The International Writers Magazine:The
Richmond Murder Mystery
Webster: a Conversation at Her Hanging.
following is an unpublished extract from a collection of conversations
recorded by Henry Mayhew during the second half of the nineteenth-century.
I wish to relate
to you now, my most recent conversation with a member of that lowest
of classes: the urban poor. The unfortunate subject, of whom I refer,
was, in my estimation, a boy of no more than ten years (he seemingly
had no idea of his own age), and our paths crossed, most fortuitously,
in the street outside Wandsworth Prison. I must inform you that I was
at the prison to witness the execution of that abomination of the female
sex, the most notorious Kate Webster.
As you know, I have made it my lifes work to document, from the
lips of the poor, a literal description of their labour, their earnings,
their trials, and their sufferings and, I might say, of their considerable
heroics in the face of such harshness.
It has always been my earnest hope that my work may, in some small way,
illuminate those of our own class, and who are beyond temptation, to
look with charity and understanding on the frailties of our less fortunate
brethren. For we, the great and the good of this our beloved nation,
have a clear moral duty to bestir ourselves to improve the condition
of a class of people whose misery, ignorance, and vice, amidst all the
immense wealth of this, the greatest city in the world, is, to say the
least, a national disgrace to us.
I am not now nor ever have been a supporter of the death penalty. However,
the reported crimes of that most monstrous of women has tested my resolve
to the limit. Webster was, of course, Irish (sic), which may go some
way to explain her bestial behaviour and yet, to be fair, I have myself
met and talked to many an Irish and have, most often, found them to
be decent Christians
Though obviously one cannot normally trust
a single word they say.
Webster was found guilty of the foul murder of her mistress, a Mrs Julia
Thomas of Richmond, a respectable widow who had employed Webster as
maid-of-all-work. After some time, the good Mrs Thomas was forced to
dismiss the wretched woman for her frequent drunkenness. Websters
response was to dispatch her with a chopper. She told neighbours that
her mistress was away on business and then proceeded to impersonate
the poor woman in order to sell her jewellery, clothes and furniture,
around the town.
As if all this were not horrendous enough but no, the creature took
her chopper and, over a period of some weeks, dismembered the body bit
by grizzly bit. She boiled many of these parts in the copper and then
boned them as though her mistress were a piece of mutton. A foot was
found at Twickenham, and the torso was washed ashore in a hatbox at
Websters crime might yet have gone unnoticed but for the caring
vigilance of her friends and neighbours who became suspicious when men
began removing furniture from the ladys home. They went to the
police with their concerns stating that they could not believe that
she would have left so suddenly. The house was duly searched and a bloody
chopper was found along with a gruesome pile of smashed and partially
burned bones. The inspector (a good, honest and upright man) described
the interiors of both the kitchen and scullery as being like an abattoir
or butchers shop where the disposing of the body had been undertaken
in an almost industrial fashion where various (if I may be so indelicate)
bloody cuts and chops were found in bowls, pans and laying on plates
awaiting disposal. And so, with such terrible and damning evidence before
them the vile murderess was taken.
I had occasion to witness this monster for myself at her trial at the
Old Bailey and never has a more villainous woman stood in Her Majestys
dock. She was at least six feet in height, with great broad shoulders
such as one might see upon a well-fed bricklayer or Irish navigator.
Her hands were like those of a pugilist and out of her hard, masculine
features gazed two, dark eyes as cold as stone. She did not deny her
crimes and showed not one ounce of remorse for what she had done. It
took less than an hour for the jury to decide her guilt and the judge
to pronounce her sentence and even then, she exhibited no emotional
response at all.
It was after the sentence had been duly carried out that I met the young
lad of which I have alluded. He, like so many others, had congregated
outside in the street at Wandsworth, though of course there was nothing
"Is she gone sir?" he shouted as I walked by. I stopped and
recognised him as a fairly typical ragged beggar boy. He had no boots
and his clothes were all a tatter but for all his obvious poverty, he
had quick, bright eyes shining from his dirty, wizened face.
"You speak of the Webster woman I take it
did you know her
at all?" I asked.
"Oh yes sir, I nose Kate. We all nose Irish Kate sir, she got done
for topping old lady Thomas an chopin her up for boilin."
"Indeed, but did you actually know her
to speak to I mean?"
The boy thought about this for a moment as though wondering whether
or not to gull me in some way. Yet I do not think he was completely
corrupted by the harshness of the streets for he replied.
"Well sir, I seen her about often like but she was not one to talk
much sir an thats a fact. Mind you sir, just recent she did me
an other poor uns hereabouts a good turn so she did."
"Oh yes". I asked, interested in the notion that such a person
could perform a Christian act. "And just what did Kate Webster
ever do for you young man?"
"For my part sir, it had been an hard time an I was right hungry
with nothing to eat but a few crusts here an there. Me an some of the
others were huddled up sir, under the whale way bridge feelin
right sorry for ourselves we were, when all of a sudden up comes Irish
Kate an she says ear you lot Ive some good pigs lard ear
an you kids shall have it free of charge
so dont go saying
that ol Kate never gives you nothink. And, on the ground
at our feet sir she puts two big bowls a lard an a hunk o' bread an
she says eat it all up now me dears its good for you an, when
youve finished you can sell them bowls an all. And off she
went sir an we stuffed our faces right good so we did."
Well, as you might imagine I was perplexed by the boys story.
For nothing I had hitherto heard relating to Kate Webster had prepared
me for what seemed an obviously charitable act more usually performed
by the better sort of lady than by an Irish skivvy.
This seemingly paradoxical incident exercises my mind as I sit here
at my escritoire, a well-deserved glass of Scotch at my side.
Here then, was a woman capable of calmly taking the life of another,
of systematically destroying their mortal remains and, once discovered,
show no human sympathy or remorse for her crimes. And yet, this very
same inhuman monster finds it in her heart to venture out into the night
to deliver free food (of which she almost certainly had need for herself)
to the starving urchins of her parish
It is indeed an interesting
example of the inconsistent nature of the human condition.
Henry Mathew, London, 1879.
© Graham Attenborough Dec 2005
Graham teaches history
at the University of Portsmouth and is studying for his Masters in Creative
Fiction in Dreamscapes
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