Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters.
Edith Thompson was a quite
attractive 28 year old who was married to shipping clerk 32 year old Percy
Thompson. They had no children and enjoyed a reasonable lifestyle, as Edith had
a good job as the manageress of a milliners in
Edith was also having an affair with 20 year old Frederick Bywaters who was a
ship's steward. Their relationship had started in June 1921 when he accompanied
the Thompsons on holiday to the
He was a
decisive (impulsive) young man who, at least according to him, decided on his
own to stab Percy Thompson whom he felt was making Edith's life miserable.
The Thompson's lodger, Fanny Lester, advised the police about Bywaters having also lodged with them, and they also learned that he worked for P & O, the shipping line.
The police discovered the letters that Edith had written to him and soon arrested him and charged him with the murder.
Edith was also arrested soon afterwards and charged with murder or alternatively with being an accessory to murder. She did not know that Bywaters had been arrested but saw him in the police station later and said "Oh God why did he do it", continuing "I didn't want him to do it".
Bywaters insisted that he had acted alone in the crime and gave his account as follows :
"I waited for Mrs. Thompson and her husband. I pushed her to one side, also pushing him into the street. We struggled. I took my knife from my pocket and we fought and he got the worst of it"
"The reason I fought with Thompson was because he never acted like a man to his wife. He always seemed several degrees lower than a snake. I loved her and I could not go on seeing her leading that life. I did not intend to kill him. I only meant to injure him. I gave him the opportunity of standing up to me like a man but he wouldn't". Bywaters stuck to this story during the trial which opened at the Old Bailey on
Edith had written no less than 62 intimate letters to Bywaters and stupidly they had kept them. In these, she referred to Bywaters as "Darlingest and Darlint". Some of them described how she had tried to murder Percy on several occasions. In one referring, apparently 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." She had also tried broken glass, and told Bywaters that she had made three attempts but that Percy had discovered some in his food so she had had to stop.
sent Bywaters press cuttings describing murders by poisoning and had told
Bywaters that she had aborted herself after becoming pregnant by him.
At the trial, Bywaters refused to incriminate Edith and when cross examined told the prosecution that he did not believe that Edith had actually attempted to poison Percy but had rather a vivid imagination and a passion for sensational novels that extended to her imagining herself as one of the characters.
Edith had been advised against going into the witness box by her lawyer but decided to do so and promptly incriminated herself by being asked what she had meant when she had written to Bywaters asking him to send her "something to give her husband." She said she had "no idea." Very unconvincing!
The judge in his summing up described Edith's letters as "full of the outpourings of a silly but at the same time, a wicked affection." The summing up was fair in law but the judge made much of the adultery.
Mr. Justice Shearman was obviously a very Victorian gentleman with high moral principles.
He also instructed the jury, however, "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."
The jury were not convinced by the defence case and took just over two hours to find them both guilty of murder on the 11th December. Even after the verdict was read out, Bywaters continued to defend Edith loudly. However, the judge had to pass the death sentence on both of them as required by law.
taken back to Holloway and Bywaters to Pentonville, prisons half a mile apart
(in London) and placed in the condemned cells.
Both lodged appeals but these were dismissed.
She was an adulteress, an abortionist and possibly a woman who incited a murder or worse still had tried to poison her husband. At least this is how she was judged against the morals of the time. That is until she was sentenced to death. The public and the media that had been so against her now did a complete U-turn and campaigned for a reprieve. There was a large petition, with nearly a million signatures on it, to spare her. However this, even together with Bywaters repeated confession that he and he alone killed Thompson, failed to persuade the Home Secretary to reprieve her.
9.00 a.m. on January 9th, 1923, both were executed in their respective prisons.
Bywaters met his end bravely at the hands of William Willis, still protesting Edith's innocence whilst she was in a state of total collapse. She had major mood swings even up to the morning of execution as she expected to be reprieved all along.
A few minutes before they entered the condemned cell, the execution party heard a ghastly moan come from Edith's cell. When hangman John Ellis entered she was semi-conscious as he strapped her wrists. According to his biography, she looked dead already.
She was carried from the condemned cell to the gallows in the execution shed by two warders and the two assistants (Robert Baxter and Seth Mills) and held on the trap whilst Ellis completed the preparations.
Depending on whose version of events you read/believe, there was a considerable amount of blood dripping from her after the hanging. Some, including Bernard Spillsbury the famous pathologist who carried out the autopsy on her, claim it was caused by her being pregnant and miscarrying whilst others claim it was due to inversion of the uterus, and the authorities claim that nothing untoward happened at all. (They would, wouldn’t they!). Edith had been in custody for over three months before the execution so would have probably known she was pregnant. Under English law, the execution would have been staid until after she had given birth. In practice, she would have almost certainly been reprieved. She had everything to gain from claiming to be pregnant so it is surprising that she didn't if she had indeed missed two or three periods. However, she had aborted herself earlier and this may have damaged her uterus which combined with the force of the drop caused it to invert. The bleeding may equally have been the start of a heavy period. Research done in Germany before and during World War II on a large number of condemned women showed that menstruation was often interrupted by the stress of being tried and sentenced to death but could be brought on by the shock of being informed of the actual date of the execution, which in Edith's case was likely to have been only one or two days before she was hanged. Whatever the truth, 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.
Her body was buried "within the precincts of the prison in which she was last confined" in accordance with her sentence but was reburied at the massive Brookwood Cemetery in Brookwood, Surrey. in 1970, when Holloway Prison was being rebuilt.
Although there is no evidence suggesting that Edith had any physical part in the murder and I personally tend to believe that she did not actually intend Bywaters to kill Percy, there is the problem of "common purpose." In law if two people want a third person dead and conspire together to murder that person, it does not matter which one of them struck the fatal blow, both are equally guilty.
The law has always liked written evidence because it is much safer and stronger than hearsay evidence or the confused statements of witnesses. In this case they had a veritable pile of it, mostly incriminating. Letters that talked about poisoning Percy and letters asking Bywaters to "do something" etc.
The jury accepted the prosecution case that all this added up to common purpose to murder Percy, after a short 2-1/4 hour discussion.
So was she evil or just a silly, over romantic woman who gave no thought to the consequences of her irresponsible letters? My personal view having studied the case is that she was the latter.
It should be said that divorce was much harder in those days. If Percy refused to divorce her, which he had, her only alternatives were to run away with Bywaters or kill Percy.
As in all capital cases, the Home Secretary had the power of reprieve and many people were shocked that he did not exercise it in this case. I feel that he should have given her the benefit of the doubt. Her crime was hardly in the same class as four of the other seven women who had been hanged since the beginning of the century – they had been Baby Farmers!