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.
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.
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.
- 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
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on May 20, 2016:
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.
Suzie from Carson City on May 20, 2016:
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