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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