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[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.
It was arranged that Webster and the man and his son should go out together, and the three went towards Barnes, where the Porters entered a public-house. While they were inside Webster temporarily vanished, and when she rejoined the Porters she no longer carried the black bag. No particular attention was paid to the fact that the bag was missing, for it is the sort of article that can be disposed of without exciting comment or notice.
After some talk Webster said she would like the lad to go back to Richmond with her, as she wanted his help in carrying a box from Vine Cottages to the station, and it was arranged that young Porter should assist; but it was stipulated that he should get home in time to go to bed, so that he should not be late for work on the following morning.
Webster and the lad proceeded together to Vine Cottages, and while he remained below she went upstairs and brought down a corded wooden box, about a foot square—the kind of thing which is used by carpenters for holding tools. As a matter of fact, this particular box was used by Mrs. Thomas to hold a couple of bonnets which she wore.
It was, for its size, a very heavy box, and this was the thing which she needed help to carry to the station to which she said she was going. Here again, as it proved, Webster committed a fatal error, for it became an easy matter to prove that the box was the property of Mrs. Thomas and to associate its contents with the crime that had been so deliberately carried out.
Webster at this time seems to have been quite cheerful and self-possessed. Before leaving the house she ran her fingers over the piano belonging to Mrs. Thomas, who was, I believe, a good musician, and remarked that it was a fine instrument.
The corded box was lifted up, and Webster and the lad left the house; but instead of going to the railway station they proceeded to Richmond Bridge and crossed it.
At the other side of the bridge the box was placed in the farthest recess, the woman telling the lad to put it down and go away, and that she would join him. She told him to go towards the station, and accordingly he began to recross the bridge.
The lad was walking towards the Richmond end when he heard a slight splash. When he reached the end of the bridge Webster rejoined him, but she had no box with her. The lad, however, does not seem to have been suspicious, and he afterwards said that Webster's conduct did not strike him as being peculiar. She gave a satisfactory excuse and said that they would now get home. As he had missed his last train to Hammersmith, he went to Vine Cottages and spent the night there.
On the Wednesday morning, on the lower side of Barnes railway bridge, a box was found just as the tide was ebbing. This was at a quarter to seven o'clock, and the man who saw it, being suspicious, communicated with the police, with the result that the box was examined and found to contain human remains. It was taken to Barnes mortuary.
At about the same time other human remains were discovered on a refuse heap at Twickenham —a foot and ankle—and it was soon obvious that these and the contents of the box had belonged to the same person. There was not, however, anything to connect these discoveries with the disappearance of Mrs. Thomas; but that mystery was soon to be cleared up to a very great extent.
Meanwhile Webster had been very busy. Through her friends the Porters she had got into touch with a publican named Church, on the representation that she had furniture at Vine Cottages which she wished to sell. Unsuspecting, Church entered into negotiations, with the result that he agreed to buy the things, and got as far as having a van at Vine Cottages to take them away.
Now came the beginning of the developments that explained the non-appearance of Mrs. Thomas and the singular sounds which had been heard in her house.
The landlady, Miss Ives, seeing the van and the preparations for removal, naturally became curious to know what was being done by her tenant. She asked Webster where Mrs. Thomas was, and how it happened that she had not said anything of her intention to leave the house.
Webster became confused and made unsatisfactory answers, the result being that the vanmen were paid a certain sum and went away, taking a few small articles with them, and Webster hurried to Hammersmith, borrowed a sovereign, took her child, a boy, who had been staying there, and fled to Enniscorthy, in Ireland, her native place.
There was now every reason for the intervention of the police, and accordingly they took charge of the matter and set to work methodically to find out what had taken place.
Very soon it was established that an exceptionally dreadful murder had been committed, and that there was a close connection between the disappearance of Mrs. Thomas and the discovery of the human remains at Barnes Bridge and Twickenham.
Examination of the house showed that there were bloodstains on various parts of the walls and the floors, that there were calcined human bones in the kitchen fireplace and under the copper, and that the outside of the copper had been newly whitewashed. There were other signs of atrocity which it is not necessary to mention; but the main inference was clear, and it was this—that a terrible murder had been committed, and that uncommon pains had been taken to remove all evidence of the crime.
The next stage in the dreadful drama was the sending of police officers to Enniscorthy and the arrest of Kate Webster on the charge of murdering Mrs. Thomas.
Webster was taken into custody and was brought back to Richmond by way of Holyhead. On the journey, having been charged and cautioned, she made a statement which amounted to this—that she knew that her mistress had been murdered, and she endeavoured to make out that the crime had been committed by other people.
On the strength of what she said, Church, an entirely innocent man, was arrested and placed in a position of terrible peril; but it was soon obvious that there was not a shadow of ground for the accusation against him, and he became an important witness for the Crown.
Little by little the dreadful nature of the crime was revealed, and by the time Webster appeared before the judge and jury at the Central Criminal Court the murder had been pretty well reconstructed.
And this was the story: Mrs. Thomas had been slain, and the body had been then cut up and partly burned and partly boiled, the kitchen fire and the copper having been used for these purposes. In order to get rid of some portions of the remains the wooden box had been thrown into the river at Richmond Bridge and had been discovered at Barnes railway bridge. Other parts of the body, doubtless including the head, had been put in the black bag and disposed of; but no trace of the bag was ever found after it was seen in Webster's possession.
It will be seen how nearly Webster entirely escaped. She had succeeded so well in the earlier stages of her crime that it is surprising she did not continue the success to the very end.
But murder will out, and certainly it came to light in this case. Apart from the fact that important parts of the remains were never found, there were sufficient left to leave no question as to the identity of the murdered individual.
It might, of course, have happened that the chief point in the identification would have depended upon proving that the model which I had taken exactly corresponded with the mouth of the deceased; but, fortunately for justice, there were other ways of establishing the identity of Mrs. Thomas, and when Webster was finally committed for trial there was a strong case against her. There were the signs at the house, the corded box was known to have been used by Mrs. Thomas as a bonnet-box, and the furniture removal men had taken a few things away—dresses in the pockets of which were compromising letters. In her hasty flight, too, the prisoner had left her watch behind, and this was found, though quite apart from that there was abundant evidence of her association with the house and being in it when the murder must have been committed.
There was another thing proved which was of great importance.
A gold plate was produced which I examined and compared with the cast I had taken of the lower jaw of Mrs. Thomas. I found that this plate corresponded with the cast, and left no doubt that it had belonged to the deceased lady, though she was not wearing it when she came to see me, explaining that it hurt her. This plate was given by Webster to a man to sell, and he disposed of it for six shillings, Webster giving him a shilling for his trouble.
The murder was so uncommonly atrocious that it aroused an enormous amount of interest throughout the country, and the interest was fully maintained in spite of the postponement of the trial from one sessions to another, so that the prisoner might have time to prepare her defence.
Webster had been arrested towards the end of March, but it was not until July that she was put on her trial at the Central Criminal Court before the Hon. Mr. Justice Denman.
The trial was a protracted business, occupying six long days, and it was conducted by the Crown in the fairest possible manner.
The prisoner had every chance of proving her innocence, but she was not in a position to do so, and she must have known that there was practically no hope of an acquittal; yet to the very end she was under the impression that she would be found not guilty—certainly after her condemnation she believed to the last that she would be reprieved—though why she should have encouraged any such hope it is hard to understand.
Day after day the court was packed with men and women, and every point in the case was followed with acute interest. And through it all the tall, gaunt, ill-favoured woman who was in peril of her life remained apparently unmoved, even when the most ghastly of the details were gone into, as they are of necessity gone into on such occasions as this.
At the end of that long, and to me, very wearisome trial, the prisoner, who had not made any defence and had not called any witnesses, was found guilty, the jury being absent from court about an hour and a quarter.
There was some delay in passing sentence of death, as Webster wished to consult her solicitor. He went into the dock and had some earnest private talk with her, but no one knew what the conversation was about.
The court was crowded, and there was an intense and awful silence, broken at last by the judge gently but firmly intimating that quite sufficient time had been given for any necessary question to be asked and answered. Then the solicitor left the dock, and the convicted woman was asked if she had anything to say why sentence of death should not be passed upon her.
Webster seemed to be quite calm and collected, and she answered in clear, firm tones that she was not guilty, and made a short speech protesting her innocence; but her very protest served only to confirm the justice of the verdict, for she said: "And another thing, I was led to this."
In uttering this she removed any possible doubt that might have lingered in one's mind.
I was in the crowded court when all this was taking place, and I supposed that when the judge had assumed the black cap and passed sentence the dreadful proceedings were ended; but there was still another sensation in a case which had offered many great surprises.
The condemned woman had been actually removed from the dock and people were beginning to leave the court when she was brought back, and it was privately intimated to the court that she declared herself as about to become a mother.
All who were in court were utterly taken aback by this fresh development, and as far as I recollect the judge himself said that in all his experience he had never known an instance like it. His lordship did not hesitate to fall back on the wide criminal knowledge of the Clerk of Assize, Mr. Avory, and a jury of women was sworn to try this unexpected issue. When such a plea is put forward by a condemned woman a jury of matrons has to be empanelled, and upon their verdict it rests whether or no there shall be a stay of execution.
There were then, as there had been throughout the trial, a good many women in court, and very soon a dozen had been sworn and were in the box which had been occupied by the men who had found the prisoner guilty.
A celebrated surgeon, Mr. Bond, was present, and he and the jury of females and a few other persons in court, including myself, withdrew to the jury room, to which the prisoner, in the care of two women warders, was taken. It was soon found that she had lied in her statement, and the jury of matrons returned to the court, where, after some legal argument, the judge again summed up, very briefly, to the occupants of the box, addressing them as "Ladies of the jury."
The matrons were only two or three minutes before giving their verdict.
As soon as their finding had been delivered Webster was removed from the dock. She was taken straight to Wandsworth Prison, where she had been previously confined for lesser offences, and there she was hanged.
Before being executed this strange and forbidding woman confessed that she alone did the murder, that her mistress reproved her for being under the influence of drink, and that she knocked her down the stairs and then strangled her. There is very good reason to believe, however, that the crime was premeditated.
It was stated at the time that Webster, while in prison for the last time, was very submissive and docile, and was thankful to be in a gaol which was familiar to her, and where she was undoubtedly treated with the utmost kindness to the very end.
Listen to an audio of this story at http://www.lorepodcast.com/episodes/31