msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 7/6/2011 9:56:53 AM ET 2011-07-06T13:56:53

A skull dug up in a backyard garden has solved a 130-year-old mystery surrounding the murder of a wealthy London widow.

Julia Thomas was murdered by her maid in 1879, but her head was never found, preventing a formal identification of the corpse. The case was dubbed the "Barnes mystery" by the Victorians.

In October — more than a century after the murder — excavators discovered a skull in nature documentary maker David Attenborough's back garden. He lives near where Thomas was slain.

Reviewing records of the murder and census records, and using radiocarbon testing, detectives connected the skull with the murder case.

West London Coroner Alison Thompson ruled Tuesday that the skull belonged to Thomas.

She said that Thomas was unlawfully killed and that the cause of death was asphyxiation and head injury.

"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,'" said Chief Superintendent Clive Chalk.

Hanged for murder
The Independent newspaper reported that the maid, Kate Webster, was convicted of the murder and hanged.

It said Thomas, 55, had given a job to Webster, 29, who was a convicted thief and fraudster, in January 1879.

"But their relationship soured as Mrs. Webster became increasingly angry over the maid's heavy drinking and pub-going," the paper said.

"On 2 March that same year, the devout Presbyterian returned from Sunday Mass ... (and) a row broke out," it added. "In a drunken rage, Webster pushed her employer down a flight of stairs before strangling the remaining life out of her."

Webster then dismembered the body using a meat saw, a razor and a kitchen knife.

"To cover her tracks, Webster boiled the corpse and even fed the dripping to local children to eat, calling it pigs' lard," the paper reported, citing evidence given at the inquest.

Webster put most of the remains into a box, but the head and a foot did not fit, so she buried them in two different gardens.

She threw the box in the River Thames, but it was later found with a "mass of white flesh" inside near Barnes Bridge.

Without the head, it had not been possible to formally identify the body and close the case, the Independent said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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