London Letter

Memories of a famous hanging of long ago

London Letter

Memories of a famous hanging of long ago


Memories of a famous hanging of long ago

London Letter


It has been said many times that the British, more than any other race, have a genius for compromise. There are occasions, however, when this adaptability to circumstance gets them into an unholy mess, and certainly this is true of the Homicide Bill which was born out of much travail in the House of Commons and has now become an Act of the realm.

Let me assure you that I am not going to discuss the wisdom or unwisdom of the death penalty. It is true that twice I led a minority group of Tory abolitionists into the voting lobby where we made common cause with a large number of socialists and thus did away with the death penalty—but the Peers ultimately reversed the decision on both occasions.

Nor do I doubt that their lordships more truly expressed the feelings of the people than we abolitionists in the Commons.

However, the government could not totally ignore the decision of the Commons so the attorney-general, with the assistance of the home secretary, labored and brought forth the legislation which is now in force.

Let us see what can happen under the existing law today. If Bill Sykes kiils Mr. Smith, the grocer, with a blow while robbing him of the money in his cash register, and

if he can prove that he only intended to commit a robbery with a quick getaway, he would serve a long sentence but would not hang.

But there is a catch in it.

If the unfortunate grocer sounds the alarm before he is murdered and Sykes kills a policeman in an attempt to make a getaway then Sykes does hang.

Just to show the difficulty, and even the absurdity of classifying the act of murder, a poisoner who has not even the excuse of uncontrollable fear does not hang. Yet of all murderers surely the poisoner is the most vile and cruel.

A few weeks ago. after the new law had come into force, the London Evening Standard sent a reporter to see me. He explained that his newspaper was going to recall and review the execution of Edith Thompson which took place in the early 1920s. In doing so they wanted to check up on the part I played, as editor of the Sunday Express, in trying to secure a last-minute reprieve for the condemned woman.

Let there be no misunderstanding about the matter. The hanging of Edith Thompson is the classic example of the death penalty being used by society as an instrument of revenge. Undoubtedly it was also the origin of the all-party coalitions which twice

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“Here was an adulteress living in pretended amity with her husband, meanwhile trying to kill him”

abolished the death penalty in the British parliament.

Therefore I now suggest that you, the readers of Maclean's magazine, constitute yourselves a jury to decide in retrospect whether the hanging of Edith Thompson was according to the law or whether it was carried out because of the failure of her counsel to do full justice to her case, or whether the jury could not distinguish between the causing and the committing of a murder.

Here then is the story.

One evening a woman named Edith Thompson, together with her husband, left their modest suburban home in East London to see a play in a West End theatre. On returning to their home they were stopped in the street by a friend, Frederick Bywaters, a good - looking young fellow who was a steward on an oriental shipping line.

There were words between the men and then a shriek from the woman: “Don’t! Don’t!" The young man had driven a knife into the husband’s heart and then run away. A few hours later he was caught by the police and taken to a police station where he was charged with murder.

After a short enquiry Edith Thompson was also arrested and taken into custody.

Understandably the newspapers made a big story of it. although the drab suburban background slightly reduced the public interest. It had all the trappings of a first-rate crime story except that the three principals were no one in particular. However, newspapers have to take the material which events supply to them and they did their best with this suburban version of the eternal triangle.

In due course Bywaters and Edith Thompson were brought for trial to the

Old Bailey, which is London’s criminal court, to face the charge of murder, and I went to the grim, old place to watch the proceedings.

There they were in the dock together —the haggard woman looking years older than her age, and the youthful ship's steward with the health of the open sea still on his cheeks.

This was the case put forward by the prosecution. Thompson, the murdered man, was a clerk in an office, married to a woman who was a complete romanticist, a woman who was the victim of her own emotionalism. Bored by the monotony of her drab life with a faithful, unexciting husband, she entered into an adulterous intrigue with Bywaters, who was much younger than herself. She was a profuse letter writer during the long absences of her lover, and it was unfortunate for her that he kept her letters. The jury would learn from this correspondence that she was trying to bring about the death of her husband by feeding him with ground glass in his food.

Here was in fact an adulteress living in pretended amity with a faithful husband while trying to get him out of the way by slowly killing him. On the evidence, it was a cold, cruel murder in its intent and culmination. Yet she did not actually commit the act of murder. That was left to the young man over whom she exerted an undoubted fascination. But the jury would be in no doubt as to her desire, her purpose and her connivance.

On the evidence there was only one possible verdict—the sentence of death. There could have been none else.

On the Saturday before the double execution, which was to take place on Monday, I was preparing the current issue of the Sunday Express when my secretary said that Bywaters’ young sister wanted

to see me urgently. I said that I would see her at once and a few moments later the commissionaire brought her to my office.

She was a sweet and gentle girl of some seventeen years of age but when she tried to speak she burst into tears. Again and again she made the effort, and then through her sobs she asked my forgiveness for being so much trouble.

At last she gained control of herself and in a voice that was almost inaudible she said that she had been to the prison to say good-by to her brother. Then, trying to keep control of her tears, she said: “My brother asked me to tell you that he knows he must die but he never meant to kill Mr. Thompson. He said to tell you that he always carried a jackknife for cutting string and rope on luggage. All he knows is that when he saw Edith and her husband together he saw red and the next thing he remembered was the blood on the pavement and Mr. Thompson lying dead. Edith knew nothing about it and shrieked for help.”

What could I do? I phoned the Home Office and asked where I could get in touch with the home secretary. The answer was that he was staying for the weekend at a country house in Wales. When I pressed for the name and place of the house they demurred but at last gave me the information.

My news editor tried to get through to the country house on the telephone but either the line was blocked or the telephone was not being answered. So we did what was then an almost unheardof thing in journalism. We chartered a private airplane and sent the news editor and the chief crime reporter to Wales.

Somehow the plane made a landing in the grourds of the country house but it was during the Sinn Fein outrages, and

they would not open the door. We could do nothing more.

At eight o'clock in the morning at the beginning of the week a silent mass of people stood outside the prison walls waiting for the posting of the notice on the gates that the double execution had taken place. There was a hush of horror when the notice appeared.

Lord Beaverbrook called me on the telephone a few minutes after eight. “Did they hang the woman?” he asked. I answered that they had duly hanged them both. “O God! O God!” he muttered. That was all. Later in the day there were rumors that the woman had collapsed and almost disintegrated as a human being, and had to be carried to the gallows. It may or may not have been true but London had become a city of horror and wild rumor.

Some time later the executioner committed suicide. People who knew him said that the memory of Edith Thompson's death had robbed him of the ability to sleep. It may or may not have been true but he did take his own life.

Now comes a curious twist to the story. What had happened to the letters which Edith Thompson had written to her lover? Those that had been read during the trial had of course been published but what of the others? My staff got in touch with the woman’s brother and I went dowm to meet him at a pub in the East End.

He was a gentle and somewhat romantic young man with a soft, semi-cockney accent. “They shouldn't have hanged Edith,” he said, but there was no bitterness in his words. The little world that he knew and understood had cracked to ruins and he could not piece it together.

“They shouldn't have hanged Edith,” he repeated. "She wouldn't hurt anyone.

She really wouldn't.” The other people in the pub stopped in their talk and gazed at us. The brother had become a national figure to them.

By a strange coincidence our chief Sunday newspaper rival. The Sunday Dispatch, had purchased the publication rights of the letters from the Bywaters family. When it became known that the Sunday Express had bought the rights

from the Thompson relatives the Sunday Dispatch suggested that both newspapers should publish simultaneously. Then 1 made enquiries and discovered what 1 had not previously known—that the copyright of a letter belongs not to the recipient but to the writer thereof. So we had the exclusive rights.

Kettle black

“Some women shouldn’t Wear slacks!” Thus snorts One of the men Who shouldn't wear shorts!


Therefore, let us be perfectly frank. We published the letters serially in the Sunday Express and thereby increased our circulation considerably. As an editor I was glad to have secured a running feature that was of absorbing interest.

But as I read those letters which told over and over again of how Edith Thompson the adulteress tried to murder her husband with endless insertions of ground glass in his food I asked our crime reporter to try to get a record of the murdered man's health during this long sustained cruelty.

The report that my staff gave me was

that although Thompson was a man of poor health he had not been absent from his work at any time during the period when, according to the evidence in the trial, he was eating ground glass in endless quantities.

In other words it was nothing but play acting and invention by an older woman trying to keep her hold on her lover’s affections. In the world of imagination she pretended to be a murderer without pity. In actuality she was a good suburban wife looking after her sickly husband's health and comfort like countless other wives. There was never any ground glass—yet it hanged her.

Again I must submit to you. the jury of Maclean’s readers, that this woman was an adulteress and that she undoubtedly caused the death of her husband and her lover. But a drunken man may cause a motorist to kill a pedestrian in trying to avoid killing the drunkard. But it is not murder.

Therefore, you ladies and gentlemen who have read my account of this tragedy of suburbia, I claim that Edith Thompson was guiltless of murder or the intent to murder, that she lived in a world of frustrated romance and found expression in love letters. And further I claim that she was hanged by society in revenge, and not according to the laws of England.

It was this legalized taking of life, unjustified by the true facts, that made me twice lead the Conservative break-away group which, in alliance with a large section of the socialist party, abolished hanging in Briton.

There I rest my case. Should Edith Thompson have been executed? It is for you to give your verdict now that the full evidence has been put before you. ★