Edith Thompson Died for a Crime of Passion

Updated on February 16, 2020
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Albert Pierrepoint hanged some 600 people in his career as Britain’s official executioner and in his memoir he said all but two of his clients exhibited courage and dignity at the end. Perhaps, he’s lucky he did not have to attend to Edith Thompson because the emotional circumstances of her execution seem to have unhinged one of Pierrepoint’s predecessors, John Ellis.

Edith seated between Frederick Bywaters (left) and Percy Thompson.
Edith seated between Frederick Bywaters (left) and Percy Thompson. | Source

An Unhappy Middle-Class Marriage

Edith and Percy Thompson lived in Ilford, Essex, a large suburb northeast of London. Percy worked as a shipping clerk and Edith managed a milliner’s shop. In the autumn of 1922 when their lives fell catastrophically apart, she was 29 and he was 32.

The marriage was obviously not a happy one. Capitalpunishmentuk.org writes that vivacious and passionate Edith took a lover in June 1921; Frederick Bywaters was a 20-year-old ship’s steward who “moved in as lodger waiting for his next job on board ship but had been chucked out by Percy for getting too friendly with Edith.”

However, Bywaters “saw Edith secretly from time to time until ultimately booking into a hotel with her under false names.”

Percy Thompson discovered his wife’s infidelity but refused to divorce her.

Love Letters Tell of Desire to be Rid of Husband

While Bywaters was away at sea, Edith sent him many love letters. Reporting for the Watford Observer, Paul Heslop describes how “She wrote passionately about her desire for the death of her husband …”

Capitalpunishmentuk says some of the letters explained “how she had tried to murder Percy on several occasions. In one, referring apparently to an attempt to poison him, she wrote, ‘You said it was enough for an elephant. Perhaps it was. But you don’t allow for the taste making it possible for only a small quantity to be taken.”

In another letter, she told of putting ground glass into Percy’s food, but he had spotted it.


Frederick Bywaters Takes Action

Executedtoday.com writes that “The affair met a horrifying and sensational conclusion when Bywaters confronted the cuckold in October 1922 and slew him in the ensuing altercation.”

While the couple were walking home from the theatre, Bywaters jumped Percy and stabbed him three times. Edith is said to have shouted “No, don’t” several times.

She was still greatly distressed when police arrived and later told officers who she thought the assailant was.

The ill-fated love triangle.
The ill-fated love triangle. | Source

Bywaters and Thompson Go on Trial

It didn’t take long for police to track down Bywaters or discover the letters Edith Thompson had written to him. Bywaters confessed to the crime, saying he had only intended to injure Percy Thompson. He tried to protect Edith by saying she knew nothing of his intentions. However, both lovers were put on trial in December 1922.

The Brookwood Cemetery Society writes that the letters played a crucial role in the trial: “the Solicitor General scandalously misled the jury when he stated that Edith Thompson’s correspondence contained the ‘undoubted evidence’ of a ‘pre-concerted meeting between Mrs. Thompson and Bywaters at the place’―meaning the spot where Thompson was murdered. There is no such evidence in the letters …”

The jury took two hours to convict both accused and, according to Heslop, Edith Thompson “screamed from the dock ‘God, I am not guilty’ as she was sentenced to hang, along with Bywaters.”

Drama about the Life of Edith Thompson

Double Hanging for Murderers

Executed Today writes that “Bywaters gallantly defended his lover’s innocence throughout the ordeal and more than a million people petitioned the government for her reprieve.”

It seems Edith Thompson was convinced she would not hang. So was the official hangman. He said “I never dreamt Mrs. Thompson would hang. I really believed the authorities would bow before the storm of protest from the public.”

But, shortly before 9.00 a.m. on January 9, 1923 executioners entered the death cells of Bywaters and Thompson in Pentonville and Holloway Prisons respectively. Bywaters faced his execution with courage, still proclaiming his lover’s innocence.

Edith Thompson did not have a good death. Executioner John Ellis, waiting outside her cell, “heard the sound of moaning from within, as Edith’s courage and composure deserted her,” writes Heslop. “In fact, she had gone to pieces, and had utterly lost control.” She had to be carried to the gallows and supported while Ellis went about his grim task. Her collapse may have been due to heavy sedation rather than hysteria. She was unconscious when the trapdoor opened.

Thompson may have been pregnant when executed because she bled profusely, causing the hangman to leave the execution chamber raving. Executed Today adds “this hanging seemed to have a profound effect on all those present. “Several of the prison officers took early retirement. John Ellis retired in 1923 and committed suicide in 1931.”


A Miscarriage of Justice?

Did Edith know the attack on her husband was going to take place or did it come as a surprise to her? Of course, only two people knew the answer to that and they are both dead.

She received an excellent defence from a top barrister and the judge at trial was very fair in summing up. He told the jury “You will not convict her unless you are satisfied that she and he agreed that this man should be murdered when he could be, and she knew that he was going to do it, and directed him to do it, and by arrangement between them he was doing it.”

But, the jury was persuaded that Edith had foreknowledge of the murder and convicted her. Many have suggested the evidence against her was too thin to convict but that she was censured for breaking the code of middle-class morality; the “scarlet woman” had to be punished. Edith Thompson was hanged for adultery, not murder.

Bonus Factoids

  • Unseemly haste? Just 97 days elapsed between the murder and the executions.
  • There’s no question that Edith Thompson did not wield the knife that killed her husband, however, the jury decided she fell foul of the law of “common purpose.” This states that all people taking part in a crime are responsible for its consequences whether or not they struck a fatal blow.


  • “Presumed guilty.” Marcel Berlins, The Guardian, June 15, 2001.
  • “1923: Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters.” Executed Today, January 9th 2008.
  • “Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters.” Capitalpunishmentuk, undated.
  • “Edith Thompson.” The Brookwood Cemetery Society, undated.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Rupert Taylor profile imageAUTHOR

      Rupert Taylor 

      4 years ago from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

      I would love to be able to agree with your comment that this kind of injustice would not happen today. Sadly, I can't. There are hundreds of current stories of lazy cops and prosecutors fixating on someone they suspect and gathering only the evidence that supports their theory while ignoring exonerating facts. See my story about Christopher Jefferies in HP under the title "Convicted by the Tabloid Press." His sad case is not identical to Edith Thompson's but he was singled out for close attention by police because he had a slightly unusual lifestyle. Fortunately for him, sanity prevailed before he reached the gallows. If you are unconventional you are going to stand out and may suffer as a result, just as Edith Thompson did.

    • fpherj48 profile image


      4 years ago from UpstateWestern,New York

      Fascinating tale and sad as well. Fortunately in today's world, this case would have resulted in very different circumstances. It's quite disturbing how merciless sentencing prevailed. It is clear that Edith was judged more on the adultery than any evidence she was complicit in her husband's murder. That would surely never happen today.

      Interesting read. Paula


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://maven.io/company/pages/privacy

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)