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.

How British Spies Used a Cupcake Recipe to Stop Terrorists

iStock.com/400tmax
iStock.com/400tmax

In 2011, Arabian Peninsula-based Al-Qaeda members published a 67-page English-language magazine called Inspire in an attempt to recruit new terrorists. Instead, they might have inspired a new generation of bakers.

In the United States and United Kingdom, intelligence agencies knew the magazine was being launched well in advance. The also knew the magazine would be digital-only and could be downloaded as a PDF by anybody with an internet connection. For months, the U.S. Cyber Command planned on attacking the publication's release, crippling it with a hail of computer viruses. "The packaging of this magazine may be slick," one counterterrorism official said, "but the contents are as vile as the authors."

Their plans, however, were blocked by the CIA, which asserted that targeting the magazine "would expose sources and methods and disrupt an important source of intelligence," according to The Telegraph. So as progress halted in the U.S., British agents cooked up their own plans.

It involved treats.

At the time of the magazine's launch, the UK Government Communications Headquarters and the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, successfully hacked the computers distributing the mag and tinkered with the text. They removed articles about Osama bin Laden and deleted a story called "What to expect in Jihad." Elsewhere, they destroyed the text by inserting garbled computer code.

One sabotaged story was an article by "The AQ Chef" called "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of your Mom," which explained how to make a pipe bomb with simple ingredients that included sugar. The new code, however, contained a sweet recipe of a different kind.

Instead of the bomb-making instructions, the article contained code leading to an article called "The Best Cupcakes in America," hosted by the Ellen DeGeneres Show website [PDF]. The page featured recipes for "sweet-toothed hipsters" and instructions for mojito-flavored cupcakes "made of white rum cake and draped in vanilla buttercream" (plus Rocky Road and Caramel Apple varieties!).

Two weeks later, the magazine's editors found the errors and fixed the edition—but, presumably, not until some bad guys discovered that "the little cupcake is big again."

10 Shocking Facts About The Black Dahlia, Hollywood’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder

In TNT’s new mystery series I Am the Night, a teen (India Eisley) and a disgraced journalist (Chris Pine) get caught up in the case of the Black Dahlia—the most notorious unsolved murder in Hollywood history.

The case has been a matter of public fascination since 1947, when aspiring actress Elizabeth Short was found dead and dismembered in southern Los Angeles. To this day, no one knows who killed the 22-year-old who came to be known as the Black Dahlia, but that certainly hasn’t stopped them from speculating. Here are 10 things we know about the cold case, based on accounts from local newspapers, the FBI, and the son of a primary suspect.

1. A mother and her toddler found Elizabeth Short's body.

On the morning of January 15, 1947, Betty Bersinger was pushing her 3-year-old daughter Anne in a stroller down the sidewalk, heading to a shoe repair shop. She paused when she noticed what she thought was a mannequin lying in the grass. But as she looked closer, she discovered it was something much more alarming: a mutilated corpse. Bersinger grabbed Anne and ran to a nearby house, where she used the telephone to call the police. Authorities arrived on the scene just a few minutes later, kick-starting what would become a years-long investigation (that many people are still trying to solve).

2. There was no blood found at the scene.

The naked body Bersinger discovered was in horrifying condition. In addition to being cut completely in half at the waist, and having her intestines removed, Short's mouth had been slashed from ear-to-ear, giving her face a ghastly, semi-smiling appearance known as a Glasgow Smile. Her body had also been washed clean before it was left to be found. Despite the severe mutilation, there was no blood at the scene, leading police to conclude that the young woman had been murdered somewhere else, drained of blood, then cleaned before the killer dumped her body.

3. The FBI identified Short with fingerprints and a proto fax machine.

In order to identify the body, the Los Angeles Police Department pulled fingerprints off the corpse, which it then sent to the FBI through a device called a Soundphoto (a forerunner to the fax machine). About an hour later, the FBI got a hit and was able to identify the victim as 22-year-old Elizabeth Short. Short's fingerprints had been entered into the system twice before: once when she applied to work in the commissary of a U.S. Army base and once when she was arrested in Santa Barbara, California on September 23, 1943 for underage drinking.

4. The Black Dahlia nickname has murky origins.

Police bulletin distributed by the Los Angeles Police Department, accessed on the official website for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation
City of Los Angeles Police Department // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

There are a number of competing theories about who exactly coined Short’s infamous moniker. Some say it was a media invention, while others claim Short’s friends had nicknamed her "Black Dahlia." But most accounts pin the inspiration on a film noir written by Raymond Chandler that hit theaters one year before the murder: The Blue Dahlia, starring Veronica Lake. Why the switch from “blue” to “black”? The FBI cites a rumor that Short wore lots of black clothing, but some reports point to her dark hair color instead.

5. Some linked the case to the Cleveland Torso Murders.

When Short’s death became national news, police officers in Cleveland felt an awful sense of déjà vu. Between 1934 and 1938, a serial killer had terrorized their city, claiming 12 victims—all of whom were grotesquely dismembered. Some theorized that the Ohio serial killer and Short's murderer could be the same person, especially since—like Short's killer—the perpetrator of what came to be known as the Cleveland Torso Murders was never caught.

6. It was also connected to a “Lipstick Murder.”

One month after Short's murder, another woman's body was discovered in Los Angeles—and the circumstances mimicked the Black Dahlia's case in a few ways. It all began with a stranger (in this case, a construction worker) stumbling upon the naked body of a dead woman in the grass. Jeanne French had dark hair like Short’s, and her face was also badly beaten. But this time, there was an unusual message scrawled on her stomach in bright red lipstick: “F**k You B.D.” Just below that were the letters “TEX.” People were quick to link the "B.D." in the gruesome murder to the Black Dahlia, but the police were wary of officially connecting the two. Like Short, French’s murder was never solved.

7. Many people confessed to the crime.

The LAPD had to rule out many suspects in the Black Dahlia investigation, including several people who turned themselves in. Though some sources quote a lower number, the Los Angeles Times puts the tally of false confessions in Short's case at more than 500. The phony claims came from housewives, clergymen, soldiers, drunk ramblers, and, much later, pranksters who weren’t even alive when Short's life was brutally taken.

8. No charges were ever filed.

Copy of Elizabeth Short's death certificate, Los Angeles County
FBI, Los Angeles County // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The FBI files on the Black Dahlia case indicate that many men were held for questioning—and some even took polygraph tests—but ultimately, no one was ever charged with Short’s murder. Still, a few names stand out ...

9. George Hodel is one of the most notorious suspects.

One of those names is George Hodel, a physician who ran a venereal disease clinic in Los Angeles in the 1940s. According to The Guardian, Hodel was on a list of six primary suspects in the Black Dahlia case, and the LAPD even bugged his home during the investigation. But Hodel—who died in 1999—gained more recent notoriety when his son, Steve Hodel, accused him of killing Short in the 2003 bestselling book Black Dahlia Avenger: The True Story.

Steve claims his father’s handwriting matches strange letters the police received, supposedly from the killer. He also uncovered photos of a woman who resembles Short in his father’s personal photo album, and believes Hodel’s medical background would explain the precise, clinical cuts on the body. But some have discounted Steve’s claims since he started linking his father to other infamous unsolved murders, including the Zodiac killings.

I Am the Night, the new TNT miniseries, centers around Hodel as a prime suspect in the Black Dahlia case.

10. Others think it was a bellhop.

Another name that's popular among Black Dahlia theorists is Leslie Dillon. He appears in the FBI case files, but gained renewed attention in 2017 when author Piu Eatwell argued his guilt in her book Black Dahlia, Red Rose. Dillon was a bellhop, writer, and mortician’s assistant who seemed to know a surprising amount of details about Short’s murder when the LAPD hauled him in for questioning. He was eventually let go—thanks to a dirty cop, according to Eatwell—but some of the detectives investigating the case never forgot him.

In 2018, Buz Williams—a retired officer with California's Long Beach Police Department and the son of Richard F. Williams, part of the LAPD’s Gangster Squad—told Rolling Stone that “My dad thought Leslie Dillon was the killer," and that other cops suspected that Dillon was, at the very least, an accomplice.

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