1923: Jesus Saleta and Pascal Aguirre, Terrassa anarchists

Add comment September 23rd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1923, two anarchists were garroted in the Catalan city of Terrassa.

Terrassa was unwillingly under new management, having been occupied by the Captain-General of Catalonia Miguel Primo de Rivera* upon the latter’s coup just days prior to the events in this post.

In historical periodization, Primo de Rivera’s six-year dictatorship marks a last stage of the Restoration, a decades-long social struggle bridging the span between Spain’s twilight years in the imperial-powers club and the onset of the Spanish Civil War.

Spain and especially the notoriously insurrectionary Catalonia had been riven by conflict in the first years of the 1920s. One of our principals for this day’s execution, Jesus Saleta, had been a leader of the intermittently outlawed anarchist trade union CNT,* whose gunmen fought ferocious street battles with police and company enforcers.

He was not averse to dirtying his own hands. In 1922, Saleta had stood trial (he was acquitted both times) for running a bomb factory and for orchestrating an attack on businessman Joan Bayes. After the murder of CNT executive Salvador Segui early in 1923, Saleta helped organize the reprisals. Tension and bloodshed rose throughout the year.

On September 18, he committed the crime for which he would die less than a week later: together with Pascual Aguirre and several other anarchists, he robbed a bank to finance his underground operations; a man was shot dead in the process. Saleta, Aguirre, and a third collaborator, Joaquin Marco, were arrested in the ensuing chase.

Marco was acquitted — he had not been identified clearly enough — but both Saleta and Aguirre were condemned to the firing squad, a sentence the military unilaterally amended to the garrote on the grounds that shooting was too honorable a death for these terrorists.

Both went boldly to the scaffold on this date. (There’s a full narration of proceedings in a Spanish newspaper (pdf) here, and a plain-text equivalent here) “This is the way anarchists die!” a proud Saleta exclaimed to the executioner as he was seated.**

The cry “Viva anarchy!” was the last thing each man uttered as the metal ring wrung the life from his throat.

* We’ve already met Primo de Rivera’s Falangist son in these pages.

** The two were garroted by longtime executioner Gregorio Mayoral Sendino, assisted by Rogelio Perez Vicario [or Cicario]. The latter was assassinated in revenge by Barcelona anarchists on May 7, 1924.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Garrote,History,Martyrs,Murder,Revolutionaries,Spain,Strangled,Terrorists

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1923: Florence Lassandro, unwilling feminist

Add comment May 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1923, the only woman ever executed in Alberta’s history was hanged at Fort Saskatchewan.

Alberta had introduced alcohol prohibition in 1916. Florence Lassandro and her husband Carlo, Italian immigrants, were in the profitable contraband business that resulted, employed by the “Emperor Pic” — a rum-running godfather named Emilio Picariello.

Emperor Pic and Florence were together in a vehicle crossing from the British Columbia border in September, 1922, when an attempt to serve a warrant resulted in a chase in which Picariello’s son (fleeing in another vehicle) was shot through the hand. Shortly thereafter, Picariello and Lassandro sought out the shooter, police constable Steve Lawson, and in the resulting confrontation Lawson himself was shot dead.

The circumstances of this fatal encounter are murky and disputed; Lassandro initially claimed to have pulled the trigger, and this helped to get she along with Picariello condemned to death for the crime. As her execution neared — under circumstances we’ll get into momentarily — she amended that statement.

“We agreed that it would be best for me to take the responsibility and say that I did it, as women don’t hang in Canada and he would get off,” she said in a telegram to the Justice Minister (according to Jana Pruden‘s Edmonton Journal story of Oct. 9, 2011). “I never shot a gun in my life — was always afraid of them.”

But in the public debate over her prospective hanging, the question wasn’t so much about Lassandro not being a triggerman but about her not being a man.

The discomfiture still usual in our own day over putting a woman to death was certainly present in early 20th century Canada. No woman had hanged anywhere in Canada since Hilda Blake 24 years years prior.

But Florence Lassandro found an unexpected hand cutting away this lifeline: the women’s movement.

Canadian women had won suffrage in most provinces during the war years, and only in 1921 had the first woman been seated in Parliament. The next movement milestone on the horizon (it would be achieved in 1929) was winning juridical recognition of women as legal “persons”.

So the women’s movement in 1920s Canada was deeply sensitive to any appearance of special pleading which appeared to place adult women on any footing lesser to adult men. A Prohibition gangster who shot a cop would surely be hanged if a man; indeed, Emilio Picariello, slated to die on the same morning as Florence Lassandro, had no real hope of clemency. So wasn’t Florence Lassandro’s claim on mercy nothing but the old sentimental paternalism that women were trying to escape?*

“I also desire to protest against the pernicious doctrine that because a person who commits a murder is a woman that person should escape from capital punishment,” wrote Emily Murphy, Canada’s (and the British Empire’s) first female magistrate. “As women we claim the privileges of citizenship for our sex, and we accordingly are prepared to take upon ourselves the weight of the penalties as well.”

An Alberta provincial barrister agreed, if a bit condescendingly: if “women will occupy themselves with all those things (law, Bench, franchise, etc.), taking the places side by side with men as their equal in all things, including even part in the framing and administration of our own laws, surely women should be equally subject to those laws in the event of their offending against them.” (Both quotes from Westward Bound: Sex, Violence, the Law, and the Making of a Settler Society.)

So Florence Lassandro was subject to those laws indeed.**

Early on the morning of May 2, Emilio Picariello (about whom, just go prove the point, we’ve barely spoken) went first to the gallows, scornfully refusing the hood. Minutes after he swung, Lassandro — visibly stricken with fright — followed.

“Why do you hang me when I didn’t do anything?” she implored of the official witnesses. “Is there not anyone who has any pity?”

No one answered.

“I forgive everyone.”

And then she hanged.

Twelve months later, Prohibition was repealed in Alberta.

* This is by no means a latter-day insight. Olympe de Gouges‘s French Revolution-era Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen turned the equation around and argued, “Woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum.”

As a somewhat digressive aside, Paul Friedland has made the case that men experiencing a very gender-specific shock at seeing women attending executions was instrumental in the gradual removal of once-public executions behind prison walls.

** Lassandro’s fellow-Italians had her back where her fellow-women did not, and they argued — not unreasonably — that Canada already had a de facto practice of never executing women and it was awfully convenient that everyone was now so high-minded about scrapping taboo once there was a poor Italian immigrant in the dock.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Drugs,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Women

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1923: Paul Hadley

5 comments April 13th, 2014 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1923, Paul V. Hadley was executed for murder in Arizona.

His story, however, actually begins on March 20, 1916, when Paul Hadley and his wife Ida Lee — fugitives from Beaumont, Texas on an assault with intent to commit murder charge — were taken into custody in Kansas City, Missouri. He was running a movie theater by then, living under an alias.

Hadley seemed resigned to his fate after his arrest, and didn’t fight extradition. Sheriff W.J. “Jake” Giles was charged with transporting the fugitive and his wife back to Texas on a train. (Ida wasn’t facing any charges and was accompanying her husband at her own request. They said she could come if she paid for her own ticket.)

Sheriff Giles had known the Hadleys for years. He trusted them and didn’t bother to search Ida, and at some point during the ride he removed Paul’s handcuffs. He paid for his negligence with his life: just before the train entered Checotah, Oklahoma, Ida retrieved a gun she’d hidden in the women’s toilet and shot the sheriff in the back of the head. He died within minutes, leaving nine children orphaned.

Paul took the dead man’s gun and used it to persuade the engine driver to stop the train. He and Ida jumped off and disappeared.

The pair were arrested by a posse the next day, however, and charged with Sheriff Giles’s murder. Ida was judged insane, but she wanted to share her husband’s fate and insisted on pleading guilty to a conspiracy charge, so she got sent to prison for ten years rather than to a mental hospital.

Paul was sentenced to life in prison. He appealed his conviction, but the verdict was upheld in 1918.

But Paul found another way to get out of the pen: in 1919, he persuaded the state of Oklahoma to furlough him for a sixty-day period. Accounts vary as to the reason why; it may have been so he could visit his dying mother, or it may have been because he’d invented some gadget and needed to find investors for it.

Either way, it seems that, as long as he pinky-swore he would come back, the prison authorities had no trouble granting a leave to a cop-killer with a history of escaping from custody.

You’ll be shocked to hear that Paul Hadley didn’t turn up for re-incarceration. By the time the police went looking for him, the trail was two months’ cold. Hadley was gone.

By November 1921, he was going by the name William S. Estaever and hitchhiking his way west. In Denver, Colorado he got picked up by an elderly married couple named Peter and Anna Johnson, who were driving to California. Southwest of Tucson, Arizona, Hadley pulled a gun on Peter Johnson and forced him to pull over.

He ordered the couple out of the car and shot them, killing Anna instantly and seriously wounding her husband.

Leaving Peter for dead on the roadside, Hadley took their car and drove on. The vehicle broke down, however, and as he was hoofing it to Yuma, Arizona, he was arrested. He was still carrying the murder weapon, a .32 caliber Mauser pistol.

One A.J. Eddy matched the Mauser with bullets taken from the victims’ bodies and shell casings found in their car. The defense moved to strike his testimony on the grounds that Eddy was “not an expert.” He was a lawyer by trade and his research into the area of bullet identification was only as a sideline. The judge decided, however, to grant Eddy “semi-expert” status: good enough to present his evidence in court.

Hadley claimed he and the Johnsons had been attacked by a gang of bandits and he had returned their fire, but Peter Johnson recovered from his injuries and testified against him at the trial.

The first jury was unable to reach a verdict. Hadley was convicted after a second trial, however, and sentenced to death. It was only then that authorities realized the criminal William Estaever was the fugitive from Oklahoma Paul Hadley.

Estaever/Hadley’s conviction was appealed all the way up to the Arizona Supreme Court, with his appeals attorney arguing Eddy’s testimony should never been allowed into evidence. The court upheld the conviction, however, in a historic ruling: this was the first time a state supreme court had recognized ballistics evidence as valid and admissible.

The day before his death, Hadley was baptized by the Reverend J.W. Henderson and the prison doctor, James Hunter, who was a former minister. Dr. Hunter remained with Hadley the whole night and the condemned man slept fitfully and spent a long time praying and singing hymns.

He refused a final meal early that morning and calmly walked to the scaffold after the warden read the death warrant at 5:00 a.m.

His last words were, “I am innocent and ready to meet my death.” The trap sprung at 5:10 and Hadley pronounced dead five minutes later. Nobody claimed the body and so it was deposited in the prison cemetery.

As for Ida Hadley: Paul never tried to get in touch with her in the two years of his extended release from prison in Oklahoma. She remained his dutiful wife, however, and when she found out he had been convicted of murder in Arizona and sentenced to death, she begged the Oklahoma governor to pardon her so she could be with him in his last days.

She got her pardon on July 22, 1922 and went immediately to her husband’s side so she could help with his appeal. A week after Paul’s execution, the widow Hadley married Jack Daugherty of Wichita Falls, Texas. She enjoyed her second marriage for less than a year, however: Ida Lee Hadley Daugherty died on March 21, 1924.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arizona,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Murder,Other Voices,USA

Tags: , , ,

1923: Daniel Cooper, baby farmer

Add comment June 16th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1923, Daniel Cooper was hanged in Wellington, New Zealand for murder.

Cooper and his second wife — his first died under suspicious circumstances; many people suspected Cooper of poisoning her — had a racket as a “health specialist” in the Wellington suburb of Newlands. Their “rest care home” attracted police surveillance as a front for baby-farming/infanticide.

Baby-farming involved taking a payment from a new mother to give up her child with the wink-wink understanding that the child would be placed for “adoption.” Occasionally, this adoption might even happen; in general, however, the mother’s fee would not be enough to maintain the child for any length of time, and the newborn would either be murdered outright or kept in such meager care as to succumb to neglect.

Representative instance from Daniel Cooper’s case: a pregnant woman named Mary McLeod paid £50 for Cooper to arrange her child’s adoption by an unnamed couple from Palmerston North. McLeod delivered the child on October 12, 1922, at the Coopers’ farm, where both mother and daughter were cared for for a few days. On October 20, Cooper told McLeod that the Palmerston North family had collected the infant. Nobody ever saw it again. Cooper also had two children with a lover named Beatrice Beadle, and these were also “adopted” to parts unknown.

Daniel was finally arrested on December 30, 1922 for performing an abortion (completely illegal in New Zealand at the time), and the ensuing investigation turned up evidence of 10 additional abortions and, eventually, three children’s bodies on the couple’s property. Prosecutors would eventually argue that Mary McLeod’s child was one of these.

“Out-Heroding Herod” screamed sensational headlines around the “Newlands baby farmers” case.

While Daniel Cooper was easily convicted of murder, his wife Martha Cooper was adroitly defended by former Liberal M.P. T.M. Wilford — who characterized the wife as “a soulless household drudge without a mind of her own,” and won her acquittal on that basis.

At 8 a.m. on June 16 (shortly after releasing a confession which likewise exonerated Martha), Daniel Cooper was walked with his eyes tight shut to the gallows at Terrace Gaol,* hooded, and hanged.

Original newspaper coverage of this case can be perused freely at New Zealand’s Papers Past database of pre-1945 clippings.

* Since demolished; Te Aro school occupies the site today.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New Zealand

Tags: , , , , ,

1923: Konstanty Romuald Budkiewicz, Catholic priest in the USSR

1 comment March 31st, 2013 Headsman

Late the night of March 31-April 1, which was in 1923 the dark between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, the Catholic priest Konstanty Budkiewicz (Konstantin Budkevich) was shot in the cellars of Lubyanka.

Born to a Polish family in present-day Latvia, Budkiewicz (English Wikipedia link | Polish) went to seminary in St. Petersburg. He was in that same city, now a 50-year-old vicar-general, when the Bolshevik Revolution shook Petrograd.

Given the Bolsheviks’ anti-clericalism, this was bound to be a trying position: Catholic clergy, especially of relative prominence, faced intermittent harassment. The outlander Latin rite and any Pole’s hypothetical association with Russia’s ancient geopolitical foe only exacerbated the situation.

Matters came to a head with the March 13, 1923 arrest (Polish link) of a number of Catholic clergy. In the ensuing days, most would be convicted and sentenced to death at a show trial on the grounds of “inciting rebellion by superstition.” To be charged with “inciting rebellion by superstition” is pretty much to stand condemned for it, one would think.

New York Herald correspondent Francis McCullagh, who was present in the courtroom, would later publish his observations of the proceedings in The Bolshevik Persecution of Christianity. The proseutor, McCullagh wrote,

launched into an attack on religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular. “The Catholic Church,” he declared, “has always exploited the working classes.” When he demanded the Archbishop’s death, he said, “All the Jesuitical duplicity with which you have defended yourself will not save you from the death penalty. No Pope in the Vatican can save you now.” …As the long oration proceeded, the Red Procurator worked himself into a fury of anti-religious hatred. “Your religion”, he yelled, “I spit on it, as I do on all religions, — on Orthodox, Jewish, Mohammedan, and the rest.” “There is not law here but Soviet Law,” he yelled at another stage, “and by that law you must die.”

Although information about anti-Christian hostility in the USSR tended to reach the wider world in fragmentary form only, there was an outcry in the western world over this trial’s condemnation of Budkiewicz’s boss, Archbishop Jan Cieplak, as well as that of Monsgnor Budkiewicz. International pressure would ultimately save one of those men … but only one.

Cieplak’s death sentence was commuted, and in 1924 he was even released and allowed to leave for Poland. He died in the United States in 1926.

Budkiewicz made do with grace of the celestial kind. He was whisked from his cell late on the 31st, and shot sometime overnight in the notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow. Soviet authorities were so tight-lipped and obfuscatory about his situation that the pope prayed publicly in St. Peter’s later that same day for Budkiewicz’s life to be spared. Only several days later was the accomplished fact of Budkiewicz’s execution openly confirmed.

The Polish poet Kazimiera lllakowiczówna dedicated a verse to Budkiewicz, titled The story of the Moscow martyrdom.

Budkiewicz is being investigated by the present-day Catholic church for possible beatification. (Archbishop Cieplak is, too.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Russia,Shot,Uncertain Dates,USSR

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1923: Eligiusz Niewiadomski, assassin-artist

1 comment January 31st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1923, Polish nationalist painter Eligiusz Niewiadomski was executed for assassinating Poland’s first president.

After more than a century under German, Austrian, and (most especially hated) Russian domination, Poland had established itself an independent republic in the first world war’s imperial wreckage.

Niewiadomski (English Wikipedia entry | Polish), whose father had taken part in the 19th century’s anti-Russian January Uprising, was a talented painter with a serious nationalist streak.

And that was really the done thing for his time and generation: his painting career from the 1890’s into the early 20th century maps the Young Poland movement of up-and-coming artists experimenting with new forms and celebrating romantic attachment to their prostrate homeland.


“The conscience of Polish literature,” Young Poland writer Stefan Zeromski, as depicted by Niewiadomski.

When not promoting patriotic appreciation of the Tatra Mountains, Niewiadomski enjoyed supporting Polish National Democracy, a right-wing movement raging against the Cossack yoke.

Niewiadomski was a true enough believer to serve time in a tsarist prison, but he was far from the leading light of either the artistic or political movements. By the time Poland attained independence (Niewiadomski worked for Polish intelligence during World War I, and even finagled a cameo on the front lines), he was in his fifties and seemingly settling in for a slow moulder into obsolescence in bureaucratic posts and artistic monographs.

(Of course, had he done so, the next decades would have brought him their own surprises.)

Instead, the 1922 election for President of the Polish Republic, which was decided in that country’s National Assembly, saw parliamentary horsetrading elevate an engineer on the strength of the left parties’ votes — a shock victory over Niewiadomski’s preferred right-wing candidate Count Maurycy Klemens Zamoyski, the infant republic’s Bush v. Gore.

It came to street disturbances, to assaulting members of parliament, to demonstrations “for” and “against.” There were casualties. Lumps of dirty snow were thrown at the carriage of the president-elect as it drove across the town. Newspapers dreamt of “a lump of snow that will change into an avalanche” and about removal of that man-“hindrance,” that man-“obstacle.” … The infamous ride through the streets of Warsaw was a ride down death’s lane. Someone hit the first president of the republic in the head with a stick, someone else waved brass knuckles in his face …

-Anna Bojarska in From the Polish Underground

So, five days into Gabriel Narutowicz‘s term, Niewiadomski did what any violent, disaffected patriot would do: he gunned down the new Polish president at the Zacheta art gallery. It’s always great to see artists participating in the political dialogue.

This event is the subject of the 1977 Polish film Smierc prezydenta (Death of a President).

The shots by Niewiadomski marked an end to the week of hatred. Poland suffered a shock — even the Right did. National reconciliation bloomed like a thousand flowers. The president’s funeral became an occasion for a deeply disturbed society to demonstrate. Half a million people walked in the funeral procession!

-Bojarska, again

Less than seven weeks later, Niewiadomski christened that national reconciliation with his blood … at a fortress the Russians had once used to garrison his country, Warsaw Citadel.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Poland,Public Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1923: Nathan Lee, the last public hanging in Texas

4 comments August 31st, 2010 Headsman

This date in 1923 was the passing of an era: the last legal public hanging in Texas.

The Texas of legend — the rough and vast frontier — fits the public hanging tableau (and its dark cousin, the lynching) like a hemp necktie.

And up until 1922-23, Texas executions had indeed been hangings administered by county sheriffs. But that newfangled killing technology, the electric chair, beguiled the legislature here as elsewhere. Oil wells popping up all over the state were rewriting its economic future … so why not a futuristic way of killing wrongdoers, too?

A 1923 bill centralized future executions in Huntsville, where they still remain today.

Denouncing countyseat [sic] executions as a barbaric relic of the frontier past, L.K. Irwin launched a one-man campaign to bring Texas in tune with the times. The state legislator converted many to his cause with the argument that public hangings harmed society almost as much as the condemned.

Irwin insisted executions usually degenerated into bloodthirsty carnivals that did nothing to instill in spectators a respect for the law. All too often untrained local officials made the spectacle even more gruesome, when the drop failed to snap the victim’s neck. On those occasions, he slowly strangled in full view of females and impressionable children.

In the 1923 session of the Lone Star legislature, Irwin introduced the Electric Chair Bill. In addition to doing away with the gallows, the proposal relieved county sheriffs of the responsibility of the carrying out death sentences. Future executions would be held behind closed-doors inside the Texas Department of Corrections.

That law took effect on Aug. 14, even though the electric chair hadn’t even been built yet. The hanging of one Roy Mitchell in Waco on July 30 figured to be the last, and thousands packed the public square to witness it. It’s still sometimes cited as the Lone Star State’s last hanging.

Grandfather Clause

But on that very same date in the Gulf town of Angleton, Nathan Lee, an illiterate middle-aged black sharecropper, was condemned to die for shooting his white employer dead in a dispute over money. (The Ku Klux Klan sent flowers to the funeral.)

A month later, he did so — albeit in an area whose public access had intentionally been curtailed, to chill out any potential carnival scene.

“I did it,” Lee said on the scaffold. “I am to blame, and no one else.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Texas,USA

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1923: Susan Newell, the last woman hanged in Scotland

2 comments October 10th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1923, Susan Newell achieved footnote status by hanging for the murder of her 13-year-old paperboy … the last Scottish woman to die on the gallows, and the only one in the 20th century.

Newell was nabbed by nosy neighbors who noticed her dumping John Johnson’s body a few blocks away from prison* where she would ultimately expiate the crime.

Newell pointed the finger at her husband (she never admitted guilt), but John Newell produced a fistful of alibi witnesses to the effect that he was staying with relatives after a couple of nasty domestic fights.

Susan — so the jury believed — had worked off the stress solo by throttling the newsboy when he’d had the temerity to ask her to pay him. Paid content: the hidden killer.

Well, sometimes, you can only take so much.

Despite the guilty verdict, the jury entertained her insanity defense and plumped for mercy when it convicted her. But the crown was having none of it, in part because the murderess wouldn’t admit her crime in her clemency petitions, and perhaps also because “the application of the law in Scotland had to be seen to be in line with that in England where Edith Thompson had been hanged for what most of us would regard as a much less serious crime only 10 months earlier.”

Thompson’s same executioner, John Ellis, unhappily handled the Newell job just 20 days after her conviction. The condemned woman managed to wriggle her hands out of their bonds while her legs were being pinioned, and she ripped the hood off her face with the words “don’t put that thing over me!”

Wanting to get the distasteful procedure over with, Ellis obligingly dropped her barefaced.

* She was also the only woman ever executed at Glasgow’s Duke Street Prison.

Part of the Themed Set: Women Who Kill.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Scotland,Women

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

1923: Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters

25 comments 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.

On this day..

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

Tags: , , , , , , , ,


Calendar

January 2018
M T W T F S S
« Dec    
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
293031  

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!


Recent Comments

  • Kevin Sullivan: Yes, I’ve heard the stories directly from the investigators who dealt with her, and they are...
  • CoreyR: Writing anything of substance about Bundy’s victims is impossible – thy were all taken long...
  • CoreyR: Agreed. All Weiner does is perpetuate the Ted mythology. Of all the women attracted to Ted in their weird...
  • ANN copen: i completely agree. it’s amazing to see the courage of all these people that sacrificed there lives-...
  • Meaghan: I agree that famous murderers’ victims are often overlooked and it’s a crying shame. I saw a...