9 January 1923 – Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters
Edith Jessie Thompson and Frederick Edward Francis Bywaters caused a stir when their alleged crime of passion led to a backlash against the death penalty.
Both lovers were hanged for stabbing Thompson’s husband Percy on 3 October 1922. And the British public were horror struck that a middle-class woman could be executed.
In a boring, loveless, childless and sometimes violent marriage, 28-year-old east Londoner Thompson took a fancy to the then 18-year-old ship steward Freddy Bywaters while they were on holiday in the Isle of Wight. Not long afterwards her husband Percy fatefully asked Bywaters to be their lodger and from there on in the lovers’ relationship flourished.
It transpired that she was desperately unhappy and wanted to leave her husband for Bywaters. Their affair came out in the open and Percy reacted angrily and ordered Bywaters out of their home. Not long after, an argument erupted between husband and wife where Percy hit Thompson and threw her across the room.
Life carried on for a year, but Thompson was to write around 60 love letters to Bywaters while he was at sea, which in turn were used in evidence against them both at their trial.
Bywaters arrived back in the country in September 1922 and the couple started meeting illicitly. Then on the night of 3 October, on the way back from the theatre a stranger bumped into the couple and knocked Thompson to the ground. In the ensuing struggle, Percy was stabbed to death.
The very next evening Bywaters was hauled into the police station and Thompson followed later that night.
They were tried at the Old Bailey in December 1922 and out came the damning evidence in Thompson’s letters to Bywaters, in which she described wanting to poison her husband or how she’d added powdered lightbulbs to his mash. The letters were also sexually charged and at that time had to be censured, in what the judge referred to as ‘a vulgar, common crime.’
But the big mistake came when she took the stand. Her performance didn’t impress the jury and her deceit became apparent. They were both found guilty of Percy’s murder and sentenced to death.
A bloody end
On 9 January 1923, John Ellis carried out the most distressing hanging of his career. Edith Thompson was literally drugged and dragged to Holloway gallows. After the execution her underwear was said to have been drenched in blood. She’d haemorrhaged and the copious amounts of gore coupled with the weight gain during her imprisonment led some to believe that she’d been pregnant. Of course, there was no post mortem to prove this, but females from then on had to wear canvas underpants.
Meanwhile Bywaters met an altogether less bloody end when he was hanged by William Willis at the same time just down the road at Pentonville. He was aged just 20.