Thursday 22 February 2018

Maid murdered, cut up and boiled boss before fleeing here in 1879

Catherine Webster
Catherine Webster
Catherine Webster was hanged after being arrested in Enniscorthy
Allison Bray

Allison Bray

She was a serial thief-turned housemaid from Co Wexford who threw her despised boss down the stairs, strangled and decapitated her, and dismembered her body. She then boiled her bones in a laundry tub and dumped most of her remains in the River Thames - minus her head and foot - while masquerading as her victim to cover up her savage crime.

Catherine Webster's grisly murder of English widow Julia Martha Thomas in southwest London in March 1879 went on to become one of the most notorious crimes of the Victorian era.

It not only generated massive attention here and in the UK, the gruesome saga made headlines again more than a century later when Ms Thomas's severed head was found buried in the grounds of a former pub, now owned by renowned wildlife expert Sir David Attenborough in 2010.

And now the actual prison records and original court sketches and newspaper accounts of Webster's trial and execution are available online as close to two million crime and punishment records recorded in Ireland and the UK between 1779 and 1936 have been released by online genealogists

The collection, in collaboration with the National Archives in the UK, includes mugshots, prison records and other fascinating details of some of the most horrific crimes committed on either side of the Irish Sea.

"It's extraordinary," FindMyPast content curator Abigail Riely said of the incredible murder that reads like a modern-day thriller.

The collection includes original newspaper accounts of Ms Webster's subsequent trial at the Old Bailey after she fled England but was traced to her uncle's home in Killane, near Enniscorthy and brought back to London for trial.

The trial heard that a "quantity of charred bones and some burned buttons" were found in Mrs Thomas's kitchen scullery, while dismembered remains were found floating in a box on the Thames.

Aside from the grisly details of the murder itself, Webster's unorthodox behaviour for a woman in Victorian England provided juicy fodder for the press, including her boss's reputation as an eccentric and harsh employer who had trouble finding and retaining servants.

Webster, who was born Lawler but changed her name to Webster - the name of a man she claimed to have married but who died along with four of their children in mysterious circumstances - not only had an illegitimate son but had served several prison sentences for more than 36 convictions for larceny dating back to when she was just 15.

She had used numerous aliases in London before Thomas hired her as a maid, without apparently obtaining references.

After a difficult relationship, in which Webster bitterly complained of her employer's nitpicking, she confessed to having a violent argument with her boss on her return from the alehouse a few days after she had been given the sack. In a confession made on the eve of her execution after a jury found her guilty of murder and mutilation, the newspaper records reveal Ms Webster's gruesome attempts to conceal her crime.

"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 and the carving knife to cut the body up with. I prepared the copper (pot) with water to boil the body to prevent identity; and as soon as I had succeeded in cutting it up, I placed it in the copper and boiled it. I opened the stomach with the carving knife, and burned up as much of the parts as I could.

Unable to fit the severed head and a foot into a wooden bonnet box, she buried the head under the nearby Hole in the Wall pub's stables where it remained undiscovered for more than 130 years, while she threw one of Ms Thomas's feet in a rubbish heap and discarded the rest of the remains in the Thames.

She kept on living in her murdered mistress's home, wore her clothes and assumed her identity with tradesmen and even sold a local publican her furniture, before locals became suspicious several weeks later and Webster was found to be an imposter.

Her subsequent execution by hanging elicited a huge public response, including this special souvenir illustration in the Illustrated Police News.

After the trial, in which Webster had feigned pregnancy in order to avoid the death sentence but was found guilty, she was pilloried in the press and described as "not merely savage, savage and shocking... but the grimmest of grim personalities, a character so uniquely sinister and barbaric as to be hardly human".

Sunday Independent

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