In the riveting A Tale of Two Murders: Guilt, Innocence, and the Execution of Edith Thompson, Laura Thompson provides the definitive look at the notorious Thompson-Bywaters murder, the first such study to make use of all the Home Office files on the case. Edith Thompson (no relation to the author) was charged with plotting the murder of her husband, Percy, a crime actually carried out by Edith’s lover, Freddie Bywaters, on October 2, 1922. One fascinating element of the situation are Edith’s letters to Freddy—beautifully written and part of the reason why she was executed. Laura Thompson examines the crime, fallout, and Edith’s legacy.
On January 9, 1923, Edith Thompson—a London-born woman then age 29—was hanged for the murder of her husband. So too, at the same moment, was her 20-year-old lover Freddy Bywaters. These executions were the culmination of a cause célèbre that had mesmerized the British public, exerting a frighteningly powerful grip upon the national imagination.
People had queued through the night for seats in the public gallery of the Old Bailey, where the trial of Thompson and Bywaters took place in December 1922. It was a reality show played for the highest possible stakes, and at the center of it all were two good-looking young people, apparently ordinary, whose personalities compelled in a way that is rare among murderers.
Not that Edith had actually killed anybody. Freddy never denied that he had repeatedly stabbed Percy Thompson: he had intercepted the Thompsons as they were walking home after a night at the theater. Witnesses who arrived at the scene—from which Freddy had fled—testified to Edith’s extreme distress, her hysterical pleas for a doctor, her shrieks that lacerated the calm night sky.
Yet her words to a policeman—”they will blame me for this”—were peculiarly prophetic. Almost from the first, Edith was presumed to be the truly guilty party: the one whose hand had metaphorically guided the knife.
She was eight years older than her lover. Still today this would create a salacious shock, a belief that the wide-eyed boy was in the woman’s sensuous thrall. Judgments—even in a courtroom—are not made on facts, at least nothing like as much as they should be: they are dangerously susceptible to prejudice, and from the first a great dirty tide of it washed over Edith Thompson.
She belonged to that category of person who still troubles society, the woman who did not “fit’” In an age craving a return to certainties—destabilized by war, rattled by the suffragette campaign—Edith was a childless go-getter with a smart home, a well-paid managerial job, and a husband whom she had betrayed. Worse yet, she had a soft erotic allure that perturbed and enraged respectable Britain: both the men who responded to it, and the women who hated her for it.
And then, there were her letters.
As one of the detectives who investigated the murder of Percy Thompson later wrote, Edith’s letters “played a great part in hanging her.” She had written near-obsessively to Freddy, indeed their affair was essentially epistolary: his job as a merchant seaman meant that much of the 16-month relationship was spent apart. Edith destroyed almost all of Freddy’s letters. Hers were found a week after the murder. Despite a complete absence of evidence she had already been charged, but for the police the letters were treasure: supreme confirmation of the presumption of guilt.
They were also remarkable, and at times beautiful. Edith Thompson, who left school at 15, whose bright spirit was circumscribed by the twin pillars of class and gender, was a natural writer: her stream-of-consciousness style is that of the untutored modernist. She had the gift, which renders almost any defect irrelevant, of bringing words alive. When she describes her unhappy marriage, her struggles at work, her delight in a fresh spring day or a new georgette dress, the reader is there with her: almost 100 years after her death, her feelings still palpate tremulously through her words. Some of the cadences that she conjured in a moment, as it were without awareness, have passed into a kind of immortality:
“I’ve surrendered to him unconditionally now—do you understand me?”
“We ourselves die live in the books we read while we are reading them…”
“He has the right by law to all that you have the right to by nature and love…”
“I just tried to make you live in my life… “
The letters defined this case, as they could not have done had they been more commonplace. The Lawrentian seriousness with which they took life, love—and by implication sex—was appalling and fascinating to the self-conscious British soul. They were evidence of what people already thought about Edith Thompson, that she was an affront to decency. To those who were seeking it they were also evidence: pure and simple. Their text was interpreted in a way designed to prove guilt, a concept more suited to a dystopian Gilead than to 1920s London.
Within the thousands of words, the sweet, shapeless autobiography through which Edith discovered herself, were passages about attempts to poison her husband. The post-mortem found no trace of any harmful substance in Percy Thompson’s body, so however deeply engrossed Edith had been in her words she had not acted upon them. The fact that Freddy had killed with a knife had nothing, legally, to do with her fantasies of killing with poison.
But after Percy died there was no more fantasy. All was reality; including those words, which had meant she did not always know what. The forces of law had no such doubts and sought meaning that was literal, not literary. To them, each word equaled something real. To Edith they were metaphors for the ineffable, and like most writers she saw real life merely as an option among others.
So when questioned about the letters she had no answer that could satisfy. She could not parse her texts for an examiner who made no allowance for nuance or ambivalence. Her defense counsel interpreted the passages about poison not as incitement, but as a means to hold her lover’s attention—she had been weaving tales like a suburban Scheherazade, playing a deadly sexualized game—and as literary criticism it was astute. The trouble was that Percy had, indeed, died. Working backwards from that point, with Freddy’s guilt a reality in anybody’s book, where did that leave sentences such as this one:
“Darlint—do something tomorrow night will you? something to make you forget…?”
It was in a letter dated the October 2, 1922—the day before the murder—and in the arena of the Old Bailey it, alone, was pretty much enough to kill her. Edith herself said that she had been instructing Freddy to forget her by taking out another girl. “I wanted him to take my sister Avis out.” And indeed, on the night of the 3rd Freddy did ask Avis to go on a date with him. After that, he committed murder. He, too, had interpreted the words that he read.
Edith Thompson was guilty of a crime, although it had nothing to do with the law. Quite simply she had failed to understand that words have consequences. Had she had not written as she did, would her lover have killed her husband? Almost certainly the answer is no. Her letters were to Freddy Bywaters—whose elusiveness at sea was so stimulating to her imagination—but it was for herself that she wrote, in a solipsistic act that writers will recognize, and in the end, because she sought to direct her story in that way, every last vestige of control over it was removed. Such is the power of words. She wrote; she died; and she is remembered.