Kate Webster at the Old Bailey before she was sentenced to be hanged for murder - July 1879
Victorian Britain was horrified by a 30-year-old Irish woman who murdered her employer, dismembered the body, threw bits of it into the river Thames, boiled the head (and other body parts) and sold the fat as "dripping" in local pubs. She blamed two innocent men for the crime and when that didn't work, she pretended to be pregnant so that the judge wouldn't give her the death penalty.
Such was her notoriety that Madame Tussaud's rushed to create a wax statue of her which remained on display in London for 80 years.
Catherine “Kate” Lawler was born in a small village called Killanne, in County Wexford, Ireland in 1849. As a small child, she was caught stealing and became known as a pickpocket. She was imprisoned for larceny in Wexford in December 1864, aged only 15.
In 1867, she stole enough money to take the boat to Liverpool and continued her criminal career once she got there. In 1868, aged 18, she was sentenced to four years “penal servitude” for a series of thefts.
She claimed to have married a sea captain called “Webster” by whom she had four children and also claimed that all the children died, as did her husband, within a short space of time.
In London, she took a job as a charlady and made extra money as a prostitute. In 1873, she moved to Notting Hill to work as a cook/housekeeper and met a man there called “Mr. Strong.” He became both her lover and accomplice in further robberies but once she became pregnant, he abandoned her.
In April, 1874 she gave birth to a son named John W. Webster, in Kingston-upon-Thames.
Becoming a mother failed to reform her and she took to robbing boarding houses. She would rent a room and sell everything she could get her hands on before absconding. She would later claim to have been “forced into crime” as she had been “forsaken by him [Strong], and committed crimes for the purpose of supporting myself and my child.”
The next few years saw her being arrested on numerous occasions and receiving short prison sentences. In 1875, she spent 18 months in Wandsworth prison.
Back on the outside, she found domestic work with the Mitchell family in Teddington but left them because she said “they didn’t have anything worth stealing.”
She was constantly on the move to avoid the police and used aliases, including: Webb, Webster, Gibbs, Gibbons and her birth name, Lawler.
Her young son was cared for during her frequent absences by Sarah Crease, a friend who worked as a charlady for a Miss Loder in Richmond. It was Miss Loder who recommended Webster as a domestic worker to Julia Martha Thomas in January 1879.
|Victim, Julia Martha Thomas, who had an "excitable temperment."|
Mrs. Thomas was a 54-year-old widow, who lived at 2 Mayfield Cottages in Richmond, had a reputation for being a harsh employer with an “excitable temperament.” Yet, when she was introduced to Webster, she engaged her on the spot, without asking for references.
Webster would later say: “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.”
The daily arguments between the two women became so serious that Thomas tried to persuade friends to stay with her as “she was afraid to be alone with the Irish woman who was very fond of drink.”
Mrs. Thomas told Webster her employment would end on February 28 and she recorded the decision in what was to be her final diary entry: “Gave Katherine warning to leave.”
Webster begged her to keep her on for a further three days, until Sunday, March 2 and for some reason Mrs. Thomas agreed.
On March 2, the two women quarrelled and several members of the local church said that Mrs. Thomas had appeared “very agitated” during the service. They said she was so upset that she left church early to confront Webster.
But Webster was lying in wait for her at Mayfield Cottages.
When Mrs. Thomas went upstairs, Webster jumped out from the shadows, took hold of her and threw her down the stairs. Then, to stop her screaming, she put her hands around her neck and choked her until she was dead.
She cut off the dead woman's head with a razor and a meat saw and then hacked off her limbs. She par-boiled the limbs and torso in a copper pot and burned the organs and intestines in the fireplace.
Webster said later that “even she was revolted by the enormous amount of blood everywhere.”
She burnt or boiled as much of the body as she could, then packed the remains into a wooden box, except for the head and one foot for which she could not find enough space.
Webster disposed of the spare foot on a manure heap in Twickenham but was left with the problem of the head which she placed in a black bag. She continued to clean up the cottage on the Monday and Tuesday, then, wearing one of Mrs. Thomas's silk dresses, she visited her former neighbors, the Porter family, taking the black bag with her. They visited several pubs together and in the evening, Webster excused herself and went off, ostensibly to visit a friend, returning later without the black bag, which was never found.
She asked the Porter's young son Robert, to help her carry the box with the torso, taking the lad back home with her to fetch it. She told him she was meeting someone at Richmond bridge who was taking the box and asked Robert to go on without her once they got there. Later, Robert told police he heard a splash of something heavy hitting the water a few moments before Webster caught up with him again.
The box was discovered the next morning by a coal man who reported it to Barnes police station near Richmond.
The local doctor who examined the various body parts could only say that they were “from a human female.”
Meanwhile, Webster continued to live at Mayfield Cottages posing as Mrs. Thomas, wearing her late employer's clothes and jewelry and dealing with tradesmen under her new identity. She made arrangements to sell the house and pawned Mrs. Thomas's gold fillings at a local pawnbrokers.
On March 9, she reached an agreement with John Church, a local publican, to sell Thomas's furniture. He agreed to pay her £68 with an interim payment of £18 in advance.
When a suspicious neighbor, Miss Ives, asked the deliverymen who exactly had ordered the goods removed, they replied “Mrs. Thomas” and pointed to Webster.
Police were called in to search 2 Mayfield Cottages. There, they discovered blood stains, burned finger-bones in the hearth and fatty deposits behind a large copper pot, as well as a letter left by Webster giving her home address in Ireland. They immediately distributed a “wanted” notice giving a description of Webster and her 5-year-old son.
Escape to Ireland
Realizing she had been exposed, Webster flew the coop with her son, catching a train to Liverpool and then traveling aboard a coal steamer to her uncle's farm in Enniscorthy, Ireland.
There, the chief of police realized that the 30-year-old woman being sought by Scotland Yard was the same person he had arrested 15 years earlier for larceny.
Webster was traced to her uncle's farm and arrested there (still wearing Mrs. Thomas's clothes and jewelry) on March 29.
As Webster travelled under arrest from Enniscorthy to Kingstown (near Dublin), crowds gathered at every station to jeer and gawk at her. Her uncle had refused to give her son shelter when he heard about the murder and the authorities sent him to the local workhouse until an industrial school could be found for him.
She was brought back to England via Holyhead and taken to Richmond police station where she made a statement saying John Church (who had bought Mrs. Thomas's furniture) had committed the crime. Fortunately for him, he had a rock solid alibi and was released almost immediately after his arrest. She then made a statement implicating Henry Porter (her former neighbor) in Richmond but he too had an alibi. She was formally charged with Mrs. Thomas's murder on March 30, 1879.
Trial at the Old Bailey
The London Times reported that Webster's first appearance in court was greeted by “an immense crowd around the building... and very great excitement prevailed.” In a sign of the public interest in the case, the prosecution was led by the Solicitor General, Sir Hardinge Giffard, while Webster was defended by prominent London barrister, Warner Sleigh. The case was presided over by Mr. Justice Denman.
The trial which began at the Old Bailey on July 2, 1879 was packed to the rafters. Webster pleaded not guilty to both the murder charge and the various charges of theft. Her defense sought to emphasize the “circumstantial nature of the evidence” while highlighting Webster's “devotion to her son.”
The prosecution had difficulty proving that the human remains found by police were actually those of Mrs. Thomas; without the head there was no means of positively identifying them.
At the official inquest, the doctor who examined the body parts attributed them to “a young person with very dark hair” and an “open verdict” had been given for the cause of death
The most damning piece of evidence against Webster came from a hat-maker called Maria Durden who told the court that Webster had visited her a week before the murder and said “she was going to Birmingham to sell some property, jewelry and a house that her aunt had left her.” The jury took this as a sign that the murder had been planned in advance.
In her own testimony, Webster attempted to gain the jury's sympathy by blaming Strong, the father of her child. She said: “I formed an intimate acquaintance with one who should have protected me and was led away by evil associates and bad companions.”
After a six-day trial, the jury retired to consider the facts, returning just over an hour later to pronounce a guilty verdict.
Judge Denmam asked Webster if there was “any reason why sentence of death should not be passed” and Webster replied “Yes, there is. I am quick with child” [pregnant]. The Law Times reported that “a scene of uncertainty and confusion ensued.”
The court's clerk suggested using a “jury of matrons,” selected from the women in the courtroom gallery, to rule on the question of whether Webster was “quick with child.” Twelve women were sworn in along with a surgeon named Bond, and they accompanied Webster to a private room at the side of the court where she could be examined. They returned a few minutes later with a verdict that Webster was not “quick with child,” though this “did not necessarily mean she was not pregnant.”
The judge commented that “after 32 years in the profession, he was never at an inquiry of this sort.”
He sentenced Webster to death by hanging at Wandsworth prison.
The night before her execution, Webster finally confessed to the murder of Julia Martha Thomas. Her confession was recorded in the presence of a prison warder and a Catholic priest, Father McEnrey, at her own request. It reads as follows:
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 inthe struggle she was choked, and I threw her on the floor.
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 andthe carving knife to cut the body up with. I prepared the copper with water to boil the body toprevent identity; and as soon as I had succeeded in cutting it up I placed it in the copper and boiledit. I opened the stomach with the carving knife, and burned up as much of the parts as I could.
In her confession, she gave no mention of Mrs. Thomas's missing head.
Her execution took place three Sundays after sentencing on the morning of Tuesday, July 29, 1879.
Two newspaper reporters were in attendance to record the event. Inside her cell, Webster was being ministered to by Father McEnrey.
The governor entered and said “it is time” and she was led out between two male warders across the yard to the purpose-built execution chamber nicknamed the “Cold Meat Shed.”
Executioner William Marwood brought her to the double trap doors and tied leather straps around her waist, wrists and ankles.
As he placed the white hood over her head, Webster's last words were “Lord, have mercy upon me.”
A total of 134 men and only one woman, Kate Webster, were executed at Wandsworth Prison until the last hanging took place there in 1961. The Irish woman is listed in the hand written prison records as “Catherine Webster, interred 29/07/1879 in unmarked grave number 3.”
The trial and execution caused a sensation on both sides of the Irish Sea.
Her sexual history, which included a string of male companions, suggested “promiscuity” which was abhorrent to respectable Victorian Britain but also served to heighten public interest in the case.
British newspapers variously described her as “gaunt, repellent, and trampish-looking” with “a criminal nature.” The Daily Telegraph said she was “a tall, strongly made woman of about 5 feet, 5 inches in height with sallow and much freckled complexion and large, prominent teeth.” The Telegraph also claimed Webster had tried to sell two pots of lard or “best dripping” – made from Mrs. Thomas's boiled fat – to the landlady of a Richmond pub.
Dublin's Freeman's Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser called the case “one of the most sensational and awful chapters in the annals of human wickedness.”
Newspapers also noted that the accused had only cried once during the trial – when her son was mentioned – which clearly meant that she had “absolutely no remorse for her crimes.”
Her attempts to implicate two innocent men in the murder caused outrage, while her “impersonation” of Mrs. Thomas provoked widespread public revulsion.
Within a few weeks of her arrest, Madame Tussaud's created a wax statue of Webster called “The Richmond Murderess” which remained on public display well into the 20th century – alongside other notorious killers such as the evil Dr. Crippen.
Discovery of the missing head
When the Hole in the Wall pub near Mayfield Cottages closed in 2007, it was bought for redevelopment.
In October, 2010, workmen carrying out excavation uncovered a “dark circular object” which, on examination, proved to be a woman's skull. It had been buried beneath the foundations where the pub's stables had been.
Carbon dating carried out at Edinburgh University showed the skull was dated between 1650 and 1880. It had “low collagen levels, consistent with being boiled.” It also had fracture marks consistent with Webster's account of throwing Thomas down the stairs and choking her.
In July 2011, the West London coroner concluded that the skull was indeed that of Julia Martha Thomas.
A verdict of “unlawful killing” was recorded with the cause of death due to “asphyxiation and head injury.”