Kate Webster: The Female Sweeney Todd

Kate Webster’s (1849-1879) mark on history is as the “female Sweeney Todd” for murdering her employer, Julia Thomas, but before dismembering and boiling the bones off a corpse, Kate was born to a life of poverty in Killanne, County Wexford, Ireland. Despite coming from respectable parents, Kate developed a penchant for stealing in her early teens. She used these funds to board a ship and traveled to Liverpool, eventually reaching London. 

Kate went on to serve a string of short prison sentences for pickpocketing and larceny. She traveled around London under an array of aliases, including Web, Gibbs, and Lawler, to avoid capture, but she always managed to find herself back in a cell. She also prostituted herself on occasion, which resulted in a son in 1874. 

Kate Webster. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
If those eyes don’t give you nightmares, I don’t know what will…

The father remains a mystery, as Kate named three potential men, one of whom was a fellow named “Strong.” Strong assisted Kate in a few robberies, but he could not be confirmed as the father. Kate received two prison sentences in the short time after giving birth to her son. Her friend, a charwoman named Sarah Crease, watched her son while she was incarcerated. 

In January 1879, Kate found employment as the housekeeper for Julia Thomas, a 52 year-old,  wealthy widow living in Richmond. Mrs. Thomas often criticized Kate’s work and time overspent in local pubs, and of course, Kate loathed the chastising. After one month in Mrs. Thomas’s household, Kate was sacked. 

Kate Webster (left) and Mrs. Julia Martha Thomas (right). Image originally in Illustrated Police News, 12 July 1879, page 1. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

On March 2nd, 1879, the two women quarreled after a drunken Kate returned from an alehouse, but it wasn’t here that the murder took place. It wouldn’t be until a few hours later when Mrs. Thomas returned from church that Kate pounced. During a fight upstairs, Kate threw Mrs. Thomas to the ground floor and strangled her to death. 

Kate dismembered the body with an axe and boiled the parts in laundry copper, also called a wash copper, which was used for laundry. If that wasn’t gruesome and sickening enough, Kate burned Mrs. Thomas’s bones in the hearth. During all this, Kate managed to return to the alehouse, Hayhoe’s Pub, twice for liquor. 

Kate, calling herself “Mrs. Thomas,” tried selling all the furniture in the murdered widow’s house. Wearing a silk dress and carrying a bag, she visited a family she knew called the Porters. She fabricated a story, claiming to have married, had a son, widowed not long after, and resided in a home in Richmond willed to her by a kindly aunt. She asked if the Porters knew anyone who might be interested in buying the furniture. They said a Mr. John Church might very well be. 

Sketch of Mr. John Church from The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times, 1879.
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Henry Porter and his son, Robert Porter, accompanied Kate on a visit to Mr. Church. On their return, they visited a few pubs, and it was at one of those pubs, near Hammersmith Bridge, that Kate excused herself with the bag she’d been carrying. She returned without the bag and asked if Robert Porter might help her carry a large wooden chest to a train station. On Richmond Bridge, Kate instructed Robert Porter to stay with the chest and that she’d return in a moment. Robert recalled hearing a splashing noise, and when Kate returned, she said, “Well, that’s over.” Fishermen working on the Thames recovered a chest the next day and found a woman’s boiled remains inside. 

More body parts would be discovered in the coming days, including a foot and ankle. Even though a head was not located, the police assumed the parts all belonged to the same person. Believing she’d gotten away with the crime, Kate sold Mrs. Thomas’s furniture to Mr. John Church for £68. 

There’s reports that Kate tried to sell two pounds of lard, supposedly Mrs. Thomas’s body fat, to a neighbor, and that she offered the same fat to neighborhood children. However, there’s no evidence to support these claims, so what likely made Kate Webster the “female Sweeney Todd” is founded on journalists trying to sell newspapers with sensationalism.

Sketch of the murderess, Kate Webster, from an 1879 issue of The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

There was evidence piling up against Kate, though. A neighbor called Miss Ives became suspicious at the buzz of activity going on at Mrs. Thomas’s house. When furniture movers identified Kate as “Mrs. Thomas,” Miss Ives knew there was something terribly wrong and sounded the alarm for police. Kate fled. 

Policemen tracked Kate back to Killanne in Ireland. She was arrested on March 28th and brought back to London still wearing Mrs. Thomas’s clothes and jewelry. The crime became a sensation in both England and Ireland. While being transported via train, spectators showed at the stations to catch a glimpse of the notorious murderer, Kate Webster. Newspapers wrote about her, and people discussed her in pubs and clubs. 

Her trial started on July 2nd in the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales, and lasted seven days. Kate denied committing the murder, pinning the blame on Henry Porter and John Church. She even claimed that her son’s father, Strong, had something to do with the crime, but no one seemed to believe her claims. She was found guilty of the crime. 

Kate Webster’s trial and conviction in 1879. This sketch was from an 1879 issue of Illustrated Police News. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

On the night before her execution, Kate confessed to the murder to her prison chaplain. She took responsibility, clearing Henry Porter, John Church, and Strong of any wrongdoing. She was hanged at 9am on July 29, 1879 at Wandsworth Prison.  

The house where Kate Webster murdered Mrs. Julia Thomas remained uninhabited until 1897, when the crime faded from the public’s mind. In October 2010, a skull was recovered by workmen “building an extension on TV naturalist Mr Attenborough’s home,” according to a 2011 article in the Independent. It was later confirmed through carbon dating and fracture marks consistent with Kate Webster’s testimony that the skull belonged to none other than Mrs. Julia Thomas. 

This goes to show that the murder of Mrs. Julia Thomas captured the attention of the public as much now as it did in the Victorian era. This horrific and gruesome crime, and the spectacle, rumor, and legends surrounding it, turned Kate Webster into the “female Sweeney Todd.” 


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Further Readings:

Attenborough skull mystery finally solved by Matt Blake, Crime Correspondent for the Independent

‘Barnes mystery’ of Attenborough garden skull solved, article on BBC News

Catherine Webster, the original proceedings from The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913

Catherine Webster on Murderpedia

The Hanging of Kate Webster.; Her Final Statement Regarding the Murder of Mrs. Thomas., August 10, 1879 article from The New York Times (only available to subscribers)

Inquest opens into skull found in Sir David Attenborough’s garden, article found on This Is Local London

Ten facts about Kate Webster, the Irish maid hanged for dismembering her employer in Victorian London by Gerard Donaghy, journalist for The Irish Post

These Victorian Killers Inspired Modern Day Crime by the Raven Report

Trial, sentence & execution of Kate Webster for the murder of Mrs Thomas, at Richmond, digital copy of 1879(?) newspaper article from the University of Cambridge

2 thoughts on “Kate Webster: The Female Sweeney Todd

    1. David, thank you for your kind words! When I saw those haunting eyes, I knew I had to write a piece on her. I’m glad my efforts struck a chord. Best, Kat.

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