The Barnes Railway Bridge
The Barnes Railway Bridge
Garry Knight, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The Barnes Mystery: A Twisted Tale of Maids, Murder, and Mistaken Identity

The Barnes Railway Bridge
The Barnes Railway Bridge
Garry Knight, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In the late 1800s, Park Road was a quiet part of Richmond on the outskirts of London. Julia Martha Thomas, a retired schoolteacher, made her home there in the left portion of a semi-detached villa known as 2 Mayfield Cottages. It was a typical English house, two stories high and surrounded by a garden. For the most part, Thomas lived there alone; occasionally, she took on servants like the Irish-born Kate Webster, whom she hired in January 1879.

Three months later, Thomas was nowhere to be found. But her servant had seemingly come into a great deal of wealth.

AN UNSAVORY MAID

The Daily Telegraph would later describe Webster as a “tall, strongly-made woman ... with sallow and much freckled complexion and large and prominent teeth.” Unbeknownst to Thomas, her new maid's resume was far from ideal: She'd first been imprisoned for larceny in her native Ireland at 15 years old, and had lived a life of petty crime ever since. By the time she was 30, in 1879, she’d served multiple sentences for theft.

During one of these sentences, an 18-month stretch at Wandsworth prison in West London, Webster had put her young son in the care of Sarah Crease, an acquaintance and charwoman who worked for a Miss Loder. When Webster filled in for Crease one day, Loder recommended her to Thomas, who she knew was looking to hire a servant.

Webster got the job on the spot, but the relationship between Thomas and the young woman quickly became strained. “At first I thought her a nice old lady,” Webster would later say. But Thomas’s cleaning standards were strict—too strict—and she would “point out places where she said I did not clean, showing evidence of a nasty spirit towards me.” Webster’s love of drink, which she nourished regularly at a nearby pub, The Hole in the Wall, also failed to impress Thomas.

On February 28, after around a month of work, Thomas wrote in her diary that she “gave Katherine warning to leave.” When Webster asked Thomas to extend her employment through Sunday, March 2, Thomas begrudgingly agreed. It was a fatal mistake.

BLOODY SUNDAY

Sundays were half-days for Webster, who was expected at 2 Mayfield Cottages in the late afternoon. Dawdling too long at the ale house, Webster arrived late and Thomas went to church agitated. It was the last time she was seen in public.

That evening, Thomas's landlady's mother Jane Ives, who lived in the other half of the villa, heard a sound “like the fall of a heavy chair.” Ives and her daughter also noticed housework being done quite early the next morning.

The next two Sundays, Mrs. Thomas—a devout Christian—failed to show up for church. Webster, however, seemed to have a new lease on life. She soon met with Henry Porter, a former neighbor from when she had lived in Hammersmith, to share some news. Saying she had married a man named Thomas and spinning a tale of a wealthy dead relative who had left the contents of 2 Mayfield Cottages to her, Webster said she was looking for a broker for the items.

She wined and dined Porter and his son Robert at a local pub, leaving briefly to visit a friend who lived nearby. When she returned, both Porters noticed the heavy bag she had carried into the pub was nowhere to be seen. Robert Porter later helped her carry a heavy box from 2 Mayfield Cottages to a nearby bridge, where Webster said that a friend was coming to come pick it up. As Robert walked away he heard a faint splash, but as Webster caught up with him she assured him that her friend had picked up the container, and he continued on his way.

Several days later, Henry Porter introduced Webster to John Church. In the market for new furniture for his pub, Church offered Webster 68 pounds for an assortment of furnishings. They scheduled delivery vans for March 18.

A HORRIBLE DISCOVERY

The splash the younger Porter had heard was indeed the heavy box he'd helped Webster carry as it hit the river. But it didn't spend long in its watery grave. A coal porter who discovered it near the Barnes Railway Bridge on March 5, a few miles downstream along the Thames from where Webster had let it slip, was horrified to discover the mangled contents: a woman's torso and legs, minus one foot.

The relatively primitive forensic techniques of the day couldn't identify a body without a head, and an inquest failed to establish a cause of death. That a woman's foot shortly turned up in the nearby suburb of Twickenham was little help; police readily concluded that it belonged to the same body, but whose? The unidentified remains were buried in a local cemetery, and the press began buzzing about the "Barnes mystery."

Meanwhile, by the time Church's delivery vans arrived on March 18, Thomas had not been seen for two weeks—and her neighbors had grown suspicious. The younger Miss Ives went to investigate the vans, and was told that a “Mrs. Thomas” was selling her furniture. When “Mrs. Thomas” was summoned, it was none other than Webster, who Ives knew was Thomas’s servant. Webster told Ives that Thomas was away somewhere—she couldn't say where, exactly—but the game was up. Webster panicked and fled with her son, traveling by train to her family home in County Wexford, Ireland. Meanwhile, the police were summoned.

When authorities searched 2 Mayfield Cottages, they discovered a grisly scene: There were blood stains everywhere (some showing signs of cleaning), charred bones in the kitchen grate, and a fatty substance behind the laundry boiler. They also found Webster’s address in County Wexford. The criminal was hauled back to Richmond, and a trial began on July 2, 1879.

The trial turned into a major spectacle, and crowds gathered both inside and outside the courtroom. Webster’s social position made her crime especially salacious—not only had she committed a gruesome murder, but she had attacked her betters. And she was a woman. According to Shani D'Cruze, Sandra L. Walklate, and Samantha Pegg in Murder, “Victorian ideals of femininity envisaged women as moral, passive, and not physically strong enough to kill and dismember a body." Webster's crime had put the lie to those ideals.

Initially, Webster accused Church and Porter of the crime. Though police did find Thomas’s belongings at Church’s pub and home, both men had solid alibis and were cleared. Webster then said an ex-boyfriend, a “Mr. Strong”—whom she occasionally claimed was the father of her child—had driven her to crime. But despite her attempts to shift blame onto others, Webster was eventually convicted of killing her employer.

The night before her execution, she finally confessed to the priest: “I alone committed the murder of Mrs. Thomas.”

According to Webster, she and Thomas had argued when the latter returned home from church. The argument “ripened into a quarrel,” and Webster “threw [Thomas] from the top of the stairs to the ground floor.” Then, Webster “lost control” and grabbed her victim by the throat in an attempt to silence any screams that could alert the neighbors and send her back to prison. After choking Thomas, Webster “determined to do away with the body” by chopping up the limbs and boiling them in the laundry tub.

Legend says Webster attempted to sell the fat drippings from Thomas to the proprietress of a local pub, and even fed them to two local boys, but neither rumor has ever been substantiated. But Webster did burn some of Thomas’s remains in the hearth, and divided much of the rest between the heavy bag she had carried into the pub and the box. Running out of room, she also disposed of one of Thomas’s feet in the nearby suburb of Twickenham. She never revealed where she hid Thomas’s head.

Webster was executed on July 29, 1879. “The executioner having drawn the cap over her face, retired from the scaffold,” read a broadside detailing Webster’s sentencing and execution. “The unhappy criminal was launched into eternity.”

A SURPRISE IN THE GARDEN

The Execution of Catherine Webster at Wandsworth Gaol
The Execution of Catherine Webster at Wandsworth Gaol, The Illustrated Police News
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Thomas's story has a strange modern twist. In 2009, English broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough bought the vacant pub next door to his house. The building was the former home of the Hole in the Wall, Webster's favorite watering hole, which had closed three years previously.

As contractors were excavating the site to build an extension on Attenborough's property, "they saw a ‘dark circular object,’” according to The Telegraph. That object turned out to be a human skull—one missing its teeth and with “fracture marks consistent with the fall down the stairs and low collagen levels consistent with it being boiled,” an investigating officer told West London Coroners Court. According to a local coroner, there was “clear, convincing and compelling evidence” that the skull belonged to Julia Martha Thomas.

The discovery came too late for the murdered woman, however: Since records of her body’s precise location in Barnes Cemetery were lost, her head wasn’t laid to rest alongside her (its exact whereabouts are somewhat unclear). Though a disappointing ending for a woman who liked things neat and tidy, the Barnes Mystery, at last, was entirely solved.

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The Barnes Railway Bridge
Jack Taylor, Getty Images
8 Arresting Facts About Scotland Yard
Jack Taylor, Getty Images
Jack Taylor, Getty Images

Depicted in fiction for well over a century as the world's premier police force, Scotland Yard might be the most famous banner for law enforcement in history. Though the name itself is officially a term for the location of the London Metropolitan Police headquarters, it’s taken on a colloquial use to describe the collective brain trust of that station’s patrolmen and detectives. Here’s what we’ve deduced about the past, present, and future of this historic—and sometimes controversial—institution.

1. IT GOT ITS NAME FROM A TRICKY BIT OF GEOGRAPHY.

London didn’t have a formal police force until 1829, when Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel arranged for a squad to replace the fractured system of watchmen, street patrols, and the River Police. Colonel Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne were tasked with organizing the force: Mayne’s house at 4 Whitehall Place opened to an adjacent courtyard that had once been a medieval palace that hosted Scottish royalty while they were in London. This “Great Scotland Yard,” which was also reportedly the name of the street behind the building, became synonymous with Rowan and Mayne’s efforts to create a new era in law enforcement.

2. CHARLES DICKENS TAGGED ALONG ON PATROLS.

Author Charles Dickens poses for a photo
London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

The renowned author of Great Expectations and other literary classics wasn’t a policeman, but he did perform the 19th-century equivalent of a ride-along. Dickens was friends with Charles Frederick Field, a Scotland Yard inspector, and their relationship led to Dickens occasionally accompanying patrolmen on their nightly rounds. He even based a character in his novel Bleak House on Fields.

3. THERE WERE DIRTY COPS AMONG THE RANKS IN THOSE EARLY DAYS.

For all of the public acceptance of Scotland Yard—Londoners were initially wary of the plainclothes cops walking among them—the squad suffered a sensational blow to its image in 1877. Known as the “Turf Fraud Scandal” or the “Trial of the Detectives,” the controversy erupted after a Parisian socialite named Madame de Goncourt was conned by two men named Harry Benson and William Kurr. Scotland Yard inspector Nathaniel Druscovich was dispatched to Amsterdam to capture a fleeing Benson while others pursued Kurr. The men proved surprisingly elusive, which prompted suspicion among Scotland Yard officials. When the two con men were finally arrested, they explained that an inspector named John Meiklejohn was taking bribes in exchange for tipping off Kurr to police activity. Two other policemen were implicated; the three each received two years in prison. The high-profile breach led to a reorganization, with the Yard inserting detectives into a new Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to help minimize misconduct.

4. THEY HELPED PIONEER FINGERPRINTING.

A Scotland Yard employee examines fingerprints
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At one time, the science of fingerprinting was more of a theory than anything that could be put into practice. Most police forces instead relied on anthropometry, a system created by French police officer Alphonse Bertillon, which used 11 body measurements taken by calipers to provide a unique physical identity for an individual. While fingerprinting was beginning to take off in India in the late 1800s, the English-speaking world didn’t adopt the forensic technique of lifting and matching prints until 1901, when Sir Edward Henry, then the assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard, instituted the Metropolitan Police Fingerprint Bureau. In 1902, a billiard ball thief was convicted based on a fingerprint he left on a windowsill. In 1904, a Yard detective demonstrated the efficacy of fingerprinting at the St. Louis World’s Fair, helping spread the new science to American law enforcement officials.

5. THEIR PATROL OFFICERS DIDN’T CARRY GUNS UNTIL 1994.

The uniformed police officers who wander London’s streets with an eye on keeping the peace were unarmed for most of the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1994 that select patrol officers were permitted to carry guns, a policy shift that stemmed from increased assaults on police. The addition of firearms was limited to armed response cars intended to be dispatched to high-risk calls; previously, officers were instructed to keep their weapons in a lockbox inside their vehicles. Today, 90 percent of Metropolitan police officers go on duty without a gun, a policy largely maintained in response to a relatively low number of guns carried by civilians. Less than four in 100 British citizens own a firearm.

6. THEY HAVE A SQUAD OF “SUPER RECOGNIZERS.”

A surveillance camera is posted in London
Leon Neal, AFP/Getty Images

With surveillance cameras dotting London, facial recognition for identifying criminal suspects is in high demand. But no software can outperform Scotland Yard’s team of “super recognizers,” who are recruited for their ability to match a face to a name based on their own memory. These officers are hired by administering a facial recognition test first implemented by Harvard in 2009. Those in the top percentile have an uncanny ability to retain facial feature details and are often dispatched to cull out known criminals like pickpockets at public gatherings. One such specialist, Constable Gary Collins, identified 180 people out of 4000 while examining footage of the 2011 London riots. Software was able to identify exactly one.

7. THEY KEEP A SECRET CRIME MUSEUM HIDDEN FROM THE PUBLIC.

Housed across two floors at the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police in London is the Black Museum, a macabre cavalcade of evidence from nearly 150 years of investigative work. Established in 1875, the collection houses body parts (gallstones that failed to dissolve in acid along with the rest of a murder victim) and seemingly innocuous items that take on sinister connotations: A set of pots and pans that once belonged to Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen and were used to boil human flesh. It’s closed to the public, though visiting law enforcement and sometimes celebrities can secure an invite: Laurel and Hardy and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have toured its inventory. A sample of the collection went on display at the Museum of London in 2015.  

8. YOU COULD LIVE THERE ONE DAY.

The former New Scotland Yard building at 10 Broadway
Jack Taylor, AFP/Getty Images

The Metropolitan Police have changed locations several times over the years. It was situated at its original location of 4 Whitehall Place from 1829 to 1890, then housed in a large Victorian building on the Victoria Embankment from 1890 until 1967. That’s when the operation was moved to a 600,000 square-foot building at 10 Broadway in Westminster: a famous revolving sign announced a New Scotland Yard was taking up residence. In 2014, the building was sold to investors from Abu Dhabi for $580 million: London cited operating expenses and budget cuts as the reasons for the sale. The buyers plan to mount a residential housing project in the spot. Scotland Yard staff moved to a trimmed-down facility at the Curtis Green Building in Westminster and within walking distance of the Houses of Parliament.   

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The Barnes Railway Bridge
iStock
Why an Ex-FBI Agent Recommends Wrapping Your Keys in Tinfoil Whenever You Leave Your Car
iStock
iStock

A car thief doesn't need to get their hands on your keys to break into your vehicle. If you use a wireless, keyless system, or fob, to unlock your car, all they need to do is steal the signal it emits. Luckily there's a tool you can use to protect your fob from hackers that you may already have in your kitchen at home: tinfoil.

Speaking with USA Today, retired FBI agent Holly Hubert said that wrapping car fobs in a layer of foil is the cheapest way to block their sensitive information from anyone who may be trying to access it. Hackers can easily infiltrate your car by using a device to amplify the fob signal or by copying the code it uses. And they don't even need to be in the same room as you to do it: They can hack the fob inside your pocket from the street outside your house or office.

Electronic car theft is a growing problem for automobile manufacturers. Ideally fobs made in the future will come with cyber protection built-in, but until then the best way to keep your car safe is to carry your fob in an electromagnetic field-blocking shield when you go out. Bags made specifically to protect your key fob work better than foil, but they can cost more than $50. If tinfoil is all you can afford, it's better than nothing.

At home, make sure to store your keys in a spot where they will continue to get protection. Dropping them in a metal coffee can is a lot smarter than leaving them out in the open on your kitchen counter.

[h/t USA Today]

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