On the 13th January 1879 Mrs Julia Martha Thomas of No. 2 Vine Cottages, Park Road, on Richmond Hill, made a mistake that would cost her her life. This respectable but rather eccentric widow in her mid 50’s took on a maid. Unknown to her the woman she engaged was a convicted thief, fraudster and hard nut called Kate Webster. Just out of prison, Kate had been looking for easy pickings all over the area. She threw over one position with the Mitchell family in Teddington because, as she said later, “They didn’t have anything worth stealing.”
At first Mrs Thomas and Kate got on rather well but very soon Mrs Thomas became irritated by Kate’s poor work, frequent drinking and intimidating manner. On 28th February 1879 and feeling increasingly nervous, she sacked her. Kate asked if Mrs Thomas would allow her to stay on for a few more days to give her a chance to find work elsewhere. The kindhearted Mrs Thomas agreed.
On Sunday evening, the 2nd March 1879, Mrs. Thomas went off to church as usual but left the service early, visibly agitated about something. Was she concerned that Kate Webster was alone in her house? Did she think that her maid was stealing from her? Whatever the reason it was the last time that Julia Martha Thomas was seen alive.
The following Tuesday afternoon Kate Webster, wearing a very smart silk dress and carrying a heavy Gladstone bag went to see some friends, the Porters, in Hammersmith. She told them that an aunt had left her a house and all its contents. Did they know anyone who might help her dispose of it all? As the Porters considered the question Kate went for a walk, taking the Gladstone bag with her. When she returned the bag had gone. Later that evening the Porter’s young son, Robert, helped Kate carry a heavy box down to Richmond Bridge where Kate said someone was coming to take it from her. As young Robert walked away he heard a loud splash as something heavy hit the water.
The box was recovered the following morning from the Thames at Barnes by a coalman who was horrified to find inside some female body parts, apparently boiled! The police couldn’t take the case further as without the head it was impossible to identify the remains. For the police and the press, the case of the headless bits of boiled body in a box remained the “Barnes Mystery”.
By now Kate Webster was wearing Mrs Thomas’s clothes and jewellery and calling herself Mrs Thomas as well. It was as “Mrs Thomas” that she persuaded John Church, a general dealer, to buy the contents of 2 Vine Cottages which included some dresses. With the money in her pocket Kate Webster went boating on the Thames at Richmond unaware that a case was building against her. Young Robert Porter, an avid reader of gruesome murders in the newspapers, told his father Henry that the box in the “Barnes Mystery” was remarkably like the one that he had helped carry for Kate Webster – the one that she had apparently dropped into the Thames. At the same time John Church, the general dealer, discovered inside one of the dresses that he had just bought a letter from a Mr. Menhennick, an acquaintance of the real Mrs Thomas. Suspicious, Henry Porter and John Church paid Mr Menhennick a visit. From their conversation it became clear that the body in the box might well be Mrs Thomas.
The police thought the same and searched 2 Vine Cottages. The evidence they found, which included an axe and a large copper tub containing fatty deposits, suggested that Mrs Thomas had been battered to death, chopped up and boiled down. Anything that was left of the eccentric widow finished up in the ‘Barnes Mystery’ box and the missing Gladstone bag. An arrest warrant was made out for Kate Webster. She was apprehended on 28th March and taken to Richmond Police Station where she was charged with murder. After first denying everything – and then trying to accuse Henry Porter and John Church of the crime – Kate Webster was tried at the Old Bailey and on the 8th July 1879 found guilty of the murder of Julia Martha Thomas.
She was hanged by William Marwood on the 29th July 1879 at Wandsworth Prison, the only woman to have been executed there. Her last words were, “Lord, have mercy upon me.”
The story has one last grisly twist. After the execution the Victorian commentator Henry Mayhew met a boy who knew Kate Webster. A few days after the murder she had offered the boy and his mates some food with these words….
‘Ear you lot, I’ve some good pig’s lard ‘ere an’ you kids shall have it free of charge… so don’t go saying that ol’ Kate never gives you nothink.’
Then she gave the boys two big bowls of lard and hunks of bread.
‘Eat it all up now, me dears, it’s good for you an’ when you’ve finished you can sell them bowls an’ all."
Mayhew charitably put it down to Kate having a streak of humanity… the rest of the world was less sure. More lard anyone?
—from Martyn Day