Published July 05, 2011
One of Victorian Britain's most gruesome murder mysteries has been solved after the skull of a wealthy widower was found in the garden of famed naturalist Sir David Attenborough.
More than a century after Julia Martha Thomas was brutally attacked by a servant in her home, the case was closed Tuesday as her death was formally recognized in a U.K. court.
Remains found during excavations at Attenborough's property in Richmond, South London, were confirmed as those of Thomas, who was chopped up and boiled by her housekeeper in 1879.
Although a box containing human flesh was found in the Thames days after the killing and the victim's foot was found on an allotment, her skull had been missing for 132 years.
Workmen building an extension in the veteran nature show presenter's garden, less than 100 yards from where Thomas was murdered, made the discovery in October last year.
Alison Thompson, the West London Coroner, confirmed Tuesday that the twice widowed 55-year-old died from asphyxiation and a head injury.
Ending the affair -- which became known as the "Barnes mystery" and was a matter of great intrigue in Victorian England -- the coroner formally recognized the skull and delivered a verdict of unlawful killing.
Thomas was murdered by her maid Kate Webster, who pushed her down the stairs, strangled her and chopped the body up. She then boiled the body and gave the dripping to local children to eat.
Webster, who was born in Ireland, had spent her life in and out of prisons for various offenses, including burglary.
She had been employed by Thomas for just two months when she carried out the attack. The court heard that the pair could not get along as Thomas, a devout Presbyterian, did not approve of Webster's heavy drinking.
Police provided the court with evidence that the skull was that of Thomas after reviewing census records and using radiocarbon testing.
Chief Superintendent Clive Chalk, of Scotland Yard, said, "This is a fascinating case and a good example of how good old-fashioned detective work, historical records and technological advances came together to solve the 'Barnes mystery'."