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Edith Jessie THOMPSON





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Love triangle
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: October 3, 1922
Date of arrest: Next day
Date of birth: December 25, 1893
Victim profile: Percy Thompson, 32 (her husband)
Method of murder: Stabbing with knife
Location: London, England, United Kingdom
Status: Executed by hanging in Pentonville Prison on January 9, 1923

photo gallery


The Trial of Frederick Bywaters and Edith Thompson (20.7 Mb)


Verdict in dispute, by Edgar Marcus Lustgarten (11.3 Mb)


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

Early life and events leading to the murder

Born Edith Graydon 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 Liles (1872–1938), the daughter of a police constable.

During her childhood, she was a happy, talented girl who excelled at dancing and acting, and was academically bright, with a natural ability in arithmetic. Upon leaving school, she found employment as a bookkeeper for a fabric importer. She 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.

In 1909 she met Percy Thompson, and after a six-year engagement they were married in 1916. They bought a house in the fashionable town of Ilford in Essex and with both their careers flourishing, lived a comfortable life.

The couple became acquainted with Freddy Bywaters in 1920, although Bywaters and Edith Thompson had met nine years earlier when Bywaters had been a school friend of Edith’s younger brother.

By 1920 Bywaters had joined the merchant navy. Edith was immediately attracted to Bywaters, who was handsome and impulsive and whose stories of his travels around the world interested Edith. By comparison Percy was a staid, conventional person, and Bywaters represented a more dashing figure to her, and more closely resembled her romantic ideal. He was welcomed by Percy, and the trio, joined by Edith’s sister, holidayed on the Isle of Wight. Upon their return, Percy invited Bywaters to lodge with them.

Edith and Bywaters began an affair soon after, and when Percy realised this he confronted them. A quarrel broke out and when Bywaters demanded that Percy divorce Edith, Percy ordered him from the house. Edith later described a violent confrontation with her husband after Bywaters left, and said that her husband struck her several times and threw her across the room. From September 1921 until September 1922, Bywaters was at sea, and during this time Edith Thompson wrote to him frequently. Upon his return, they met again.

The murder

On October 3, 1922 the Thompsons attended a performance at the Criterion Theatre in London’s Piccadilly Circus and were returning home, when a man jumped out from behind some bushes near their home, and attacked Percy.

After a violent struggle, during which Edith Thompson was also brutally 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 “no don’t” several times, and by the time police arrived she had still not composed herself.

At the police station she appeared distressed and confided to police that she knew who the killer was, and named Freddy Bywaters. Believing herself to be a witness, rather than an accomplice, Thompson provided them with details of her association with Bywaters.

As police investigated further they arrested Bywaters, and upon discovering a series of more than sixty love letters from Edith Thompson to Bywaters, arrested her too. The letters were the only tangible evidence linking Edith Thompson to the murders, and 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 equally guilty by law. They were each charged with murder.

The trial

The trial began on December 6, 1922 at the Old Bailey. Bywaters co-operated 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. The love letters were produced as evidence.

In these Edith Thompson passionately declared her love for Bywaters, and her desire to be free of Percy. She said on one occasion she had ground a glass light bulb to shards and had fed them to Percy mixed into mashed potato, and on another occasion had fed him poison. Not only had he failed to die, he had failed to become ill, and Edith now implored Freddy to “do something desperate”.

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. By this time Thompson seemed to be enjoying the publicity she was attracting and insisted that she would take the stand.

Her testimony proved damning, and she was caught in a series of lies. Her demeanour was variously flirtatious, self pitying and melodramatic and she made a poor impression on the judge and the jury, particularly when she contradicted herself. In answer to several questions relating to the meaning of some of the passages in her letters, she said “I have no idea”.

Her counsel later stated that her vanity and arrogance had destroyed her chances for acquittal. Her testimony negated the positive testimonies of neighbours who had heard Thompson crying out in horror during her husband’s murder, and the statements from police who dealt with the immediate investigation stating that Thompson appeared to be in a genuine state of shock and disbelief and attested to her assertions of “Oh god, why did he do it?” and “I never wanted him to do it”.

Bywaters stated that Edith Thompson had known nothing of his plans for the simple reason that he had not intended to murder Percy Thompson. His aim was to confront him, and force him to deal with the situation, and when Thompson had reacted in a superior manner, Bywaters had lost his temper.

Edith Thompson, he repeatedly stated, 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.

On December 11, the jury returned a verdict of guilty, and both Thompson and Bywaters were sentenced to death by hanging. Thompson became hysterical and started screaming in the court, while Bywaters loudly protested Thompson’s innocence.

Imprisonment and execution

Before and during the trial, Thompson and Bywaters were the subjects of a highly sensationalist and critical media commentary, but after they were 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 attracted admiration for his fierce loyalty and protectiveness towards Thompson. Thompson was regarded as a foolish woman, but attracted sympathy as it was generally considered that to hang a woman was abhorrent, and no woman had been executed in Britain since 1907.

Thompson herself stated that she would not hang, and when her parents were allowed to visit her she urged her father to simply take her home. 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, did not extend them a reprieve.

A few days before their executions Thompson was told of the date which had been fixed, and lost her composure. She spent the last few days of her life in a state of near hysteria, crying, screaming and moaning, and unable to eat. On the morning of her execution she was heavily sedated, but remained in an agitated state. On January 9, 1923 in Holloway Prison, Thompson was half carried to the scaffold where she had to be held upright while the noose was fitted to her.

In Pentonville Prison, Bywaters who had tried since his arrest to save Thompson from execution, was himself hanged. They were hanged simultaneously at 9.00 am, only about half-a-mile apart - Holloway and Pentonville prisons are located in the same district. Later, the bodies of Thompson and Bywaters were buried within the walls of the prisons where they had been executed.

Edith Thompson was one of only 17 women hanged in the United Kingdom during the 20th Century.

Critiques of the case and the trial

Rene Weis echoes a trend of recent and older suggestions that Edith Thompson was innocent of murder. The main basis for this argument is that there was no evidence that Edith was party to arranging the murder on the night in question, but the issue is bound up with his perception of what it means to be "principal to murder in the second degree" (i.e. support, assist, instigate, command, agree, murder) and also his perception of Edith's true character, although he concedes she was an adulteress and no saint.

As to her character, the trial Judge, Mr. Justice Shearman KC, and her Counsel, Sir Henry Curtis Bennett KC, differed. The former labelled her as an adulterer, deceitful and wicked and, by implication, easily capable of murder. Her letters were full of "insensate silly affection" and also "...full of the outpourings of a silly but, at the same time, wicked affection." This was concurred with by the Court of Appeal. Curtis Bennett attempted to cast her immorality as defensible in the context of the "glamorous aura" of a "great love," 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, he had 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."

"Curtis-Bennett later said: "Was it not proved that she had posed to him (i.e. Bywaters) as a woman capable of doing anything - even murder - to keep his love? She had to: Bywaters wanted to get away from her."

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."

Weis seeks to draw attention to what he considers to be the inappropriateness of the Victorian morality of Mr. Justice Shearman KC to the era of the 1920s. However, Young, writing contemporaneously with the trial, 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 the thé dansant, I see no other alternative but to educate again our young in the eternal verities on which the law is based."

Weis's legal criticisms are better argued by Broad (below), but both raise the same perennial objection to the fairness of Edith's conviction that there was no direct evidence of the involvement of Edith in the planning the murder, or that she had even consented to its commission on the night in question. 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 extraordinary catalogue of 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.

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." Edith and Bywaters were untrustworthy, so besmirched were their reputations before they had even entered the witness box. The compact that they had admitted between themselves was one of "culpable intimacy."

Both were on record as admitting perjury in swearing false statements to the police. Everything pointed to Edith desiring the death of her husband over an extended period, to the day of the murder itself, as evidenced by her ridiculous cover for Bywaters after the commission of the murder. What substantive evidence had the Defence put forward to deny her guilt besides her cry "Don't Don't!" uttered just as Bywaters was stabbing her husband to death? One might reasonably posit Edith to have been in some kind of semi-hypnotic trance cast by Bywaters's malevolent spell, that she was unable ever to free herself from.

Given Edith's reported unedifying performance as a witness, Weis does just about concede that her conviction was inevitable, as does Sir Henry Curtis Bennett KC, although he claims 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 appeared to maintain her innocence of murder throughout his life, claiming that Edith "paid the extreme penalty for her immorality."

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. 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."

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 sure but evidentially bankrupt defence based on Edith acting the part of poisoner, or engaging in a fantasy. Yet she seemed to nullify this by her evidence of reacting to Bywater's suggestions.

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."

As the Defence was left without a reply to the Judge's antipathy to its attempts to divest her "great love" of moral accountability and instill it with an aura of majesty - the suffering of her husband in his life and in his death cried out against it - the Defence had little of substance to put before the Jury except that she had not arranged the murder directly. Curtis-Bennett's linking of the innocence of Edith to that of Bywaters at the end of his closing speech disclosed the dire straits to which Edith's defence had sunk.

Young avers 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." There is certainly an air of a presumption of guilt surrounding her trial – a presumption that she did little to overturn either before or during it. 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.

A criticism can be made of the Court and also the Court of Appeal that it did not define "principal in the second degree" sufficiently precisely to give its critics confidence in the proper administration of justice, especially given that this was a capital case. The contention of the Crown was wide: "...that there was an agreement between these two persons to get rid of Mr. Thompson, or that, if there was not an actual agreement in terms, there was an instigation by Mrs. Thompson to get rid of him, on which Bywaters acted so as to kill him.". This does not seem to have been objected to by the Judge, who averred:

"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? I quite accept the law of the learned Solicitor-General that if you hire an assassin and say: 'Here is money,' and there is a bargain between them that the assassin shall go out and murder the man when he can, the person who hires the assassin is guilty of the murder it is plain common sense. I also accept the proposition that if a woman says to a man, 'I want this man murdered; you promise me to do it,' and he then promises her (she believing that he is going to keep his promise as soon as he gets an opportunity) and goes out and murders someone, then she also is guilty of murder."

A five-year compact between Edith and Bywaters was shown to have lasted throughout the entire course of their exchange of letters up until the date of the murder. It was obvious that if only one of its aims had been the death of Percy Thompson, which seemed tolerably plain from the letters, and from Edith's persistent lying on the night of the murder, and her subsequent false witness statement(s), then on the above definition of "principal in the second degree" as no more than as instigator in a community of purpose, Edith would be found guilty. This was presumably the basis on which the Jury's decision rested. It is difficult to see how the Jury could have arrived at any other conclusion. The Judge, Mr. Justice Shearman KC, 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. Broad states that the Judge's summing up was considered to be at the time "deadly, absolutely against her" but he does not claim that the Judge was less than impartial, even though he resolutely argues for her innocence.

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 Broad and Young, 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." 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" said the Court of Appeal to Bywaters.

The impending crime of Bywaters is seen in the morbid and almost demented possessiveness of his last letters to Edith. This was at odds with Edith's last letter to him in which she complained that she was obliged to continue living with her husband as his "dutiful wife" if only in appearance, because she lacked the funds to do otherwise. Bywaters was further apprised that, as Percy was now always suspicious, Bywaters was not going to be allowed to dominate Edith's life to quite the same extent as before. Combined with Edith's earlier ambiguous remark to "be jealous of [her husband] so much that you will do something desperate", it seems that matters reached a juncture, albeit in a dangerously unstable mind, long since blinded to the norms of morality by his hatred of Percy. Despite the culpability of Bywaters, whose only claim to leniency was that he had been led astray by Edith, which was an unlikely proposition due to his reported lack of innocence, the press of the day "hardened in favour of condemnation of the woman and forgiveness of the youth because he was a weak and often unwilling slave of her stronger will."

The entire folio of letters was later published by Filson Young in Notable British Trials Series in 1923, although the letters are not in any kind of chronological order, for which see Lewis Broad (below).

Edgar Lustgarten, "Verdict in Dispute," 1949, states on p. 161 that the "The Thompson verdict is now recognised 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." 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." Given that it was the murder of her husband that was involved, the more credible view is surely that her lies had raised immediate suspicion that she was somehow involved. As the Court of Appeal inferred, the circumstances of the case - two adulterers and a murdered spouse - were essentially "commonplace" and, moreover, Edith appears to have foreseen, as she was being led back to her house by a police sergeant just after the murder, that she would be implicated, for she had said to him "they will blame me for this."

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. 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. 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 Jun 20-Sept 12 1922.

g) That the letters were part of a fantasy between the parties was not put forth to the Jury.

The Home Office files were marked not to be opened for 100 years, which, while adding fuel to growing rumours, has not stifled criticism of the case.


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 elsewhere.

With the exception of Ruth Ellis, the remains of the four women executed at Holloway, (i.e., 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.

Edith Thompson's details appear prominently on the face of the tombstone, together with her epitaph: "Sleep on beloved. Regrets. Her death was a legal formality". The names of the other three women are inscribed around the edges of the tombstone.

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. Avis Graydon died in 1977, seemingly without ever knowing that her sister had been reburied in Brookwood. Thus, she never had the opportunity either to visit the grave or to erect some form of memorial over it.

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 remains of Percy Thompson are buried at the City of London Cemetery.

Edith's parents are buried at the City of London Cemetery. Their grave is number 92743 in Area 197, adjacent to Central Avenue. In 1973, her devoted sister Avis Graydon, who had previously dated Freddy Bywaters, gave a long interview to Mrs. Audrey Russell, the first time she had spoken about the case since the early 1920s. Avis died on 6 August 1977. She is buried at St. Patrick's RC Cemetery, Leytonstone. In her will she 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.

The case in popular culture

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

The couple are the subject of waxworks at Madame Tussauds.

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.' His sister and Avis Graydon became close friends later, as they served in the same RC church in Leytonstone. Hitchcock exchanged Christmas cards with Avis Graydon but they never discussed the case. He instructed his authorised biographer, John Russell Taylor, not to touch on 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 1950 film Stage Fright.

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." This was dramatised on TV in 1973 with Francesca Annis playing Edith, John Duttine as Bywaters, and Bernard Hepton as Thompson.

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

There are a number of references to Edith Thompson in the Agatha Christie novel Crooked House (1949).

In the 1981 British television series The Lady Killers an episode called Darlingest Boy dealt with the Thompson and Bywaters murder 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, titled Criminal Justice: The True Story of Edith Thompson, in 1988.

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 Freddy Bywaters.

In 2006, the writer Molly Cutpurse published A Life Lived, a novel on how Edith's life might have developed had she been allowed to live.

P. D. James (The Murder Room, 2004), Dorothy Sayers, and Anthony Berkeley Cox (writing as Francis Iles) have written fiction based on their story.


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 life style as Edith had a good job as the manageress of a milliners in London.

However 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 Isle of Wight. He 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. He witnessed a violent row between Edith and Percy and later comforted Edith. His ship was to sail on the 9th September of 1921 and he saw Edith secretly form time to time until ultimately booking into a hotel with her under false names.

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.

On October 4th 1922 Bywaters lay in wait until just after midnight for Edith and Frederick who were returning home to Ilford (in Essex) after a night out at a theatre in London and then stabbed Frederick several times. Edith was said to have shouted "Oh don't!" "Oh don't! " Bywaters escaped and Frederick died at the scene. Edith was hysterical but was questioned by police when she calmed down alleging that a strange man had stabbed Percy.

A neighbour of the Thompson's, Fanny Lester advised the police about Bywaters having 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 December 6th 1922.

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 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". 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.

Edith had 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. 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.

Edith was taken 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.

So at 9.00 a.m. on January 9th 1923 both were hanged by their necks until they were dead.

Bywaters met his end bravely 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 John Ellis, the hangman, went in she was semi conscious as he strapped her wrists. According to his biography she looked dead already.

She was carried the short distance from the condemned cell to the gallows by two warders and the two assistants and held on the trap whilst Ellis did his job.

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 3 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. Whatever the truth this hanging seem 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 Brookwood Cemetery in Brookwood, Surrey. in 1970, when Holloway Prison was being rebuilt.



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