1697: Thomas Aikenhead 1775: Yemelyan Pugachev

1923: Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters

January 9th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1923, adulterous lovers Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters were simultaneously hanged at two different prisons in England for the murder of Thompson’s husband.

From left to right, Freddy Bywaters, Edith Thompson, and the victim, Percy Thompson. (Source.)

As a bored middle-class housewife, Edith had struck up an affair with their handsome, adventurous 18-year-old boarder.

The affair met a horrifying and sensational conclusion when Bywaters confronted the cuckold in October 1922 and slew him in the ensuing altercation.

Bywaters was unquestionably and confessedly guilty, but the case became a national cause celebre — and an enduring historical artifact — because of the widow’s place in it.

Mrs. Thompson had fled the crime scene to police distraught and implicated her paramour. The police didn’t view her as a witness, but as an accomplice. In dozens of love letters that soon surfaced, she had fantasized about escaping Percy Thompson and claimed to have attempted to poison him. Coroners could not establish that she had in fact done so, and no evidence but her letters linked her to the crime; those letters were not given to the jury as a whole but censored for her frank treatment of menstruation, abortion, and lovers’ rendezvous. Thompson’s defenders see them as some mixture of escapism and confused romanticism much less sinister than the crown charged — though the letters are indeed suggestive of more than sensuality.

Both were condemned.

Bywaters gallantly defended his lover’s innocence throughout the ordeal and more than a million people petitioned the government for her reprieve.

Edith Thompson’s fate bore an unmistakable stamp of gendered social prejudice from the start. “Mrs Thompson was hanged for immorality,” her lawyer would say later. That sense has only become more pronounced in the intervening 85 years.

Academics have taken on the matter:

Women in the 1920s had won certain freedoms, and writings on sex and marriage now presented married women as legitimate sexual beings, but there was still significant hostility towards the expression of explicit female sexuality, let alone a woman’s adultery, especially with a younger man. In the years immediately after the First World War there was particular concern to differentiate normal from deviant sexual behaviour, acceptable from unacceptable, and the War’s aftermath saw deep concern as to the disruptions of gender boundaries.

And here, in a piece contrasting the Thompson-Bywaters case with a recent hanging in Singapore:

[T]he stark contrast between the cases of the men, on the one hand, and the woman on the other, raises issues about the gendered aesthetics of sentimentality and abjection in media representations of contested death-penalty cases.

From a less exalted plane, Rene Weis, author of a book about Thompson, is convinced of Thompson’s innocence:

Edith Thompson paid a terrible price for daring to be ruled by her passions, and for behaving out of her social class. If confirmation were needed that it was her perceived immorality that brought her to perdition, it is provided by the foreman of her jury. “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.”

The sexuality at the heart of the affair was to set its mark upon this day’s grim doings as well. When hanged, Thompson bled copiously from her vagina, feeding speculation that she had been pregnant or that her uterus had inverted.

Her hangman — who also executed Hawley Harvey Crippen — emerged from the secretive procedure raving, and retired shortly thereafter. Some friends thought a lingering disturbance over his part in the Thompson case eventually led him to commit suicide. (John Ellis reportedly hated hanging women.)

Besides Weis’ book, this renowned case has also generated a fictionalized treatment and a 2001 film, as well as inspiring the recent novel The Adulteress.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Popular Culture,Sex,Women,Wrongful Executions

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21 thoughts on “1923: Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters”

  1. maria iatrou says:

    THE EDITH THOMSON’S CASE WAS ONE OF THE WORSE MISCARRIAGE OF BRITAIN JUSTICE.CONTEMNED ALL WHO SENT HERE ON THE GALLOWS

  2. Fiz (UK) says:

    Edith Thompson almost certainly miscarried as she was being hanged . It was a vile case and probably did contribute to Ellis’ madness since she was dragged to the scaffold semi-conscious. It is a a stain on Britain’s record of Justice, and there are many more, and I speak as a Briton.

  3. Bertil Lindström says:

    Dear Sirs,

    I am shooked to read about the life of Mrs. edith Thompson. It must have been a great mistake to sentence her to death.

    Frederick Bywaters was her great lover. Perhaps she had not continue to live after his sentence to death. Perhaps the best was that they were jojned in the death and now spend their lifes in the heaven.

    The grat love is the best a human being can get in her life.

    Bertil Lindström

  4. Todd W. Schaffner says:

    I have become very interested in the murder case of Edith Thompson and Freddy Bywaters. I feel that a great injustice was done to them, despite the death of Percy Thompson, and that this 1922 case was a triple tragedy and a miscarriage of British justice. Unfortunately there were several more involving capital punishment in Britain. At least these injustices did lead to the abolition of capital punish. Unfortunately, we still have many executions in the United States, especially in Texas, Virginia and Florida. I hope that the American people protest these barbaric executions and work to reduce crime and violence inflicted in our society.

  5. janet mcbride says:

    i feel that they could have given a second chance her boyfriend had confessed. they condemed her for having a afair with a younger man. that is so horrible. jmcbride

  6. Greg Eichelberger says:

    Good work on this site, but I was sursprised that the writers thereof omitted (or were unaware of) the case of Carl Hall and Bonnie Heady, two alcohol-soaked lovers not only executed at the same time on Dec. 18, 1953 at the Missouri state prison at Jefferson City, but were actually put to death in the SAME gas chamber.

    Their crime: The kidnap-murder of 6-year-old Bobby Greenlease of Kansas City, the son of a wealthy Cadillac dealer and businessman. Hall had killed the boy almost immediately after abducting him from school, but the couple still collected almost $500,000 from his distraught parents.

    Busted with most of the loot (which mysteriously vanished in the hands of a crooked St. Louis cop) while sleeping off one of many benders, the luckless pair was duly convicted and carted off to death row. Their last words, Bonnie: “Are you all right, honey?” Carl: “Yes, mama.”

  7. MICKY says:

    I totally abhor capital punishment, and I thank God that it’s outlawed in my country, but how could ANYONE believe that Edith Thompson was INNOCENT?! From thinking up awful ways to do her husband in (and putting them down in pen and ink!), to dropping her lover right in the poo as soon as poor old Perce was dispensed with – PUH-LEEZE!

  8. Fiz says:

    Micky, read “Crimianl Justice” by Rene Weiss. Then you might begin to understand why people consider Edith Thompson to be innocent.

  9. Fiz says:

    Or “Criminal Justice”, even!

  10. gazelle says:

    Read That Book Fiz. I Have always been fascinated by this case…..And That book brings home the stark reality that Edith Was Hanged For Adultery …Rather Than Murder!! It Is A Heartwrenching Read

  11. Greville warwick says:

    The trial and death of Edith Thompson is a lasting stain on the whole British justice system and its mad adversarialism that has sent many innocent people to their deaths.

    Edith Thompson’s death is the most outrageous of the injustices perpetrated in the name of British people. It leaves me ashamed even after all these years by its complete lack of mercy or compassion to a young and obviuosly innocent woman who was almost certainly visibly pregnant, up to 23 weeks, which would mean she probably aborted a live foetus. For it was stated by prison staff that “her insides had fallen out”

    The women who witnessed the horror would have known she was pregnant. This must have been passed on to the Home Secretarty who must have ignored it.

    I am only comforted by the fact that a million decent people signed a petition for mercy: she never got that!

  12. Barbara says:

    This whole trial was barbaric in the extreme!

  13. Bolter says:

    Hello there,

    I am an actress and I’m about to play Edith Thompson in a new play called Hangman, written by Maggie Clune, which is about the life of John Ellis after he hanged Edith and how he was haunted by her death.

    Feel free to take a look at our Kickstarter campaign if you would like to find out more about the play, which we will be performing in London this November. We have also filmed a short trailer for it

    http://kck.st/18xOErr

    The fact her trial notes are to be kept closed until 2023 is a disgrace!

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