Death to the adulteress

August 4, 2000

Author and academic Rene Weis believes that Edith Thompson, hanged for murder in 1923, was a victim of moral outrage. Helen Hague reports.

On January 9 1923, Edith Thompson, a sparky successful, 29-year-old career woman, was taken, drugged and screaming, to the gallows inside Holloway prison. She was probably pregnant.

She had been found guilty at the Old Bailey of aiding and abetting her young lover, Frederick Bywaters, in the murder of her husband, Percy, streets from the Ilford villa where Bywaters once lodged. Her lover stabbed Percy Thompson several times as Edith and her husband returned from a night at the theatre.

It was a double hanging. Bywaters, eight years Edith's junior, never denied the deed and went to the gallows in Pentonville protesting his lover's innocence.

The sensational trial filled the newspapers in December 1922 - Edith was dubbed the "Messalina of Ilford" for leading her young, hot-headed lover astray. Passionate, vibrant love letters from Edith to Freddy were selectively produced in court and, of course, the newspapers. They sealed Edith's fate.

The love story, the fashion-loving millinery manager, dashing young seaman and the double hanging continue to inspire film-makers and novelists - Another Life, starring Natasha Little as Edith is due out next year and Fred and Edie, a novel by Jill Dawson, is published later this month. There is evidence of a self-induced termination of Freddy's child and speculation that Edith was pregnant when she died. She haemorrhaged profusely at her execution and, despite eating little in prison, weighed 119lbs on December 11 but 134lbs when she was hanged. If this had been known in court, her life would have been spared.

In Criminal Justice, his book on the case, Rene Weis, professor of English at University College London, eschews invention. His meticulous research will next year help form the basis of a submission to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which he hopes will pave the way for a posthumous pardon for Edith Thompson. His colleague from UCL, William Twining, professor of jurisprudence, will also put the case to the review. (The CCRC, set up by Jack Straw in 1997, devolves responsibility for reviewing alleged miscarriages of justice away from the home secretary.) Criminal Justice is a meticulous, scrupulously researched work. In it, Weis argues that Edith Thompson was innocent of all charges brought against her. Without the highly damaging and selective presentation of her fantasy-fuelled letters, she would never have lost her life. She was, he says, more an Emma Bovary figure than a scheming accomplice to murder. And because of the moral prejudices of the court, she was in effect hanged for adultery.

Incriminating passages from her letters to Freddy, fired by avid reading of steamy and exotic romances, melded in her imagination with life in Ilford, with a husband who, at least on one occasion, struck her. Many were written while Freddy was away at sea. The incriminating letters - which speak of ground glass and poison - are, Weis argues, open to an innocent interpretation once you understand Edith Thompson's fecund fantasy life.

The moral shockwaves of a childless, successful businesswoman from the lower middle classes taking a lover outraged conventional morality. That she was earning double the average wage when men who had fought for their country were seeking work further stacked the odds against her. The judge made no secret of his moral disgust.

Weis's interest in the case was initially sparked by the debate on capital punishment in 1983. In 1990, he wrote to the home secretary, then Douglas Hurd, asking for a posthumous pardon for Thompson. Her execution, he said, remained "a tragic blot on this country's tradition of effective and equitable justice". The case against her rests almost entirely on a series of fantasy wish-fulfilment letters she wrote to Bywaters. Much of the material in these letters has no basis in reality, but was a sort of "acting out in writing of what are not uncommon, albeit rarely expressed wishes".

Although some of her early letters were read as a desire for her husband's death through glass or poison, the postmortem examination produced no evidence that either had been consumed. The solicitor general, uncorrected by the judge, argued to the jury that there were "practically" no traces of poison in the exhumed body of Percy Thompson - introducing a seed of doubt that was allowed to grow unchecked in the minds of the 11 men and one woman who sat on the jurors' bench.

Weis also points out that the most damaging passages all date from several months before Bywaters attacked Percy Thompson. The fact that Bywaters killed him was never disputed - but equally, Weis argued, it was never proved that Edith Thompson had set it up. "Indeed, an examination of the known facts does not suggest she was involved, and there was no evidence that she knew her husband would be attacked that night. Instead, the Crown used a selection of her letters in court to generate a climate of prejudice against her as an immoral adulteress who seduced and suborned a young man eight years her junior."

Interest whetted by the renewed political interest in capital punishment, Weis steeped himself in records, cuttings, court transcripts and, of course, the content of the letters. For Weis, the "grotesquery" that a woman could be hanged for adultery highlighted how capital punishment affected real people, real lives, real families - it was not just a legal abstraction. He believes the judicial death of Edith Thompson to be "the most horrendous miscarriage of justice this century".

"I am determined, if at all possible, that we are going to get this case looked at. It is a wrong that needs to be righted."

With a new film pending, the timing looks judicious. Expect a submission to the Criminal Cases Review Commission within the next eight months.

* PUNISHED FOR BEING AHEAD OF HER TIMES

"Edith Thompson was a woman born in the wrong era and punished for it with her life," according to Philip Goodhew, director of Another Life, due for release next year.

Jill Dawson, who teaches at the University of East Anglia, working independently of the film, touches on this terrain in her novel Fred and Edie. "Edie was judged much more harshly because she flouted suburban values, dared to have an affair with a younger man, was married, childless I had her own career and earned good money."

Dawson first came across Edith's letters in an anthology of erotica. She steeped herself in trial transcripts and the letters, and uses them to explore female sensuality and aspiration through the prism of Edie's "vibrant, sensual, inventive" take on life.

In the novel, she invents letters Edie wrote to Freddy in prison, awaiting trial - interior monologues and imagined scenes, a Punch and Judy show, complete with tiny gallows on the Isle of Wight where the pair first kissed, a Tarot reading for Edie, and the ominous black thread that periodically appears in the corner of her eye once in prison.

"She was very interested in her own sexuality and wanted more for herself. Her letters are very sensuous, funny, passionate and intelligent. The voice struck me at times as irresistibly modern, abrasive and knowing."

Dawson read books Edith discussed with Freddy, such as The Fruitful Vine, which is "charged with feverish sexual interest". The intimate tone of her letters scandalised onlookers in the public gallery when read out in court. Thompson even described an orgasm in one of them. "It seems a great welling up of love - of feeling, of inertia, just as if I am wax in your hands - to do with as you will and I feel that if you do as you wish, I shall be happy. It's physical, purely, and I can't describe it."

Dawson thinks Edie's story also has contemporary relevance in reminding women "how far we have come".

"Enormous gains have been made in the realm of sexual and personal relationships. Women can now make choices that in Edie's time were not open to them."

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