Because Mondays are MURDER...

Monday, 26 May 2014

Murderous Monday - Catherine Webster - Women Who Kill - Hired Help, The Only Woman To Hang At Wandsworth Prison

The terrible crime at Richmond at last,
On Catherine Webster now has been cast,
Tried and found guilty she is sentenced to die.
From the strong hand of justice she cannot fly.
She has tried all excuses but of no avail,
About this and murder she's told many tales,
She has tried to throw blame on others as well,
But with all her cunning at last she has fell.

Catherine Webster met her maker at the end of William Marwood's rope on 29th July 1879 at Wandsworth Prison, for the murder of her employer Mrs Julia Martha Thomas.

Catherine Webster was born Kate Lawler in Killanne, County Wexford, Ireland in 1848 and from a young age she found herself on the wrong side of the law.  At the age of 15 in the December of 1864 she was imprisoned for stealing in her home county of Wexford.  In 1867 Kate moved to Liverpool, England, where she was soon sentenced to four years imprisonment, again for stealing.  she was released in the January of 1872, but by 1875 she had again been arrested for stealing and was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment at Wandsworth Prison.  In the February of 1877 she was again sentenced for stealing and served 12 months.

On 13th January 1879 Catherine entered the employ of Julia Martha Thomas, a widow in her 50's at 2 Mayfield Cottages in Richmond.  At first the relationship between the two women was good, but it soon began to sour when Mrs Thomas became critical of Catherine's poor standard of work, time keeping and general drunkenness.  Matters became increasingly bad in the household until Mr Thomas gave Catherine notice to leave by 28th February.  Mrs Thomas recorded her decision in her last diary entry, "Gave Katherine warning to leave."

2 Mayfield Cottages

By the 28th February however Catherine had yet to find further employment or accommodation and had persuaded Mrs Thomas to allow her to stay until that Sunday, 2nd March.  A decision that was to cost Mrs Thomas her life.  Catherine had Sunday afternoons off to visit her son John who was cared for by her friend Sarah Crease, with Catherine having to return in good time to help Mrs Thomas prepare for evening service at the local Presbyterian chapel.  This Sunday Catherine visited a local hostilely and was late returning to 2 Mayfield Cottages, delaying Mrs Thomas's departure.  The two woman quarrelled before Mrs Thomas left.  Witnesses at the chapel noted that Mrs Thomas seems to be in an agitated state and left before the end of the service.

Illustrated Police News
12th July 1879

What happened next was murder, either accidental or premeditated.  According the Catherine's eventual confession the events that unfolded that evening were an accident caused by a fit of temper.

'Mrs. Thomas came in and went upstairs. I went up after her, and we had an argument, which ripened into a quarrel, and in the height of my anger and rage I threw her from the top of the stairs to the ground floor. She had a heavy fall, and I became agitated at what had occurred, lost all control of myself, and, to prevent her screaming and getting me into trouble, I caught her by the throat, and in the struggle she was choked, and I threw her on the floor.'

Mrs Thomas's neighbour and landlady Mrs Ives recalled hearing what sounded like a chair falling over coming from next door.  However she heard no sounds of quarrelling.

Catherine now had that age old problem, what to do with the body of Mrs Thomas.

'I determined to do away with the body as best I could. I chopped the head from the body with the assistance of a razor which I used to cut through the flesh afterwards. I also used the meat saw and the carving knife to cut the body up with. I prepared the copper with water to boil the body to prevent identity; and as soon as I had succeeded in cutting it up I placed it in the copper and boiled it. I opened the stomach with the carving knife, and burned up as much of the parts as I could.'

Neighbours had recalled a terrible smell coming from the property and Catherine herself confessed to being 'greatly overcome both by the sight before me and the smell.'

Over the next few days Catherine continued to run the house, putting on an air of normality all the while she was packing Mrs Thomas's remains into a black Gladstone bag and a corded bonnet box. However Catherine was unable to fit on of the feet or head into the packages, she disposed of these separately.  She threw the remaining foot on a rubbish heap in Twickenham and secreted the head in a shallow grave in the stables at the Hole in The Wall public house. Mrs Thomas's skull was discovered 131 years later by workmen.

On 4th March, Catherine travelled to visit her old neighbours in Hammersmith, the Porter family, taking with her the Gladstone bag and corded bonnet box.  Catherine told the Porters that her name was now Mrs Thomas, having married and been widowed since she had seen them last.  She then invited Mr Porter and his son Robert to the Oxford and Cambridge Arms public house.  Along the way Catherine disposed of the Gladstone bag, possibly by dropping it into the Thames, the bag was never recovered.  When Catherine left the company of the Porters she disposed of the bonnet box on Richmond Bridge, this was to be Catherine's undoing.  The next day the box had washed up in shallow water by the river bank only a mile downstream.  The box was discovered by coal porter Henry Wheatley, who found the box to contain body parts wrapped in brown paper.  The police were duly summoned and an investigation was underway.

Meanwhile Catherine continued to live at the home of her victim, 2 Mayfield Cottages. Posing as Mrs Thomas she sold a large amount of Mrs Thomas's furniture to John Church, a publican, to help furnish his public house, The Rising Sun.

By now neighbours were becoming increasingly concerned and suspicious about the whereabouts of Mr Thomas.  On 18th March when the carts arrived to remove Mrs Thomas's furniture a neighbour enquired to one of the men who had ordered the removal of the goods.  The man stated that Mrs Thomas had done so, whilst indicating Catherine to be Mrs Thomas.  Catherine realised she had been exposed and fled the scene immediately.  The police were summoned to 2 Mayfield cottages where they found blood stains, charred finger bones in the fire place and fatty deposits in the copper.  A wanted notice for Catherine was immediately issued.

Catherine had fled to Liverpool where she later took a coal streamer back to Ireland.  News reached Scotland Yard that Catherine was hiding out at her uncle's farm in Killanne in Ireland.  It was there that she was arrested on 29th March.

Illustrated Police News
19th July 1879

Catherine was sent to trail at The Old Bailey on 2nd July 1879, the trial lasted for six days while numerous witnesses pieced together the complicated story as to how Mrs Thomas had met her end.  Catherine protested her innocence throughout the trail, even attempting to implicate John church, the Porters and the absent father of her son.  However it only to took the jury an hour and a quarter to find Catherine guilty of the wilful and premeditated murder of Mrs Thomas.  Catherine was hung for her crime, her remains buried in an unmarked grave in Wandsworth Prison.

Illustrated Police News
2nd August 1879

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