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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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How a London Tragedy Led to the Creation of 911
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In trouble? Pick up the phone and call 911. According to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), 240 million 911 calls are made each year. But if it weren’t for a house fire and a group of angry Brits, the system might not exist today.

Though 911 is an American staple, its origins are in England. In 1935, there was no such thing as an emergency phone number, and phone calls were dependent on operators who connected people to exchanges or emergency services when necessary. England did have emergency fire call points, but they didn’t use telephone technology—instead, they relied on the telegraph, which was used to send a signal to fire departments from special boxes [PDF]. There were police call points, too, but they were generally unstandardized and inefficient, since police didn’t have a way to receive emergency calls while on their beats. Instead, officers would check in during their rounds at special police boxes, like the one you probably recognize from Doctor Who.

But all that changed after November 10, 1935, when a fire broke out at the home of a prominent London surgeon, Philip Franklin, at 27 Wimpole Street. As the blaze tore through the building, five women sleeping on the upper floors—Franklin’s wife and niece, as well as three servants—became trapped. A neighbor, Norman MacDonald, heard their screams and promptly picked up the phone to dial the operator. Nobody answered.

“It seemed entirely futile to continue holding on and listening to ringing tone, which awakened no response,” he later wrote. A neighbor went to a fire call point and firefighters soon arrived, but they were unable to save the five women.

27 Wimpole Street, London, as it looks today
27 Wimpole Street, London, as it looks today
Eden, Janine and Jim, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The tragedy sparked a national inquiry—and outrage. Two years later, London unveiled a new service: the emergency number 999. Officials thought it would be best to choose a number that was easy to find by touch on a rotary dial, and rejected a number of other options, like 111, that might be triggered by equipment malfunctions. (It wasn’t unusual for lines rubbing together and other technical glitches to trigger a 111 call; 222 was already in use by a local exchange, while 000 would have just contacted the operator after the first zero.)

The new number wasn’t immediately embraced. Of over 1000 calls made the first week, nearly 7 percent were pranks. And some members of Parliament objected, saying it would be easier to just install an emergency button on phones instead.

A New York City police officer takes an emergency call from his car in the 1960s
A New York City police officer takes an emergency call from his car in the 1960s
John Pratt/Keystone Features/Getty Images

The United States had a similar system of police telephones and signal boxes, but like the UK it lacked the technology to quickly and effectively call authorities during emergencies. In the 1950s, the National Association of Fire Chiefs, inspired by the UK’s system, requested a national emergency number, and by 1967 the FTC was meeting with AT&T, the nation’s largest telephone company, to hash out a plan.

The first 911 call in the United States—a test call made from a mayor’s office—was made in Haleyville, Alabama in 1968 [PDF]. The numbers 911 reportedly made the grade because they weren’t in use for any existing phone exchange, and were catchy and easily remembered.

As the service rolled out nationwide, police and fire departments struggled to keep up with call volume. Despite the success of the program, New York police, in particular, reported being strained and having to hire more officers.

It took a long time to implement the system. Only 50 percent of the United States had 911 service as of 1987, according to NENA. Today, coverage is still not universal, although it’s close: 96 percent of the country is currently covered.

The evolution of telephone technology has brought new challenges, however: The FCC estimates that a full 70 percent of calls now come from cell phones—and given the mobility of mobile phones, that’s a challenge for dispatchers and phone companies. The 911 system was built for landlines, and cell phone GPS systems don’t always transmit data quickly or accurately. Plus, the proliferation of cell phones has led to a spike in accidental butt dials, which tie up the line and can prevent real emergencies from getting the attention they need. Still, we've come a long way from the days of sending telegraph messages inside boxes.

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Cowboy Bob: The Mysterious Middle-Aged Bank Robber Who Fooled the FBI
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About 5-foot-10, with a slight paunch, beard, and graying hair, the robber was silent but polite when he strolled into Dallas-area banks. The FBI called him Cowboy Bob on account of the 10-gallon hat he'd wear inexplicably backwards during his stick-ups, and for nearly a year in the early '90s, he led veteran FBI agents on a wild goose chase. When they finally caught up with him, they found something that turned their investigation on its head.

A TALENTED THIEF

The first five times Cowboy Bob hit, between May 1991 and September 1992, his execution was near-flawless. Unlike most bank robbers, he stayed calm. According to witnesses, he never brought weapons, avoided the cameras for the most part, and checked the bills for dye packs (radio-controlled devices intended to stain both cash and thief bright red). He’d pass a note announcing the robbery and instructing the teller to hand over the cash, then walk out slowly and drive away calmly in his 1975 Pontiac Grand Prix fixed with stolen license plates.

He drove the FBI crazy. The beard and hat and silence made him hard to identify, and the stolen license plates made him almost impossible to track. He didn’t make scenes, didn’t peel out in his getaway car, didn’t attract much eyewitness attention. “He was making me start to pull my hair out,” former agent Steve Powell told Texas Monthly in 2005. “How could this thin, little dried-up cowboy be whipping us this bad, time after time?”

The sixth time, however, he screwed up. Maybe he’d gotten greedy, or maybe he’d gotten cocky, but when the Grand Prix pulled away from First Interstate Bank in Mesquite, Texas, it was sporting its actual license plates. Powell and his team traced the number, taken down by a witness, to a Ford factory worker nearby. His name was Pete Tallas and he’d given the Grand Prix to his sister Peggy Jo.

Powell and his team raced to the apartment where Peggy Jo and her mother lived, expecting to find a cowboy-hat-wearing boyfriend and a kiddie pool of cash. But there were only the women, and neither one of them had much to say about any robbery.

Even when agents found a mannequin head with a fake beard in the closet, and a sack full of money in the bedroom, even when they pressed Peggy Jo on the location of this boyfriend, all she had to say, according to Powell, was: “There isn’t any man. I promise you that.”

That’s when he noticed the glue still clinging to her upper lip and the flecks of gray dye in her hair.

WILD AT HEART

Peggy Jo Tallas grew up in Dallas in the 1950s and '60s. She loved rock 'n' roll, hitting local clubs with her friends, and the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. She had a wilder side—in her twenties, after a night out, she stole a car that had its keys left in the ignition and took it for a joy ride. Caught and convicted of a felony, she got five years' probation. Mostly, she dreamed of living on the beach in Mexico.

But as the '70s passed and the '80s began, things took a different turn. Her mother became ill, requiring most of her attention and money. Disappointed in love, and in a rocky relationship with her brother and sister, Peggy Jo didn't have a lot of positive things to focus on. She held a series of jobs, and lived in a series of small apartments with her mother. She watched the bills pile up. The once "wild at heart" young woman was now swallowing anxiety medication.

She never explained why she became Cowboy Bob. When the media pressed, when book and movie opportunities were thrown at her, she stayed silent. Those who knew her best thought that while the first robbery was a way to help cover her mother’s medical bills, later she just started to have fun with it.

Her lawyer painted a pitiful picture:

"At the time of these robberies, Ms. Tallas' mother was bedridden, suffering from a severe and chronic degenerative bone disease. Ms. Tallas' intense emotional attachment to her mother coupled with her own chronic mental impairment prevented Ms. Tallas from appreciating the wrongfulness of her actions."

Regardless, she and her family stayed mum. Peggy Jo pleaded guilty to bank robbery and served nearly three years in prison.

When she got out in the mid-'90s, things quieted down. The years crept by. She took a job at a marina, where locals loved her for the attention she paid their kids, for the extra bait fish she’d dole out, and for the occasions when they came up short on cash and she dipped into her own pocket to make up the difference. No one knew her backstory; she was just the likable older woman in the straw hat. Her mother passed away.

In 2004, something changed. To friends and acquaintances, that air of restlessness was back. Peggy Jo, now 60, left the marina, purchased an old RV off a neighbor, and took off for a year, touching base only sporadically. When she did, she spoke of going off-grid altogether, finally getting down to Mexico.

Of course, to do that, she’d need money.

ONE LAST JOB

A toy gun with ornate design and red handle
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If cockiness and carelessness foiled her in the 1990s, it’s harder to say exactly what went wrong on May 5, 2005. Why, for example, was Peggy Jo wearing sunglasses and a floppy woman’s hat instead of a male disguise when she walked into the Guaranty Bank in Tyler, Texas? Why did she actually speak to the teller instead of passing a note? And most curiously, why did she not check the money for a dye pack as she had at every robbery before?

We’ll never know. When the pack detonated, spraying the money red and releasing a plume of smoke, Peggy Jo made for her RV, walking across several lanes of traffic, right in front of construction workers and civilians, who phoned the police.

A short chase ensued, ending in a residential area, where after some time—presumably spent in contemplation of her limited options—Peggy Jo emerged from her getaway recreational vehicle. She had something dark in her hands, and in one of the few utterances she ever made during or about her crimes, she dared the cops to shoot. At first, they demurred. She was their grandmothers’ age, after all.

But she was set on her course of action. According to witnesses, her final words—uttered as she raised what was in her hand—were “You mean to tell me if I come out of here with a gun and point it at y’all, you’re not going to shoot me?”

She fell with four bullets in her, a children’s toy gun in her hand. Later, the cops would find a very real .357 Magnum in the RV.

Peggy Jo Tallas, a.k.a. "Cowboy Bob," was a true anomaly. She was a woman, first of all—they make up only a sliver of the bank-robbing population. She worked without a partner, and she wasn’t robbing for drug money or to pay off gambling debts. She was good at what she did from the get-go. By all accounts, she was unusual—someone to be studied, or, at the very least, a worthy challenge for law enforcement.

There was a reason, after all, that FBI agent Steve Powell’s first reaction to her demise was, “Say it ain’t so.”

Additional Source: “A mystery in boots and beard,” The Dallas Morning News, July 3, 2005

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