Only 15 per cent of murders in Victorian Britain were committed by women. Females were more likely to be victims than perpetrators, and the few murders that were committed by women were mostly in self-defence against abusive partners. However, some of the grim tales of Victorian murderesses are among the most horrifying and grisly of the era.
Julia Martha 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 at 2 Vine Cottages, Park Road, Richmond. She believed she was a little wealthier than she was, and became somewhat obsessed with proving her elevated status. With such lofty opinions it was only right that she employ a maid. Thanks to her seemingly random travels, where she vanished for any length of time, she had trouble keeping a servant. Then in 1879, she met Kate Webster.
Webster had a drastically different upbringing to her mistress. Born poor, she was accustomed to a hard life of minimum pay and minimum expectations. She was rumoured to have been married with four children, but all had died and the experience had forced her to become a strong, fierce, iron-willed woman. While Thomas was a small, frail, elderly lady, Webster was tall and well built, the two seemed polar opposites of each other.
This physical difference soon manifested itself in their relationship. Thomas was known to have an ‘excitable temperament’, which meant Webster was often on the receiving end of harsh criticism. Webster said of her mistress:
“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.”
But Webster was certainly no angel. According to Thomas she had a ‘high and mighty’ persona, and she would often stumble home drunk and violent. Thomas admitted to friends that she didn’t trust Webster, and this fear of her unpredictable maid led Thomas to ask friends to stay the night so she didn’t have to be alone with her. In a society where attack from one’s servant was a very legitimate fear, the nervy Thomas was right to be wary of her fiery maid.
Enough was enough and Thomas finally gave Webster her notice. Her very last diary entry read: “Gave Katherine warning to leave.” Webster’s last day was supposed to be on the 28 February 1879, but she managed to persuade her mistress to let her stay three more days until 2 March. It would prove to be a fatal mistake.
On 2 March Webster went out drinking. Her delayed return to the house meant that 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 9pm, but neither of the women had calmed down. Webster followed Thomas to her room and confronted her, the quarrel soon flared into a huge argument and, using her strength to her advantage, Webster threw her elderly boss from the top of the stairs to the ground floor.
Webster’s rage transformed into panic. She was terrified that Thomas was going to scream and get her into trouble, as someone who had previously served time in prison she wasn’t eager to return. She raced down the stairs and grabbed her throat to stop her screaming, and in a flurry of panic and anger Thomas was choked to death. Webster threw her lifeless body to the floor and rapidly began to formulate a plan.
One fact was clear – she needed to get rid of the evidence. The body would be too big and obvious to hide as it was, so she grasped 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 sliced open Thomas’ stomach with a carving knife and boiled up as much of the contents and as many body parts as she could.
The next day Webster methodically packed the cut up body parts into a box that, posing as a lady in need, she convinced a neighbour to help cast into the depths of the Thames. The mistress’ foot, however, was too big and Webster instead dumped it in a rubbish heap in Twickenham. The very next day the mysterious box was discovered, washed up near Barnes Bridge, the pieces were so mutilated that they were first believed to be butcher’s off cuts.
Rather than making a hasty escape, Webster made a very peculiar decision. She decided to take on the persona of the woman she had just brutally slaughtered. Dressed in her mistress’s finest gown she posed as Thomas to visiting tradesmen, she even walked around town in her ‘costume’ and attempted to pawn some of Thomas’ jewellery in the local shop. For the residents who had not seen Mrs. Thomas for a while, this was a very peculiar sight. However, Webster continued to push her luck and invited John Church, the proprietor of the local public house, to buy Thomas’ furniture.
For the villagers, this was a step too far, and they finally went to the police. The authorities immediately raided the cottage, however Mrs. Thomas was nowhere to be found. Instead they made a grim discovery – an axe and fragments of charred bones in the kitchen. Most peculiar of all was the scummy ring of fat around the edge of the copper.
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.
Webster knew her number was up, she fled to Ireland, but was caught hiding in her uncle’s home. News of the grisly murder spread like wild fire through the British population, and there was huge interest when Webster was brought to trial at the old Bailey, even attracting royalty in the form of the crown prince of Sweden. Meanwhile, the quiet village in Richmond found itself flocked with tourists eager to glimpse the cottage where the infamous murder took place.
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 the verdict was issued. With a history of criminal behaviour, Webster didn’t help her case by appearing stoic and emotionless in court – very unbecoming of a Victorian woman who was expected to personify femininity. The newspapers leapt on this, portraying the heavily built and tall Webster as a savage beast and describing her as “gaunt, repellent, and trampish-looking”, 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.”
Despite how convinced everyone else was, Webster maintained her innocence the entire trial, she even blamed three guiltless men including John Church. She must have realised her situation was desperate as just before the sentence was to be declared, she proclaimed that she was pregnant. Confusion and panic spread through the courtroom and the court was forced to invoke an ancient legal device known as a ‘court of matrons’ to determined if she was indeed ‘quick with child.’
After examination it was declared that she was not pregnant after all and the death sentence was given.
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 during and after the murder. Finally having confessed her sins, Webster was hung by William Marwood. As the black flag rose outside the goal, the eager crowd cheered and celebrated.
Webster’s legend would continue for some time after her death. An auction of Thomas’ property the day after the hanging attracted a large crowd, even the copper used to boil down Thomas’ body was sold. Those unable to purchase a piece of property took pebbles and twigs from the garden as sombre souvenirs. Legends of the ghastly murder left the house where it all happened unoccupied for nearly another 20 years.
The real mystery surrounding the case was what became of Thomas’ head. It wasn’t found with the other body parts and it was presumed missing at the bottom of the Thames for more than 100 years. However, in 2010, more than 130 years after the sensational murder, the partly boiled remains of the skull were discovered, strangely enough, in the back garden of the English naturalist David Attenborough’s house. Webster herself was immortalised in the creepy waxwork effigy that stood in the chamber of horrors at Madame Tussauds well into the 20th century.
- Crime and Punishment in Victorian London: A Street-Level of the City’s Underworld, Ross Gilfillan
- Underworld London: Crime and Punishment in the Capital City, Catherine Arnold