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Frederick Edward Francis BYWATERS





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Jealousy
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: October 3, 1922
Date of arrest: Next day
Date of birth: June 27, 1902
Victim profile: Percy Thompson, 32 (his lover's husband)
Method of murder: Stabbing with knife
Location: London, England, United Kingdom
Status: Executed by hanging in Pentonville Prison on January 9, 1923

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The Trial of Frederick Bywaters and Edith Thompson 20,7 Mb


Edith Jessie Thompson (25 December 1893 – 9 January 1923) and Frederick Edward Francis Bywaters (27 June 1902 – 9 January 1923) were a British couple who were executed for the murder of Thompson’s husband Percy. Their case became a cause célèbre.

Early life and events leading to the murder

Born Edith Graydon at 97 Norfolk Road in Dalston, London, the first of the five children of William Eustace Graydon (1867–1941), a clerk with the Imperial Tobacco Company, and his wife, Ethel Jessie Liles (1872–1938), the daughter of a police constable.

During her childhood, she was a happy, talented girl who excelled at dancing and acting, and was academically bright, with a natural ability in arithmetic. Upon leaving school, she found employment as a bookkeeper for a fabric importer. She quickly established a reputation as a stylish and intelligent woman and was promoted by the company several times, until she became their chief buyer and made regular trips to Paris on behalf of the company.

In 1909 she met Percy Thompson, and after a six-year engagement they were married in 1916. They bought a house in the fashionable town of Ilford in Essex and with both their careers flourishing, lived a comfortable life.

The couple became acquainted with Freddy Bywaters in 1920, although Bywaters and Edith Thompson had met nine years earlier when Bywaters had been a school friend of Edith’s younger brother.

By 1920 Bywaters had joined the merchant navy. Edith was immediately attracted to Bywaters, who was handsome and impulsive and whose stories of his travels around the world interested Edith. By comparison Percy was a staid, conventional person, and Bywaters represented a more dashing figure to her, and more closely resembled her romantic ideal. He was welcomed by Percy, and the trio, joined by Edith’s sister, holidayed on the Isle of Wight. Upon their return, Percy invited Bywaters to lodge with them.

Edith and Bywaters began an affair soon after, and when Percy realised this he confronted them. A quarrel broke out and when Bywaters demanded that Percy divorce Edith, Percy ordered him from the house. Edith later described a violent confrontation with her husband after Bywaters left, and said that her husband struck her several times and threw her across the room. From September 1921 until September 1922, Bywaters was at sea, and during this time Edith Thompson wrote to him frequently. Upon his return, they met again.

The murder

On October 3, 1922 the Thompsons attended a performance at the Criterion Theatre in London’s Piccadilly Circus and were returning home, when a man jumped out from behind some bushes near their home, and attacked Percy.

After a violent struggle, during which Edith Thompson was also brutally knocked to the ground, Percy was stabbed. Mortally wounded, he died before Edith could summon help. The attacker fled. Neighbours later reported hearing a woman screaming hysterically, and shouting “no don’t” several times, and by the time police arrived she had still not composed herself.

At the police station she appeared distressed and confided to police that she knew who the killer was, and named Freddy Bywaters. Believing herself to be a witness, rather than an accomplice, Thompson provided them with details of her association with Bywaters.

As police investigated further they arrested Bywaters, and upon discovering a series of more than sixty love letters from Edith Thompson to Bywaters, arrested her too. The letters were the only tangible evidence linking Edith Thompson to the murders, and allowed for the consideration of common purpose, namely that if two people wish to achieve the death of a third, and one of these people acts on the expressed intentions of both, both are equally guilty by law. They were each charged with murder.

The trial

The trial began on December 6, 1922 at the Old Bailey. Bywaters co-operated completely. He had led police to the murder weapon he had concealed after the murder, and consistently maintained that he had acted without Edith’s knowledge. The love letters were produced as evidence.

In these Edith Thompson passionately declared her love for Bywaters, and her desire to be free of Percy. She said on one occasion she had ground a glass light bulb to shards and had fed them to Percy mixed into mashed potato, and on another occasion had fed him poison. Not only had he failed to die, he had failed to become ill, and Edith now implored Freddy to “do something desperate”.

Thompson’s counsel urged her not to testify, stressing that the burden of proof lay with the prosecution and that there was nothing they could prove other than that she had been present at the murder. By this time Thompson seemed to be enjoying the publicity she was attracting and insisted that she would take the stand.

Her testimony proved damning, and she was caught in a series of lies. Her demeanour was variously flirtatious, self pitying and melodramatic and she made a poor impression on the judge and the jury, particularly when she contradicted herself. In answer to several questions relating to the meaning of some of the passages in her letters, she said “I have no idea”.

Her counsel later stated that her vanity and arrogance had destroyed her chances for acquittal. Her testimony negated the positive testimonies of neighbours who had heard Thompson crying out in horror during her husband’s murder, and the statements from police who dealt with the immediate investigation stating that Thompson appeared to be in a genuine state of shock and disbelief and attested to her assertions of “Oh god, why did he do it?” and “I never wanted him to do it”.

Bywaters stated that Edith Thompson had known nothing of his plans for the simple reason that he had not intended to murder Percy Thompson. His aim was to confront him, and force him to deal with the situation, and when Thompson had reacted in a superior manner, Bywaters had lost his temper.

Edith Thompson, he repeatedly stated, had made no suggestion to him to kill Percy, nor did she know that Bywaters intended to confront him. In discussing the letters, Bywaters stated that he had never believed Edith had attempted to harm her husband, but that he believed she had a vivid imagination, fuelled by the novels she enjoyed reading, and in her letters she viewed herself in some way as one of these fictional characters.

On December 11, the jury returned a verdict of guilty, and both Thompson and Bywaters were sentenced to death by hanging. Thompson became hysterical and started screaming in the court, while Bywaters loudly protested Thompson’s innocence.

Imprisonment and execution

Before and during the trial, Thompson and Bywaters were the subjects of a highly sensationalist and critical media commentary, but after they were sentenced to death, there was a dramatic shift in public attitudes and in the media coverage. Almost one million people signed a petition against the imposed death sentences.

Bywaters attracted admiration for his fierce loyalty and protectiveness towards Thompson. Thompson was regarded as a foolish woman, but attracted sympathy as it was generally considered that to hang a woman was abhorrent, and no woman had been executed in Britain since 1907.

Thompson herself stated that she would not hang, and when her parents were allowed to visit her she urged her father to simply take her home. Despite the petition, and a new confession from Bywaters in which he once again declared Thompson to be completely innocent, the Home Secretary, William Bridgeman, did not extend them a reprieve.

A few days before their executions Thompson was told of the date which had been fixed, and lost her composure. She spent the last few days of her life in a state of near hysteria, crying, screaming and moaning, and unable to eat. On the morning of her execution she was heavily sedated, but remained in an agitated state. On January 9, 1923 in Holloway Prison, Thompson was half carried to the scaffold where she had to be held upright while the noose was fitted to her.

In Pentonville Prison, Bywaters who had tried since his arrest to save Thompson from execution, was himself hanged. They were hanged simultaneously at 9.00 am, only about half-a-mile apart - Holloway and Pentonville prisons are located in the same district. Later, the bodies of Thompson and Bywaters were buried within the walls of the prisons where they had been executed.

Edith Thompson was one of only 17 women hanged in the United Kingdom during the 20th Century.

Reactions to the executions

The hanging of Edith Thompson shocked British society. It was unthinkable that a young, attractive, middle class woman could be executed, and many of her supporters argued that she had been hanged for no more than adultery.

An autopsy on Percy Thompson had failed to reveal any evidence that he had been fed ground glass or any type of detectable poison. Grave concerns that Thompson’s letters were the work of a bored, imaginative and immature housewife who fantasised about a life without her husband, without ever intending him harm, had been insufficient to save her, but her supporters continued to speak on her behalf.

After her death, they became more vocal and critical of the manner in which her case was handled. The Home Office files were marked not to be opened for 100 years, which helped to stifle examination of the case, while adding fuel to the growing rumours.

Many of the letters were censored by the court during the trial, because they dealt with subjects such as menstruation and orgasm, subjects that were not considered fit for public discussion and which may in part account for the decision to keep them from public scrutiny for 100 years. At the trial, the jurors were presented with only snippets from the letters, and were prevented from placing them in the context of her extended writing.

Several years later it was revealed that upon dropping through the scaffold, Thompson had suffered a massive haemorrhage. The large amount of blood spilled, combined with the fact that Thompson had gained weight during her imprisonment even while resisting food, led to conjecture that she had been pregnant. However, no subsequent post-mortem examination was made. John Ellis, her executioner, eventually committed suicide, with his closest associates stating that he had remained haunted by the horror of Thompson’s final moments.

All women hanged in Britain after Thompson were required to wear a special garment which would prevent a recurrence of the massive bleeding suffered by Thompson. In 1971 her remains, along with three other women hanged at Holloway Prison, were exhumed and reburied together at Brookwood Cemetery in an unmarked grave. Finally, in the 1990s a large, grey granite tombstone was emplaced on Plot 117 to mark her grave.

The case in popular culture

The couple were the subject of waxworks at Madame Tussauds and during the many years they were displayed, were highly popular with patrons. Alfred Hitchcock expressed the wish to make a documentary film on a real life case, several times commenting that the Thompson and Bywaters case was the one he would most like to film.

Their story has provided the basis for several fictional stories, and plays. Both P. D. James and Dorothy Sayers have written fiction which has been based on their story, and in non-fiction, Lewis Broad wrote The Innocence of Edith Thompson: A Study in Old Bailey Justice in 1952.

A study of the case titled Fred and Edie by Jill Dawson was published in 2000, and a biography of Thompson, titled Criminal Justice : The True Story of Edith Thompson, by Rene Weis was published in 1988. A new edtion came out in 2001 to coincide with the film Another Life which told their story. Natasha Little played Edith Thompson, Nick Moran played Percy Thompson and Ioan Gruffudd played Freddy Bywaters.

In 2006, the writer Molly Cutpurse published, A Life Lived, a novel on how Edith's life may have developed had she been allowed to live.


Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters

Edith Thompson was a quite attractive 28 year old who was married to shipping clerk 32 year old Percy Thompson. They had no children and enjoyed a reasonable life style as Edith had a good job as the manageress of a milliners in London.

However Edith was also having an affair with 20 year old Frederick Bywaters who was a ship's steward. Their relationship had started in June 1921 when he accompanied the Thompsons on holiday to the Isle of Wight. He moved in as lodger waiting for his next job on board ship but had been chucked out by Percy for getting too friendly with Edith. He witnessed a violent row between Edith and Percy and later comforted Edith. His ship was to sail on the 9th September of 1921 and he saw Edith secretly form time to time until ultimately booking into a hotel with her under false names.

He was a decisive (impulsive) young man who at least, according to him, decided on his own to stab Percy Thompson whom he felt was making Edith's life miserable.

On October 4th 1922 Bywaters lay in wait until just after midnight for Edith and Frederick who were returning home to Ilford (in Essex) after a night out at a theatre in London and then stabbed Frederick several times. Edith was said to have shouted "Oh don't!" "Oh don't! " Bywaters escaped and Frederick died at the scene. Edith was hysterical but was questioned by police when she calmed down alleging that a strange man had stabbed Percy.

A neighbour of the Thompson's, Fanny Lester advised the police about Bywaters having lodged with them and they also learned that he worked for P & O the shipping line.

The police discovered the letters that Edith had written to him and soon arrested him and charged him with the murder.

Edith was also arrested soon afterwards and charged with murder or alternatively with being an accessory to murder. She did not know that Bywaters had been arrested but saw him in the police station later and said "Oh God why did he do it", continuing "I didn't want him to do it".

Bywaters insisted that he had acted alone in the crime and gave his account as follows :
"I waited for Mrs. Thompson and her husband. I pushed her to one side, also pushing him into the street. We struggled. I took my knife from my pocket and we fought and he got the worst of it"

"The reason I fought with Thompson was because he never acted like a man to his wife. He always seemed several degrees lower than a snake. I loved her and I could not go on seeing her leading that life. I did not intend to kill him. I only meant to injure him. I gave him the opportunity of standing up to me like a man but he wouldn't". Bywaters stuck to this story during the trial which opened at the Old Bailey on December 6th 1922.

Edith had written no less than 62 intimate letters to Bywaters and stupidly they had kept them. In these she referred to Bywaters as "Darlingest and Darlint". Some of them described how she had tried to murder Percy on several occasions. In one referring apparently to an attempt to poison him she wrote "You said it was enough for an elephant" "Perhaps it was. But you don't allow for the taste making it possible for only a small quantity to be taken". She had also tried broken glass and told Bywaters that she had made three attempts but that Percy had discovered some in his food so she had had to stop.

Edith had sent Bywaters press cuttings describing murders by poisoning and had told Bywaters that she had aborted herself after becoming pregnant by him.

At the trial Bywaters refused to incriminate Edith and when cross examined told the prosecution that he did not believe that Edith had actually attempted to poison Percy but had rather a vivid imagination and a passion for sensational novels that extended to her imagining herself as one of the characters.

Edith had been advised against going into the witness box by her lawyer but decided to do so and promptly incriminated herself by being asked what she had meant when she had written to Bywaters asking him to send her "something to give her husband". She said she had "no idea". Very unconvincing!

The judge in his summing up described Edith's letters as "full of the outpourings of a silly but at the same time, a wicked affection". The summing up was fair in law but the judge made much of the adultery.

Mr. Justice Shearman was obviously a very Victorian gentleman with high moral principles.

He also instructed the jury however "You will not convict her unless you are satisfied that she and he agreed that this man should be murdered when he could be, and she knew that he was going to do it, and directed him to do it, and by arrangement between them he was doing it."

The jury were not convinced by the defence case and took just over two hours to find them both guilty of murder. Even after the verdict was read out Bywaters continued to defend Edith loudly.

However the judge had to pass the death sentence on both of them as required by law.

Edith was taken to Holloway and Bywaters to Pentonville, prisons half a mile apart (in London) and placed in the condemned cells. Both lodged appeals but these were dismissed.

She was an adulteress, an abortionist and possibly a woman who incited a murder or worse still had tried to poison her husband. At least this is how she was judged against the morals of the time. That is until she was sentenced to death. The public and the media that had been so against her now did a complete U-turn and campaigned for a reprieve. There was a large petition, with nearly a million signatures on it, to spare her. However this, even together with Bywaters repeated confession that he and he alone killed Thompson failed to persuade the Home Secretary to reprieve her.

So at 9.00 a.m. on January 9th 1923 both were hanged by their necks until they were dead.

Bywaters met his end bravely still protesting Edith's innocence whilst she was in a state of total collapse. She had major mood swings even up to the morning of execution as she expected to be reprieved all along.

A few minutes before they entered the condemned cell the execution party heard a ghastly moan come from Edith's cell. When John Ellis, the hangman, went in she was semi conscious as he strapped her wrists. According to his biography she looked dead already.

She was carried the short distance from the condemned cell to the gallows by two warders and the two assistants and held on the trap whilst Ellis did his job.

Depending on whose version of events you read/believe there was a considerable amount of blood dripping from her after the hanging. Some, including Bernard Spillsbury the famous pathologist who carried out the autopsy on her, claim it was caused by her being pregnant and miscarrying whilst others claim it was due to inversion of the uterus and the authorities claim that nothing untoward happened at all. (They would, wouldn’t they!).

Edith had been in custody for over 3 months before the execution so would have probably known she was pregnant. Under English law the execution would have been staid until after she had given birth. In practice she would have almost certainly been reprieved. She had everything to gain from claiming to be pregnant so it is surprising that she didn't if she had indeed missed two or three periods. However she had aborted herself earlier and this may have damaged her uterus which combined with the force of the drop caused it to invert. Whatever the truth this hanging seem to have a profound effect on all those present.

Several of the prison officers took early retirement. John Ellis retired in 1923 and committed suicide in 1931.

Her body was buried "within the precincts of the prison in which she was last confined" in accordance with her sentence but was reburied at Brookwood Cemetery in Brookwood, Surrey. in 1970, when Holloway Prison was being rebuilt.



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