Thursday, June 30, 2011

July 8, 1879 --- The Barnes Murder

Kate Webster is convicted and sentenced to hang for one of the Victorian era's most gruesome and unsettling murders.

She had been hired as a servant by Mrs. Julia Thomas of Richmond. In and out of jail for petty crime and mother of a child out of wedlock, Kate was hardly suited to serve the fussy elderly widow. They soon clashed and Kate was given notice. In early March, on her last day, Kate confronted Mrs. Thomas in a violent argument, throwing her elderly mistress down a flight of stairs to her death. In her confession, signed the night before she hung, she picks up the story:
"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... as soon as I had succeeded in cutting [the body] up I placed it in the copper and boiled it ... I was greatly overcome, both from the horrible sight before me and the smell."
Not so overcome however, that she couldn't try to sell two jars of fat at the local pub. The head and other body parts went into the Thames.

Neighbors, alarmed for Mrs. Thomas' whereabouts, alerted police who tracked Kate to her native Wexford. Calling herself Mrs. Thomas, Kate was wearing the dead woman's jewelry. The trial is brief; Kate's plea for mercy sways neither jury nor judge. Three weeks later, she was hanged.

"The Richmond murder" was one of three well-publicized cases at the time in which a servant was the prime suspect. Noting the not unreasonable concern felt in many households, The Spectator offered placid reassurance: "The thousands of old ladies tended by respectable serving-women, and alone with them perhaps for some hours each day, may, we think, lay aside their fears. They are in at least as much danger from houses falling, from strokes of lightning, or from being run over in the street."

In October 2010, a crew doing some landscape repairs in the Richmond backyard of Sir David Attenborough unearthed a skull.  Forensic detectives have since determined it was, incredibly, the long lost head of poor Mrs. Thomas.

(Penny Illustrated Paper)

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