Was this woman WRONGLY hanged?

Was one of the last women hanged in England INNOCENT? Sensational new book claims a childless wife sent to the gallows with her lover for murdering her husband in 1922 did NOT kill him

  • Percy Thompson was murdered while walking home from the theatre in 1992
  • The attacker was Freddy Bywaters, the younger lover of his wife Edith Thompson
  • Bywaters was arrested soon after, charged with murder, and later hanged 
  • Edith was also sentenced to death on the grounds that she encouraged Bywaters
  • New book re-examines the case and argues Mrs Thompson was wrongly hanged
  • Edith was childless and had a career – and was a source of public fascination
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On the night of October 3, 1922, shipping clerk Percy Thompson was walking home from the theatre with his wife when he was fatally stabbed by a man who had been lying in wait in the shadows of the dimly-lit street.

The attacker, 20-year-old Freddy Bywaters, was a former friend and lodger of Mr Thompson – and the younger lover of his wife, Edith. 

Bywaters, a steward on a P&O liner, was arrested shortly after the attack in the London suburb of Ilford, charged with murder and subsequently sentenced to death.

Controversially, Edith, eight years her lover’s senior, was also hanged after investigators uncovered evidence to suggest she had encouraged Bywaters to commit the murder. She was one of the last women sentenced to death in England.

The high-profile case drew widespread public attention at the time, with crowds forming outside the Old Bailey to hear the latest on the trial of Edith, who was a source of fascination not only because of her alleged crime but also because she was a childless adulteress with a successful career in her own right.

In the sensational new book Rex V. Edith Thompson, author Laura Thompson argues Edith was wrongly hanged for the crime and was a victim of a miscarriage of justice. 

Love triangle: Edith Thompson with her husband Percy, right, and her lover Freddy Bywaters, left. Edith and Bywaters were both hanged in January 1923 for Percy’s murder. A sensational new book claims Edith was an innocent victim of a miscarriage of justice

Unhappily married: Edith and Percy Thompson, who met in 1909 and married seven years later. The main evidence against Edith was a bundle of letters she had written to Freddy in which she described how she had tried to kill her husband by crumbling shards of glass in his food

Speaking to FEMAIL, Laura Thompson said: ‘I feel very strongly that the story of Edith Thompson should not be forgotten, and that it needs to be retold every so often for a new generation. 

‘We are all too familiar with the concept of the miscarriage of justice, but her story seems to me the worst of the lot: she was convicted of murder because society, at that particular moment in history, wanted her to be convicted.’

Percy Thompson was 18 when he met 15-year-old Edith in 1909. Seven years later, the couple married at St Barnabas, Manor Park and eventually settled in a comfortable home in the fashionable London suburb of Ilford. 

Lying in wait: Bywaters, pictured, stabbed Percy as he walked home with Edith following a night at the theatre. The 20-year-old defended his older lover when he took to the stands

Arguing her case: Author Laura Thompson claims Edith, pictured, a childless adulteress with a flourishing career, became a symbol for the type of woman the Establishment wanted to tame

Bywaters was a friend of Edith’s younger brother growing up and the pair became reacquainted in 1920. The trio went away on holiday to the Isle of Wight with Edith’s sister Avis, who fell in love with Bywaters.

Shortly after they returned home Mr Thompson invited Bywaters to live with them and he and Edith began their affair. 

Percy eventually uncovered his wife’s infidelity but refused to divorce her. However he did order Bywaters out of the house. 

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 again. The murder occurred a month later.

Explaining the attraction Laura Thompson said: ‘[Percy] was not a bad man, he had risen from abject poverty to a respectability that he prized, but Edith outgrew him and this brought out the worst in him. 

‘He became frustrated, enraged, petty, domineering – he spied on her – he became obsessed with the idea of keeping hold of her, making the pair of them miserable, when the best thing he could have done was cut loose and leave her to it. 

‘With a different woman he would probably have been happy. As with so many murders, a foolish unthinking marriage was the cause of it all.

‘Freddy meanwhile had tremendous physical attraction – there was really no contest between him and Percy in that respect – and despite his youth was very much a man, a merchant sailor with a confidence that never left him, even under cross-examination at the Old Bailey.’ 

Public interest: Crowds outside the Old Bailey during the 1922 trial of Bywaters and Thompson

The primary piece of evidence against Edith was a bundle of love letters she had written to Bywaters.

They seemed to contain evidence that in the months leading up to that fateful night, she had goaded him into murder, and had herself attempted to kill Percy by poisoning him, as well as grinding up light bulbs and sprinkling the remnants in his food. 

They even contained details about the importance of not leaving fingerprints and discussion over the amount of poison she had apparently tried to add to his food. 

Her defence counsel argued that these murderous suggestions were simply the fantasies of an over-imaginative woman.

This is the view shared by Laura Thompson.

‘Her letters, which were really the means whereby she expressed herself – Freddy was simply the chosen recipient of all that fervid imagination – were what helped to hang her, because they were construed as incitement to murder,’ she said. 

‘The atrocious irony is that if he had destroyed them she would probably have lived to be an old and forgotten woman; yet because he kept them she died aged 29 and we remember her still.’

The court evidence and transcript were among the documents painstakingly poured over by Laura Thompson while researching.

She said: ‘There were two huge boxes of Home Office documents, which had to be read in a sealed room at the Public Records Office…  

Public spectacle: Crowds gather outside the court during the widely publicised trial

‘It took weeks to go through everything, and it was at times tremendously upsetting to read the documents – what came across above all was the stubbornness of officialdom, the absolute refusal to admit any possibility of error, the smooth completeness with which both Edith and any doubt about her fate were obliterated.’ 

While many historians and commentators agree Edith Thompson was wrongly hanged, Laura Thompson goes further to suggest it was because she had become a symbol of something bigger than herself. 

She continued: ‘It was late 1922 and Britain was in a state of extreme nerviness about the future, not unfamiliar to us today: it feared what it perceived to be a loosening of the old moral ties, the death of the known order, as well as the changing role of women and their desire to pull away from the home.

‘Edith became a useful – and highly decorative – symbol of all this. One commentator wrote that “it is hard not to wish her away from the sphere”.

‘She was an adulteress, a childless wife who wanted to work rather than look after her husband, an uncomfortably sexy-looking woman who had had an affair with a man eight years her junior; and because of all this – rather than the evidence – the belief took a hold that the handsome young Freddy Bywaters had killed Percy Thompson at her instigation. People wanted to believe it…

She added: ‘I felt a profound desire to understand all this: to show what can happen when the public and the authorities turn upon an individual, when the climate of opinion turns a certain way, and when people will not rest until the story achieves the endgame that they have decided upon.’ 

Who was Edith Thompson and why was she hanged?

On the night of October 3, 1922 shipping clerk Percy Thompson was making his way back home in Ilford, Essex, after a night at the theatre with his wife in London’s West End when he was attacked by Freddy Bywaters.

Bywaters, 20, was a former lodger and the lover of his wife, 28-year-old Edith Thompson.

Bywaters, a steward on a P&O liner, was arrested shortly after the attack in Ilford, charged with murder and subsequently sentenced to death. 

Complex relationship: Edith and Percy Thompson, centre, with Freddy Bywaters, right

In the letters, Edith passionately declared her love for Bywaters, and her desire to be free of Percy. 

She described how she had ground a glass light bulb to shards into her husband’s food. On another occasion she claimed to have fed him poison.  

In one letter Edith implored Freddy to ‘do something desperate’. 

Her defence counsel argued that these murderous suggestions were simply the fantasies of an over-imaginative woman. 

On the stand Bywaters insisted Edith had not ordered the murders and could not have known it was going to take place because it had never been his intention to kill Mr Thompson that night.

The trial, which drew widespread media attention, ended when the jury returned guilty verdicts and both Thompson and Bywaters were sentenced to death by hanging.  

Almost one million people signed a petition against the imposed death sentences. Mrs Thompson’s mother wrote directly to the king, pleading with him to stay her daughter’s execution. 

On January 9, 1923, a little over three months after the murder took place, Thompson, 29, and Bywaters, 20, were hanged simultaneously, at Holloway Prison and Pentonville Prison respectively.

The last woman executed in Britain was Ruth Ellis, who was hanged at Holloway Prison on 13 July 1955.

Rex V. Edith Thompson: A Tale Of Two Murders by Laura Thompson, Head of Zeus, £25 

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