Trial of Kate Webster: Discovery of the Crime, and Kate Webster’s past

By Elliot O'Donnell

There is, in the estimation of the general public, no kind of murder more cruel and horrible than that which is accompanied by mutilation and dismemberment, even though that mutilation and dismemberment be perpetrated after death, and there is, in consequence, no question of any pain. The false sentiment and pseudo-modesty existing more or less in most of us, may account for it.

We feel comparatively little sympathy with the victim who is sent to eternity with a blow or a cut, or may be a few drops of poison; but our pity and horror know no bounds when we learn that his or her body has been subsequently subjected to the process of dissection. In fact, it is the indignity of the after-deed more than the cruelty of the murder itself that stirs and shocks us. Cruelty, as such, does not disturb our equanimity; we can tolerate any amount of it.

It is the violation of our conventions that we can neither forgive nor forget; and strange as it may seem, our sympathy lies not so much with the suffering person as with the person who has ceased to suffer, or who is, in other words, dead.

Had Henry Wainwright been content with merely shooting Harriet Lane and burying her in chloride of lime, undoubtedly we should, at the time, have called him a villain; but ere now we should, in all probability, have forgotten him. It was not because he shot and killed his victim that he still lives in our memories and stirs us to anger, but because he had the effrontery to cut her up and endeavour to dispose of her remains in pieces.

And so it was with Crippen. Had he merely poisoned Belle Elmore and buried her decently, instead of subjecting her to the indecent and undignified process of dismemberment, we should not recall him, as we do, with unmitigated horror, and we should not have placed him, as we have done, in the category of our blackest and most atrocious criminals.

Also, because Catherine Wilson, who poisoned, often for the mere love of poisoning, goodness alone knows how many people, thereby inflicting on them the most consummate torture, had the decency to let her victims alone after they were dead, she was merely classified as “ordinary”; and for that reason she has practically passed into oblivion. Indeed, loth as we may be to confess it, it is the extraordinary, far more than the ordinary criminal, no matter how superlatively cruel the latter may be, who arouses our interest and commands our attention.

However, although no one bothers about the mentality of a John William Beale or James Canham Bead (simply to cut a throat is far too common, and the mere pulling of a trigger deadly dull), it is far otherwise in the case of a Catherine Hayes or Kate Webster, and Kate Webster, with whom I am about to deal, affects us more, perhaps, than any other British murderess of modern times. She was not merely savage, savage and shocking, but she had other attributes as well; attributes to which I shall refer later, and which, in my opinion, are sufficient to place her outside any existing criminal and psychological category. Prior to March, 1879, Kate Webster, save to the very few, was utterly unknown; then suddenly the public became aware of her; they learned that living in their midst was the grimmest of grim personalities, a character so uniquely sinister and barbaric as to be hardly human.

And this is how it came about. Shortly before seven o’clock, on the morning of 5th March, 1879, Henry Wheatley, a coal porter, living at the Old George Inn, Mortlake, was driving a cart along the banks of the Thames. On arriving opposite Barnes Terrace, which is some thirty yards or so from Barnes Bridge, he saw an object lying half in and half out of the water, and, stopping his cart to look at it more closely, he perceived it was a wooden box. Telling the man who was with him that he meant to see what it contained, he got out of his cart, and, after several efforts, succeeded in hauling the box on to dry ground.

It was made of plain deal, with lid and hinges, and it was well corded. Wheatley cut the cord with his knife and then gave the box a kick, whereupon it fell in pieces, disclosing, to his horror, a mass of flesh. His companion, who was looking on, said the flesh was ordinary butcher’s meat; but Wheatley, thinking otherwise, announced his determination to inform the police, and in spite, probably, of remonstrances from his friend, he went to the Barnes police station, where he reported his discovery and his suspicions to Inspector Harber, the sergeant in charge. A doctor being speedily summoned, in a very little while Wheatley’s suspicions were confirmed, and the flesh proved to be human.

Pieced together, it constituted almost the entire body of a woman, and from the parchment-like look of the skin, and the total absence of decomposition, Dr. Adams, the doctor who had been called in, concluded that it had been boiled. To establish the identity of the woman appeared to be almost an impossibility, as, unfortunately, the head, as well as one foot and several minor parts of the body were missing. Hence, at the inquest that ensued, an open verdict was returned; and the affair, already known as the Barnes mystery, remained a mystery for some time.

It was suggested in some of the dailies that the whole thing might have been the work of medical students anxious to enjoy a particularly grim joke at the expense of the police and public, but this theory was totally discountenanced by the fact that the limbs, instead of being separated from the trunk with anatomical skill, had been very roughly chopped and sawn off.

It was also even thought possible1 (this hypothesis likewise appearing in print) that some impecunious reporter had faked the semblance of a crime in order to create a sensation and make a brief profit out of it; and to this theory, if anything so obviously untenable can be called a theory, some little interest attaches, since we gather from the ready credence accorded it, that in a case like this, any hypothesis, no matter how ridiculously improbable, is more acceptable to the British public than the true one, should the latter happen to be the committal of a barbaric crime. However, after these almost hysterical outbursts, the papers, in a saner mood, recalled other findings of a similar nature, pointing out that the Thames had, from time to time, borne upon its bosom the mangled remains of many a poor murdered wretch whose identity had never been discovered.

1. Vide Standard, 31st March, 1879.

The Waterloo Bridge mystery, for instance, was referred to briefly in the Daily Telegraph of 27th March. The story was this: —In the grey of the early morning of 9th October, 1857, two lads, rowing up the river, saw a large, corded, carpet bag resting on one of the abutments of Waterloo Bridge. Thinking that they had alighted on something worth having, they rescued it from its perilous position, and, lifting it into the boat, opened it. However, instead of seeing the treasure their boyish fancies had depicted, they beheld, to their unmitigated horror, the cut-up remains of a human body, which they at once took to the police station.



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