Thursday, 7 July 2011

Murder redux

News broke this week that a skull unearthed in David Attenborough's garden has resolved the infamous Kate Webster murder case. Naturally this is a matter of extreme interest to me, as a student of Victorian crime. Because if you want to know anything - anything at all - about the Victorian mindset, then study this case. It's Victoriana in microcosm. All the fears, anxieties, emotions and relationships between domestic servants and their employers can be found in the Kate Webster case.
Kate Webster was one of the many women who lived their lives on the blurry line between domestic service and criminality. She was a heavy drinker, often violent and a habitual thief. These habits cost her most of her occasional forays into gainful employment - and on the final occasion, came together in a terrifying synthesis.
Middle-aged Kate secured a job as a cook with a widow, Julia Thomas - known for having a vicious way with words. In the days when an employer was free to treat a servant with appalling conditions of privation and hard labour, Mrs Thomas was well known to be unable to keep a servant for any length of time. Had this not been the case, she would no doubt have been able to engage someone better than Kate to cook for her. But she couldn't.
Inevitably, the two women clashed. There was a row. Kate later confessed that she threw her employer down the stairs and strangled her. Panicking, she dismembered and boiled the body, disposing of the head, selling the fat off as "best dripping" and carrying the remains around with her concealed in a large carpet bag. Meanwhile, she tried to sell off the furniture. The suspicions this aroused led to Kate's arrest. She was hanged for Mrs Thomas' murder, but without the head, the body could never be officially identified and the case was never closed...until the skull of Mrs Thomas was discovered during excavations in David Attenborough's garden this week, one hundred and thirty years after Kate buried it.
The case received record coverage in the Victorian press. The relationship between servants and employers was ambivalent in the extreme. Horrified employers followed the ghoulish case with terrified fascination, and, I like to think, were that little bit nicer to their maids thereafter. A servant knew the ins and outs of the house; they could choose to pilfer, or to abet thieves from the outside. Employers were vulnerable to their servants then in ways we often find hard to understand now. Looking at the Kate Webster case gives us a uniue insight into the complex, fearful ties between two classes of people who are far less common now than they were. It's a pause for thought.

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