The Head Of A Murder Victim Was Once Found In David Attenborough's Garden

Sir David Attenborough: national treasure, climate change activist, possessor of a murdered head. Image credit: lev radin/shutterstock.com

When national treasure and wildlife broadcaster David Attenborough's name trends on social media, it's common for people to panic and fear the worst. Sometimes, however, it's just because the head of a murder victim has been found in his garden.

In 2010, Attenborough was having an extension placed in his back garden in southwest London when workers came across a skull that had clearly been buried a long time ago. It was sent for carbon dating, which placed the skull as belonging to someone alive between 1650 and 1880. The skull, which appeared to belong to a white female of around menopausal age and was missing teeth, was found lying on top of Victorian-era tiles, helping to narrow down the date, but still providing few clues. Despite this, the investigating team was able to identify the owner of the skull through census clues and trial records: a murder victim who met her end on March 2, 1879.

Julia Martha Thomas was living alone in Richmond, southwest London, following the death of her second husband in 1873, when she hired Kate Webster as her servant. Webster had a troubled past, including several stints in prison for theft and robbery. The relationship between the two did not go well – you'll be shocked to hear, knowing that it ends with one of their heads showing up in the garden of a national treasure – and before long, Thomas kept trying to persuade her friends to stay with her so that she didn't have to be alone with her servant. 

Eventually, Thomas decided that Webster should leave her service, and arranged for her last day to be February 28, 1879. Webster persuaded her to allow her to stay on a few days longer, which she then used for murdering.

"Mrs Thomas came in and went upstairs. I went up after her, and we had an argument, which ripened into a quarrel, and in the height of my anger and rage I threw her from the top of the stairs to the ground floor," Webster would later say in her confession.

"She had a heavy fall, and I became agitated at what had occurred, lost all control of myself, and, to prevent her screaming and getting me into trouble, I caught her by the throat, and in the struggle she was choked, and I threw her on the floor."

The crime would become notorious due to the cover-up attempted by Webster.

"Realising she had injured her she proceeded to strangle her to stop her from screaming and getting her in trouble. Webster decided to do away with the body and used a razor to chop off the head. Having decapitated her she used a razor, a meat saw, and a carving knife to cut the body up," Acting Detective Inspector David Bolton told the coroner in 2010, after the head had been found.

"The dismembered body was put into a copper laundry vessel and she proceeded to boil up the body parts of Mrs Thomas."

Webster continued to live in the house, impersonating Thomas to any visitors who came around and did not know the deceased, while attempting to dispose of the corpse. During the trial it was alleged that she sold the fat from the body of her victim to neighbors, though this likely was not the case. She did, however, dispose of much of the body in the river Thames, where it was found a few weeks later. Couple this with neighbors spotting her impersonating Thomas, and it didn't take police long to arrest her. 

She was executed in July 1879, about a hundred years before David Attenborough took up residence in the house, and his extension work revealed the head.

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