London, England, in the 1870s, a murder most foul was committed by a lowly and incompetent Irish maid named Kate Webster. Kate was born Kate Lawler in 1849. Kate was a born loser. She had no education. Her sole job was a housekeeper in people’s houses and she wasn’t good at it. She was also a practiced con artist and a criminal from an early age. She claimed to have wed a sea-captain by the name of Webster and having four children with him, all of whom died soon after birth.When Kate arrived in England she joined in the locals’ merriment in celebrating her move to London. Kate however had no intention of joining the neighbourhood as an honest woman. She took to thieving and soon discovered she was quite awful at it. Kate was quickly caught and jailed for five years. Sadly for Julia Martha Thomas, her eventual employer and landlady, this wouldn’t prove to be long enough. The murder of Julia Martha Thomas, dubbed the “Barnes Mystery” or the “Richmond Murder” by the press, was one of the most notorious crimes in late 19th-century Britain
Julia was a widow of 50, who lived in Richmond in Southwest London. Thomas was said to have an “excitable temperament” and was regarded by her neighbours as eccentric. She frequently travelled, leaving her friends and relatives unaware of her whereabouts for weeks or months at a time, a habit that would soon work to Kate’s advantage. She was a member of the lower middle class but she habitually dressed up and wore jewellery to give the impression of prosperity. Her desire to employ a live-in domestic servant probably had as much to do with status as with practicality. However, she had a reputation for being a harsh employer and her irregular habits meant that she had difficulty finding and retaining servants. Before 1879 she had only been able to keep one maid for any length of time. Imagine bringing these two unpredictable oddballs together. You just know we’re in for one horrible crime.
After Kate completed her 5-year jail sentence in 1873 and moved to Rose Gardens in Hammersmith, London where she became friends with a neighbouring family called Porter. On 18 April 1874 she gave birth to a son whom she named John W. Webster in Kingston Upon Thames. The identity of the father is unclear as she named three different men at various times. Not long after his birth Kate was again arrested and jailed for two years on 36 counts of larceny. She conned Julia into allowing her to live rent-free in her home in exchange for free housecleaning services. They struck a deal with Mrs. Thomas getting the short end of the stick. Kate wasn’t just an incompetent thief; she was an atrocious housekeeper. She broke expensive items and couldn’t be trusted to completed the most basic jobs. Of course it didn’t help that Kate was a lazy sloth who preferred to work at her own pace, which was zero.
This however wasn’t the entire reason Mrs. Thomas sacked Kate. Kate was a bad-tempered drunk. She visited the local pubs regularly, getting loaded then staggering home to a scandalized Mrs. Thomas. Her employer grew to fear Kate, who became increasingly resentful of Thomas to the point that Thomas attempted to persuade friends to stay with her since she did not like to be alone with her maid. Enough was enough. Mrs. Thomas told Kate she was fired and to get out. Naturally this didn’t sit well with our drunk, inept Kate. Kate’s repeated failures, low wages and alcoholism all built up inside her. Kate lost her Irish temper and threw Mrs. Thomas down the stairs. Then she strangled the poor elderly woman. Kate was now faced with a dilemma and a corpse. What to do with the late Mrs. Thomas? Kate got busy for the first time in her life. She chopped up Mrs. Thomas using a meat saw and a razor. Upon sawing up her former employer, Kate got hungry. She boiled the body into an ungodly stew then sat down and ate some of it. From all accounts, Mrs. Thomas tasted like pig’s meat. Kate made human lard with the remaining fat and sold it at the local tavern. Happily, they ate it, never realizing they had entered Kate’s exclusive cannibalism club.
Kate spread the story that Mrs. Thomas had passed away and left her the sole heir to her fortune. As ridiculous as it sounded, people believed her. Remember, Kate was practiced at the con game. Kate wore Mrs. Thomas’s clothes and spent her money. Now Kate was someone she’d always wanted to be: a wealthy old woman. However not all of Mrs. Thomas had been cooked into lard, including the head. She disposed of some body parts in the Thames River. She carried the head around in a bag until she hid it. It remained lost for over a century. The rest of the remains however were found only five days later. Naturally suspicion fell on Kate and she was arrested where she stood trial at the Old Bailey in July 1879. Kate was convicted of murder.
According to Webster’s eventual confession:
Mrs. Thomas came in and went upstairs. I went up after her, and we had an argument, which ripened into a quarrel, and in the height of my anger and rage I threw her from the top of the stairs to the ground floor. She had a heavy fall, and I became agitated at what had occurred, lost all control of myself, and, to prevent her screaming and getting me into trouble, I caught her by the throat, and in the struggle she was choked, and I threw her on the floor. I determined to do away with the body as best I could. I chopped the head from the body with the assistance of a razor which I used to cut through the flesh afterwards. I also used the meat saw and the carving knife to cut the body up with. I prepared the copper with water to boil the body to prevent identity; and as soon as I had succeeded in cutting it up I placed it in the copper and boiled it. I opened the stomach with the carving knife, and burned up as much of the parts as I could
Although it was rare to sentence a woman to death, Kate was hanged for her terrible crime. Presumably someone took in her young son. One hundred and thirty years later, in October 2010, the skull was recovered from an area that had once been a stable. I told you we were in for a good one in this biography,