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London’s Victorian murderesses

portraits_of_eliza_fenning_and_kate_webster

Of the six murderous women featured in Bad Companions, perhaps one feels most sympathy for the servant girl, Eliza Fenning. Not only could she read and write, she was described as young, petite and pretty and she was engaged to be married.

She worked as a cook for the Turner family in Chancery Lane, London, and in 1815, she was tried at the Old Bailey charged with attempting to murder them with dumplings laced with arsenic. Her case is especially interesting as a London chemist at the time came forward with evidence that seemed to prove that Eliza was, in fact, innocent and a member of the Turner family was the culprit.

Eliza protested her innocence to the end, despite the fervent administrations of the Newgate Prison Ordinary, Revd Horace Cotton. Sadly, she went to the gallows wearing an embroidered bonnet she had made especially to wear at her wedding and as her broken body hung from the hangman’s rope the merciless hordes that came to watch her die could see that she was wearing her best lilac leather boots. The press coverage of the case was huge and many influential commentators at the time were convinced of her innocence, a view held by Charles Dickens, who, learning of the case some years later, viewed her execution as a miscarriage of justice and a travesty of the law.

By complete contrast, Kate Webster – hefty, big-hearted and boozy – was liked by everyone but, when cornered and rebuked, she was lethally ill-tempered. When apprehended – after fleeing to Ireland with her young son – she never laid claim to innocence and fully confessed to the murder of her elderly employer, Mrs Julia Thomas, in Park Road, Richmond. In a rage over petty restrictions and the threat of dismissal, Kate killed the fastidious, churchgoing Julia, dismembered her body and boiled the parts in the kitchen copper. Carrying the head in a black canvas bag she made a trip to Hammersmith to see some of her former drinking cronies and on the way home she disappeared over Hammersmith Bridge, only to emerge twenty minutes later – without the canvas bag. After boxing up the remaining butchered and boiled parts of her victim she threw them over the parapet of Richmond Bridge; the splash as the heavy box hit the murky waters of the Thames was heard by two witnesses.

As a result of her crime, Kate was hanged at Wandsworth Gaol on 29th July, 1879. But what became of the head of Mrs Julia Thomas? The case has a rather bizarre denouement. In October 2010, workmen excavating part of the garden belonging to the naturalist and broadcaster, Sir David Attenborough, unearthed a skull – the site was close to Mrs Thomas’s former house and The Hole in the Wall public house where Kate and friends were regular drinkers. In July 2011, the West London Coroner, formally identified the skull as that of Julia Thomas and recorded a verdict of unlawful killing. 

By Kate Clarke

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