The murder of Julia Martha Thomas, know as the “Barnes Mystery” or the “Richmond Murder” by the press, was one of the most notorious crimes in late 19th-century Britain.
Julia Martha Thomas was a former schoolteacher who had been twice widowed. Since the death of her second husband in 1873, she had lived on her own at 2 Mayfield Cottages (also known as 2 Vine Cottages) in Park Road in Richmond, a villa built in grey stone with a garden at the front and back.
When Julia assumed Kate Webster as a governess, she did not know that this would prove to be a fatal decision. In 1879 Julia already lived alone, and she was an eccentric fifty-four-old widow who often traveled and dressed well above her bourgeois status. Her bad temper usually made the servants last very little, and so, when a friend told her about an Irish woman looking for a job, Julia hired her without thinking too much.
The service woman came from Ireland. Kate was a famous pickpocket who ended up in jail for the first time at 15. Some time later she reached England and fell in love with a thief, of whom she became pregnant and who abandoned her shortly thereafter. With a son to keep and completely alone in the world, she began working as a service woman, stealing and moving from house to house looking for new victims.
The strange Kate, besides working, had two Hobbies: drinking and fistfight!
Naturally Julia did not get along with the new employee and, after a few months of constant quarrels, she fired her. Kate begged to stay at least a few days to find another job, and Julia told her she would only pay her for another weekend. On Sunday morning Julia confessed to her friends that she was afraid to be alone with the woman, and that she would send her away once she got home.
But Julia did not have time to send Kate away.
Once back, the young widow was brutally murdered by her housekeeper. Kate threw her down the stairs and, before she could scream, she pounched on her and strangled her. The housekeeper grabbed a razor and saw, she dismembered the body, boiled it by pulling the flesh from the bones and put the remains in a Gladstone bag.
The whole body, except the head and one foot.
To the housekeeper served several days to clean up everything, and once the work was done, she put on Julia’s clothes and pretended to be a widow for a certain period of time. When she felt that the waters had calmed down, she threw the remains of her body into the Thames, inside the bag.
Julia’s corpse was discovered the following morning, but without the head, it proved impossible to identify. Kate continued to live like the murdered widow for some time, wearing clothes and jewelry and starting to sell everything that belonged to the deceased. She managed to gain from the gold fillings, the furniture, the house and even from the woman’s fat, which she placed at a nearby restaurant!
Not being able to sell it all, she gave it to children, smashing it like lard, and they ate two full bowls.
But a sudden change of behavior so absurd gave rise to more than one suspect, and a neighbor alerted the police. Kate escaped to Ireland, but was soon captured and sent back to London, where she was tried and sentenced to hanging. Before he died he confessed everything to a priest.
Of the murdered widow everything was found, except the head.
Her severed head remained missing until October 2010, when the skull was found during building works being carried out for the naturalist Sir David Attenborough.
After handing it over to the police, the scientific investigation confirmed that it was the skull of Julia Martha Thomas, who died some 130 years earlier and was buried a short distance from her own home, where the ancient Pub is located: “Hole in the Wall”.
The case of Julia and her assassin deeply upset London. Although the Victorian era is famous for its macabre brackets, it was a period anchored in the past, where death came naturally and not violently.
Julia herself had been widowed twice, a circumstance far from unusual at the time.
Precisely the large number of widows and that of the correspondents housekeepers fed a very high general interest for the affair, which was followed by the press with a precision to the limits of the morbid.