Skull in naturalist's garden solves murder mystery

By Matt Blake

David Attenborough. Photo / Supplied
David Attenborough. Photo / Supplied

It was one of the most gruesome murder puzzles in British history that stumped detectives for over 130 years.

But the riddle over the infamous slaying of Julia Martha Thomas in 1879 has finally been solved, six months after a battered skull was unearthed in David Attenborough's back garden in Richmond, southwest London.

Using the latest in forensic technology, investigators yesterday confirmed at an inquest that the severed head found in October was indeed that of the God-fearing widow. She had been murdered by her maid, Kate Webster, who was convicted of the murder in 1879 and hanged.

But it was the chilling details revealed in court that captured the public's imagination and earned it the title The Barnes Mystery.

Thomas, 55, had employed 29-year-old Webster, a convicted thief and fraudster, as a servant in January 1879. But their relationship soured as Webster became increasingly angry over the maid's heavy drinking and pub-going.

On March 2 the devout Presbyterian returned from Mass when a row broke out. In a drunken rage, Webster pushed her employer down a flight of stairs before strangling her. Then using a meat saw, a razor and a kitchen knife, she dismembered the body, limb by limb.

Webster boiled the corpse and even fed the dripping to local children to eat, calling it pigs' lard, the inquest heard. She stuffed the rest into a wooden box which she threw into the Thames, but the head and a foot would not fit.

So she buried the head in the garden and dumped the foot in a nearby allotment. Days later a box containing "a mass of white flesh" was found by Barnes Bridge, after which the mystery was named. But without a head no formal identification could ever take place.

Webster was convicted and hanged on July 29, 1879. The final twist came in October last year when workmen building an extension on TV naturalist Attenborough's home made the grisly find as they dug his back garden.

The skull was sent to forensic officers who used radio carbon testing alongside census data to confirm its true identity.

- Independent

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