Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Edith Jessie Thompson
Edith Thompson (cropped).jpg
Edith Jessie Graydon

(1893-12-25)25 December 1893
Dalston, London
Died9 January 1923(1923-01-09) (aged 29)
HMP Holloway, London
Cause of deathExecution by hanging
Resting placeCity of London Cemetery, London, England[1]
OccupationChief buyer at Carlton & Prior
Criminal statusExecuted
Percy Thompson
(m. 1916; died 1922)
MotiveCrime passionel
Conviction(s)Murder (11 December 1922)
Criminal penaltyDeath by hanging
Partner(s)Frederick Bywaters
VictimsPercy Thompson
Frederick Bywaters
FrederickBywaters (cropped).jpg
Born(1902-06-27)27 June 1902
Died9 January 1923(1923-01-09) (aged 20)
Cause of deathExecution by hanging
Resting placeHMP Pentonville, London
OccupationMerchant seaman
Criminal statusExecuted
MotiveCrime passionel
Conviction(s)Murder (11 December 1922)
Criminal penaltyDeath by hanging
Partner(s)Edith Thompson
VictimsPercy Thompson

Edith Jessie Thompson (25 December 1893 – 9 January 1923) and Frederick Edward Francis Bywaters (27 June 1902 – 9 January 1923) were a British couple executed for the murder of Thompson's husband Percy. Their case became a cause célèbre.

Early life[edit]

Edith Thompson was born Edith Jessie Graydon on 25 December 1893, at 97 Norfolk Road in Dalston, London, the first of the five children of William Eustace Graydon (1867–1941), a clerk with the Imperial Tobacco Company, and his wife Ethel Jessie Graydon (née Liles) (1872–1938), the daughter of a police constable. During her childhood, Edith was a happy, talented girl who excelled at dancing and acting, and was academically bright, with a natural ability in arithmetic. After leaving school in 1909 she joined a firm of clothing manufacturers, Louis London, near Aldgate station in London. Then, in 1911, she was employed at Carlton & Prior, wholesale milliners, in the Barbican and later in Aldersgate. Edith quickly established a reputation as a stylish and intelligent woman and was promoted by the company several times, until she became their chief buyer and made regular trips to Paris on behalf of the company.[2]

In 1909, at the age of 15, Edith met Percy Thompson who was three years her senior. After a six-year engagement, they were married at St Barnabas, Manor Park on 15 January 1916. At first, the couple lived in Retreat Road in Westcliff-on-Sea, before buying a house at 41 Kensington Gardens in the then-fashionable London suburb of Ilford in July 1920. With both their careers flourishing they lived a comfortable life.[3]

Acquaintance with Bywaters[edit]

Edith Thompson, circa 1920

In 1920, the couple became acquainted with 18-year-old Frederick Bywaters, although Bywaters and Edith Thompson had met nine years earlier when Bywaters, then aged nine, had been a schoolfriend of Edith's younger brothers.[4]

Frederick Bywaters had enlisted in the merchant navy.[5] The 26-year-old Edith was immediately attracted to Bywaters, who was handsome and impulsive and whose stories of his travels around the world excited Edith's love of romantic adventure. To Edith, the youthful Bywaters represented her romantic ideal; by comparison, 29-year-old Percy seemed staid and conventional. Percy—oblivious to the emerging romantic attraction between his wife and Bywaters—welcomed the youth into their company. Shortly thereafter, the trio—joined by Edith's sister Avis—holidayed in Shanklin on the Isle of Wight. Upon their return, Percy invited Bywaters to lodge with them.[6]

Frederick Bywaters; Edith; and Percy Thompson. 10 July 1921


While holidaying upon the Isle of Wight in June 1921,[7] Edith and Bywaters began an affair. Initially, Percy was unaware of this, although he gradually noticed his wife was drifting away from him. Matters came to a head barely a month after the affair started. A trivial incident in the Thompsons’ garden triggered a violent row during which Percy Thompson struck his wife and caused her to fall over some furniture.[8] Bywaters intervened and Thompson ordered him out of the house. The Thompsons' sitting tenant, a Mrs. Lester, commented on Mrs Thompson's bruises in one of her statements to police. From September 1921 until September 1922 Bywaters was at sea, and during this time Edith Thompson wrote to him frequently. After his return, they met up again.


On 3 October 1922, the Thompsons attended a performance at the Criterion Theatre in London's Piccadilly Circus along with Edith's uncle and aunt, Mr and Mrs J. Laxton. They left the theatre at 11 pm and all went to Piccadilly Circus tube station, where they separated. The Thompsons caught the 11:30 pm train to Ilford. As they walked along Belgrave Road, between Endsleigh and De Vere Gardens, a man jumped out from behind some bushes near their home and attacked Percy. After a violent struggle, during which Edith Thompson was knocked to the ground, Percy was stabbed. Mortally wounded, he died before Edith could summon help. The attacker fled. Neighbours later reported hearing a woman screaming hysterically and shouting "Oh don’t, oh don’t" several times, and by the time police arrived she had still not composed herself. At the police station the following day she was distressed. She was unaware of the fact that Bywaters was already a suspect: he was arrested that evening and taken to Ilford Police Station. The police confronted her with Bywaters and one of the inspectors, Frank Hall, misleadingly told her that Bywaters had already confessed. She then admitted to the police that she knew who the assailant was and provided the police with details of her association with Bywaters.[9]

The police investigated further and discovered a series of more than sixty love letters from Edith Thompson to Bywaters. The letters were the only tangible evidence linking Edith Thompson to the killer. In Stratford Magistrates Court her defence argued that the letters in no way connected Mrs Thompson to the actual place or manner of the murder and that therefore they did not allow 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 equally guilty by law. The presiding magistrate decided that the letters could be admitted and that the court at the Old Bailey would rule on it again. Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters were each charged with murder.


The trial began on 6 December 1922 at the Old Bailey, with Bywaters defended by Cecil Whiteley KC, and Thompson by Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett KC.[10] The prosecution for the Crown was led by the Solicitor-General Sir Thomas Inskip, assisted by Travers Humphreys. Bywaters cooperated completely. He had led police to the murder weapon he had concealed after the murder, and consistently maintained that he had acted without Edith's knowledge.

Edith Thompson's love letters were produced as evidence of incitement to murder. The extant letters date from November 1921 to the end of September 1922. They run to over 55,000 words and afford a day-to-day account of her life in London when her lover Bywaters was at sea. In a few passages of these letters she writes about her longing to be free of her husband, Percy. She refers to grinding glass light bulbs to shards and feeding them to Percy mixed into mashed potato, and on another occasion feeding him poison. She wrote of a woman who had lost three husbands and remarked “I can’t even lose one.” Thompson described how she had carried out her own abortion after becoming pregnant by Bywaters.[11]

Edith Thompson's counsel urged her not to testify, stressing that the burden of proof lay with the prosecution and that there was nothing they could prove other than that she had been present at the murder. But she refused his advice. She was determined to give evidence, imagining that she could save Bywaters.[12] As Curtis-Bennett later noted, she had no conception of the danger she was in. She made a poor impression on the judge and the jury, particularly when she repeatedly contradicted herself. She had claimed that she had never attempted to poison her husband, and references in her letters to attempting to kill him were merely attempts to impress her paramour. In answer to several questions relating to the meaning of some of the passages in her letters, she said "I have no idea."

(Left to right) Frederick Bywaters, Percy Thompson, and Edith Thompson in July 1921

Bywaters stated that Edith Thompson had known nothing of his plans, nor could she have, as he had not intended to murder her husband. His aim had been to confront Percy, he claimed, and to force him to deal with the situation, and when Percy had threatened to shoot him, reacted in a superior manner, Bywaters had lost his temper. Edith Thompson, he repeatedly claimed, had made no suggestion to him to kill Percy, nor did she know that Bywaters intended to confront him. In discussing the letters, Bywaters stated that he had never believed Edith had attempted to harm her husband, but that he believed she had a vivid imagination, fuelled by the novels she enjoyed reading, and in her letters she viewed herself in some way as one of these fictional characters.[13]


On 11 December the jury returned a verdict of guilty against both defendants. Both Thompson and Bywaters were formally sentenced to death by hanging. Edith Thompson became hysterical and started screaming in the court, while Bywaters loudly protested Edith Thompson's innocence, stating: "I say the verdict of the jury is wrong. Edith Thompson is not guilty."[14]


Before and during the trial, Thompson and Bywaters were the subjects of highly sensationalist and critical media commentary. However, after they had been sentenced to death there was a dramatic shift in public attitudes and in the media coverage. Almost one million people signed a petition against the imposed death sentences. Bywaters in particular attracted admiration for his fierce loyalty and protectiveness towards Edith Thompson but she was widely regarded as the controlling mind that had set it all up. Also it was generally considered abhorrent to hang a woman (no woman had been executed in Britain since 1907). Despite the petition and a new confession from Bywaters (in which he once again declared Thompson to be completely innocent) the Home Secretary, William Bridgeman, refused to grant a reprieve. A few days before their executions, Edith Thompson was told that the date of execution had been fixed, at which point she lost her composure. She spent the last few days of her life in a state of near-hysteria, crying, screaming, moaning, and unable to eat.


On 9 January 1923 in Holloway Prison, the 29-year-old Edith Thompson collapsed in terror at the prospect of her hanging. Heavily sedated by the prison governor, almost unconscious, she was carried to the gallows by four prison warders.[15] In Pentonville Prison, the 20-year-old Frederick Bywaters, who had tried since his arrest to save Thompson from imprisonment and execution, was himself hanged.

The ordeal of executing Edith Thompson had a profound effect on her hangman John Ellis. When the gallows trapdoor opened and Thompson fell, the sudden impact of the noose caused her to suffer a massive vaginal haemorrhage. The large amount of blood spilled, combined with the fact that Thompson had gained weight during her imprisonment even while resisting food, led to conjecture that she might have been pregnant, although no post-mortem examination was made.[16]

The two executions occurred simultaneously at 9:00 am, only about a half-mile apart, as Holloway and Pentonville prisons are located in the same district. Later, as was the rule, the bodies of Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters were buried within the walls of the prisons in which they had been executed.

Critiques of the case and the trial[edit]

René Weis echoes a trend of recent and older suggestions that Edith Thompson was innocent of murder. In his letter to the Home Secretary in 1988, he notes that the Crown used a selection of her letters in Court to generate a climate of prejudice against her as an immoral adulteress who seduced a young man eight years her junior.[17] Weis writes: 'Despite the fact that there is no evidence of any kind in the letters or otherwise that Edith Thompson knew that her husband would be assaulted that night in that particular place and in that manner, the Solicitor-General stated in his opening address to the jury that ‘there is the undoubted evidence in the letters upon which you can find that there was a preconcerted meeting between Mrs Thompson and Bywaters at the place’. As only half of Edith Thompson's correspondence was submitted in Court, the jury may well have been led to believe, by this erroneous claim, that a reference to the place, the time, and the manner occurred in one of the letters withheld from them. That the jury was furthermore influenced by the judge's openly expressed disgust concerning the sexual immorality of the correspondence is on record in a letter which a juror wrote to the Daily Telegraph thirty years later: ‘It was my duty to read them [the letters] to the members of the jury … “Nauseous” is hardly strong enough to describe their contents ... The jury performed a painful duty, but Mrs Thompson's letters were her own condemnation’.[18]

It is true that Mr Justice Shearman did instruct the jury to find Edith Thompson guilty only if they were convinced that she had lured her husband to the place where he was murdered. In his charge to the jury he noted ‘Now, I am going to ask you to consider only one question in your deliberations, and that is, was it an arranged thing between the woman and the man? … if you think that when she saw him [Bywaters] there that evening he came there under her direction and information that she had given him as to where she would be about that time – if you think she knew perfectly well as soon as she set eyes on him that he was there to murder, she is guilty of murder too.'[19] The judge then turned to Edith Thompson’s letters, focusing on the ones referring to poison and ground glass, directing the jury to ‘look at these words’ when Edith related to Bywaters how she had pretended to Avis that Percy's state of health worried her. Avis had testified in court that this incident was a fabrication regarding a bottle of medicinal tincture of opium which she, Avis, had poured down the sink. The judge saw it differently and restated the prosecution's case: ‘It is said that she is already preparing for witnesses in case there should be a murder case; that is what is said’. He failed to acknowledge that this point had been tackled head-on by the defence, as it was his duty to do. Again, commenting on a passage in the letters in which Edith Thompson refers to ‘this thing that I am going to do for both of us, will it ever at all make any difference between us, darling, do you understand what I mean; will you ever think any the less of me?’, the judge simply restates the Crown's interpretation, after pretending to the jury that he will resist interpreting the passage: ‘The meaning of that is for you to judge; you will fully understand that it is not for me to tell you what the letters mean … It is said the meaning of that is ‘If I poison him is it going to make any difference to you afterwards’; that is what is suggested as the plain meaning of the words.'[20] The Court of Appeal would interpret the passage similarly as self-evident proof of intent to murder, overlooking the fact that this was not a charge that was being tried. The judge discredited Edith Thompson's account of the murder. She swooned (according to her, the judge notes) and she lied to shield the killer. Above all the witnesses who claimed to have heard her scream of ‘Oh don’t, oh don’t!’ may not be reliable. In his closing comments Mr Justice Shearman impugned the integrity of the important witness John Webber, whose house overlooked the scene of the murder. Webber's is, according to the judge, a ‘very curious piece of evidence’. If Webber can be trusted to tell the truth, then there is corroborative proof of Edith Thompson's spontaneous panic and hysteria during the fight and stabbings. The judge directs the jury: ‘You know he [Webber] is some way off; I am not saying it is true; it is for you to say whether it is accurate, or whether it is imaginary, or whether he has made a mistake.’[21] Such direct undermining of a bona fide witness chimed with the judge's evident hostility towards Edith Thompson. His wider anti-feminist bias at the trial was evident and extensively commented on at the time. Thus he consistently referred to the jury as "gentlemen" in spite of the fact that the jury included a woman juror.

Shearman labelled Edith an 'adulterer' and therefore deceitful and wicked and, by implication, easily capable of murder. Her letters were full of "insensate silly affection".[22] He similarly repeatedly called Bywaters an 'adulterer'. However, Filson Young, in writing contemporaneously with the trial in Notable British Trials (1923), suggests that it was the young of that generation who needed to learn morality: 'Mr Justice Shearman frequently referred to Bywaters as "the adulterer," apparently quite unconscious of the fact that, to people of Bywaters' generation, educated in the ethics of dear labour and cheap pleasure, of commercial sport and the dancing hall, adultery is merely a quaint ecclesiastical term for what seems to them the great romantic adventure of their lives. Adultery to such people may or may not be "sporting," but its wrongness is not a matter that would trouble them for a moment. Sinai, for them, is wrapped in impenetrable cloud. And if we are not prepared to adapt the laws of Sinai to the principles of the night club and thé dansant, I see no other alternative but to educate again our young in the eternal verities on which the law is based.[23] The Court of Appeal endorsed the Judge's description of the accused as adulterers: "Now, the learned judge, in his summing-up to the jury, spoke of the charge as a common or ordinary charge of a wife and an adulterer murdering the husband. That was a true and appropriate description."[24] The deficit in evidence as to direct arrangement was conceded by the Court of Appeal. However, it pursued a line of reasoning to the effect that proof of instigation of murder in a community of purpose without evidence of rebuttal raises an "inference of preconcerted arrangement". The Court of Appeal held that her earlier prolonged incitement to murder revealed in her letters, combined with her lies about what happened on the night of the murder told to several witnesses, up until her second witness statement, which was open to being found untrustworthy, her meetings with Bywaters on the day of the murder, and the content of her last letter, was sufficient to convict her of arranging the murder.[25] The Court of Appeal seemed to take a narrower approach to "principal in the second degree" than the Court, but it is unclear, because "preconcerted arrangement" admits of different shades of meaning. The Court of Appeal seemed determined to forestall any argument based on the mere method or timing of the murder being unagreed to, if there was other plausible evidence of a preconcerted object of murder. Its narrow judgment is unsatisfactory to those who now allege Edith played no part in the murder itself. However, its judgement is limited in extent to the point it was addressing, which was continuity of purpose up until the commission of the murder. If non-agreement as to the means and timing of the murder be conceded, there was merit to its claim that the case "exhibits from beginning to end no redeeming feature."

In his address to the jury Curtis-Bennett attempted to cast her adultery as defensible in the context of the "glamorous aura" of a "great love,"[26] seeking to overlook the point continually being made by the Judge at the trial that the case concerned only an adulterer and an (adulterous) wife. In his summing-up, Curtis-Bennett said of Edith: This is not an ordinary charge of murder....Am I right or wrong in saying that this woman is one of the most extraordinary personalities that you or I have ever met? ...Have you ever read...more beautiful language of love? Such things have been very seldom put by pen upon paper. This is the woman you have to deal with, not some ordinary woman. She is one of those striking personalities met with from time to time who stand out for some reason or another....You are men of the world and you must know that where there is a liaison which includes some one who is married, it will be part of the desire of that person to keep secret the relations from the other partner. It is not the sort of thing that they would bring to the knowledge of their partner for life.[27] Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett KC later claimed that he could have saved her had she not rejected his advice not to take the witness stand. His failure to secure her acquittal had affected him deeply. He maintained her innocence of murder throughout his life, claiming that Edith "paid the extreme penalty for her immorality." In Notable British Trials, Filson Young takes a similar approach, suggesting that Curtis-Bennett should have resigned his brief at her insistence on going into the witness box, although his quest for fame and fortune could never have allowed it.[28] The famous defender Sir Edward Marshall Hall KC similarly stated that he would have surrendered his defence brief if she had defied him the way she did Curtis-Bennett. Curtis-Bennett said to Mr. Stanley Bishop, a journalist, "She spoiled her chances by her evidence and by her demeanour. I had a perfect answer to everything which I am sure would have won an acquittal if she had not been a witness. She was a vain woman and an obstinate one. She had an idea that she could carry the jury. Also she realized the enormous public interest, and decided to play up to it by entering the witness-box. Her imagination was highly developed, but it failed to show her the mistake she was making."[29] One mistake that Edith appeared to make was in testifying that Bywaters had led her into the poison plots. Delusion was no defence to murder and this could not save her. Curtis-Bennett argued a more legally secure but evidentially weak defence based on Edith acting the part of poisoner, or engaging in a fantasy. The fact that the two Home Office pathologists, Sir Bernard Spilsbury and Dr John Webster both concluded categorically in their independent post mortem reports that there were no traces of poison or glass in Percy Thompson's body should have been proof of the fantasy defence.[30]

One of her main lines of defence, that she was constantly seeking a divorce or separation from her husband, and that it rather than murder was the main object of the attested five-year compact between her and Bywaters shown in her letters, was dismissed by the Judge as a sham. "If you think these letters are genuine, they mean that she is involved in a continual practice of deceit; concealing the fact of her connection with Bywaters, and not reiterating it with requests for her husband to let her go."[31] Filson Young argues that the Defence used the wrong tactics. He said: "If the defence had said on behalf of Mrs. Thompson, 'I did not murder Percy Thompson, I had nothing to do with it. I had no knowledge of it, and I was stunned and horrified when it took place, and I defy the prosecution to introduce any evidence with which that denial is not absolutely compatible,' and had rested on that, I do not think you could have found a British jury to convict her."[32] There is undoubtedly an air of a presumption of guilt surrounding her trial. However, Young's point, that the burden of proof was on the Crown, to prove murder, rather than on the Defence to rebut a presumption of murder, is certainly a valid one. The Judge, Mr. Justice Shearman, placed much weight on inconsistencies in her evidence, particularly her statements to the police concerning the night of the murder that suggested she had intended to conceal her witness of the crime, and perhaps conversations of criminal intent with Bywaters preceding it, although she always vigorously denied foreknowledge of it. In The Innocence of Edith Thompson, Lewis Broad states that the Judge's summing up was considered to be at the time "deadly, absolutely against her" and that he 'was pressing the case much more strongly than the Solicitor-General had done.'[33] The Defence did succeed in some points, showing that guesswork by the prosecution over ambiguous content of some of the letters was fanciful and wrong. An autopsy on Percy Thompson had failed to reveal any evidence that he had been fed ground glass or any type of detectable poison. That her letters did not necessarily reflect her deeds in respect of the so-termed poison plots was fairly clear. Even though perceived in her favour by Lewis Broad, Filson Young, Edgar Lustgarten, René Weis, Laura Thompson and others students of the case, the Court of Appeal held the poison-plots against her and against him: "if the question is, as I think it was, whether these letters were evidence of a protracted, continuous incitement to Bywaters to commit the crime which he did in the end commit, it really is of comparatively little importance whether the appellant was truly reporting something which she had done, or falsely reporting something which she merely pretended to do."[34] Moreover, "it matters not whether those letters show or, at any rate, go to show, that there was between this appellant and Mrs Thompson an agreement tending to the same end. Those letters were material as throwing light, not only upon the question by whom was this deed done, but what was the intent, what was the purpose with which it was done"[35] said the Court of Appeal to Bywaters.

James Douglas, the chief reporter for the Express papers covering the trial in 1922/23, also took issue with the verdict, writing ‘I think the hanging of Mrs. Thompson is a miscarriage of mercy and justice ... I believe she was an adulteress. But we do not hang a woman for adultery. The Mosaic Law stoned the adulteress to death. Our law punishes adultery by divorce, not by death. Therefore, in judging Mrs. Thompson we must not mix up the crime of murder with the sin of adultery. ... Let us condemn her as being guilty of all she charges herself with in her letters. Having done so, let us see what she is not guilty of. 1. It was not her hand that struck down her husband. 2. Her husband did not die by poison or powdered glass administered by her hand. 3. There is no evidence that she put poison or glass in his food. 4. There is no evidence that at any time in any way she ever made any attempt on the life of her husband. 5. There is no evidence that she was guilty or premeditated connivance, collusion, or complicity in the actual crime. 6. There is no evidence that she was an accessory before the fact, apart from the incitements in her own letters. 7. There is no evidence that she actually aided and abetted the striking of the fatal blows. 8. There is no evidence of wilful murder against her. Therefore, in her case murder is not murder, but merely a legal extension of the legal definition of murder. It is a moral, not a physical, crime. It is a sin of the soul, and not a consummation of sin in the act of slaying. I might amplify this catalogue of the innocence or non-guiltiness of Mrs. Thompson, but my eight points suffice to drive home my argument that her guilt stopped short of wilful murder if only by a hair's breadth was a broad abyss separating the will from the deed. One last word. If Mrs. Thompson had not been walking with her husband when he was murdered, would the jury have found her guilty of wilful murder? Why should she be hanged by reason of what may have been the unforeseen accident of her presence?[36]

In Verdict in Dispute (1949), Edgar Lustgarten states that "The Thompson verdict is now recognized as bad, and the trial from which it sprang stands out as an example of the evils that may flow from an attitude of mind." He continues with ‘There was no failure of law; there was no failure of procedure; there was no failure to observe and abide by all the rules. It was from first to last a failure in human understanding; a failure to grasp and comprehend a personality not envisaged in the standard legal textbooks and driven by forces far more powerful and eternal than those that are studied in the Inns of Court.’ From this it may be reasonably surmised that his essay is something of an apology for Edith, whose culpability he diminishes on the basis that "she was a woman of quality whose talents were frustrated." He adds "She was a remarkable and complex personality, endowed with signal attributes of body and of mind. She had intelligence, vitality, a natural grace and poise, sensitiveness, humour and illumining all these that quintessential femininity that fascinates the male."He writes "[In the absence of her letters] all that could be said against her was that she had lied in a futile attempt to protect and cover Bywaters. That might make her an accessory after the fact. It could not bring her into danger of the rope."[37] Although Lustgarten does not allege any defect in legal procedure, he says that the Court was unable to understand questions of "sex and psychology" and the consequent possibility of fantasy.

A critique of the conduct of her trial and the state of the law was made by Lewis Broad.[38] He argued that it was the misfortune of Edith Thompson that she was unable to separate herself from the prejudice due to her immorality whereas, if it had been a former crime, she was entitled not to have it mentioned. He also attacked the judge for using morally prejudiced language to incite the prejudice of the jury. He concedes that it was within the rules for the jury to decide what the words in Edith's letters meant and what was intended by them. Broad went on to attack the general conduct of the trial: 1. She should have been granted a separate trial in that she was handicapped by having to appear alongside Bywaters. 2. The judge allowed the jury to be inflamed by prejudice on account of her immorality. 3. Suspicion based on prejudice was allowed to take the place of proof of meaning, motive and intention in respect of her letters. Broad also levels criticism against the prosecution for the unfair use of her letters at trial, covering such matters as: a) 1500 word extract used at trial from 25000 words in total, which in turn were less than half of her total of 51,000 or so words. Many of the letters were censored by the court during the trial, because they dealt with subjects such as menstruation and orgasm, subjects that were not then considered fit for public discussion. b) There was only one unambiguous reference to poison in the five months preceding the murder. c) The meaning of uncertain phrases were allowed to be suggested by the Crown and were determined to prejudice the jury. d) The context of the murder suggested no element of planning. e) Despite their meandering and casual discussion of the subject matter, Percy's murder, there is nothing in the letters that amounted to agreement or one. f) There was a break in the chain of causation after Bywaters had indicated he did not want to continue to see Edith, evidenced from her letters 20 June - 12 September 1922. g) That the letters were part of a fantasy between the parties was not put forth to the jury.

The 'broken chain' theory of the case, favoured by Broad,[39] arguing that there is no causal link between Edith's letters and the actual murder, because of the length of time separating them and the manner of the murder, is developed by the UCL professor of jurisprudence William Twining. In Rethinking Evidence: Exploratory Essays (2006), pp. 344–396, Twining argues that a Wigmorean, 'decompositional' analysis of the charges brought against Edith Thompson demonstrates how unsatisfactory the verdict against her was in law. Twining writes that 'For the prosecution to convict Edith, they had to prove that the attack was premeditated. Even if one totally discounts Freddy's evidence about the events of the evening (and his story of the period up to 11 p.m. was generally consistent and was largely corroborated by the Graydons), there is almost nothing to support the proposition that the attack was premeditated. There was no evidence to support the proposition that the knife was purchased recently in order to attack Percy; there was no evidence in support of the proposition that Bywaters put the knife in his pocket that morning because he planned to attack Percy — the best that the prosecution could do was point out that there was no corroboration for his claim that he was in the habit of carrying it.' [40] The ‘tea-room’ passage (exhibit 60) - “Don’t forget what we talked in the Tea Room, I’ll still risk and try if you will — we only have 3 1/2 years left darlingest. Try and help.” - was interpreted by the judge as referring to either poisoning Percy Thompson or to using a dagger.[41] This was also the prosecution theory, that ‘what’ referred to killing Percy; the defence claimed that ‘what’ referred to Freddy trying to find Edith a post abroad so that they could elope. Twining argues that a close Wigmorean analysis allows for the following conclusions: 'For example, the judge's suggestion can be attacked on the following grounds: 1. it is sheer speculation, with no evidence to support it; 2. it involves a petitio principii in that it assumes what is seeks to prove; 3. it does not make sense of the passage: ‘Don’t forget what we talked in the Tea Room [about whether to use poison or a dagger], I’ll still risk and try if you will we have only 3 1/2 years left darlingest.’[42] Twining continues with 'Even if we totally discount testimony of both accused that it referred to eloping (the ‘risks’ being financial and/or of social stigma), the context of the letter as a whole and the words ‘3 1/2 years left’ both tend to support the judgement that an innocent explanation is a good deal more likely than the prosecution's interpretation. At the, very least, such factors seem to me to cast a reasonable doubt on that interpretation, yet this passage was the main item of evidence in support of the conspiracy theory.'[43]

A feminist review of the case occurs in Laura Thompson's 2018 book, Rex V Edith Thompson: A tale of Two Murders. Thompson (not a relative) claims that Edith Thompson was the victim of a highly prejudicial ‘gendered’ trial, with the trial judge's and the Appeal Court judges' bias against the accused woman playing a key part in her conviction.

In March 2018 the BBC presented a thoughtful evaluation in an episode of the series Murder, Mystery and My Family in which barristers Sasha Wass and Jeremy Dein reviewed the case. Although they were unable to determine any new evidence they agreed that there were serious issues to be addressed regarding the final summing up by the trial judge, Mr Justice Shearman. Although acting as prosecution and defence Wass and Dein presented a joint submission to Senior Crown Court Judge David Radford for consideration, arguing that there was no case to answer by Edith Thompson with regard to the charge that was brought against her. Judge Radford gave his opinion that the summing up in the case was deficient and had failed to offer correct direction to the jury. He considered that it had been unfair and unbalanced and that there were grounds for coming to a decision that the conviction of Edith Thompson was both unsafe and unsatisfactory. This was followed by a second BBC 2 programme in 2019, with the same participants, to take account of the reburial of Edith Thompson in November 2018.


Edith Thompson's former grave in Brookwood Cemetery. Her body was exhumed in 2018
Edith Thompson's new grave in the City of London Cemetery, June 2019

The body of Edith Thompson was buried in an unmarked grave within the walls of Holloway Prison, as was customary. In 1971 the prison underwent an extensive programme of rebuilding, during which the bodies of all the executed women were exhumed for reburial outside the confines of the prison.[44] With the exception of Ruth Ellis, the remains of the four women executed at Holloway (Edith Thompson, Styllou Christofi, Amelia Sach and Annie Walters) were reburied in a single grave at Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey. The new grave (in plot 117) remained unmarked for over twenty years. It was acquired in the 1980s by René Weis and Audrey Russell, who had interviewed Avis Graydon (Edith Thompson's surviving sister) at length in the 1970s. On 13 November 1993, a grey granite memorial was placed on plot 117, and dedicated to the memory of the four women buried there. The grave and plot were formally consecrated by the Reverend Barry Arscott of St. Barnabas, Manor Park, the church in which Edith Thompson was married in January 1916.[45] Edith Thompson's details appear prominently on the face of the tombstone, together with her epitaph: "Sleep on beloved. Her death was a legal formality".[46] The names of the other three women are inscribed around the edges of the tombstone.[47] The precise location of Thompson's former grave within Brookwood Cemetery is 51°18′13.67″N 0°37′33.33″W / 51.3037972°N 0.6259250°W / 51.3037972; -0.6259250.

Representatives of the Home Office did not inform Avis Graydon of the exhumation and the fact that she had the right to take control of her sister's funeral arrangements.[48]

The remains of Frederick Bywaters still lie in an unmarked grave within the walls of HMP Pentonville, where they were buried shortly after his execution in January 1923. The precise location of the cemetery within the prison is 51°32′44.05″N 0°06′54.62″W / 51.5455694°N 0.1151722°W / 51.5455694; -0.1151722.

The remains of Percy Thompson are buried at the City of London Cemetery.[49]

In her will, Avis Graydon expressed a wish for Mass to be said for members of the Graydon family every 9 January, the anniversary of her sister Edith's death. This annual service of remembrance was restarted after the publication of Weis's book in 1988. Since the early 1990s, an annual service of remembrance has taken place at St. Barnabas, Manor Park (East Ham) every 9 January at 8:30 am.

In July 2018 an exhumation order was granted by the Ministry of Justice to René Weis, Edith Thompson's executor and heir. On 20 November 2018 Edith Thompson's remains were exhumed from Brookwood Cemetery, and on 22 November 2018 she was formally buried alongside her parents, in accordance with her mother's wishes, in the City of London Cemetery.[50][51]

The case in popular culture[edit]

The Thompson and Bywaters case has provided the basis for several fictional and non-fictional works and depictions.

The couple were the subject of waxworks at Madame Tussauds Chamber of Horrors.[52]

Alfred Hitchcock expressed the wish to make a documentary film on the case, several times commenting that the Thompson and Bywaters case was the one he would most like to film. At the start of the 1920s Hitchcock had been taught to dance by Edith Thompson's father at the Golden Lane Institute, at a time when he worked for the Cable Car Company.[53] His sister and Avis Graydon became close friends later, as they served in the same Catholic church in Leytonstone. Hitchcock exchanged Christmas cards with Avis Graydon but they never discussed the case. He asked his authorised biographer, John Russell Taylor, not to mention the case of Edith Thompson in case it caused her sister distress, even after all those years. Some aspects of the case have similarities to the plot of Hitchcock's film Stage Fright (1950).[54]

James Joyce was fascinated by the case, and used the trial documents as a major source in Finnegans Wake.[55]

According to the ODNB's entry on the novelist E. M. Delafield, her 1924 novel Messalina of the Suburbs was based on the Thompson/Bywaters trial. She ends the novel before the verdict is announced.[56]

In 1934, F. Tennyson Jesse published A Pin to See the Peepshow, "a fictional account of the Thompson-Bywaters case despite the usual disclaimer at the front that all the characters are imaginary. The title refers to the children's entertainment at which (she) first met her lover-to-be".[57] This was dramatised on TV in 1973 with Francesca Annis, John Duttine and Bernard Hepton playing characters based on Edith Thompson, Bywaters and Percy Thompson respectively.[58] Annis received a nomination for British Academy Television Award for Best Actress.

A play written in the 1930s by Frank Vosper, People Like Us, was originally banned by the Lord Chamberlain[citation needed] and remained unperformed until 1948 when it premiered at the Wyndhams Theatre, London, in the West End.[59]

There are a number of references to Edith Thompson in the Agatha Christie novel Crooked House (1949) and Mrs McGinty's Dead (1952).

In the 1981 second season of the British television series Lady Killers, an episode called "The Darlingest Boy" dealt with the Thompson and Bywaters case. In it Edith Thompson was played by Gayle Hunnicutt while Frederick Bywaters was played by Christopher Villiers.

In non-fiction, Lewis Broad wrote The Innocence of Edith Thompson: A Study in Old Bailey Justice in 1952.

René Weis published a biography of Thompson, entitled Criminal Justice: The True Story of Edith Thompson, in 1988.

In 1992 BBC Radio aired a drama about case called 'Darling Peidi', written by Shelagh Stephenson[60]

Jill Dawson published a fictional version of the case, entitled Fred and Edie, in 2000.

Weis' biography, with a new preface about the case and his letter of appeal to the Home Secretary, appeared in 2001, as did the film Another Life, which told their story, and in which Natasha Little played Edith Thompson, Nick Moran played Percy Thompson and Ioan Gruffudd played Frederick Bywaters.

P. D. James (The Murder Room, 2004[61]), Dorothy Sayers (The Documents in the Case, with Robert Eustace), and Anthony Berkeley Cox (writing as Francis Iles) have written fiction based on their story.[citation needed]

In 2013, Hangman, a play written by Maggie Clune and based on the case and subsequent events, previewed at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London, starring Russell Floyd as John Ellis and Samantha Bolter as Edith Thompson.[citation needed]

In 2014, Sarah Waters published the novel The Paying Guests, which does not directly represent the events of this case but was partly inspired by it.[62]

In 2016, "Murder Maps", a documentary-drama series covering notorious, historical London murder cases, aired an episode which focused on the case.[63]

In 2018, Laura Thompson published Rex v Edith Thompson: A Tale of Two Murders.[64]

The case of Edith Thompson was featured in Murder, Mystery, and My Family, with barristers Jeremy Dein QC and Sasha Wass QC investigating whether Edith Thompson had suffered a miscarriage of justice. In light of their submissions in the programme, Judge David Radford determined that Edith's conviction was indeed unsafe.

In January 2020 the Edith Thompson website was launched (https://edithjessiethompson.co.uk/), a comprehensive data archive with detailed accounts of Edith Thompson's 2018 exhumation and funeral, a complete set of her letters, a 90-minute interview with her sister in 1973, and unpublished photographs of Mrs Thompson, her friends and family, and locations relating to the case.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lusher, Adam (22 November 2018). "Laid to rest at last: Edith Thompson, victim of a 'barborous, misogynistic' death penalty". Independent. Retrieved 5 July 2019.
  2. ^ Criminal Justice: The true story of Edith Thompson 2001, pp. 1-17
  3. ^ The Murders of theBlack Museum: 1870-1970 ISBN 978-1-854-71160-1 p. 243
  4. ^ The Murders of the Black Museum: 1870-1970 ISBN 978-1-854-71160-1 p. 243
  5. ^ The Murders of the Black Museum: 1870-1970 ISBN 978-1-854-71160-1 p. 243
  6. ^ The Murders of the Black Museum: 1870-1970 ISBN 978-1-854-71160-1 p. 244
  7. ^ The Murders of the Black Museum: 1870-1970 ISBN 978-1-854-71160-1 p. 243
  8. ^ Criminal Justice, pp. 54-56
  9. ^ Criminal Justice, pp.203-4
  10. ^ Notable British Trials,1923, edited Filson Young, p.1
  11. ^ "Laid to rest at last: Edith Thompson". The Independent. 22 November 2018. Archived from the original on 8 November 2020. Retrieved 15 May 2021.
  12. ^ Edward Grice, Great Cases of Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett KC, 1937, pp. 41-42
  13. ^ Notable British Trials, pp.45-73)
  14. ^ Notable British Trials, p.156
  15. ^ Criminal Justice, pp. 301-303
  16. ^ Gillespie, James. "Tragic affair of the milliner and the murderer (in The Times)". ISSN 0140-0460. Retrieved 13 March 2022.
  17. ^ Criminal Justice, pp.313-316
  18. ^ Weis, Criminal Justice, p. 247
  19. ^ Notable British Trials, p. 144
  20. ^ Notable British Trials, p. 147
  21. ^ Notable British Trials p.152
  22. ^ Notable British Trials, p.145ref
  23. ^ Notable British Trials, p. XXXI
  24. ^ Notable British Trials, p. 251
  25. ^ Notable British Trials, pp.255-261
  26. ^ Notable British Trials, pp.112-125
  27. ^ Notable British Trials, p.114
  28. ^ Notable British Trials, pp XXII-XXIII.
  29. ^ Roland White & Derek Curtis-Bennett, King's Counsel: The life of Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett,1937, p. 146
  30. ^ Criminal Justice, pp. 215-16
  31. ^ Notable British Trials, pp 146-151.
  32. ^ Notable British Trials, p.XXIII
  33. ^ Lewis Broad, The Innocence of Edith Thompson 1952, pp. 159-160
  34. ^ Notable British Trials, p.259
  35. ^ Notable British Trials, p.254
  36. ^ James Douglas, 'Should Edith Thompson be hanged?', Sunday Express, 7 January 1923
  37. ^ edithjessiethompson.co.uk: 'Edith Thompson in the press
  38. ^ The Innocence of Edith Thompson
  39. ^ The Innocence of Edith Thompson, pp. 184-202
  40. ^ Twining, p.363
  41. ^ Notable British Trials, 151
  42. ^ Twining, p. 365
  43. ^ Twining, pp. 365-66
  44. ^ Edith Thompson-Executed ISBN 978-1-470-98733-6 p. 188
  45. ^ René Weis (2001). Criminal Justice: The True Story of Edith Thompson. Penguin. pp. IX–XXXIX.
  46. ^ Underworld London: Crime and Punishment in the Capital City ISBN 978-1-849-83292-2 p. 230
  47. ^ The Brookwood Cemetery Society: "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2 April 2012. Retrieved 9 August 2012.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  48. ^ "Female Executions - Stories". fold3.com. 12 October 2011. Retrieved 31 January 2020.
  49. ^ "Edith Thompson". Necropolis Notables. The Brookwood Cemetery Society. Archived from the original on 25 March 2007. Retrieved 23 February 2007.
  50. ^ BBC 1 Murder, Mystery, and My Family 8 April 2019: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00041wg
  51. ^ Adam Lusher, Laid to rest at last: Edith Thompson, victim of a 'barbarous, misogynistic death penalty' - The Independent 22 November 2018
  53. ^ John Russell Taylor, "The truth about Hitchcock and those cool blondes", The Times, 5 April 2005
  54. ^ Maxford, Howard (2002). The A-Z of Hitchcock: [The Ultimate Reference Guide]. London: B.T. Batsford. p. 239.
  55. ^ Vincent Deane, 'Bywaters and the Original Crime', European Joyce Studies, Vol 4, ed Andrew Triep, 1994
  56. ^ Beauman, N. Dashwood [née de la Pasture], Edmée Elizabeth Monica [pseud. E. M. Delafield] (1890–1943), novelist. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 17 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-32720: "Criminology had always been an interest... A Messalina of the Suburbs (1924) was based on the Thompson Bywaters trial."
  57. ^ Barzun, Jacques & Taylor, Wendell Hertig (1989). A Catalogue of Crime (Revised and enlarged ed.). New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 978-0-06-015796-8.
  58. ^ A Pin to See the Peepshow at IMDb
  59. ^ The Times(London), 5 July 1948, p.7: "Tomorrow Frank Vosper's People Like Us, which is based on an actual trial for murder, comes to Wyndham's Theatre..."
  60. ^ "The Monday Play: Darling Peidi First broadcast: Mon 23rd Mar 1992, 20:00 on BBC Radio 4 FM : The true story of Edith Thompson who, with Freddy Bywaters, was charged with the murder of her husband Percy in October 1922. Written by Shelagh Stephenson.": https://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/
  61. ^ James, PD (2003). The Murder Room. United States: Vintage Books. pp. 9–11. ISBN 1-4000-7609-9.
  62. ^ "A Test of Love in a Court of Law" The New York Times 10 April 2014
  63. ^ "Murder Maps" Murder in the Roaring Twenties (TV Episode 2016), retrieved 17 February 2017
  64. ^ , Laura Thompson, Rex v Edith Thompson: A Tale of Two Murders, Head of Zeus, 440 pages

Cited works and further reading[edit]

External links[edit]