One of the most notorious and brutal crimes of nineteenth century England was the murder of Julia Martha Thomas by her maid, Kate Webster. Julia Martha Thomas was a widow in her fifties who lived in Richmond of southwest London. While searching for a maid to employ, Mrs.
Thomas made the fatal mistake of selecting Kate Webster, a thirty year old woman who had a criminal background she was unaware of (2nd source). Mrs. Thomas and her maid often got into quarrels with one another which eventually became very severe. One afternoon, in a drunken rage, Kate not only killed, but dismembered and fed parts of her mistress’s corpse to children. Known as the Richmond Murder, this gruesome case changed the way people thought during the Victorian Era and has recently become relevant again. In 2010, an astounding discovery was made which solved the 131 year old crime. Only about 15% of murders during the Victorian Era were committed by women (source 12), however they are often the most horrific and ruthless.
The homicide of Mrs. Thomas was described in the press as “one of the most sensational and awful chapters in the annals of human wickedness (Crime 15).” The actions of Kate in the Richmond murder attracted huge public interest and greatly influenced Victorian society. She changed the way women as well as lower social classes were looked upon.Prior to the murder, Kate Webster had a history of much illegal activity. Ever since she was a teenager, she had been been in and out of prison (2). She was born as Kate Lawler in 1849 in County Wexford, Ireland. (15).
As described by The Daily Telegraph she was “a tall, strongly-made woman of about 5 feet 5 inches (165 cm) in height with sallow and much freckled complexion and large and prominent teeth (Revolvy 11).” Kate began stealing at a very young age and and gained a reputation as a thief (Irish 6). She was caught and put in jail for larceny in 1864 when she was only fifteen years old (Irish 6).
Her time in prison didn’t have any effect on her and she returned to theft upon her release. Three years later, she had stolen enough money for her take a boat and move to England where she continued her life of crime (Crime 15). At some point she changed her last name to Webster, claiming to have met a sea captain of that name whom she had a relationship with. She said they married and had four children together, but that both him and the children died (Crime 15).
However, because several of her later autobiographical statements proved unreliable and she had a tendency for lying, it’s questionable whether these people actually existed. Many of the details of Kate’s early life are unclear. In 1868, when she was eighteen years old, she was sentenced to four years “penal servitude” due to a series of thefts. When she was let go, she moved to Hammersmith, London. For five years she worked as a cleaner and would often steal from her employers and sell them. Before she could be caught, she would switch to another new home (Altered 2). She also made additional money as a prostitute.
In 1873, Kate moved to Notting Hill and there met “Mr. Strong,” who was her accomplice in further theft as well as the man she fell in love with. Once she became pregnant, however, he deserted her, leaving her to raise their child alone. She gave birth to a son who she named John W. Webster. Unfortunately, motherhood didn’t reform her and she continued her robberies.
Later, she would claimed that she was “forced into crime” as she had been “forsaken by him Strong, and committed crimes for the purpose of supporting myself and my child (Crime 15).” She was been arrested and imprisoned several times in the following years. Kate tried to steer clear of the police and used many different aliases. Some included Webb, Webster, Gibbs, Gibbons and her birth name, Lawler.