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Attenborough skull mystery finally solved

Matt Blake,Crime Correspondent
Wednesday 06 July 2011 00:00 BST

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

On 2 March that same year, the devout Presbyterian returned from Sunday Mass when a row broke out. In a drunken rage, Webster pushed her employer down a flight of stairs before strangling the remaining life out of her. Then using a meat saw, a razor and a kitchen knife, she dismembered the body, limb by limb. To cover her tracks, 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 29 July 1879. But Ms Thomas' head was never found. The final twist came in October last year when workmen building an extension on TV naturalist Mr 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 the skull's true identity. After the inquest, coroner Alison Thompson ruled that Mrs Webster had died of asphyxiation and blows to the head.

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