March 2, 1879
Richmond, London, England
Catherine “Kate” Webster (pictured) kills her employer Julia Martha Thomas
Webster, reported to be “about 30 years of age,” had worked as a domestic servant for Thomas (55) since January 1878. The two initially had a good rapport though relations quickly soured. “I found her very trying, and [she] used to do many things to annoy me during my work,” Webster later commented, also claiming Thomas showed “evidence of a nasty spirit towards me” and would follow behind Webster to claim her work had not been done properly.
Eventually, the two women decided it would be mutually beneficial for Webster to discontinue her services with Thomas. Before she left Thomas’ employ, however, Webster and Thomas entered into a final altercation. The argument occurred after Thomas returned from church and went upstairs. Webster followed, the argument grew, and in a rage Webster shoved Thomas down the stairs. It was obvious to Webster that Thomas had been seriously injured and she decided to strangle her employer. To cover them crime, Webster used a razor to decapitate Thomas, used a carving knife and meat saw to dismember the rest of her body, and boiled or burned as much flesh and organs as she could. The remnants were then stored in a wooden box which was secured with a string, then thrown into the River Thames. Two final pieces — Thomas’ severed head and a single foot — were discarded separately. The head remained unfound for over a century.
Modern reports of Thomas’ murder often include Webster giving the dripping made of Thomas’ fat to a pair of young boys to eat, though her confession does not mention this detail, nor do contemporary news articles, and it may have been added later for additional sensationalism.
Webster stole several items of value from Thomas’ house, including cutlery and false teeth, and attempted to assume Thomas’ identity briefly, though she was soon captured and convicted.
As her death sentence was announced, the judge asked Webster if she had anything additional to add, and she stated she had, claiming to be pregnant. At the time, women who were “quick with child” were allowed a temporary delay of their execution to enable the mother-to-be time to deliver her child. A “quick child” occurs after the “quickening,” the time at which a mother feels her child move within her for the first time. Mothers who do not have a fetus large enough to feel its movements, whether truly pregnant or not, were immune from the temporary stay of execution. A jury of matrons examined Webster to determine if she was quick with child, and determined she was not. As such, her execution preceded as planned.
Webster made a full confession on the scaffold on July 29, 1879, reiterating how, as the Sydney Morning Herald reported, “her mistress had an irritating habit of fault-finding, and after an angry altercation she threw her mistress down,” and emphasizing the killing had not been premeditated. She was hanged after asking Jesus to have mercy on her soul.
In October of 2010, naturalist Sir David Attenborough was having an extension added to his home when workers found a human skull in his garden (pictured). The skull is considered to be that of Thomas, based upon a variety of conditions:
- The location of Attenborough’s home is in the vicinity of where Thomas’ home had once been.
- Carbon dating placed the skull between 1650 and 1880.
- The skull was determined to be of a woman of post-menopausal age.
- The skull’s owner had died of a head injury and asphyxiation, with injuries consistent with those described by Webster.
Wilkes, David. “Skull found in David Attenborough’s garden was Victorian murder victim who was cut up and boiled to feed street children.” Daily Mail. July 5, 2011. Accessed: March 2, 2020. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2011513/Skull-David-Attenboroughs-garden-murder-victim-Julia-Martha-Thomas.html (image source)
“Additional Mail News.” The Sydney Morning Herald. September 6, 1879
“The Execution of Catherine Webster.” Reynold’s Newspaper [London, England]. August 3, 1879
“The Richmond Murder.” The Standard [London, England]. July 9, 1879
“The Richmond Murder.” The Hampshire Advertiser. May 10, 1879