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Catherine WEBSTER






"The Barnes Mistery"
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Robbery - Dismemberment
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: March 2, 1879
Date of arrest: March 29, 1879
Date of birth: 1849
Victim profile: Julia Martha Thomas, 54
Method of murder: Beating with an axe
Location: Richmond, London, England, United Kingdom
Status: Executed by hanging at Wandsworth Prison on July 29, 1879
photo gallery

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey

Trial of Catherine Webster

Kate Webster went to her appointment with William Marwood on the gallows at Wandsworth Prison on 29th July 1879 and passed into history as one of the most universally despised criminals in history. Katherine Lawler was born in Killane, County Wexford, in 1849 of poor but respectable parents. As a small child she was caught stealing on numerous occasions and developed an unenviable reputation for dishonesty. In her early teens she stole a quantity of money and used it to sail to Liverpool. Kate spent the next few years living on her wits and what she could steal. She tried picking pockets but was particularly inept and was sent to prison for four years at the age of eighteen.

When she was released Kate travelled to London and took a job as a charwoman and made a little extra income as a prostitute. It was not too long before she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. Even this event failed to reform her and she took to robbing boarding houses. Kate would take a room, sell everything that she could lay her hands on before absconding. The next few years saw her being arrested on innumerable occasions and receiving short prison sentences. In 1875 she was sent to spend eighteen months in Wandsworth. When released in 1877 she was free for only a short time before finding herself back inside.

In January 1879 Kate moved to Richmond. After a couple of months she obtained a job as maid to wealthy Mrs Julia Martha Thomas who lived at 2 Vine Cottages, Park Road, Richmond. Initially she worked well for Mrs Thomas but soon fell back into her old habits of spending more time in the local pubs than at work. On Sunday 2nd March 1879, after having held the job for just one month, Kate Webster was sacked. Mrs Thomas went off to church with Kate's invective still ringing in her ears.

When Mrs Thomas returned from her devotions she went upstairs to her bedroom. As she was removing her hat Kate, wielding an axe, burst into the room and struck the old lady a glancing blow on the head. Mrs Thomas managed to struggle out onto the landing where Kate pushed her down the stairs. Kate rushed after her and smashed the woman's head with the axe.

Dragging the body into the kitchen she set about dismembering it. She hacked the corpse to pieces and started to boil the body parts in a large copper pot set on an open fire. Weary from her exertions she left the mixture to simmer for an hour while she went to Hayhoe's Pub for some refreshment. On her return Kate packed up the remains in a box and placed the whole lot inside cloth bags lined with thick, brown paper. She then set about cleaning the kitchen and hallway. The next day Kate made up a fire in the kitchen and fed in Mrs Thomas's bones. Next she visited the pawnbroker's where she pledged Mrs Thomas's gold bridgework for six shillings. This success deserved a drink or two and Kate retired to Hayhoe's and got drunk. While there, she tried to sell some jars of "best dripping," which was really the reduced body fat of Mrs Thomas.

Kate, now calling herself 'Mrs Thomas', set about selling off the furniture. She asked a family that she knew, the Porters, and they suggested that a man named John Church might be interested. Kate, Henry Porter and his son, Robert, set out to visit John Church. They made their way home by way of several local pubs. In one of these, near to Hammersmith Bridge, Kate excused herself and left the pub carrying a large, black bag. A short time later she returned without the bag. Kate next got Robert Porter to help her carry a large wooden chest. When they got to Richmond Bridge Kate told the lad to leave the crate and that she would catch him up in a few minutes. As he left the bridge he heard the sound of a large splash. A couple of minutes later Kate appeared from out of the fog and said "Well, that's over." Fishermen working the banks of the Thames found the chest the next day. They were stunned when they opened it and found the par-boiled remains of a woman.

John Church arrived at Vine Cottages and agreed to pay Kate £68 for the contents of the house, £18 of it in advance. Church came to collect the furniture on 18th March. The next-door neighbour, Miss Ives, grew suspicious at seeing Mrs Thomas's furniture being removed and called the police. When the authorities arrived Kate managed to slip out of the back door and fled back to Killane. The police did not take long in tracking her there and the Royal Irish Constabulary arrested her on 28th March. Kate was still wearing Mrs Thomas's clothes and jewellery. She was taken back to London and charged with murder.

All through her Old Bailey trial, which began on 2nd July and lasted seven days, Kate denied vehemently anything to do with the killing, accusing Henry Porter and John Church of the deed. The jury would have none of this and duly found her guilty. Kate Webster denied any implication in the murder right up until the night before her execution, when she confessed to the prison chaplain, Father McEnrey.


Kate Webster - The "Barnes Mystery"

Kate was a rather incompetent career criminal who had served several prison terms for various thefts and offences of dishonesty, both in her native Ireland and in England. These included a period of 12 months in 1877 in London's Wandsworth prison, where she would ultimately die.

She was born Catherine Lawler in 1849 in Killane, Co. Wexford in what is now the Irish Republic and started her criminal career at an early age. She claimed to have a married a sea captain called Webster by whom, according to her, she had had four children. Whether this is true is doubtful, however.

She moved to Liverpool stealing money for the ferry fare and continued stealing once she arrived there. This was to earn her a four year prison sentence at the age of 18. On release she went to London and took work as a cleaner - often "cleaning out" her employer's possessions before moving on.

In 1873 she settled at Rose Gardens in London's Hammersmith area. Her next door neighbours were Henry and Ann Porter whom she got on well with and were to feature later in her story. She moved to Notting Hill to a new job as a cook/housekeeper to Captain Woolbest and whilst in his employ met a man named Strong with whom she went to live and became pregnant by.

She duly gave birth to a son on 19th April 1874 and was promptly abandoned by Mr. Strong. Without any means of support (there was no Social Security then) Kate resorted to her usual dishonest practices and served several prison sentences as a result.

On release from Wandsworth in 1877 she again sought domestic work - firstly with the Mitchell family in Teddington of whom she was to say that they didn’t have anything worth stealing. She was constantly on the move at this time and used several aliases including Webster and Lawler.

Sarah Crease, another domestic servant became friends with Kate somewhere around this period and it was Sarah who found herself looking after Kate's son during his mother's spells in prison.

The murder

On the 13th January 1879 Kate entered the service of Mrs Julia Martha Thomas at No. 2 Vine Cottages, Park Road, Richmond. To begin with the two women got on well and Kate recorded that she felt she could be happy working for Mrs. Thomas who was a comfortably off, although rather eccentric, woman in her mid fifties. Soon, however the poor quality of Kate's work and her frequent visits to local pubs began to irritate Mrs. Thomas and after various reprimands she gave Kate notice, with Kate's dismissal to take effect on Friday 28th February.

This period of notice was a fatal mistake on the part of Mrs. Thomas and she became increasingly frightened of her employee during its period, so much so that she asked friends from her church and relatives to stay in the house with her.

Friday the 28th arrived and as Kate had not managed to find a new job or any accommodation she pleaded with Mrs. Thomas to be allowed to remain in her house over the weekend. Sadly Mrs. Thomas agreed to this - a decision that was to cost both women their lives.

On the Sunday morning (the 2nd of March 1879) Mrs. Thomas went off to church as usual. Kate was allowed Sunday afternoons off work but had to be back in time for Mrs. Thomas to go to evening service.

This Sunday afternoon Kate went to visit her son, who was as usual in the care of Sarah Crease, and then went to a pub on the way back to Vine Cottages. Thus she got back late which inconvenienced Mrs. Thomas who again reprimanded her before rushing off, so as not be late for the service.

Fellow members of the congregation noticed that she seemed agitated, whether this was because she suspected Kate's dishonesty and feared her home was being robbed is quite possible. Whatever the reason Mrs. Thomas left church before the end of the service and went home, sadly without asking anyone to accompany her. Precisely what happened next is unclear.

In her confession prior to her execution Kate described the events as follows : "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. I felt that she was seriously injured and I became agitated at what had happened, lost all control of myself and to prevent her screaming or getting me into trouble, I caught her by the throat and in the struggle choked her."

At her trial the prosecution painted a rather different picture. Mrs. Thomas' next door neighbour, Mrs. Ives, heard the noise of the fall followed by silence and at the time thought no more of it. Little was she to suspect what was to happen next. Kate, of course, had the problem of what to do with the body but instead of just leaving it and escaping she decided to dismember it and then dispose of the parts in the river.

She set about this grim task with a will, firstly cutting off the dead woman's head with a razor and meat saw and then hacking off her limbs. She par-boiled the limbs and torso in a copper on the stove and burned Mrs. Thomas' organs and intestines. Even Kate was revolted by all this and the enormous amount of blood everywhere.

But she stuck to the job and systematically burnt or boiled all of the body parts and then packed the remains into a wooden box, except for the head and one foot for which she could not find room. It has been said that Kate even tried to sell the fatty remains from boiling the body as dripping. Mrs. Ives was later to report a strange smell from next door (which was caused by the burning).

Kate disposed of the spare foot on a manure heap but was left with the problem of the head which she decided to place into a black bag. She continued to clean up the cottage on the Monday and Tuesday and then "borrowing" one of Mrs. Thomas' silk dresses went to visit the Porter family on the Tuesday afternoon, taking the black bag containing the head with her. She told the Porters that she had benefited under the will of an aunt who had left her a house in Richmond which she wanted to dispose of, together with its contents, as she had decided to return to Ireland. She asked Henry Porter if he knew a property broker (estate agent) who might be able to assist her.

Later in the evening Kate excused herself and went off, ostensibly to visit another friend, returning later without the black bag, which was never found. Both Henry Porter and his son Robert had carried the bag for Kate at various stages of their walk to the railway station and two pubs along the way and both noticed how heavy it was.

This left Kate with the rest of the human remains in the box to dispose of and she sought the services of young Robert Porter to help her in this, taking the lad back home with her for the purpose. She and Robert carried the box between them to Richmond Bridge, where Kate said she was meeting someone who was taking the box and told Robert to go on without her. Robert was to hear a splash of something heavy hitting the water below a few moments before Kate caught up with him again.

The box was discovered the next morning by a coal man who must have had a horrible shock when he opened it. He reported his discovery to Inspector Harber at Barnes police station and the police had the various body parts examined by a local doctor who declared that they were from a human female and noticed that the skin showed signs of having been boiled. Without the head however it was not possible to identify the body.

Kate meanwhile was calling herself Mrs. Thomas and wearing the dead woman's clothes and jewellery. She kept up pressure on Henry Porter to help her dispose of the property and he introduced her to a Mr. John Church, who was a publican and general dealer, who she persuaded to buy the contents of the house. Kate and Church seemed to rapidly become friends and went drinking together several times.

The real Mrs. Thomas had not been reported missing at this stage and the papers referred to the human remains in the box as "the Barnes Mystery", a fact known to Kate as she could read, as could the Porter family. Robert told his father about the box he had helped Kate carry which was like the one described in the papers.

Kate agreed a price for the furniture and some of Mrs. Thomas' clothes with John Church and he arranged for their removal. Unsurprisingly this was to arouse the suspicion of Mrs. Ives next door who questioned Kate as to what was going on. Mrs. Church was later to find a purse and diary belonging to Mrs. Thomas in one of the dresses. There was also a letter from a Mr. Menhennick to whom Henry Porter and John Church paid a visit. Menhennick knew the real Mrs. Thomas and it became clear from the discussion that it could well be her body in the box.

The three men, together with Menhennick's solicitor went to Richmond police station and reported their suspicions. The next day a search was made of No. 2 Vine Cottages and an axe, razor and some charred bones were recovered, together with the missing handle from the box found in the river. Thus on the 23rd March a full description of Kate Webster was circulated by the police in connection with the murder of Mrs. Thomas and the theft of her effects.

Kate had decided to flee to Ireland taking her son with her - which was to be the first place the police looked for her. She was arrested on 28th March and kept in custody awaiting collection by two detectives from Scotland Yard. She was brought back to England and taken to Richmond police station where she made a statement on March 30th and was formally charged with the murder.

The statement accused John Church of being responsible for Mrs. Thomas' death and he was subsequently arrested and charged with the murder too. Fortunately he had a strong alibi and had also assisted the police in discovering the crimes. At the committal hearing the charges against him were dropped while Kate was remanded in custody. She was transferred to Newgate prison to save the long journey by horse drawn prison van across London each day for her trial.


Her trial opened on the 2nd July 1879 before Mr. Justice Denman at the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) next door to Newgate. In view of the seriousness of the crime the Crown was led by the Solicitor General, Sir Hardinge Gifford and Kate was defended by Mr. Warner Sleigh.

A hat maker named Mary Durden gave evidence for the prosecution, telling the court that on the 25th February Kate had told her she was going to Birmingham to take control of the property, jewellery etc. that had been left her by a recently deceased aunt. This, the prosecution claimed, was clear evidence of premeditation, as the conversation had occurred 6 days before the murder. One of the problems of the prosecution case however was proving that the human remains the police had found were actually those of Mrs. Thomas.

It was a weakness that her defence sought to capitalise on, especially as without the head there was no means of positively identifying them at that time. Medial evidence was given to show that all the body parts had belonged to the same person and that they were from a woman in her fifties.

The defence tried to suggest that Mrs. Thomas could have died of natural causes, in view of her agitated state when she was last seen alive, leaving church on the Sunday afternoon. Both Henry Porter and John Church gave evidence against Kate describing the events of which they had been involved and her defence again tried to point the finger of suspicion at them. In his summing up the judge however, pointed to the actions and previously known good characters of both of them. Two of Kate's friends, Sarah Crease and Lucy Loder, gave evidence of her good nature.

Late on the afternoon of Tuesday the 8th July the jury retired to consider their verdict, returning just over an hour later to pronounce her guilty. Before she was sentenced Kate yet again made a complete denial of the charge, but cleared Church and Porter of any involvement in the crime. As was normal, she was asked if she had anything to say before she was sentenced and claimed to be pregnant. She was examined by some of the women present in the court and this claim was dismissed as just another of her lies.

She went back to Newgate and was transferred the next day to Wandsworth to await execution. It has been suggested that Wandsworth did not have a condemned cell at this time although it would seem unlikely. In any event Kate was guarded round the clock by teams of female prison officers.

Kate was to make two further "confessions" in Wandsworth, the first implicating Strong, who was the father of her child. These allegations were also found to be baseless.

Kate was informed by her solicitor that no reprieve was to be granted to her, despite a small amount of public agitation for commutation. So on the eve of her hanging Kate made another confession to the solicitor in the presence of the Catholic priest attending her, Father McEnrey, which seemed somewhat nearer the truth. She stated that she was resigned to her fate and that she would almost rather be executed than return to a life of misery and deception.


The actual execution of the sentence of death had changed a great deal over the eleven years between the ending of public hangings and Kate's death, even though the words of the sentence had not. No longer was it a public spectacle with the prisoner being given a short drop and allowed to die in agony. William Marwood had made great improvements to the process and had introduced the "long drop" method, designed to break the person's neck and cause instant unconsciousness.

The execution was, as usual, to take place three clear Sundays after sentence and was set for the morning of Tuesday 29th of July at Wandsworth prison. Wandsworth was originally the Surrey House of Correction and had been built in 1851. It took over the responsibility for housing Surrey's condemned prisoners on the closure of Horsemonger Lane Gaol in 1878.

Kate was to be only the second person and the sole woman to be hanged there.

At 8.45 a.m. the prison bell started to toll and a few minutes before 9.00 a.m. the Under Sheriff, the prison governor, Captain Colville, the prison doctor, two male warders and Marwood formed up outside her cell. Inside Kate was being ministered to by Father McEnrey and attended by two female warderesses. She would have typically been offered a stiff tot of brandy, before the execution commenced.

The governor entered her cell and told her that it was time and she was led out between the two male warders, accompanied by Father McEnrey, across the yard to the purpose built execution shed, which was nicknamed the "Cold Meat Shed". See photo. Having the gallows in a separate building spared the other prisoners from the sound of the trap falling and made it easier to for the staff to deal with the execution and removal of the body afterwards. As Kate entered the shed she would have been able to see the large white painted gallows with the rope dangling in front of her with its simple noose laying on the trap doors.

The idea of coiling up the rope to bring the noose to chest level came later, as did the brass eyelet in the noose. Marwood stopped her on the chalk mark on the double trap doors and placed a leather body belt round her waist to which he secured her wrists, while his assistant (probably one of the warders) strapped her ankles with a leather strap. She was not pinioned in her cell, as became the normal practice later. She was supported on the trap by the two warders standing on planks, (one is just visible in the bottom left hand corner of the photo) set across it.

This had been the normal practice for some years, in case the prisoner fainted or struggled at the last moment. Marwood placed the white hood over her head and adjusted the noose, leaving the free rope running down her back. Her last words were "Lord, have mercy upon me". He quickly stepped to the side and pulled the lever, Kate plummeting down some 8 feet into the brick lined pit below.

Marwood used significantly longer drops than later were found to be necessary. Kate's body was left to hang for the usual hour before being taken down and prepared for burial. It is probable that two newspaper reporters would have been allowed to attend - it was usual at this time for the press to be admitted.

They would have been expected to report that the execution had been carried out "expeditiously". The whole process would have taken around 2 minutes in those days and was considered vastly more humane than Calcraft's executions.

The black flag was hoisted on the flag pole above the main gate, where a small crowd of people had gathered for her execution. They would have seen and heard nothing and yet these rather pointless gatherings continued outside prisons during executions until abolition.

Later in the day her body was buried in an unmarked grave in one of the exercise yards at Wandsworth (nobody else was to be buried in this grave, although after the 90th execution the authorities started to re-use male graves, but not hers.) She is listed in the hand written prison records as Catherine Webster, interred 29/07/1879.

Although she was the second person to be executed at Wandsworth she was buried in grave no. 3 as the graves were numbered 1,3, 5 etc on one side of the path, while on the other side they were numbered 2, 4, 6, etc. and it was decided to use those on one side first. In all 134 men and Kate were to be hanged at Wandsworth up till 1961 when Henryk Niemasz became the last to suffer (on the 8th September) for the murder of a Mr. and Mrs. Buxton.


Webster, Kate

Every so often a killer appears who is reviled by all. When Kate Webster went to the gallows at Wandsworth Prison on 29th July 1879 she was one such person. Kate was born in Killane, County Wexford, in 1849 of poor, but respectable, parents.

Like a lot of small children she was caught stealing on numerous occasions but went on until she had a reputation for dishonesty. When in her early teens she stole a quantity of money and left home using the money to sail to Liverpool and then spent the next few years living on what she could steal. She tried picking pockets but was not very good at it and was caught and sent to prison for four years at the age of eighteen.

When she was released she travelled to London and took a job as a charwoman and supplemented this by becoming a prostitute. It was not too long before she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. Even this event failed to reform her and she took to robbing boarding houses. Her method was to take a room, sell off everything that she could lay her hands on before absconding. Over the next few years she was arrested on innumerable occasions and received a number of short prison sentences. In 1875 she was sentenced to eighteen months which she spent in Wandsworth. When released in 1877 she was free for only a short time before finding herself back inside.

In January 1879 Kate moved to Richmond. After a couple of months she obtained a job as maid to wealthy Mrs Julia Martha Thomas who lived at 2 Vine Cottages, Park Road, Richmond. Initially she worked well for Mrs Thomas but soon fell back into her old habits of spending more time in the local pubs than at work.

On Sunday 2nd May 1879, Mrs Thomas had come to the end of her tether with Kate and sacked her. She then went off to church with Kate's sharp recriminations still ringing in her ears. When she returned from church she went upstairs to her bedroom. As she was removing her hat Kate, burst into the room with an axe in her hands. Before the old lady had chance to do anything Kate struck her a glancing blow on the head.

In an attempt to escape from this madwoman, Mrs Thomas managed to struggle out onto the landing where Kate then pushed her down the stairs. Rushing down after he she struck the old woman again with the axe only this time with a full crushing blow. She dragged the body into the kitchen and started to chop it up. As if she was butchering a pig she hacked the corpse to pieces and putting the parts in a large copper pot set on an open fire started to boil them. She left it boiling while she went to Hayhoe's Pub for some refreshment. When she came back from the pub she drained off the liquid and packed up the remains in box and placed the whole lot inside cloth bags lined with thick, brown paper. She then started to clean the kitchen and hallway removing all evidence.

The following day Kate made up another fire in the kitchen and this time put in Mrs Thomas's bones. Making sure that she kept back Mrs Thomas's gold bridgework she took this to a pawnbroker's where she was given six shillings. After all this hard work she went back to the Hayhoe's and got drunk. Never missing an opportunity to make money while she was there, she tried to sell some jars of 'best dripping', which was none other than the reduced body fat of Mrs Thomas.

Kate, now started calling herself 'Mrs Thomas' and started selling off the furniture. She obtained the name from a family that she knew of a man who might be interested. As they knew him they agreed to take Kate to see him. Henry Porter and his son, Robert, set out to visit John Church. They made their way home by way of several local pubs. In one of these, near to Hammersmith Bridge, Kate excused herself and left the pub carrying a large, black bag which when she returned a little while later she was not carrying.

Kate next got Robert Porter to help her carry a large wooden chest to Richmond Bridge. When they got there Kate told the lad to leave the crate and that she would catch him up in a few minutes. Leaving her with the crate he was a little puzzled and as he left the bridge he heard the sound of a large splash. A couple of minutes later Kate appeared from out of the fog and said 'Well, that's over.' The crate was found the next day by fishermen working the banks of the Thames. When opening it they were horrified when they found the par-boiled remains of a woman.

John Church arrived at Vine Cottages and agreed to pay Kate £68 for the contents of the house, £18 of it in advance. Church came to collect the furniture on 18th March. Miss Ives who was the next-door neighbour was a little suspicious when she saw Mrs Thomas's furniture being removed and as she had not seen the old lady for a while she called the police.

Seeing the authorities arrive Kate slipped out of the back door and fled back to Killane. It did not take the police long to catch up with her and she was arrested by the Royal Irish Constabulary on 28th March. When arrested she was still wearing Mrs Thomas's clothes and jewellery. She was taken back to London where she was charged with murder.

Her trial began at the Old Bailey on the 2nd July and lasted seven days. She denied having anything to do with the murder actually accusing Henry Porter and John Church of the deed. The jury would have none of this and duly found her guilty. She continued to deny any involvement in the murder up until the night before her execution, seeing no way out she decided to clear her conscience and confessed to the prison chaplain, Father McEnrey. She was hung on the 29 July 1879 by William Marwood.


WEBSTER, Catherine (England)

If you covet someone’s belongings, how do you gain possession of them? If you steal them, you run the risk of being caught with them by the police; the risk is even greater if you first murder the owner. Even if you effectively dispose of the body, how do you claim ownership of the belongings afterwards?

Catherine Webster thought she knew the answer – but her ultimate appearance in the company of hangman William Marwood on the scaffold proved just how wrong she was.

Kate, as she was generally known, already had a criminal record. Born in Ireland, a thief and a pickpocket when young, she stole sufficient money to buy a boat ticket to Liverpool and then moved to the south of the country.

By the age of thirty she’d had various jobs, invariably leaving after having stolen minor items of value, and in 1879 she was employed in Richmond as a maid by a Mrs Julia Martha Thomas, a rather strict woman who believed that her staff, when given time off, should return on time. On occasions, though, Kate would remain drinking in the local public house until closing time, and for this she was rebuked by her employer.

On 2 March 1879, however, things were different. Kate was late, Mrs Thomas furious, and a bitter row ensued. Kate’s ungovernable temper got the better of her and, going out to the garden shed, she returned with an axe which she proceeded to bury in Mrs Thomas’ skull. She then went to bed.

Next morning she got up, washed and dressed, had breakfast, then calmly set about dismembering her mistress’ body with the axe, dumping the large pieces of flesh and bone in the copper.

Filling it up with water, she lighted the fire beneath it, and passed the time by scrubbing the bloodstains from the floor and walls.

The remains, being by then easier to handle, she allowed to cool down before putting them in an assortment of bags. Taking them one at a time, she then threw them over the bridge into the River Thames. Having got rid of them all, she returned and, assuming the identity of her dead employer, promptly advertised the house and its contents for sale.

Unfortunately, the parapet of the bridge being rather high, not all the packages fell into the river; one landed close to the bank, where it was later found by an angler. His shocked reaction can well be imagined when, on opening it, he found the contents to be chunks of boiled flesh. The police were informed and, the remains being discovered to be those of Mrs Thomas, they hastened round to her address, only to find that the bird had flown – Kate, having made a quick though profitable sale of just about everything, had sailed for Ireland.

Catherine Webster was arrested at her home in Killane by the Royal Irish Constabulary, where she was found to have some of Mrs Thomas’ valuables in her possession. Brought back to England, she appeared in court in the Old Bailey on 2 July 1879, charged with murder. Despite vehemently claiming to be innocent of the crime, and blaming everyone else, including some of those who had bought the household effects, she was found guilty.

On 29 July hangman William Marwood, having earlier lingered near her cell and covertly assessed her weight and average fitness in order to calculate the length of drop he should give her, greeted her on Wandsworth Prison scaffold. Ignoring her abusive though muffled outbursts, he expertly hooded and noosed her, then mentally congratulated himself on the accuracy of his mathematics as she dropped like a stone and died within seconds.

It was said that at the very end she had confessed to the murder – but never revealed the whereabouts of the bag containing Mrs Thomas’ head. And as for the rumours that jars of human dripping were sold to local innkeepers at the time, only Kate – and the cooks involved – could say yea or nay!

Whether or not ‘the prisoner ate a hearty meal’ always fascinated the public and in the case of Barbara Graham, mentioned elsewhere, the media supplied the details, reporting that it consisted of a hot fudge sundae and a milkshake which she drank while listening to jazz records.

Amazing True Stories of Female Executions by Geoffrey Abbott


Murder of Julia Martha Thomas

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.

Thomas, a widow in her 50s who lived in Richmond in southwest London, was murdered on 2 March 1879 by her maid, Kate Webster, a 30-year-old Irishwoman with a history of theft. Webster disposed of the body by dismembering it, boiling the flesh off the bones, and throwing most of the remains into the River Thames. It was alleged, although never proven, that she had offered the fat to neighbours and street children as dripping and lard.

Part of Thomas' remains were subsequently recovered from the river. Her severed head remained missing until October 2010, when the skull was found during building works being carried out for Sir David Attenborough.

After the murder, Webster posed as Thomas for two weeks, but was exposed and fled back to Ireland and her uncle's home at Killanne near Enniscorthy, County Wexford. She was arrested there on 29 March and was returned to London, where she stood trial at the Old Bailey in July 1879. At the end of a six-day trial she was convicted and sentenced to death after a jury of matrons rejected her last-minute attempt to avoid the death penalty by pleading pregnancy. She finally confessed to the murder the night before she was hanged, on 29 July, at Wandsworth Prison.

The case attracted huge public interest and was widely covered by the press in Great Britain and Ireland. Webster's behaviour after the crime and during the trial further increased the notoriety of the murder.


Julia Martha Thomas was a former schoolteacher who had been twice widowed. Since the death of her second husband in 1873 she had lived on her own at 2 Mayfield Cottages (also known as 2 Vine Cottages) in Park Road in Richmond. The house was a two-storey semi-detached villa built in grey stone with a garden at the front and back. The area was not heavily populated at the time, although her house was close to a public house called The Hole in the Wall.

Thomas was described by her doctor, George Henry Rudd, as "a small, well-dressed lady" who was about fifty-four years old. According to Elliot O'Donnell, summing up contemporary accounts in his introduction to a transcript of Webster's trial, 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. She was a member of the lower middle class and as such was not wealthy, 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.

On 29 January 1879, Thomas took on Kate Webster as her servant. Webster had been born as Kate Lawler in Killanne in County Wexford in about 1849. She was later described by The Daily Telegraph as "a tall, strongly-made woman of about 5 feet 5 inches (165 cm) in height with sallow and much freckled complexion and large and prominent teeth."

The details of her early life are unclear, as many of her later autobiographical statements proved unreliable, but she 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. She was imprisoned for larceny in Wexford in December 1864, when she was only about 15 years old, and came to England in 1867. In February 1868 she was sentenced to four years of penal servitude for committing the same crime in Liverpool.

She was released from jail in January 1872 and by 1873 she had 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. One, a man named Strong, was her accomplice in further robberies and thefts. She later claimed to have been forced into crime as she had been "forsaken by him, and committed crimes for the purpose of supporting myself and child".

She moved frequently around West London using various aliases, including Webb, Webster, Gibbs, Gibbons and Lawler. While living in Teddington she was arrested and convicted in May 1875 of 36 charges of larceny. She was sentenced to eighteen months in Wandsworth Prison. Not long after leaving prison she was arrested again for larceny and was sentenced to another twelve months' imprisonment in February 1877. Her young son was cared for in her absence by Sarah Crease, a friend who worked as a charwoman for a Miss Loder in Richmond.

In January 1879 Sarah Crease fell ill and Webster stood in for her as a temporary replacement at Loder's house. Loder knew Julia Martha Thomas as a friend and was aware of her wish to find a domestic servant. She recommended Webster on the basis of the latter's temporary work for her. When Thomas met Webster, she engaged her on the spot, though she did not appear to have made any inquiries about Webster's character or past. After Webster was taken on by Thomas, the relationship between the two women appears to have deteriorated rapidly. Thomas disliked the quality of Webster's work and frequently criticised it. Webster later said:

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.

Webster in turn became increasingly resentful of Thomas, to the point that Thomas attempted to persuade friends to stay with her as she did not like to be alone with Webster. It was arranged that Webster would leave Thomas' service on 28 February. Thomas recorded her decision in what was to be her last diary entry: "Gave Katherine warning to leave".

Murder and the disposal of the body

Webster persuaded Thomas to keep her on for a further three days, until Sunday 2 March. She had Sunday afternoons off as a half-day and was expected to return in time to help Thomas prepare for evening service at the local Presbyterian church. On this occasion, however, Webster visited the local alehouse and returned late, delaying Thomas' departure. The two women quarrelled and several members of the congregation later reported that Thomas had appeared "very agitated" on arriving at the church. She told a fellow congregant that she had been delayed by "the neglect of her servant to return home at the proper time", and said that Webster had "flown into a terrible passion" upon being rebuked. Thomas returned home from church early, about 9 pm, and confronted Webster. 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.

The neighbours, 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. Next door, Webster began disposing of the body by dismembering it and boiling it in the laundry copper and burning the bones in the hearth. She later described her actions:

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.

The neighbours noticed an unusual, unpleasant smell. Webster spoke later of how she was "greatly overcome, both from the horrible sight before me and the smell". However, the activity at 2 Mayfield Cottages did not seem to be out of the ordinary, as it was customary in many households for the washing to begin early on Monday morning. Over the next couple of days Webster continued to clean the house and Thomas' clothes and put on a show of normality for people who called for orders. Behind the scenes she was packing Thomas' dismembered remains into a black Gladstone bag and a corded wooden bonnet-box. She was unable to fit the murdered woman's head and one of the feet into the containers and disposed of them separately, throwing the foot onto a rubbish heap in Twickenham. The head was buried under the Hole in the Wall pub's stables a short distance from Thomas' house, where it was found 131 years later.

On 4 March, Webster travelled to Hammersmith to see her old neighbours, the Porters, whom she had not seen for six years. Wearing Thomas' silk dress and carrying a Gladstone bag which she had filled with some of Thomas' remains, Webster introduced herself to the Porters as "Mrs. Thomas". She claimed that since last meeting the Porters she had married, had a child, had been widowed and had been left a house in Richmond by an aunt. She invited Porter and his son Robert to the Oxford and Cambridge Arms pub in Barnes. Along the way she disposed of the bag she was carrying, probably by dropping it into the River Thames, while the Porters were inside the pub drinking. It was never recovered. Webster then asked young Robert Porter if he could help her carry a heavy box from 2 Mayfield Cottages to the station. As they crossed Richmond Bridge, Webster dropped the box into the Thames. She was able to explain it away and did not arouse Robert's suspicions.

The following day, however, the box was found washed up in shallow water next to the river bank about a mile downstream. It was spotted by Henry Wheatley, a coal porter, who was driving his cart past Barnes Railway Bridge shortly before seven in the morning. He initially thought that the box might contain the proceeds of a burglary. He recovered the box and opened it, finding that it contained what looked like body parts wrapped in brown paper. The discovery was immediately reported to the police and the remains were examined by a doctor, who found that they consisted of the trunk (minus entrails) and legs (minus one foot) of a woman. The head was missing and was later assumed to have been thrown into the river separately by Webster. Around the same time, a human foot and ankle were found in Twickenham. Although it was clear that all of the remains belonged to the same corpse, there was nothing to connect them with Thomas and no means to identify the remains. The doctor who examined the body parts erroneously attributed them to "a young person with very dark hair". After an inquest on 10–11 March, which resulted in an open verdict on the cause of death, the unidentified remains were laid to rest in Barnes Cemetery on 19 March. The newspapers dubbed the unexplained murder the "Barnes Mystery", amid speculation that the body had been used for dissection and anatomical study.

It was later alleged that Webster had offered two pots of lard, supposed to have been rendered from Thomas' boiled fat, to a neighbour. However, no evidence about this was offered at the subsequent trial and it seems likely that the story is merely a legend, particularly as several versions of the story appear to exist. The proprietress of a nearby pub claimed that Webster had visited her pub and tried to sell what she called "best dripping" there. Leonard Reginald Gribble, a writer on criminology, commented that "there is no acceptable evidence that such a repulsive sale was ever made, and it is more than possible that the episode belongs rightfully with the rest of the vast collection of apocryphal stories that has accumulated, not unnaturally, about the persons and deeds of famous criminals."

Webster continued to live at 2 Mayfield Cottages while posing as Thomas, wearing her late employer's clothes and dealing with tradesmen under her newly assumed identity. On 9 March she reached an agreement with John Church, a local publican, to sell Thomas' furniture and other goods to furnish his pub, the Rising Sun. He agreed to pay her £68 with an interim payment of £18 in advance. By the time the removal vans arrived on 18 March, the neighbours were becoming increasingly suspicious as they had not seen Thomas for nearly two weeks. Her next-door neighbour Miss Ives asked the deliverymen who had ordered the goods removed. They replied "Mrs. Thomas" and indicated Webster. Realising that she had been exposed, Webster fled immediately, catching a train to Liverpool and travelling from there to her family home at Enniscorthy. Meanwhile, Church realised that he had been deceived. When he went through Thomas' clothes in the delivery van he found a letter addressed to the real Thomas. The police were called in and searched 2 Mayfield Cottages. There they 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 giving a description of Webster and her son.

Scotland Yard detectives soon discovered that Webster had fled back to Ireland aboard a coal steamer in the company of her young son. The head constable of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in Wexford realised that the woman being sought by Scotland Yard was the same person whom his force had arrested 14 years previously for larceny. The RIC were able to trace her to her uncle's farm at Killanne near Enniscorthy and arrested her there on 29 March. She was taken to Kingstown (modern Dún Laoghaire), from where she travelled, in the custody of the Scotland Yard men, back to Richmond via Holyhead. On hearing of the crime for which she was charged, her uncle refused to give shelter to her son and the authorities sent the boy to the local workhouse, until such time as a place could be found for him in an industrial school.

Webster's trial and execution

The murder caused a sensation on both sides of the Irish Sea. When the news broke, many people travelled to Richmond to look at Mayfield Cottages. The crime was just as notorious in Ireland; as Webster travelled under arrest from Enniscorthy to Dublin, crowds gathered to gawk and jeer at her at nearly every station between the two locations. The pre-trial magistrates' hearings were attended by "many privileged and curious persons ... including not a few ladies", according to the Manchester Guardian. The Times reported that Webster's first appearance at Richmond Magistrates' Court was greeted by "an immense crowd yesterday around the building ... and very great excitement prevailed."

Webster went on trial at the Central Criminal Court – the Old Bailey – on 2 July 1879. In a sign of the great public interest aroused by the case, the prosecution was led by the Solicitor General, Sir Hardinge Giffard. Webster was defended by a prominent London barrister, Warner Sleigh, and the case was presided over by Mr. Justice Denman. The trial was just as well-attended as the earlier hearings in Richmond and attracted intense interest from all levels of society; on the fourth day of the trial, the Crown Prince of Sweden – the future King Gustaf V – turned up to watch the proceedings.

Over the course of six days, the court heard a succession of witnesses piecing together the complicated story of how Thomas had met her death. Webster had attempted before the trial to implicate the publican John Church and her former neighbour Porter, but both men had solid alibis and were cleared of any involvement in the murder. She pleaded not guilty and her defence sought to emphasise the circumstantial nature of the evidence and highlighted her devotion to her son as a reason why she could not have been capable of the murder. However, Webster's public unpopularity, impassive demeanour and scanty defence counted strongly against her.

A particularly damning piece of evidence came from a bonnetmaker named Maria Durden who told the court that Webster had visited her a week before the murder and had said that she was going to Birmingham to sell some property, jewellery and a house that her aunt had left her. The jury interpreted this as a sign that Webster had premeditated the murder and convicted her after deliberating for about an hour and a quarter.

Shortly after the jury returned its verdict and just before the judge was about to pass sentence, Webster was asked if there was any reason why sentence of death should not be passed upon her. She pleaded that she was pregnant in an apparent bid to avoid the death penalty. The Law Times reported that "[u]pon this a scene of uncertainty, if not of confusion, ensued, certainly not altogether in harmony with the solemnity of the occasion." The judge commented that "after thirty-two years in the profession, he was never at an inquiry of this sort."

Eventually the Clerk of Assize suggested using the archaic mechanism of a jury of matrons, constituted from a selection of the women attending the court, to rule upon the question of whether Webster was "with quick child". Twelve women were sworn in along with a surgeon named Bond, and they accompanied Webster to a private room for an examination that only took a couple of minutes. They returned a verdict that Webster was not "quick with child", though this did not necessarily mean that she was not pregnant – a distinction that led the president of the Obstetrical Society of London to protest at the use of "the obsolete medical assumption that the unborn child is not alive until the so-called 'quickening.'"

A few days before Webster was due to be executed an appeal was submitted on her behalf to the Home Secretary, R. A. Cross. It was turned down with an official statement that after considering the arguments put forward, the Home Secretary had "failed to discover any sufficient ground to justify him in advising Her Majesty to interfere with the due course of the law."

Before she was executed, Webster made two statements confessing to the crime. In her first, she implicated Strong, the father of her child, who she said had participated in the murder and was responsible for leading her into a life of crime. She recanted on 28 July, the night before she was due to be executed, making a further statement in which she took sole responsibility and exonerated Church, Porter and Strong of any involvement. She 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.

An auction of Thomas' property was held at 2 Mayfield Cottages on the day after Webster's execution. John Church, the publican, managed to obtain Thomas' furniture after all, along with numerous other personal effects including her pocket-watch and the knife with which Thomas had been dismembered. The copper in which Thomas' body had been boiled was sold for five shillings. Other visitors contented themselves with taking small pebbles and twigs from the garden as souvenirs. The house itself remained unoccupied until 1897, as nobody would live there after the murder. Even then, according to the occupant, servants were reluctant to work at such a notorious place. It was later rumoured that a "ghostly nun" could be seen hovering over the place where Thomas had been buried.

Social impact of the murder

The murder had a considerable social impact on Victorian Britain. It caused an immediate sensation and was widely reported in the press. Freeman's Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser of Dublin noted that what it called "one of the most sensational and awful chapters in the annals of human wickedness" had resulted in the press "teem[ing] with descriptions and details of the ghastly horrors of that crime". Such was Webster's notoriety that within only a few weeks of her arrest, and well before she had gone to trial, Madame Tussaud's created a wax effigy of her and put it on display for those who wished to see the "Richmond Murderess". It remained on display well into the twentieth century alongside other notorious killers such as Burke and Hare and Dr. Crippen. Within days of her execution an enterprising publisher on the Strand rushed into print a souvenir booklet for the price of a penny, "The Life, Trial and Execution of Kate Webster", which was advertised as "compris[ing] Twenty Handsome Pages, containing her entire History, with Summing-up, Verdict, and interesting particulars, together with her last words, and a FULL-PAGE ENGRAVING of the EXECUTION – Portraits, Illustrations &c." The Illustrated Police News published a souvenir cover depicting an artist's impression of the day of the execution. It depicted "the prisoner visited by her friends", "the process of pinioning", the final rites being said, "hoisting the black flag", and finally "filling up the coffin with lime".

The case was also commemorated, while it was still ongoing, by street ballads—musical narratives set to the tune of popular songs. H. Such, a printer and publisher in Southwark, issued a ballad entitled "Murder and Mutilation of an Old Lady near Barnes" shortly after Kate Webster had been arrested, set to the tune of "Just Before the Battle, Mother", a popular song of the American Civil War. At the end of the trial Such issued another ballad, set to the tune of "Driven from Home", announcing:

The terrible crime at Richmond at last,
On Catherine Webster now has been cast,
Tried and found guilty she is sentenced to die.
From the strong hand of justice she cannot fly.
She has tried all excuses but of no avail,
About this and murder she's told many tales,
She has tried to throw blame on others as well,
But with all her cunning at last she has fell.

Webster herself was characterised as malicious, reckless and wilfully evil. Commentators saw her crime as both gruesome and scandalous. Servants were expected to be deferential; her act of extreme violence towards her employer was deeply disquieting. At the time, about 40% of the female labour force was employed as domestic servants for a very wide range of society, from the wealthiest to respectable working-class families. Servants and employers lived and worked in close proximity, and the honesty and orderliness of servants was a constant cause of concern. Servants were very poorly paid and larceny was an ever-present temptation. Had Webster succeeded in completing the deal with John Church to sell Thomas' furniture, she stood to gain the equivalent of two to three years' worth of wages.

Another cause of revulsion against Webster was her attempt to impersonate Thomas. She had managed to perpetrate the impersonation for two weeks, implying that middle-class identity amounted to little more than cultivating the right demeanour and having the appropriate clothes and possessions, whether or not they had been earned. John Church, the publican whom Webster had attempted to implicate, was himself a former servant who had risen to lower middle-class status and earned a measure of prosperity and effective management of his pub. His commitment to bettering himself through hard work was in keeping with the ethic of the time. Webster, in contrast, had simply stolen her briefly-held middle-class identity.

Perhaps most disturbingly for many Victorians, Webster was seen as having violated the expected norms of femininity. Victorian ideals saw women as moral, passive and physically weak or restrained. Webster was seen as quite the opposite and was described in lurid ways that emphasised her lack of femininity. Elliott O'Donnell, writing in his introduction to the trial transcript, described Webster 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". The newspapers described her as "gaunt, repellent, and trampish-looking", though the reporter for The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times commented that she was "not so ill-favoured as she has been described."

Webster's appearance and behaviour were seen as key signs of her inherently criminal nature. Crimes were thought to be committed by a social "residuum" at the bottom of society who occupied themselves as "habitual criminals", choosing to live a lifestyle of drink and theft rather than improving themselves through thrift and hard work. Her strong build, partly a result of the hard physical labour that was her livelihood, ran counter to the largely middle-class notion that women were meant to be physically frail. Some commentators saw her facial features as indicative of criminality; O'Donnell commented upon her "obliquely set eyes", which he declared "are not infrequently found in homicides ... this peculiarity, which I consider was sufficient in itself, as one of nature's danger signals, to have warned people to steer clear of her".

Webster's behaviour in court and her sexual history also counted against her. She was widely described by reporters as "calm" and "stolid" in facing the court and only cried once during the trial, when her son was mentioned. This contradicted the expectation that "properly feminine" women should be penitent and emotional in such a situation. Her succession of male friends, one of whom had fathered her child outside wedlock, suggested promiscuous female sexuality—again, strongly counter to expected norms of behaviour.

During her trial she attempted unsuccessfully to evoke sympathy by blaming Strong, the father of her child, for leading her astray: "I formed an intimate acquaintance with one who should have protected me and was led away by evil associates and bad companions." This claim played on social expectations that women's moral sense was inextricably linked with sexual chastity—"falling" sexually would lead to other forms of "ruin"—and that men who had sexual relations with women acquired social obligations that they were expected to fulfil.

Webster's attempt to implicate three innocent men also caused outrage; O'Donnell commented that "public opinion, as a whole, undoubtedly condemned Kate Webster, as much, perhaps, for her attempts to bring three innocent men to the scaffold as for the actual murder itself".

According to Shani D'Cruze of the Feminist Crime Research Network, the fact that she was Irish was a significant factor in the widespread revulsion felt towards Webster in Great Britain. Many Irish people had emigrated to England since the Great Famine of 1849, but met widespread prejudice and persistent associations with criminality and drunkenness. The Irish were at worst depicted as bestial and subhuman, and there were repeated episodes of violence between Irish and English workers as well as attacks by Fenians (Irish nationalists) in England. The demonisation of Webster as "hardly human", as O'Donnell put it, was of a piece with the public and judicial perceptions of the Irish as innately criminal.

Discovery of Thomas' skull

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’."



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