Edith Thompson, the woman executed for her lover’s crime

Edith Thompson, the woman executed for her lover's crime
Freddy Bywaters, Edith Thompson, Percy Thompson. Courtessy of Associated Newspapers Press, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

On 9th January 1923, Edith Thompson and her lover Frederick Bywaters were executed for the murder of her husband Percy Thompson. Despite there being no evidence that Edith knew about or participated in the murder, she was convicted and sentenced to death.

The case caused a sensation at the time and continues to be remembered as a controversial legal case, with many people arguing that Edith was unjustly convicted.

The murder of Percy Thompson

Percy Thompson was murdered on October 3, 1922, as he was walking home with his wife Edith. An unknown attacker jumped out from behind some bushes near their home and attacked Percy.

After a violent struggle in which Edith was knocked to the ground, Percy was stabbed and died before Edith could summon help. The attacker fled and Edith was left screaming hysterically.

After the murder, police arrested Frederick Bywaters, who was known to be having an affair with Edith. During police questioning, Edith admitted to knowing about the affair and provided police with details of her association with Bywaters.

The police then discovered a series of more than sixty love letters from Edith to Bywaters, which were used as evidence in the trial.

The trial of Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters

The trial for the murder of Percy Thompson began on 6th December 1922 at the Old Bailey, London.

The prosecution used Edith’s love letters as evidence of incitement to murder. These letters, which ran to over 55,000 words, provided a day-to-day account of her life in London when her lover Bywaters was at sea and included references to her longing to be free of her husband and mentions of poisoning him.

Despite her counsel’s advice not to testify, Edith took the stand in an attempt to clear Bywaters’ name. However, her testimony was contradictory and she made a poor impression on the jury.

Bywaters maintained that Edith had no knowledge of his plans to murder her husband and that he had only intended to confront him. He also stated that he believed Edith had a vivid imagination fueled by the novels she read and that her references to poisoning her husband in the letters were not to be taken seriously.

On 11th December, after a trial lasting several days, the jury returned a verdict of guilty against both defendants, Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters.

Both were sentenced to death by hanging.

Edith Thompson became hysterical and started screaming in the court upon hearing the verdict, while Bywaters loudly protested Edith’s innocence, stating “I say the verdict of the jury is wrong. Edith Thompson is not guilty.”

Despite Bywaters’ protests and appeals for clemency, both he and Edith were sentenced to death. The case caused a sensation at the time and continues to be remembered as a controversial legal case, with many people arguing that Edith was unjustly convicted.

The public reaction

Before and during the trial, both Thompson and Bywaters were heavily criticised and sensationalised by the media. However, after they were sentenced to death, public attitudes and media coverage of the case shifted dramatically.

Nearly one million people signed a petition against their death sentences. Bywaters, in particular, attracted admiration for his fierce loyalty and protectiveness towards Edith Thompson, but she was widely regarded as the mastermind behind the murder.

Additionally, the idea of hanging a woman (the last woman to be executed in Britain was in 1907) was seen as abhorrent by many.

Despite the petition and a new confession from Bywaters in which he once again declared Thompson’s innocence, the Home Secretary, William Bridgeman, refused to grant a reprieve.

The execution of Edith Thompson

On 9 January 1923, Edith Thompson was executed by hanging at Holloway Prison.

She had collapsed in terror at the prospect of her execution and was heavily sedated by the prison governor.

She was carried to the gallows by four prison warders and executed simultaneously with her lover Frederick Bywaters, who was hanged at Pentonville Prison. The two executions occurred at 9:00 am, only about 1/2 mile apart.

According to the law, the bodies of Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters were buried within the walls of the prisons where they were executed.

On 22 November 2018, Edith was formally buried alongside her parents, in accordance with her mother’s wishes, in the City of London Cemetery.