Imagine the surprise of David Attenborough, a BBC natural history broadcaster of over 50 years when… lo and behold, the long lost skull of widow, Julia Martha Thomas was discovered in his garden in July 2011. However, this murder took place 133 years ago in 1879! The notorious murderess was that of former housekeeper, Kate Webster.
This is a fascinating case from the standpoint of how it was solved, as well as the habits and characters of the victim and murderess (or lack thereof). Reams have been written about this case. However, Ladyjustice will attempt to summarize the “highlights and the lowlights” here and now. As it turns out, the murderess had “several lives” and was far more colorful than the victim.
The Victim: Julia Martha Thomas:
- Julia Martha Thomas was a twice widowed woman in her 50’s who lived in West London – Richmond;
- Martha had a reputation as an eccentric; was frequently agitated and liked to give the impression of wealth with her costume jewelry;
- Although she travelled frequently, she enjoyed the “status” of a live-in housekeeper whom she treated with strict disciplinary rules;
- Arriving home from church and not finding Kate Webster at home performing her duties, Martha went searching for her at an adjacent pub (to David Attenborough’s home) called the “Hole in the Wall”. Kate Webster was also known as a “drunkard;”
- After a raucous argument, Webster pushed Julia Thomas down the stairs on Sunday March 2, 1879, having been given a “second chance” previously. To prevent her screaming after being injured, Webster “finished her off.” Julia Thomas’ demise was the most heinous imaginable – decapitation, chopping off body parts and “boiling her into drippings” and subsequently fed to children! (OMG!!!)
- Kate Webster was born Catherine Lawlor in 1847 near Co. Wexford, Ireland;
- Her first encounter with criminal behavior began at age 15 followed by much thievery, giving her a year sentence in a Wexford jail and then she was sentenced to four years of penal servitude for the same crime in Liverpool;
- Kate had the reputation for promiscuity; ‘Gave birth to a son in April 1874 and was abandoned by the father. She then returned to stealing “to support herself”;
- Webster signed on as a maid with Julia Thomas via a referral through a friend in January 1879, beginning her “web of lies and deceit”;
- Kate Webster lived the life of a vagabond – moving around West London with four different aliases and chalking up 36 charges of larceny and imprisonment along the way…;
- Webster continued the “pretense of “cleaning/housekeeper normalcy” for several days until the foul odor raised suspicions. She packed the body parts into a black bag and wooden bonnet box, buried the head and threw one of the feet on a garbage heap;
- Webster began impersonating Julia Thomas two days later, claimed to be married again, widowed and “was left Thomas’ house by an aunt in Richmond.” While traveling in Hammersmith, she dropped more of Julia’s remains in the Thames River. The disposed of body parts began to be discovered. However, there was no way to connect the two women;
- Kate was exposed while offering Thomas’ furniture to a pub owner, John Church. When neighbors learned “Mrs. Thomas” was actually Kate Webster, she fled to her family home in Ireland. John Church summoned the police whereupon they found burned bones in the fireplace and blood stains. Police discovered from earlier records in Scotland Yard and information from the Royal Irish Constabulary that the fugitive was the same woman.
- Kate Webster went on trial at the Central Criminal Court, “the Old Bailey” on July 2, 1879 over a six day period. She pleaded not guilty, attempted to implicate her former neighbor as well as John Church. She also tried claiming she was “quick with child” which was proven to be false. More lies… trying to implicate her former husband;
- Webster recanted her story and ultimately confessed to a priest and was sentenced to death. It was an unmarked grave for her as a black flag was raised signaling that “the deed” had been carried out!
Dublin newspapers described the murder of Julia Martha Thomas as “one of the most sensational and awful chapters in the annals of human wickedness.” This murder will perhaps be known as the most horrific crime committed by a woman. It was still about the money…as had Webster succeeded in selling off the furniture as she intended to John Church, she would have gained but two to three years worth of wages.
Kate was not a sympathetic figure with the jury. Victorian era women were expected to act with femininity and be passive. In addition, her penchant for drinking, stealing and living off other’s misfortunes were seen very unfavorably.
The Skull- The Final Piece of the Puzzle:
The Hole in the Wall Pub had gone to rack and ruin, as they say after it closed in 2007, followed by its purchase by David Attenborough in 2009 for purposes of re-development. Due to a considerable amount of circumstantial evidence, historical record review and radiocarbon testing [LJ- Radiocarbon dating is a method used to test any material made up of carbon] the skull was estimated to be dated between 1650 and 1880 and that of a white female of menopausal age. As Julia Thomas had no living relatives and no children, there was no means of comparison.
The West London Coroner Allison Thompson formally declared that the skull belonged to Mrs. Thomas with a cause of death listed as asphyxiation and head injury.
What next for an 85 year old naturalist broadcaster? Can anyone top this one? I seriously doubt it!