Campaign to pardon woman, 29, who was hanged 100 years ago

Campaign to pardon woman, 29, who was hanged after her lover murdered her husband referred to Criminal Cases Review due to ‘dubious’ 100-year conviction based on her ‘fantasising about poisoning his food’

  • Edith Thompson, 29, was hanged in 1923 after her lover murdered her husband
  • Despite no evidence she was complicit, her love letters were read out in court 
  • Now, the Ministry of Justice has agreed to refer her case for a potential review 

A woman who was hanged for murder 100 years ago despite a severe lack of evidence may finally receive a pardon after a referral was made to the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

Edith Thompson, 29, was one of just 18 women hanged in Britain in the 20th Century in a case deemed so ‘dubious’, it has been described as one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British history.

Thompson found herself judged from all sides when her lover Frederick Bywaters, 20, stabbed her husband Percy to death on October 3, 1922, The Times reports.

Bywaters ambushed the couple as they made their way home from the theatre in Piccadilly Circus, London, and he later insisted Mrs Thompson had no prior knowledge of his attack.

But prosecutors latched on to love letters she had exchanged with Bywaters while he was away at sea and quoted them out of context during the trial, leading to convictions for them both.

Edith Thompson pictured with her husband Percy, who was stabbed to death on October 3, 1922

Mrs Thompson had been carrying out an affair with Frederick Bywaters, who was several years her junior

In several passages, Mrs Thompson wrote of her longing to be free from her husband and fantasised about feeding him poison or grinding glass into mashed potato – all outlandish methods sourced from novels.

In another letter, she flippantly remarked that another woman had had three husbands ‘and I can’t lose one’. A further message described how she had carried out her own abortion.

The letters failed to show any evidence of a plot to kill Mr Thompson. But they shone a stark light on his wife’s torrid affair, which went against the societal norms of the 1920s and prejudiced jurors against the married woman.

The judge, Mr Justice Shearman, was strongly criticised by later law practitioners for showing bias in favour of the prosecution, as well as for openly challenging the honesty of a defence witness.

Following their convictions, both Mrs Thompson and Bywaters were hanged on January 9, 1923. 

The Ministry of Justice turned down an application for pardon last year, but the process was renewed after solicitors representing Thompson’s heirs complained.

Yesterday, a Ministry of Justice spokesman said: ‘After careful consideration, the deputy prime minister [Justice Secretary Dominic Raab] has referred this case to the Criminal Cases Review Commission to investigate any potential miscarriage of justice to provide closure to the family of Edith Thompson.’

Edith Thompson and her husband Percy (centre) at their home in Ilford, London, in 1922. Her younger brother Newenham Graydon (right) sits with them

Frederick Bywaters arriving at court during his trial for the murder of Percy Thompson

The scene inside the courtroom during Bywaters and Thompson’s trial, which caused a stir in the media

The decision was praised by Rene Weis, emeritus professor at University College London, who has spearheaded a campaign to rehabilitate Mrs Thompson since the 1980s.

He said: ‘The original verdict was, to say the least, very dubious, and the case we made was very rational, reasonable one.’

His views were echoed by writer Harriet Madeley, whose play ‘Edith’ is touring the country.

She said: ‘There were so many things wrong with this trial… it should not be allowed to stand because the judge was so clearly biased against her. He made it his business to prejudice the jury against Edith.’

So strong is the feeling of injustice among campaigners that a vigil is held each year at Mrs Thompson’s graveside.

Mr Weis, who was made Thompson’s heir by her surviving family, stands to make no personal gain from the case.

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