The Barnes Murder
Barnes has always been a quiet suburb of London. The city’s richest residents have been – and indeed still are – attracted by its village-like look and feel, the chance to enjoy some calm just a few miles from the hustle and bustle of the big city. But in the spring of 1879, one of the most notorious murders of the Victorian era took place right here. Over the decades, the tale has been told many times, and myth and fact have often become intertwined. But even without the added extras, the bare bones of the case are definitely shocking enough.
In January of 1879, the 55-year-old Julia Martha Thomas wanted to employ a new housekeeper. Though she was by no means rich, she had been widowed twice and so had enough money for her own live-in servant. Kate Webster applied for the position and Thomas gave her the job. What she didn’t know, however, was that the Irish-born Webster was a career criminal. She had spent the past 20 years moving through London, committing robberies and petty thefts. She was in and out of jail and frequently changed her name. Nevertheless, Thomas gave her the job and, on January 29, she moved into the Barnes cottage to start work.
Almost from day one, the relationship between the two women became sour. Thomas felt her new servant was lacking the necessary domestic skills and she frequently criticized Webster’s cleaning and cooking. Within days, Thomas gave Webster her notice: she would leave her employ within three weeks. For some reason, Thomas agreed to keep the younger lady on for a further three days. The final day of the working arrangement was a Sunday. As usual, Thomas went to church, though she arrived late because she had been arguing with a drunken Webster. When she returned home, the arguing started again. Only this time, it turned violent.
According to Webster’s own account, in a fit of rage, she pushed her employer down the stairs. Thomas started screaming and, determined to shut her up, Webster strangled her to death. Webster then tried to cover up her crime. She cut up the body, boiling much of it in copper pots. She carried on her grisly work for two days, during which time she pretended to the neighbours that everything was normal. Then, with the help of unsuspecting former friends, she tossed a box full of the remains into the River Thames. She also threw a foot into a vegetable garden and buried the head in the grounds of a pub.
Webster posed as Thomas for several days. She even sold her furniture to a nearby pub. But soon, the neighbours became very suspicious. Webster fled to Ireland. When police came to the cottage, they found blood stains and even the remains of bones in the hearth. They also found a letter addressed to Webster – this gave them their prime suspect. Before long, she was apprehended and sent back to stand trial in London.
For six days, the court heard of Webster’s wickedness. A jury of her peers found her guilty and, days before she was due to hang, Webster confessed to the crime. She was hanged and buried in an unmarked grave. In a nice twist, the victim’s head was finally found in the summer of 2011. Workers digging in the garden of the house of famous British naturalist and TV presenter Sir David Attenborough made the grisly discovery, with scientists confirming the head did indeed belong to the poor Mrs. Thomas.