The International Writers Magazine
:The Richmond Murder Mystery

Kate Webster: a Conversation at Her Hanging.
Graham Attenborough

The following is an unpublished extract from a collection of conversations recorded by Henry Mayhew during the second half of the nineteenth-century.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 life’s 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. Webster’s 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 Barnes.

Webster’s 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 lady’s 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 Majesty’s 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 to see.
"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 that’s 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 I’ve some good pigs lard ear an you kids shall have it free of charge… so don’t 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 you’ve 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 boy’s 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 Writing

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