Toronto Sun

October 7, 2001

Off with her head

Kate Webster was one of the most notorious criminals in the annals of crime

By MAX HAINES -- Toronto Sun

There is something about the British Isles that compels murderers to commit horrible acts with a certain elan, which seems to be absent in other locales. What these killers lack in volume, they make up in quality. It has always been thus.

Let me introduce you to Kate Webster, who appeared on the scene well before the turn of the 20th century. Kate first saw the light of day in Kilane, County Wexford, to God-fearing, salt-of- the-earth Irish parents. Unfortunately, Kate's innate tendencies had a larcenous bent despite her parents constantly extolling the virtues of the Blessed Virgin Mary. No, Kate just wasn't cut out for the religious life. She took up stealing instead.

By the time she was 16 years old, Kate had accumulated enough cash from her nefarious career to purchase a ticket allowing her to cross the Irish Sea to the promised land of Merrie England. For two years she stole enough to keep the wolf from the door.

The good times didn't last. An alert constable caught her relieving an unsuspecting gent of his wallet. Our Kate went into the slammer for four long years.

Upon her release from a Liverpool prison, Kate made her way to London, securing for herself the position of charwoman. She soon came to realize that more coin could be earned by pursuing horizontal activities rather than scrubbing other people's floors. Kate became a prostitute.

Along the way, Kate found herself pregnant. To her credit, she kept her son and attempted to bring him up as best she could. She made ends meet by returning to the risky art of picking pockets in addition to her regular prostituting career. Kate was far more accomplished at purveying sexual favours than she was at picking pockets. She was in and out of jail more than 30 separate times, including an 18-month stint in Wandsworth Prison.

At the conclusion of her prison term, Kate moved in with Julia Thomas, a reclusive 60-year-old widow who prided herself on being a regular church-attending Presbyterian. Miss Thomas lived in a quaint home located a few kilometres up the Thames from London. Her home was one of two small houses known as Vine Cottages, which were owned by a Miss Ives. Julia considered it a fortunate circumstance to acquire such a hard-working maid as Kate Webster. Julia was not a good judge of character.

Within 10 days, Julia realized she had made a huge mistake. Kate was a terrible maid, who spent most of her time at the local pub, aptly named, The Hole In The Wall. Oftentimes, Kate would return to No. 2 Vine Cottages half sloshed. Julia warned her several times, but Kate continued her slovenly ways. Finally, Julia could take her undisciplined maid no longer. After a heated argument, Kate was told to pack her belongings and vacate the premises.

To calm her nerves, Julia went to church and was observed by other worshippers to be red-eyed and nervous. When she returned home, Kate had apparently left the premises. Julia proceeded to her bedroom to change out of her church clothing. When she exited her room, she was confronted by a charging Kate, wielding an axe.

The first blow was a glancing one to the side of Julia's head. She struggled with Kate, but was no match for her enraged maid. Julia tumbled down the stairs. Kate was upon her in an instant, planting the axe directly into Julia's skull.

Kate was still to perform the acts which would place her among the most notorious female killers in the annals of crime. She dragged the body into the kitchen. Working in a meticulous manner, she brought a large pot of water to the boil. Kate had prepared well. An assortment of sharp knives were laid out on the kitchen table, as was a large meat cleaver. On a chair were two glass jars and a black leather bag. Beside the chair, on the floor, was a wooden box lined with cloth sacks and brown paper.

Kate undressed her victim and hacked off her head, which was placed in the leather bag. Warming to the task at hand, she proceeded to chop Julia up into small, manageable portions. It was hard work. Kate needed a break. She dashed down to The Hole In The Wall, where she spent an hour downing a few long cool ones.

But a girl's work is never done. She returned to No. 2 Vine Cottages and resumed her task. Portions of Julia, which had been left to boil while Kate refreshed herself, were now sufficiently done to be extracted and placed in the box. Liquid fat was retrieved in the two jars on hand for that very purpose. Kate placed fresh hunks of Julia into the boiling water. Large bones and the like were burned in the stove. Anything too large to boil was placed in the box.

This activity produced a great quantity of blood, which had to be removed. Utilizing her training as a maid, Kate worked hard until all utensils and the floor were as they had been before the dissection had taken place. It took a couple of days.

Generally, from Kate's point of view, all went well, but there were a few tense moments. While into her cleanup job, a coal merchant knocked on the door with a bill for coal he had previously delivered. Kate told him Julia was not at home, which in a way was true enough.

There was some monetary gain for Kate. She sold Julia's gold bridgework, garnering six shillings, which went for straight whiskey down at The Hole In The Wall.

Our Kate had a plan. Fortified with drink, she returned to Julia's home and helped herself to some of the deceased's finer clothing before setting out to call on an old acquaintance, Henry Porter of Hammersmith. Kate left the house carrying Julia's head in the leather bag.

Mr. Porter, who hadn't laid eyes on Kate for years, was impressed with her appearance. Kate explained that she had been married to a wealthy gentleman, a Mr. Thomas, who unfortunately had died, leaving her in comfortable circumstances. She told Porter that she was interested in selling the contents of her home. Mr. Porter, with visions of a fat commission dancing in his head, knew the very man who might be interested in the furniture, his friend John Church, who owned the nearby Rising Sun Tavern. He would set up an appointment with Church.

Kate, still lugging that bag with Julia's head inside, left Porter's office and returned home. Along the way she met friends, stopped for drinks, and all in all had a rather pleasant day. As night fell, one of her friends insisted that his son accompany Kate home. After all, it wasn't safe for a lady to be alone late at night.

At home, her friend's son assisted Kate in carrying a large box to Richmond Bridge. Once at the bridge, she insisted that he run along and she would take care of the box. As the lad walked away, he heard a loud splash.

Next day, a fisherman spotted the box stuck in the mud on the river bank. Curious, he opened the box and peeked in. He recoiled in horror at the sight of the boiled Julia Thomas.

The following day, Kate met with her prospective purchaser, John Church, in her former employer's home. Posing as Mrs. Thomas, she sold the contents of the house. A van pulled up and commenced loading the furniture. That's when Mrs. Ives, the owner of the cottage, became suspicious of all the activity taking place around the house. She asked Mr. Church what was going on. From their conversation, he became suspicious that Kate was not Mrs. Thomas, but was attempting to fraudulently sell the furniture.

Church, accompanied by Henry Porter, went to the police. Detectives arrived at the home and ascertained that murder had taken place there.

Kate was long gone. Police were able to trace her to an uncle in Ireland. She was returned to England to stand trial. The evidence pointing to her guilt was overwhelming. When Kate was taken into custody in Ireland, she was wearing Julia Thomas's clothing and jewelry. Kate was found guilty and sentenced to death. While awaiting her appointment with the hangman, she confessed to the murder and dissection to the prison chaplain and the warden of the prison. The only thing she never revealed was what she had done with the head of Julia Thomas.

On July 27, 1879, Kate Webster was hanged at Wandsworth Prison.

Copyright © 2001, Canoe Limited Partnership.