Unearthed Skull Solves 132-Year-Old Murder Mystery

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have penned this murder mystery if he’d been around in the century it happened. Oh wait. He was.

Alison Thompson, a West London coroner, determined on Tuesday, July 5 that a skull, found in the garden of nature documentarian Sir David Attenborough on October 22, 2010, belonged to Julia Martha Thomas, who was murdered in 1879.

Thomas, a wealthy Englishwoman who lived in a house near Attenborough’s current home in Richmond, died at the hands of her maid, Kate Webster. Dubbed the Barnes Mystery for the name of the bridge where Thomas’ dismembered and burned body was found, Thomas’ body could not be confirmed because the head was missing. That mystery came to an end when the cranium was found in Attenborough’s garden while a crew was excavating the land. Acting Detective Inspector David Bolton led the investigation; his team named the head that did not have an identity for more than eight months.

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Radiocarbon testing, historical records of the murder and census data showed that the skull did indeed belong to Thomas, allowing London police to properly identify the body. Thompson says Thomas died of asphyxiation and head trauma.

“This is a fascinating case and a good example of how good old-fashioned detective work, historical records and technological advances came,” Chief Superintendent Clive Chalk, Borough Commander of Richmond, said.

Don’t worry, the truth is not coming too late. Webster was still hanged for her crime in July 29, 1879 at Wandsworth Prison. She admitted that she had, in a drunken rage, pushed Thomas down the stairs, strangled her, dismembered her body, scorched the remains, packed up and floated everything except the head and a foot (apparently there was not enough room in the box) down the River Thames and fed parts of the body to local children, claiming it was pig lard.

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