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Edith Thompson and Freddy Bywaters
It is late evening on 3rd October, 1922, and Percy Thompson and his wife, Edith, are walking home from Ilford railway station, having been to the theatre in London’s West End. The streets are dark, lit only by the occasional gas lamp. Suddenly, a man emerges from the shadows and Percy Thompson falls to the ground. The man disappears into the darkness, leaving Mrs Thompson screaming that her husband has cut his head. A doctor is called and declares Mr Thompson has died of a haemorrhage. He was right, but it wasn’t discovered until an examination in the mortuary revealed he had been stabbed three times so severely death was instantaneous.
The murderer was Freddie Bywaters, 20, a laundry steward who worked on an ocean liner. He was known to the Thompsons, having once courted Edith’s younger sister, but then had had a clandestine relationship with the older woman, 28-year old Edith. On the face of things, Freddie Bywaters was a family friend, who was welcomed to the Thompsons’ home and even holidayed with them on the Isle of Wight in 1921, but the reason he accompanied them was his desire for Edith, whose husband of course knew nothing of their secret liaison.
Freddie Bywaters was caught and sentenced to death for the murder. So was Edith Thompson, who maintained she had known nothing of her lover’s intention to kill her husband. But, the prosecution would say, she knew perfectly well of the events which would take place on the streets of Ilford that night. Yet even if she did, was she guilty of murder? One thing is certain: no evidence was ever discovered to prove she was guilty. Instead, the prosecution relied on other factors they hoped would persuade the jury she was.
Percy and Edith Jessie Thompson were married in 1915. He was a shipping clerk, she a bookkeeper earning the then considerable salary of £6 per week – more than her husband. It seems when they began their affair Edith told Freddie Bywaters that her marriage, outwardly happy and sound, was in reality the opposite, and that she wished she could leave her husband. Not uncommon, you might think, but such a prospect, in Edwardian times, was unlikely. They had no children. Things must have got worse when on one occasion Percy assaulted Edith, bruising her arm in an incident witnessed by Freddie, who stepped in to prevent further injury.
Not that Edith Thompson could have had cause for complaint about a comfortable lifestyle of eating out in restaurants and visiting the theatre. But where she would have perceived her husband to be dull and unimaginative, she found romance by reading romantic novels, perhaps imagining herself meeting her knight in shining armour who would sweep her off her feet one day… someone like Freddie Bywaters, in fact.
Soon after the start of their liaison, Bywaters went to sea, five times over the next year. During this time Edith wrote him over sixty letters, receiving many in return. In truth, they were a couple in love, trapped in a situation in which, as long as Edith was married, there could be no escape. Edith’s letters would become the focus of the case when she stood on trial for her life after her husband’s murder. She wrote passionately about her desire for the death of her husband, although not out of any loathing of him, nor did she write they of a sexual nature – such things were taboo in those days. Instead, she wrote about books she had read, and her fantasies, possibly even treating Freddie Bywater, sailing the seven seas, as some kind of fantasy too, just someone to talk to from a distance.
If Edith Thompson was bored with her marriage to an ‘unimaginative husband’, was that so unusual? She did write of specific ways to bring about her husband’s demise: poisoning his tea, sprinkling grounded glass into his food. But the fact is she did none of these things, only wrote of them. Don’t we threaten to kill recalcitrant children, or express the desire for the ghastly end of someone we may not like, without actually meaning it? And was she writing similar words to those she read in fiction without being serious?
In September, 1921, Freddie Bywaters returned to England, and met up at once with Edith. Whether or not Edith and Bywaters then conspired to kill her husband isn’t known, but she and her Percy were still an outwardly happy couple, and on the fateful night of his murder had gone to the theatre Percy Thompson was brutally slain.
Edith’s reaction to her husband’s terrible death was to call out that he had fallen and cut his head. If she had known all along that this was not the case, that she had known her lover would appear to from the shadows to kill, then she was surely as guilty of murder as he. If she had known it was Bywaters but had not known of his intention then she was innocent, albeit possibly happy at events. And it may be she was utterly in ignorance that, at the time, her husband had been murdered at all, not seeing his injuries in those darkened Edwardian streets.
Edith Thompson at first said she had not recognised her husband’s attacker, then later said she had instantly recognised the man as Freddie Bywaters. This was a clear lie at the outset. Bywaters was arrested, and confessed at once, adding that Edith was innocent of any complicity. He may have stood trial alone, but when they searched his cabin on board the ‘Morea’ they found Edith’s letters, containing her repeated wish that her husband was dead. She too was charged. The police found the murder weapon, a bloodstained knife, in a nearby drain.
The public were angry at events – the brutal murder of Percy Thompson by his wife and her lover. At the trial, the prosecution spoke of a ‘preconcerted meeting between Bywaters and Edith’, meaning they had planned the spot where her husband was killed. Of Edith’s letters, only half were shown to the jury: those which mentioned her desire to see her husband dead. The other half, forbidden to the jury, spoke of other matters, such as her periods, two pregnancies, one resulting in a miscarriage, the other where she had an abortion (unlawful in those days), and at least one explicit, sexual experience she had shared with Bywater – all run-of-the-mill today but taboo then.
The judge was hardly fair. He frowned on the ‘affair’, regarding Edith’s liaison with a common ship’s steward of the lower classes as in very bad taste. And she a married woman! ‘Adultery’ was dirty word. He scribbled on his note pad: ‘Great love – nonsense. Great disgust’. Nor did he explain anything of the undisclosed content of those letters the jury were not permitted to see. It seems her conduct, which contravened Edwardian standards, was as much on trial as Percy Thompson’s murder.
The jury decided Edith Thompson had called for help that night, knowing full well her husband had been stabbed. They found her guilty. ‘God, I am not guilty’, she screamed from the dock as she was sentenced to hang, along with Bywaters. They would hang at the same time on the same day, she at Holloway, Bywaters at Pentonville.
The public’s anger now took a different course, at least as far as Edith Thompson was concerned. It had been 15 years since a woman had hanged, surely they would not hang her. After all, she hadn’t actually inflicted the lethal wound; she had only been there when her lover had committed the murder. ‘Being a woman, she should be reprieved’, someone wrote. But then public anger subsided, for Edith would not hang; she would appeal and be let off at the last minute.
But how could they hang one without the other? Either both had to be reprieved, or neither, surely. Whatever factors were taken into consideration, there would be no reprieve.
Even so, Edith Thompson never thought she would hang. Neither did the appointed hangman, John Ellis, and almost a million people signed a petition pleading for Edith to be shown mercy. Meanwhile Edith sat in her cell, happy at the thought that any day the news that she would be spared would reach her. Even visits by her family, which in other cases would have realised dreadful ‘goodbye’ scenes were relatively cheery affairs.
Came the appointed day of execution. Edith Thompson had a breakfast of toast and an apple, and was even cheerful, showing no fear of her impending demise. It seemed she had the strength to bear up to her fate with great fortitude. Or, maybe she did not believe even then she would die. But as the prison wardens helped her to dress, those waiting outside her cell heard the sound of moaning from within, as Edith’s courage and composure deserted her. In fact, she had gone to pieces, and had utterly lost control. Even the prison warders, used to the grim procedures in carrying out the extreme penalty in those days, were distraught.
At nine Hangman Ellis pinioned the sobbing Edith Thompson’s hands behind her back, and his assistants carried her from her cell to the scaffold, where, unable to stand, the white hood was placed over her head, the noose around her neck and she was dispatched to her fate. ‘She looked as if she were already dead’, Ellis wrote later of her appearance before hanging her. At the same time, just half a mile away, Freddie Bywaters also met his fate, but not before he put into writing that Edith had played no part in the murder. ‘They are hanging an innocent woman,’ he said, before calmly meeting his own fate.