Kate Webster’s Revenge
[Early in 1879 a murder was committed at Richmond which for callousness and savagery has few parallels. The affair became known as “the Barnes Mystery,” because of the discovery at Barnes of a box containing human remains. These proved to be portions of the body of a lady named Mrs. Julia Martha Thomas. The story which follows tells how the mystery was solved. Mr. George Henry Rudd, whose narrative it is, was one of the professional witnesses called in this celebrated case.]
I knew nothing whatever about Kate Webster until I was concerned in the case through the action of the police.
I had treated as a patient Mrs. Julia Martha Thomas, a lady who lived at Vine Cottages, Richmond. She came to me in the ordinary way, and I saw her in my surgery. It was necessary that I should make a cast of her mouth, and this I did. At that time, February 22nd, 1879, Mrs. Thomas was a total stranger to me; but she saw me again four days later, and for the last time on March 1st.
I never saw her again.
In the ordinary course of things a bill was forwarded, and this brought me into communication with the police, from whom I learned that Mrs. Thomas had been murdered in exceptionally atrocious circumstances.
Soon afterwards a woman named Kate Webster, who had been Mrs. Thomas’s servant for a few weeks, was arrested and charged with the murder of her mistress, and as I had to appear as a witness at the preliminary investigation by the magistrates, I became as well acquainted with the appearance of the accused individual as I was with that of my patient. This circumstance is interesting, because it happened that the servant passed herself off as the mistress, though it would be impossible to imagine two persons who were more unlike each other than these.
Mrs. Thomas was a small, well-dressed lady, while Webster was an uncommonly tall, powerful and ill-favoured woman, looking as if she belonged to the tramp class. Mrs. Thomas was about fifty-four years of age at the time of her death, and Webster was something under thirty. This attempt of the servant to pass herself off as her mistress proved to be one of those deadly errors which are so often committed by murderers who in other respects have carried out their intentions with great cunning.
The story which was gradually unfolded showed that a crime of almost unparalleled ferocity had been committed. The public at the time became well acquainted with the ghastly details of the affair; but it is not necessary to recall or dwell on them now. The chief interest of the crime centres in the method of its execution, the strong probability there was at the outset that it would never be discovered, and the subsequent slow building of the evidence which at last sent the tall, gaunt woman to the scaffold.
There was a good deal of delay in preparing the case for the Crown, but this was inevitable in view of the circumstantial nature of the testimony and the large number of witnesses who were called—there were more than fifty of them.
It might easily have happened that on the mere casual visit to my surgery of a patient, and the making of a model in the usual way, would have depended the positive identification of the deceased lady; but the identity was proved completely in other and many ways, and the guilt of the accused woman was thoroughly established.
I had last seen Mrs. Thomas on March 1st, which was a Saturday. On the following day, in the evening, she was seen alive for the last time.
She vanished. After her disappearance began the sensational case which became known, first as the Barnes Mystery, and then as the Richmond Murder. It attracted an amount of attention which will be readily recalled and understood by a very great number of persons who are still living, and are not very old at that.
On that first Sunday in March Mrs. Thomas was seen at the Presbyterian service which was held in the Lecture Hall at Richmond. Certainly, between seven and eight in the evening she was known to be alive.
Towards the close of that Sunday Mrs. Thomas went home, and about nine o’clock a sound was heard by someone in the adjoining house—such a sound as that which would be made by a heavy chair falling—but no particular attention was paid to it at the time. Vine Cottages were, and are, a pair of semi-detached, small villas, and are so built, a wall only dividing them, that sounds are readily heard between one and the other. At that time the adjoining house was occupied by Mrs. Thomas’s landlady, an independent lady named Miss Ives.
Early on the following morning, Monday, while it was still dark, a light was noticed in one of the bedrooms at the back of Mrs. Thomas’s house, and from the back premises there came the sound of boiling in the copper. These sounds were familiar, and were associated with the washing, which so often begins early on Monday morning in many households.
A very unusual and unpleasant smell was also noticed by the neighbours; but none of the incidents I have mentioned caused suspicion that anything was wrong or that anything unusual had happened to Mrs. Thomas.
There was no sign of Mrs. Thomas throughout that Monday, but Kate Webster was seen by several people who called for orders. Webster was apparently going about her duties in the ordinary way as servant. She seemed to be busy washing, for the copper had been in use and she was hanging things out to dry. To tradespeople she gave orders calmly, and to one caller who saw her at the door she explained that she was very busy getting the house ready for visitors who were expected. At that time her sleeves were rolled up, and there was every appearance of her statement being correct. During the whole of that Monday, from before six o’clock in the morning, when the boiling of the copper was plainly heard in the adjoining house, Webster was busily engaged indoors, and there was nothing to show that she was not performing her ordinary duties.
On the Tuesday Webster, much more smartly dressed than it was her custom to be, and wearing jewellery, went to Hammersmith and called on some people there named Porter. She told them that she was now a widow, that her name was Mrs. Thomas, and that she had come into some property at Richmond.
This was one of the many mistakes committed by Webster in her attempts to conceal the guilt which was finally established against her; for she was in every way utterly unlike the woman she was personating, and, in view of what she had done, it is amazing that she made such an extraordinary statement.
After spending some time at the house at Hammersmith, Webster went out with Porter and his son, a lad of about sixteen years, who afterwards proved a most important witness for the Crown. She was then carrying a common black bag, which she had taken to Hammersmith with her—a heavy bag for its size, the weight being estimated at about twenty-five pounds.
From Survivors' Tales of Famous Crimes by Walter Wood.
London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne: Cassell and Company, Ltd, 1916.