A Very English Execution

A Very English Execution      


If she had known how little time the three of them had left, would Edith Thompson have wished so much of it away?  But Freddy Bywaters was coming to lodge with them and she couldn’t wait!

Freddy had captivated her from the first.  His tales of the exotic places he’d visited as a merchant seaman, excited her even more than the sentimental novels she escaped into when she had to endure endless evenings with her husband, Percy.

The three of them, with her sister Avis, had just returned from a few days on the Isle of Wight.  Closer contact with Freddy only served to make her more dissatisfied with her staid husband and their humdrum marital arrangements.  Freddy reminded her of the hero in ‘Bella Donna’, the novel she read in bed at night.

Soon after Freddy moved his belongings into the Thompson’s spare bedroom, an affair started.  Edith fell deeply in love.  Freddy, eight years younger, returned her feelings.

Percy would have been blind not to be aware of the romance.   It proved intolerable. After one careless rebuff too many from Edith, when he offered her some assistance ‘Oh, do leave it Percy!  You have no feel for such things; Freddy will help.’ a huge fight ensued.  Freddy demanded that Percy divorce Edith.  He refused and ordered Freddy from the house.  Freddy did leave, but not before he extracted a promise from Edith to write.  As the door closed behind Freddy, Percy beat his wife mercilessly; but with every blow that rained on her body, Edith’s resolve to be with Freddy only hardened.

 Freddy returned to sea on the 9th September 1921.  He was gone for 12 months, during which time Edith wrote over 60 letters to her sweetheart; intimate letters addressed to ‘Darlint’ or ‘Darlingest’, in which she chronicled her daily life.  She wrote of her periods, or lack of them, and two pregnancies, one of which resulted in a miscarriage and one when she aborted herself of his child.  She remembered their al fresco encounter in WansteadPark when she had reached her first sexual climax.  She sent him newspaper cuttings of murders by poisoning, and wrote that she had tried to poison Percy.

She described stirring glass into Percy’s mashed potato, but complained that he hadn’t died, hadn’t even been ill.   She begged Freddy to do ‘something desperate.’  These letters were to come back to haunt her.

Although Freddy and Edith met again on his return in September 1922, Edith had to be the wife her husband demanded.  Freddy spent many solitary hours resenting Percy for refusing to give Edie a divorce.  

A few weeks later, on the evening of October the 3rd 1922, the Edith and Percy were returning home from the Criterion Theatre in London.   They were taken completely unawares when a man leapt out from behind some bushes and brutally threw Edith to the ground.  Terrified, she could only watch as the assailant overpowered and then stabbed Percy.

Residents later told of hearing a woman screaming hysterically and repeatedly shouting ‘No, don’t!’  Perhaps Edith was genuinely remorseful when it appeared that Percy was to be brutally murdered.  Or maybe this intelligent woman, realised that the attacker could only be Freddy and that his impulsive act would separate them for ever.  As the assailant fled, Percy, mortally wounded, died before his deeply shocked wife was able to summon help.

When the police arrived, Edith, believing her self to be a witness to the murder and not an accomplice, named Freddy Bywaters as the killer, adding ‘Oh God why did he do it’ and ‘I did not want him to do it’.  She gave the police details of her affair with Freddy and he was arrested. 

As the police investigated further, they discovered Edith’s and Freddy’s letters and, unsurprisingly, arrested her, too.  The law prefers written evidence because it is safer and stronger than hearsay evidence.  In this case they had a huge incriminating pile.  These outpourings of a foolish woman with an over-vivid imagination were the only tangible evidence linking Edith to the murder.  Critically they allowed for the consideration of ‘common purpose’, namely that if two people wish to achieve the death of a third, and one of these people acts on the expressed intentions of both, both are guilty by law.  They were each charged with murder.

 On the 6th December 1922 the trial opened at the Old Bailey and was heard before Mr. Justice Shearman.  Freddy became something of a hero.  He defended Edith from the start, insisting that he had acted alone in the crime and refusing to incriminate her.

‘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 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 to stand up to me like a man, but he wouldn’t.’ 

When cross examined he swore that he never believed that she had actually attempted to poison her husband.  He believed that she suffered too much imagination fancied her self as a fictional character in one of the sensational novels she read.  In fact, when an autopsy was performed on Percy’s exhumed body, by the two most distinguished pathologists in the country, they concluded that there hadn’t been any poisonings.

Edith had been strongly advised not to testify, but, true to type, she seemed to be enjoying the publicity she was getting and insisted on taking the stand.  She made a disastrous impression on the judge and jury, her manner alternately flirtatious, self-pitying and melodramatic.  Her damning testimony negated those of the police who testified that she appeared to be in a genuine state of shock when they arrived on the scene.  Disbelief had persisted even when she was taken to the police station.  Vanity and arrogance were the reasons given by her lawyer as to why she was not acquitted, but her case was not helped by the judge. 

He omitted to inform the jury that the mention of ‘women’s things’ was deemed far too explicit for them, and therefore over half of Edith’s letters to Freddy had been withheld.  As they hadn’t seen all the correspondence, they were easily misled by the Solicitor General when informed that Edith’s correspondence contained the ‘undoubted evidence of a preconceived meeting at the place.’ – meaning the spot where Percy met his death.  The jury had no way of knowing that no such evidence appeared in the letters and the only other alternative was unthinkable – that the Solicitor General was lying.  The judge then failed to set the record straight in his summing up which, although fair in law, stressed the adultery and was notoriously unfair to Edith.  

Although the autopsy had proved her innocent of poisoning Percy, the jury, allowed only the limited evidence, were not convinced by the case made in her defence.  On 11th December, they took just over two hours to find Edith and Freddy equally guilty of murder.

The jury foreman commented, ‘It was my duty to read them [the letters] to the members of the jury…Nauseous is hardly strong enough to describe their contents…Mrs. Thompson’s letters were her own condemnation.’  She was judged against the morals of her time – at least until she was sentenced to death.

The judge passed the death sentence on them both.  Edith was taken back to Holloway; Freddy to Pentonville, prisons situated only half a mile apart, and placed in the condemned cells.  Appeals were lodged, but dismissed.

Despite a massive change of heart by the public and the media, who were now campaigning for her reprieve and organised a million signature petition of support, the Home Secretary could not be persuaded to reprieve Edith.

Dubbed the ‘Messalina of Ilford’ by the press, Edith paid a terrible price for daring to be ruled by her passion and for acting out of her social ‘class’.  Society could perhaps turn a blind eye to such goings on in the aristocracy, but not to a restless middle-class housewife. 

At 9.00 a. m. on January 9th 1923, both were executed.  Freddy, aged only 20 died fearless and still protesting Edith’s innocence. .Edith, 29, was in a state of collapse.  She was heavily sedated and had to be carried, semi-conscious, to the gallows where she was held upright so that the noose could be fitted to her. 

 The horror doesn’t finish there.  As Edith dropped through the scaffold she suffered a massive haemorrhage.  Bernard Spillsbury, the pathologist who performed her autopsy, stated that it was due to a miscarriage.  This was refuted by the prison authorities, but it was odd that Edith’s weight increased, from 119 to 133 pounds, between being sentenced to death, on the 11th of December 1922, and the day she died, 9th January 1923.  This, despite the fact that she ate little during her last few weeks in prison. 

If pregnant, English law would have stayed her execution until after the birth and she would almost certainly have been reprieved.  Considering she had everything to gain by claiming to be pregnant, it is surprising that she didn’t.  Perhaps the haemorrhage was actually the start of a heavy period brought on by shock.  Whatever caused the bleeding, it had a traumatising effect on those present.  Several prison officers took early retirement.  The hangman, John Ellis, retired in 1923.  He never got over Edith’s execution and, in 1931, committed suicide by slitting his throat in front of his wife and children.

The Home Office files on the case were sealed for 100 years.

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