Here’s a full transcript of the seventh episode of Shedunnit.
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Caroline: On the morning of 9 January 1923, a brutal and horrifying execution took place at Holloway Prison in London. The condemned young woman screamed and cried, but no last minute reprieve arrived. Just before nine am her gaolers injected her with a sedative, and then offered her brandy as well to calm her nerves. It still took four people to drag her out to the brick shed where her end awaited.
She was strapped into a bosun’s chair. A white hood was put over her head and a noose around her neck. She was barely conscious when, at the stroke of nine, the trapdoor opened and she fell to her death. At the exact same time in a different prison a mile away, the man she loved fell also. She was buried in the prison grounds, and for decades her family begged in vain to be told where her grave was located.
Hers had been a life of passion and fantasy, a whirlwind of imagination she created to escape a humdrum suburban existence. Her lover always maintained that the murder they were hanged for was his idea alone, but she was convicted by a jury immersed in the strict moral code of a bygone era that saw her frankness, love of romance and enjoyment of sex as proof of guilt enough. Long after she was dead, her story would inspire authors like James Joyce, EM Delafield, Dorothy L Sayers and Sarah Waters, and you can find traces of it in many detective novels published in the decades since.
This is the story of Edith Thompson.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
It’s not hard to see why the life and death of Edith Thompson proved so captivating for crime writers and the general public alike. It reads like a ready-made morality tale, or an inverted fairy story, in which the heroine finds her prince only for her happily ever after to turn into a nightmare that ends in the hangman’s noose. It caused a sensation while it was happening in 1922, and it has continued to fascinate people ever since. The events themselves — what we would call the plot, if this was a novel rather than a horrifyingly true story — are shocking enough, but it is really the characters and backgrounds of the people involved that makes this tale so compelling. And to really understand that, we need to go right back to the beginning.
Edith Graydon was born on Christmas Day in 1893 in east London. She was the eldest of five children of prosperous lower middle class parents — her father William was a clerk and her mother Ethel a housewife whose father was a policeman. William also had a part time job as a dancing teacher, and his daughter grew up to love performing. She left school at the age of 15 in 1909 and worked in the fashion industry, doing well at a London millinery firm. She was promoted several times until she became their chief buyer, and travelled twice to Paris for work. Before the idea of the “flapper” had really taken hold in the British psyche, Edith exhibited lots of the traits associated with that 1920s stereotype: she was a hard working career woman, she loved to have fun, she put off having children, she had bobbed hair, she spoke French — the list goes on.
In 1909, Edith also met Percy Thompson, a shipping clerk three years her senior. They were engaged for six years, eventually getting married in 1916 when Edith was 21. She kept working, and the pair initially lived in Southend before buying a house in the outer east London borough of Ilford. The Thompsons lived what appeared to be a happy, comfortable married life, but judging by what happened next, it would seem that Edith was bored or even depressed at her newly suburban, grown up existence.
The fateful meeting that would set Edith on the course to that bosun’s chair happened in 1920, when she reconnected with a young man she had first met nine years before, when he took dancing lessons from her father. Frederick Bywaters was now an 18 year old ship’s laundry steward who was handsome and full of stories about all his travels at sea. He was already friendly with Edith’s younger sister Avis, and it seems that Percy liked him at first too, because all four of them went on holiday together that summer to the Isle of Wight. Afterwards, Percy suggested that Frederick lodge with the Thompsons in Ilford on the rare occasions that he got leave from his ship, and Bywaters accepted.
What happened next feels inevitable now, looking back at this story with the advantage of hindsight, but I’m sure as Edith was living it, she felt like every glance from Frederick held a new and fascinating potential to save her from her humdrum existence. Not long after returning from the summer holiday, she and Frederick began an affair, conducted under her husband’s nose at the house in Ilford. Of course, Percy found out. In the ensuing argument, Frederick demanded that her husband allow Edith a divorce so the lovers could be together, but Percy just raged and banished him from the house. Afterwards, Edith said later, Percy became violent — hitting her several times and throwing her across the room. Frederick went to sea again for his job in September 1921 and remained away for a whole year. It’s not hard to imagine the despair that Edith faced while he was away, her boring suburban life rendered even worse by the deteriorating state of her marriage.
The really remarkable part of this story, and ironically the thing that probably influenced the jury at Edith’s trial most, is what she did during the year that Frederick was away at sea. She wrote and sent him more than 60 long love letters — that’s at least one a week for a year — that were informed by her love of literary and romantic fiction. There was over 50,000 words altogether, including details about Edith’s life, her feelings, her memories and her reading habits.
In September 1922, Frederick returned to London on leave, and he and Edith reconnected. On 3 October, Edith and her husband were walking home from Ilford station late at night after going to the theatre in central London when a man jumped out from behind some bushes by the road and attacked Percy with a knife. The attacker ran away and her husband died before help arrived. Later, neighbours reported hearing a woman screaming “no, don’t!” repeatedly at the time of the attack.
When the police arrived, Edith identified the attacker as Frederick Bywaters and explained his connection to herself and her husband. I can only assume that she was confident at this point that she was considered to be just a witness to the crime, otherwise it seems like a strangely helpful way for a murder suspect to behave. It was only after detectives investigated Bywaters and found all of Edith’s letters that he had kept that she was drawn into the investigation.
The letters, you see, contained references to certain thrillers that Edith had read, including one called Bella Donna by Robert Hichens, in which a wife poisons her husband. As well as declaring her passionate love for Frederick, these missives also hinted at her desire that he should replace Percy as her husband, possibly using violent means if necessary. At one point, she claimed to Frederick that she had tried murdering Percy by putting ground up glass in his mashed potato. She also made reference to a young woman who had lost three husbands, while she, Edith, “can’t even lose one”. This was enough, apparently, for the police to invoke the law of “common purpose”, under which all those who plan a murder share criminal liability for it, even if only one physically carried out the attack. The letters, with their inclusion of husband-murder tropes, hinted at Edith’s complicity in the attack, the police felt. Both Frederick and Edith were arrested and charged with Percy’s murder.
Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters were tried together at the Old Bailey in London. The proceedings opened on 6 December 1922. They both had famous lawyers defending them — Edith’s barrister Henry Curtis-Bennett had earlier that year appeared for the arsenic poisoner Herbert Rowse Armstrong and Bywaters’ lawyer Cecil Whiteley had in 1915 defended the ‘brides in the bath’ murderer George Joseph Smith. There was a media frenzy surrounding the case already, with papers all over the country running breathless stories about “The Ilford Murder” and the attractive young lovers in the dock.
The trial only lasted a few days, because Frederick made it all quite straightforward. He had cooperated fully with the police, even showing them where the knife he had used to stab Percy was hidden. He insisted throughout that he had acted completely alone and without Edith’s knowledge, and that she was completely innocent of the crime. He said that his own intention had not been to murder Percy, but to confront him and frighten him into agreeing to release Edith from their marriage. Frederick explained that he had lost his temper when Percy had seemed to find the idea funny, and that’s when things turned violent.
The case against Edith looked like it would easily collapse. There being no material evidence linking her to the planning of the crime beyond the vague suggestions in her letters to Frederick, and her lawyer felt sure that he could argue those represented merely an infatuated woman’s fantasies rather than any concrete intention to act or cause harm. Percy’s body was exhumed and Home Office pathologists (including Bernard Spillsbury, who we met in episode two during the trial of Dr Crippen) could find no evidence that he had been fed glass or poison as the letters suggested. This gave weight to the idea that what she had written in the letters was really just the result of Edith’s imagination running wild, and could therefore be discounted in court.
So how did it go so wrong for Edith Thompson? Afterwards, her lawyer put her conviction down to the fact that she had insisted on giving evidence in her own defence. Her biographer, Rene Weis, writes that she was convinced that if she spoke, she could convince the jury that her relationship with Frederick was no sordid suburban affair but rather a grand romantic passion. She had been mortified by hearing her love letters read out tonelessly in court and seen her parents humiliated and in tears, Weis writes. She felt that she could “set the record straight” and as well as securing her own release, she thought she might be able to convince the judge not to sentence Frederick to death.
Unfortunately, her appearance seems to have had the opposite effect. She contradicted herself on the witness stand and appeared alternately melodramatic and self pitying. When asked about what she had been thinking when she wrote some specific passages in the letters, she said she couldn’t remember. The judge, Sir Montague Shearman, particularly seemed inclined against her, since he began the part of his summing up that referred to her without even using her name. “As for the woman,” he declared, disapprovingly, before going on to remind the jury of their duty to deliver a verdict only based on the evidence presented in the case.
The guilty verdict was delivered on 11 December. Both Edith and Frederick were sentenced to death by hanging. To the salacious delight of the newspaper reporters in the press gallery, Edith collapsed in hysterics at the news, while Frederick shouted loudly about her innocence. Since he was nine years younger than her, commentators enjoyed portraying him as an innocent youth led astray by a manipulative older woman. He was a mere “romantic, chivalrous boy”, one wrote.
Of course, this could have been what happened. If Edith Thompson was indeed manipulative enough to have pushed Frederick Bywaters’ buttons until he stabbed her husband to death, it is possible that she could also have put on her extraordinary, contradictory courtroom performance because she thought it would muddy the waters and get him a lighter sentence. It seems less likely, though, than the theory that Rene Weis and others have put forward — Edith was just a sentimental, flighty young woman who completely lost her head when her romantic lover took things too far.
A big part of her miscalculation was in how the public, and crucially the jury, would respond to her letters. It’s possible, of course, that Edith thought Frederick would destroy them so they could never be read by anyone anyway. There was a heavy vein of sexism in the way the case against her was built, because the prosecution argued that her love of romantic, fanciful books led her to indulge in lethal fantasies that eventually led to action.
There were still ideas around in the 1920s about the harmful effect of romantic or sentimental fiction on women — it lingered for a long time, because it’s the same trope that Jane Austen was making fun of when she wrote Northanger Abbey in 1803. Frederick did say during the trial that Edith liked to “read a book and imagine herself as the character in the book”, not thinking that the jury would take that as an indication that she actually wanted to act out the role of murderess in the thrillers that she had enjoyed reading.
Edith’s biographer Rene Weis has also hinted at a theme I discussed in the first episode of this podcast as an explanation for why she was convicted without any substantial evidence against her. In 1922, Britain was still gripped by the idea, compounded by the figures released for the 1921 census, that the country contained over a million more women than men after all of the male casualties in the first world war. As I showed in that episode, this isn’t strictly correct in demographic terms, but this idea of the “surplus women” as disposable and unwanted was a powerful force regardless. To social conservatives at the time, Edith Thompson was not a “womanly woman” — she worked, she danced, she had been married for six years without having a child so presumably used contraception, and she wrote in her letters to Bywaters about enjoying sex and having an abortion.
If guilty, she had also brought about the needless deaths of two men. Seen in this light, it’s no wonder she was sentenced to death. Her lawyers did appeal, but unsuccessfully. There was even a public petition to stop the execution of Edith and Frederick with over a million signatures, but that was rejected too. Less than a month over her conviction, Edith Thompson was dragged into that shed at Holloway Prison and hanged. As well as being almost unconscious when it happened, she bled a lot — eyewitnesses says it looked like her “insides fell out”. Subsequent commentators, including Weis, have interpreted this as a miscarriage, suggesting that it was possible that Edith was pregnant. If so, she should never have been hanged — the law forbade it. Even if not, it was rare for a woman to be hanged at all — Edith was the first in 16 years.
The influence of the case on the crime writers of the day was profound and long lived — the real events were so dramatic and improbable that the could not help but capture the imaginations of those who made this stuff up for a living. Martin Edwards documents many of their reactions in his book The Golden Age of Murder, so I recommend seeking that out if you’re interested in learning more. The first novel to appear based on the so-called “Ilford Murder” came out just a year after Thompson’s execution: Messalina of the Suburbs by E.M. Delafield. You might know her as the author of the semi-autobiographical The Diary of a Provincial Lady, but she was also a novelist and close friend of the Golden Age detective writer Anthony Berkeley. He also dwelt on the idea of a wife inciting a lover to murder her husband a few times in different books, most overtly in 1939’s As for the Woman. In 1937 the authors who made up the famous Detection Club (which we’ll be learning more about in a future episode, by the way) published a book of true crime essays titled The Anatomy of Murder, in which Berkeley wrote about Edith Thompson. Unhappily married and prone to outside passions himself, he felt strongly that she was “executed for adultery” rather than for an actual crime.
One of the most interesting novels to be influenced by the case was The Documents in the Case, a 1930 collaboration between Dorothy L. Sayers and the scientist Robert Eustace. The whole story is told through letters and documents relevant to the case, so the reader feels as if they are playing the role of detective themselves. It too features a young wife (“a sort of suburban vamp”, they call her) who starts an affair with the lodger and is therefore ambiguously implicated in her lover’s later actions. It’s perhaps not as pacy as a Lord Peter Wimsey novel, and it is a bit too wrapped up in the ingenious technicalities of the murder method rather than having properly compelling characters, but it’s an interesting take on the relationship dynamics nonetheless.
The actor Frank Vosper, who would go on to star in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and die in suspicious circumstances in 1937, wrote a play about Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters called People Like Us. It opened in London in 1929, but was swiftly banned by the Lord Chamberlain because of its supposedly racy content, and then remained unperformed until 1948. This play is in turn referenced in Agatha Christie‘s 1949 novel Crooked House, when an actress says suggests that a murder in the family is the ideal time to put on the “Edith Thompson play”, and that “there’s quite a lot of comedy to be got out of Edith Thompson – I don’t think the author realised that”. Exactly what Agatha Christie thought might be funny about this case is sadly not recorded.
Alfred Hitchcock was actually closely connected to the case, since he had been a pupil at Edith’s father’s dancing school and remained friends with her younger sister Avis. He apparently considered making a film about Edith’s demise a number of times, but never actually did. However, there are traces of the case in his 1950 film Stage Fright, and in the 1941 film Suspicion, which stars Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine, ground glass is used as a murder weapon. Incidentally, this film is actually based on Anthony Berkeley’s 1932 novel Before the Fact.
Novelists and film makers are still finding inspiration in the case and the works it spawned today. As well as the 2001 film Another Life, the writer Sarah Waters has written about how it was Fryn Tennyson Jesse’s 1934 novel about Edith Thompson A Pin to See the Peepshow that first gave her the idea for the setting of her 2014 bestseller The Paying Guests. All of the Thompson-inspired novels give “a vision of a suburbia filled with seedy clerks and sulky housewives”, she has said, which seemed to her still an idea setting for a thrilling story of murder.
In November 2018, Edith Thompson’s body was lifted out the mass grave in Brookwood Cemetery where it had been buried when Holloway Prison was rebuilt in 1971. After the Ministry of Justice finally allowed an exhumation, an ambulance took it to the City of London cemetery where it was laid in the same grave as her mother and father, just as her parents had always wanted.
She might be at rest at last, but the story of Edith Thompson lives on. It’s too extraordinary to be forgotten.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books and articles that I’ve mentioned in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/ediththompson. There, you can also read a full transcript.
I wish all my listeners a very happy new year, and thank you very much for sticking with the podcast into 2019. A few of you have been in touch to say that you discovered the show via Instagram, so I’m trying to be better at posting pictures related to the episodes there. Do come and take a look at instagram.com/shedunnitshow.
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I’ll be back on 23 January with a new episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: Dining with death.