdict that Webster was not ?quick with child,? though this ?did not necessarily mean she was not pregnant.?

The judge commented that ?after 32 years in the profession, he was never at an inquiry of this sort.?

He sentenced Webster to death by hanging at Wandsworth prison.

Kate was hanged the following day at?Wandsworth Prison?at 9 am, where the hangman, William Marwood, used his newly developed ?long drop? technique to cause instantaneous death. After her death was certified, she was buried in an unmarked grave in one of the prison?s exercise yards. The crowd waiting outside cheered as a black flag was raised over the prison walls, signifying that the death sentence had been carried out. Before she was hung, Kate confessed everything to a priest ? everything except where she hid the head.

In 1952, the naturalist David Attenborough and his wife Jane bought a house situated between the former Mayfield Cottages (which still stand today) and the?Hole in the Wall?pub. The pub closed in 2007 and fell into dereliction but was bought by Attenborough in 2009 to be redeveloped.

On 22 October 2010, workmen carrying out excavation work at the rear of the old pub uncovered a “dark circular object”, which turned out to be a woman’s skull. It had been buried underneath foundations that had been in place for at least 40 years, on the site of the pub’s stables. It was immediately speculated that the skull was the missing head of Julia Martha Thomas, and the coroner asked Richmond police to carry out an investigation into the identity and circumstances of death of the skull’s owner.

Carbon dating carried out at the University of Edinburgh found that it was dated between 1650 and 1880, but it had been deposited on top of a layer of Victorian tiles. The skull had fracture marks consistent with Webster’s account of throwing Thomas down the stairs, and it was found to have low collagen levels, consistent with it being boiled. In July 2011, the coroner concluded that the skull was indeed that of Thomas. DNA testing was not possible as she had died childless and no relatives could be traced; in addition, there was no record of where the rest of her body had been buried.

The coroner recorded a verdict of unlawful killing, superseding the open verdict recorded in 1879. The cause of Thomas’s death was given as asphyxiation and a head injury. The police called the outcome “a good example of how good old-fashioned detective work, historical records and technological advances came together to solve the ?Barnes Mystery?.”

Head found in David Attenborough’s garden was murder victim

Murder of Julia Martha Thomas