Webster, Kate (1849–1879)

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Webster, Kate (1849–1879)

Irish murderer . Born in 1849 in Killane, County Wexford, Ireland; hanged on July 29, 1879, in London, England; never married; children: one son.

Kate Webster, born in 1849 in Ireland, was first a thief, then a murderer. She began her life of crime as a child, when her bold, recurrent stealing brought not only many arrests but also many lectures from the local priest. Webster escaped further arrests and lectures by using money she had stolen to sail to Liverpool, England. Not possessed of the swiftest of pickpocketing techniques, however, she soon was caught there and convicted. After serving a four-year sentence, she left her criminal record behind once again and moved to London.

There, Webster became a maid, but also supported herself through prostitution. She soon turned to lodging-house robbery. Renting a different room every few days, she would steal anything she could carry to the local pawnbroker. She was also frequently arrested, racking up over 30 counts of larceny on one occasion. Throughout the mid-1870s, she spent many days in jail, including an 18-month sentence in Wandsworth prison.

By January 1879, now an unmarried mother, Webster had moved to the Richmond area of London. Through the charity of a local woman named Mrs. Crease , she found work as a maid for the wealthy and reclusive Mrs. Julia Martha Thomas . Webster left her son (to whom she was apparently quite attached) with Mrs. Crease while she lived with and worked for Thomas. After an initial period during which she seemed to be a model maid, working hard to complete her chores each day, Webster began working less and playing more at the local pub, the Hole-inthe-Wall. Her employer disapproved of this kind of behavior, and fired her only one month after she had been hired.

Webster responded to news of her dismissal by waiting for Thomas to return from church, where she had gone immediately after telling Webster to leave, and then attacking her with an axe. Striking her on the head with the side of the axe, Webster next pushed Thomas down a staircase before delivering a fatal blow to the head. To dispose of the evidence, she dragged Thomas' body into the kitchen, stripped it, cut it up, and threw it into a copper pot she already had boiling. Unable to tolerate the horrific stench, she then went drinking at the Hole-in-the-Wall pub for awhile before returning to the house to finish the job. She packed what was left of Thomas in a box and scrubbed the entire house, including the copper pot. The following day she burned Thomas' bones in the fireplace. Webster's greed was such that she sold her victim's gold bridgework (with several false teeth still attached), and she reportedly attempted to sell some of the boiled-down remains as cooking fat.

Having thrown Thomas' head into the river (it was never found), Webster enlisted the help of Robert Porter, a young man who had been pubhopping with her, to help her carry the box of Thomas' remains to the Richmond Bridge. She sent him on his way after explaining that a friend would be picking up the box, and then dumped it in the Thames. She was so certain she had committed the perfect crime that she told new acquaintances she had inherited (from "a dear aunt") Thomas' house, and began negotiating the sale of the dead woman's furniture.

The following day, however, the box she had dumped floated to the surface of the river, and fishermen who opened it made the gruesome discovery of the unidentifiable remains. Although this evidence in itself did not point to Webster as the murderer—indeed, no one had even noticed that Thomas was missing—a neighbor called the police when she saw Thomas' furniture being taken away without the supervision of either Thomas or her maid. Police arrived at the house to investigate the matter, and Webster fled. Her flight confirmed guilt, and she erred further by attempting to hide out in her hometown of Killane, Ireland, where authorities, now convinced that Thomas had been murdered, easily tracked her down on March 28, 1879. She was still wearing Thomas' dress and rings.

Webster did not go quietly to her fate. When returned to London and faced with John Church, the man who had tried to purchase Thomas' furniture and had agreed to identify her for police, she pointed at him and shouted dramatically, "Here's your murderer!" He was arrested, much to his shock, but then quickly released after proving his whereabouts on the day of Thomas' murder. Webster then tried to shift the blame to the father of her pub-hopping friend Robert Porter, but this, too, was proved to be a lie. The circumstances of her crime—particularly her grisly methods of disposing of the body—had horrified all England, and her trial, begun on July 2, 1879, was widely covered in the papers. Webster was routinely described during the trial as "savage, barbaric, callous, fiendish," and on July 9 she was found guilty. After the death sentence was pronounced, she claimed that a man who had been her lover (she offered no name) had committed the crime. The court did not believe her. She then "pled her belly" (the executions of pregnant women were postponed until after they gave birth), but an examination proved that she was not pregnant. Webster continued making wild accusations up until the night before her execution, when she finally admitted to a prison chaplain and the warden that she had indeed killed Thomas. She nonetheless appeared unremorseful, and the following day, July 29, 1879, showered obscenities on observers at Wandsworth prison as she was escorted to the hangman's noose.

sources:

Nash, Jay Robert. Look for the Woman. NY: M. Evans, 1981.

Ann M. Schwalboski , M.A., M.F.A., University of Wisconson-Baraboo/Sauk County