On this day in history….12th February 1932

On this day in history : 12th February 1932 – Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald introduces a bill to improve Youth Courts, raising the age of juveniles and banning whipping of under 14s….

Under the reform which came into power in 1933 the age of criminal responsibility was raised to the age of 8 years and the death penalty abolished below the age of 18….

The Children & Young Persons Act also introduced approved schools, for criminal and beyond parental control minors – replacing reformatories, industrial and training schools…. With no locked cells or bars at the windows approved schools were meant to be more like boarding schools…. In 1948 a law was passed that prevented under 17s from being sent to adult prisons….

Discipline in approved schools was strict…. Each establishment was required to keep a punishment book and these were checked by Home Office inspectors on a regular basis…. Punishment books of approved boys’ schools in the 1930s, 40s and 50s show an average of several canings per week…. Corporal punishment was used less in girls’ schools and when it was only the under 15s and across the hands…. Punishment in approved schools did not differ all that much to the discipline meted out in ordinary schools…. However, before the Children & Young Persons Act it was a very different story….

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published in The Comic Almanack for 1839 – George Cruickshank – Public domain

From 1847 onwards birching could be ordered by ordinary local magistrates for a variety of offences – but was nearly always for stealing…. By 1879 it had become more regulated….and the punishment was often carried out immediately after sentencing…. The young offender (boys up to the age of 14 – and 16 in Scotland) would be taken to a nearby police station – or sometimes it would be carried out in the court itself – and the beating would be administered by a policeman…. The birch used would be smaller and lighter than those used in prisons….

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Committal for birching – A magistrate’s committal for birching two children dated 4 December 1899 – displayed in West Midlands Police Museum, Sparkhill, Birmingham Credit: Oosoom at English Wikipedia

The birch was a bundle of twigs, bound at one end to form a handle – and came in three sizes…. For boys under 10-years-old the birch measured 34 inches long and weighed 6 ounces…. For 10-16 year-olds it was 40 inches long, weighing 9 ounces…. The adult version was 48 inches long with a weight of 12 ounces…. It would be administered to the unclothed buttocks…. In Scotland the tawse would be used instead of the birch – a leather strap with two or three tails….and boys could receive up to 36 strokes….

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Museum specimens of the tawse. Kim Traynor CC BY-SA 3.0

Corporal punishment for juvenile crime was seen as a better alternative to prison – once the punishment had been carried out the recipient was free to go home having learned a very painful lesson….

From the 1860s only higher courts could order corporal punishment for males over 14-years-old….and had to specify the instrument to be used…. The birch was for offenders of any age but the cat-o’-nine-tails could only be used on those over 16-years of age….and the punishment had to be administered in prison….

The cat-o’-nine-tails had a total weight of 9 ounces and each of the 9 tails was a fine whipcord, each measuring 33 inches long….and the tip bound with silk (not knotted at the end – this is a common myth)…. The tails were attached to a 19″ handle….

Both the birch and cat were issued to prisons by the Home Office and were distributed from Wandsworth Prison….

The cat was applied to the bare upper back…. The birch was rarely used on adults to start with but eventually became more common place than the cat…. Some adults would have preferred the cat given the choice (but doubt if they were) as they felt it less humiliating than having to expose their buttocks….

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Cat-o’-nine-tails United Kingdom 1700-1850 Credit: Science Museum London CC BY via Wellcome Collection

The birch and cat-o’-nine-tails were abolished in the UK in 1948 (but were still used in prisons for violent assaults on prison staff until 1967)…. One of the last cases was that of a 23-year-old man who was sentenced at the Old Bailey in 1947 to 6 strokes of the cat and 7 years imprisonment for an armed raid on a public house in South London….

The birch was last used as a punishment for an assault on a prison officer in 1962…. Before that during the 1950s there had been an average of 3 or 4 such punishments per year for similar offences….

The Channel Islands finally banned the birch in the 1960s, with the last case on Jersey being in 1966 and Guernsey in 1968…. It took the Isle of Man until 1976 to abolish it – the last case being that of a 13-year-old boy who stole 10p from another child….

It took state schools until 1986 to ban caning and 1998 in private schools…. Scotland’s schools followed in 2000 and Northern Ireland in 2003….

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Digitised by State Library of Queensland – Public domain

On this day in history….31st January 1910

On this day in history : 31st January 1910 – Dr. Crippen poisons his wife, dismembers her body and buries her boneless torso in the cellar of their London home….

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Hawley Harvey Crippen c.1910

Hawley Harvey Crippen was an American homeopath living in London, with his wife Cora….a ‘would-be’ music hall star with little talent…. Cora was flamboyant and openly unfaithful – flaunting a string of younger lovers…. Crippen retaliated by taking a mistress, Ethel Le Neve, a typist who worked for him….

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Cora Crippen (stage name Belle Elmore) Public domain – Bain News Service, publisher

It was after a dinner party held at Crippen’s home on the 31st of January that Cora disappeared…. Crippen told friends and neighbours that she had returned to America – as time went on he elaborated on the story, adding that she was ill – and then that she had died….

Crippen moved his girlfriend in;  and it wasn’t long before Le Neve started wearing Cora’s clothes and jewellery…. this aroused the suspicions of neighbours – but it was Cora’s friend, Kate Williams – better known as ‘Vulcana’, a strong woman and fellow performer – who alerted the police…. Crippen was interviewed by Chief Inspector Walter Dew of Scotland Yard – and the house was searched…. Crippen told Dew that he had fabricated Cora’s illness and she had in fact run off with one of her young lovers, a Bruce Miller….

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Chief Inspector Walter Dew c.1920

Dew was satisfied with Crippen’s story and nothing had been found untoward at the house…. That should have been that….but Crippen panicked and he and Le Neve fled to Brussels….

The disappearance of Crippen and his mistress led to a more detailed search of the house…. It was eventually on the fourth such search that the grisly discovery in the cellar was made…. Buried beneath the floor they found a headless and boneless torso, wrapped inside a pyjama jacket…. The head, skeleton, sexual organs and limbs were never found….

Crippen and Le Neve attempted to abscond to Canada onboard SS Montrose….they were disguised as father and son…. The ship’s captain, George Kendall, was aware of Scotland Yard’s manhunt and realised who the pair were…. On board his ship was a brand new, state of the art, Marconi wireless telegraph radio set…. Captain Kendall was able to alert the authorities….

“Have strong suspicion that Crippen London cellar murderer and accomplice are among saloon passengers. Moustache taken off growing beard. Accomplice dressed as boy. Manner and build undoubtedly a girl”….

Inspector Dew was able to get on a faster ship than that of SS Montrose and was waiting in Quebec with the Canadian police when Crippen and Le Neve arrived….

“Good morning, Dr. Crippen. Do you know me? I’m Chief Inspector Dew from Scotland Yard”…. To which, after a pause Crippen replied…. “Thank God it’s over. The suspense has been too great. I couldn’t stand it any more”….

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A disguised Crippen after his arrest. Public domain

The trial was held at the Old Bailey and Crippen’s defence was led by Alfred Tobin…. Crippen still insisted Cora had gone to America with her lover…. He claimed the body parts found in the cellar must have been there since before they had moved into the house…. However, a label reading “Jones Bros”- found in the pyjama top within which the remains had been wrapped – meant the investigation team were able to confirm with the manufacturer that the fabric used was from a more recent time…. The odds were stacked against Crippen – as the matching pyjama trousers were found in his bedroom….

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Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve on trial – image: United States Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division

A piece of intact skin from the torso bore a scar that matched one that Cora had received from an operation….the defence argued that it was a fold of skin and had hair follicles, which scar tissue would not have…. Traces of the drug hyoscine were found in the flesh of the torso – Crippen had purchased a quantity shortly before Cora’s disappearance….

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Alledged scar tissue used in evidence at the trial, claimed to be that of Cora Crippen. Jack1956 at English Wikipedia. Public domain

The court case relied heavily on the new forensic science techniques available – and it did not take long for the jury to find him guilty….just 27 minutes of deliberation…. Crippen was sentenced to death…. He showed no remorse and little emotion throughout the trial – his main concern seeming to be the protection of Le Neve’s reputation….

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Sketches from the trial of Dr. Crippen. ‘The Sketch’ magazine. Public domain

Crippen was hanged by John Ellis, assisted by William Willis, at 9am on the 23rd of November 1910 – in Pentonville Prison, London…. He was buried, at his request, with a photograph of Ethel Le Neve in his coffin….

Le Neve was charged with being an accessory – but acquitted…. On the morning of Crippen’s execution she emigrated to America….

In recent years there have been doubts raised as to whether Crippen really was guilty of the murder of his wife…. Controversial new evidence implies the remains in the cellar were not those of Cora….

On this day in history….28th January 1829

On this day in history : 28th January 1829 – William Burke is publicly hanged in Edinburgh…. Burke and his accomplice William Hare had sold the corpses of their 16 victims to Dr Robert Knox for dissection….

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Hare and Burke

Edinburgh was a leading centre for anatomical study and Dr Robert Knox was one of several pioneering anatomy teachers of the time…. The law in Scotland stated that only bodies of executed criminals could be used for dissection…. the Judgement of Death Act 1823 meant there were fewer crimes punishable by death – and at a time when medical science was on the rise there became a shortage of cadavers…. This in turn led to an epidemic of ‘body snatching’….

Disturbing a grave was deemed a criminal offence – as was stealing property from a deceased person. However, actually stealing a body was not illegal – as it did not legally belong to anyone…. The price of a corpse depended on the time of year….during the warmer summer months bodies were quicker to decompose…. A corpse could fetch up to £10 in the winter, as it could be stored for a longer period and be used for more dissections….

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Body snatching became so rife that measures had to be taken in graveyards for its prevention; watchtowers were built, guards hired – and sometimes families would rent huge slabs of stone to place over a new grave – just long enough for a body to decompose sufficiently enough to be of no use….

Burke and Hare both originated from the Province of Ulster, in the north of Ireland – and had moved to Scotland to work on the Union Canal. Burke had deserted a wife and two children in Ireland and was living in lodgings in Tanner’s Close, in the West Port area of Edinburgh, with his mistress Helen McDougal…. Also living in the same street was Hare, with his common-law wife Margaret Laird – with whom he ran a boarding house…. The two men became firm friends….

Burke and Hare were to embark on a killing spree that lasted for a period of about 10 months. It all started on the 29th of November 1827; a tenant of Hare’s, named Donald, died of natural causes…. He owed back rent of £4 to Hare, who complained of this to Burke….and the pair cooked up a plan…. Donald’s burial was to be arranged and paid for by the Parish; a carpenter was employed and a coffin made…. Once the carpenter had left Burke and Hare removed the body and hid it and refilled the coffin with bark from the local tanners…. Once the coffin had been collected for burial Burke and Hare took the body to Edinburgh University to find a buyer – and were directed to Dr Robert Knox….

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Dr. Robert Knox – Public domain

Burke and Hare received £7 10S for Donald’s body, which was a considerable amount of money to them…. A couple of months later another opportunity arose, when another of Hare’s tenants, a miller named Old Joseph, fell ill…. He was delirious with fever and Hare worried that other lodgers would be put off from staying there…. Rather than wait for natural causes to happen Burke and Hare decided to help him on his way….after being plied with whisky Joseph was suffocated and his body sold to Knox….

Having run out of conveniently sick tenants Burke and Hare began to entice victims back to the lodging house – preying on those least likely to be missed in society. They murdered at least 16, possibly even more….and it is highly likely that their partners McDougal and Laird were in on it….

Their downfall came with the murder of their last victim, Marjory Docherty…. Burke and Hare had argued; Burke suspected Hare and Laird had been doing deals with Knox, cutting himself and McDougal out…. So Burke and McDougal started taking in lodgers themselves….

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Image: Wellcome Collection CC BY

Marjory Campbell Docherty was invited to stay at Burke’s and the couple lodging there already, a James and Ann Gray, were told she was a distant relative – and they were asked to stay at Hare’s lodging house for the duration of her visit…. It was when the Grays returned to Burke’s to retrieve some belongings that suspicions were aroused…. They were told that Marjory had been asked to leave as she had made amorous advances on Burke – but they thought it strange when they were denied access to the room where their possessions were…. Seizing an opportunity when they found themselves alone in the house the couple gained access to the room and discovered Marjory’s body concealed beneath the bed…. They went to the police – but Burke must have got wind – because when the police arrived to search the body had gone….Burke had already delivered it to Knox….

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William Burke murdering Margery Campbell – Robert Seymour (1798-1836) Public domain

Burke, McDougal, Hare and Laird were all arrested….and all blamed each other when questioned…. The investigation quickly led to Knox and James Gray identified the body of Marjory Docherty there…. However, the police had no real evidence of murder to bring charges…. It was at this point that an offer was made to Hare, granting him immunity from prosecution if he admitted guilt and acted as a witness for the State against Burke…. Hare confessed to all 16 deaths and gave details of Marjory Docherty’s murder….Burke and McDougal were arrested and charged with a total of three murders….

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William Hare and Margaret Laird

The trial began on Christmas Eve 1828 at 10am and was heard by Lord Justice-Clerk David Boyle. The court was full and a large crowd gathered outside….the hearing lasted all day, through the night and well into the following day…. Burke was eventually found guilty of one murder and sentenced to death….McDougal was acquitted as there was no proof against her – this did not however prove her innocence….

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William Burke and Helen McDougal at their trial

Burke was hanged on the morning of the 28th of January; a crowd of some 25,000 came to watch….views from windows overlooking the gallows were charged at up to 20 shillings per person….

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Execution of Burke in the Lawnmarket, Edinburgh – Public domain

On February the 1st Burke was publicly dissected by Professor Munro in th anatomy theatre of Edinburgh University’s Old College. A minor riot broke out when students without tickets tried to get in to the theatre…. Burke’s skeleton was given to the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School and can still be seen there today…. His death mask and a book said to be made from his tanned skin can be seen at Surgeon’s Hall Museum….

 

Hare was released in 1829 and fled across the border to England; although there are rumours nobody really knows what became of him…. McDougal and Laird both fled Edinburgh…. The murders raised awareness of the need for bodies for medical research and prompted the Anatomy Act 1832….

On this day in history….22nd January 1962

On this day in history : 22nd January 1962 – The start of the trial of James Hanratty – also known as the A6 Murderer – who is accused of the murder of Michael Gregsten….

The trial was to become one of the longest and most controversial in British legal history….

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James Hanratty – Fair use

It was the 22nd of August 1961 ~ lovers Michael Gregsten and Valerie Storie were sat in a parked car in a quiet spot near to Slough….when a gunman climbed into the back seat and ordered Gregsten to drive…. At around 1.30am he told Gregsten to pull in to a lay-by….

Saying he needed to sleep the gunman told the pair that he would have to tie them up…. Using Gregsten’s necktie he secured Valerie Storie’s hands behind her back…. Gregsten was then shot twice in the head. Valerie Storie was raped and shot five times in the shoulder and neck….leaving her paralysed. She was then left for dead, lying in the road next to Gregsten while the murderer made off in their car…. The car, a grey Morris Minor, was found abandoned in Ilford, Essex the following evening….

Gregsten and Storie were discovered at 6.45am on the morning of August 23rd by farm labourer Sydney Burton and John Kerr, an Oxford undergraduate, who was conducting a traffic census…. The police and an ambulance were called to the lay-by on the A6, at Deadman’s Hill, near to Luton, Bedfordshire…. A search of the area by police using sniffer dogs revealed two .38 cartridges….

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Deadman’s Hill on the A6 – close to the lay-by and the murder scene….

During the following investigation a hotel room in Maida Vale was searched – that had been occupied the night prior to the murder by a Mr J. Ryan (who later turned out to be James Hanratty) and .38 cartridge cases were found. The murder weapon, a .38 revolver, had been found under a seat on a 36A London bus…. However, the hotel room had also been previously occupied by a Peter Louis Alphon – and he was publicly named as a murder suspect…. Alphon turned himself in to the police – but four days later was released as Valerie Storie failed to pick him out in an identity parade….

Hanratty was known to the police – he was a petty thief and car thief and was already facing a jail sentence for robbery…. On the 11th of October he was arrested in Blackpool on suspicion of Gregsten’s murder – and this time Valerie Storie identified him as the murderer….

At the trial the prosecution focused mainly on identification as there was no forensic evidence to connect Hanratty with the murder scene or the car…. Valerie Storie had said that the murderer had driven badly when leaving with the car – whereas Hanratty was an accomplished car thief…. He did not have a violent history and had never owned a gun…. He did not know either of the victims and had little motive to kill them…. He also claimed he was in Rhyl, North Wales at the time – some 200 miles away from the scene of the murder….

Despite there being no firm evidence and over nine hours of deliberation by the Jury, Hanratty was found guilty of the murder of Gregsten and the death sentence was passed…. He was hanged on the 4th of April 1962, confessing his innocence to the end, at Bedford Prison and was one of the last eight to face the hangman’s noose before the death penalty was abolished in Britain….

However, too many questions remained unanswered…. Hanratty’s family, lawyers and journalists began to dig deeper in to the case….and things just did not add up…. Then to add to the discrepancies Peter Louis Alphon confessed to the murder but later retracted his confession….

Hanratty’s family tried for over thirty years to gain a posthumous pardon and eventually in March 1999 the case was referred back to the Court of Criminal Appeal….and Hanratty’s remains were exhumed in order to obtain a DNA sample…. In March 2001 forensic experts matched two samples from the crime scene to that taken from Hanratty’s exhumed body….

On the 10th of May 2002 it was ruled by the Court that the conviction was sound – Hanratty’s guilt was established beyond doubt….

Valerie Storie survived the shooting – but spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair. She died in 2016….

Helping the poor wretches through their ordeals….

Before the death penalty was abolished in Britain the job of hangman was surprisingly quite a sought after position… Obviously a successful applicant had to meet a strict criteria; as well as having a strong sense of discretion he had to work well under pressure, be psychologically sound and have a cast-iron stomach. Whilst every effort was made to recruit the right candidates occasionally situations arose that were beyond the tolerances of even those most qualified…. One such instance was that of the execution of Edith Thompson, it affected everyone present who witnessed it – not least the hangman John Ellis – the whole episode had a profound affect on him….

John Ellis was born on the 4th of October 1874 in Balderstone, Rochdale in Lancashire. As a young man he had several casual jobs, labouring around the Manchester area, working in mills and even trying his father’s trade of barber and hairdresser…. Later, after getting married he was to open a newsagents, which he ran with his wife and children…. But it was whilst working in a textile factory, when during a break he and some colleagues were discussing a recent hanging case, he announced “that’s the kind of job I’d like”…. His work mates laughed and pooh-poohed the idea. Ellis on a previous occasion had been heard to say “I couldn’t kill a chicken, and once when I tried to drown a kitten I was so upset for the rest of the day that my mother said I was never to be given a similar job again”….

It was at the age of 22 that Ellis applied to the Home Office to become an executioner – he passed the initial background checks and attended training at Newgate Prison. His wife was shocked – she asked “why on Earth do you want to be an executioner?” – his mother was equally outraged….

Ellis had a 23 year career as an executioner, from 1901 until 1924. The first hanging he attended was in the role of assistant to William Billington in December 1901; from 1907 he then served as chief executioner and was involved in 203 executions. He was committed to ending the condemned person’s life with humanity and with as little fuss and pain as possible – but at the same time he was a strong believer in capital punishment and would often attend trials in the capacity of observer….

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John Ellis – Source: own work author Loubreezer via Wikimedia

Ellis performed many high-profile executions in his time, including several members of the IRA in the 1920s. He hanged George Smith on the 13th of August 1915 at Maidstone Prison. Better known as the ‘Brides in the Bath’ case, Smith married then drowned Alice Burnham, Beatrice Constance, Annie Mindy and Margaret Elizabeth Lofty in succession, for financial gain on account of their wills and insurance policies…. Ellis also hanged at Pentonville Prison on the 23rd of November 1910 the infamous Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen. Dubbed the ‘Crime of the Century’ Crippen was caught by the use of the new wireless telegraph system, whilst he was making his escape to Quebec, Canada aboard S.S.Montrose – with his new lover Ethel Le Neve, after he had murdered his wife, Cora Crippen….

For all his conscientiousness there were times when Ellis’s colleagues claimed to have found him difficult to work with. One altercation he had led to a very prominent executioner of the time, Henry Pierrepoint, being struck off the Home Office list of executioners. Pierrepoint had arrived at Chelmsford Prison to perform a hanging on the 13th of July 1910 slightly worse for wear and picked an argument with his acting assistant, John Ellis. Things escalated and others present had to intervene to prevent Pierrepoint from beating Ellis up. As a consequence the Home Secretary of the time, Winston Churchill, had Pierrepoint removed from the list. Pierrepoint’s brother, Thomas, also an executioner (and father of Albert – Britain’s longest ever serving executioner) stated that it was impossible to work with Ellis….

John Ellis may have been cool and collected within his role as executioner but once in a while a case would come along that would ‘rattle’ him…. One such was that of 18-year-old Henry Jacobs, who was convicted for the murder of Lady Alice White in a robbery in 1922. Ellis had watched young Jacobs playing cricket with warders in the prison…. Another case that ‘got’ to him was the execution of Edith Thompson….

Born Edith Jessie Graydon on the 25th of December 1893 in Dalston, London, Edith was the eldest of five children. Her father, William Eustace Graydon was a clerk with the Imperial Tobacco Company and his wife, Ethel Jesse Liles, the daughter of a police constable. Edith had a happy childhood, she showed a talent for acting and dancing and excelled at arithmetic in school. She left education in 1909 and joined a firm of clothing manufacturers. In 1911 she started working for Carlton and Prior, a milliners then based in the Barbican – and she did very well for herself. She was promoted to become chief buyer for the company and regularly made trips to Paris….

It was in 1909, when she was just 15-years-old, that Edith met Percy Thompson, who was three years older than her. After a six-year engagement they married in 1916 at St. Barnabas in Manor Park. At first the couple lived in Westcliff, Southend-on-Sea, Essex but then bought 41, Kensington Crescent, a fashionable address in Ilford – they were doing OK….

Edith’s brother had a school friend, Frederick Edward Francis Bywaters, he was nine years Edith’s junior. Upon leaving school Freddy joined the merchant navy and was soon full of tales of his exotic travels – Edith found him exciting – he wasn’t a bit like her boring 29-year-old husband….

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Left to right: Freddy Bywaters, Edith Thompson, Percy Thompson Courtesy of Associated Newspapers Public Domain

Freddy was to accompany the Thompsons and other members of Edith’s family on a holiday to the Isle of Wight. Percy took a shine to him and invited him to lodge with them at their Ilford home; it did not take long for Edith and Freddy to become lovers…. Percy discovered their affair and naturally was angry…. Freddy demanded that Percy divorce his wife – Percy’s response was to throw Freddy out and then give his wife a thorough beating – actually throwing her across the room….

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In the garden at 41, Kensington Crescent, Ilford  Author: Uclerew via Wikimedia

Freddy returned to sea and was away for a year, from September 1921 to September 1922. He and Edith exchanged frequent letters and upon his return they met….

It was on the 3rd of October 1922 that the Thompsons attended a performance at the Criterion Theatre, Piccadilly Circus, London. Afterwards they returned to Ilford by train and then as they were walking home from the station they were attacked by a man. Edith was knocked to the ground and in the struggle that followed Percy was fatally stabbed….and the attacker fled….

When the police arrived Edith was hysterical. She told them she knew who had done it and named Frederick Bywaters; she told them of her history with him – believing herself a witness and that she was doing the right thing…. Freddy was arrested; from the onset he co-operated well with the police, even leading them to where he had hidden the murder weapon. They also found amongst his possessions the letters Edith had written to him….she was duly arrested as an accomplice. Freddy insisted that Edith was not involved and continued to do so throughout the duration of the trial that was to follow….

The trial began on the 6th of December 1922 at the Old Bailey before Mr. Justice Shearman; Freddy continued to co-operate…. “I waited for Mrs Thompson and her husband. I pushed her to one side, also pushing him into the street. We struggled. I took my knife from my pocket and we fought and he got the worst of it”…. When questioned as to why he had done it…. “The reason I fought with Mr Thompson was because he never acted like a man to his wife. He always seemed several degrees lower than a snake. I loved her and I could not go on to see her leading that life. I did not intend to kill him. I only meant to injure him. I gave him the opportunity of standing up to me like a man but he wouldn’t”….

The letters were used as evidence at the trial as to Edith’s involvement. Edith had written over 60 intimate letters to Freddy, in them she used endearing terms, such as ‘darlingest’ and ‘darlint’. She referred to times she had tried to murder her husband by attempting to poison him and adding ground glass to his food. She had also sent press cuttings about murders committed through poisoning. Freddy told the Court he did not believe that Edith had really tried to kill her husband – he thought she was fantasising…. Another admission Edith made in her letters was that she had performed an abortion upon herself….

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Edith and Freddy Public Domain

On summing up Mr. Justice Shearman described the letters as “full of outpourings of a silly but at the same time, a wicked affection”…. Obviously being a man of high Victorian morals he emphasised the adultery. In concluding he instructed the Jury…. “You will not convict her unless you are satisfied that she and he agreed that this man should be murdered when he could be, and that she knew that he was going to do it, and directed him to do it, and by arrangement between them he was doing it”…. The law of the time stated that if two people wished the death of another person and one carried out the deed, they were both guilty….

The Jury retired to consider….two hours later they returned a guilty verdict on both of them. Even after the verdict had been read out Freddy noisily defended Edith; the death sentence was passed….

Edith was returned to Holloway Prison and Freddy to Pentonville; both lodged appeals – both were refused. Although Edith was an adulteress, had undergone an abortion and had supposedly attempted to poison her husband, the public and press (who had up until now been totally against her) changed their opinion. A campaign for a reprieve was launched and a petition with a vast amount of signatures was presented to the Government – but still the Home Secretary refused to reprieve her…. All the while Freddy continued to protest that he alone had killed Thompson….

At 9am on the 9th of January 1923 Edith and Frederick were hanged in their respective prisons. Freddy faced his execution with bravery; his hangman was William Willis – until his last moments he still proclaimed Edith’s innocence. Meanwhile, Edith was a hysterical mess — she had lost all control of herself – she screamed and sobbed….

Edith had been convinced that she would get a reprieve – as had most of those around her. On the morning of her execution she had to be heavily sedated; when John Ellis arrived to pinion her arms she was only semi-conscious. He too had thought that she would be granted a reprieve….

Edith had to be carried to the gallows by four warders, she then had to be supported on the trapdoor whilst Ellis made his final preparations. The procedure of the execution was carried out…. The after report stated that the cause of death was fracture/dislocation of the neck and mentions some bruising. In this respect there was nothing untoward with regards to the execution procedure itself – but it was what else that happened that had such an adverse affect on all of those present….

The method of hanging used was the ‘long drop’ – as her body fell it was if though her innards came away from within her…. Blood poured down her legs…. Depending on which account of the events you read there are various reasons suggested as to why this happened. Some say she was pregnant – she had in fact gained weight whilst in prison, despite having hardly eaten…. Others think it is possible she suffered an inversion of the uterus – she had admitted to having an abortion, perhaps damage had occurred then…. If she had been pregnant she would undoubtedly have known as she would have been at least 3 months gone by then and used the pregnancy to her advantage in getting a stay of execution – and increase the likelihood of a reprieve…. Later research, carried out on condemned women in Germany just before WW2 showed that the stress these women were under often stopped them from menstruating and then the shock of the actual hanging could bring on an excessively heavy bleed. Maybe this is what happened to Edith…. Whatever the reason it is why all future condemned women in British prisons were required to wear heavily padded underwear at the time of their execution to prevent another similar occurrence….

Edith was buried in the precincts of the prison but in 1970 when Holloway was rebuilt her remains were moved to Brookwood Cemetery, in Surrey….

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Grave of Edith Thompson Public Domain Source: own work by original uploader Jack1956 via Wikimedia

Several of the prison officers who were present at that fateful hanging took early retirement. Ellis himself resigned from the post of hangman the following year, blaming ill-health – some believe it was because of Edith Thompson’s execution. However, despite this he carried out a further eleven executions before finally tending his resignation in March 1924. The last execution he carried out was that of John Eastwood at Armley Prison, Leeds on the 28th of December 1923, for the murder of his wife….

Ellis started to drink heavily and became depressed; later in 1924 he attempted to take his own life for the first time by shooting himself in the jaw. As suicide was a crime at the time he was convicted for 12 months and the Judge asked for and received an undertaking that he would never attempt such a thing again….

John Ellis went on to write his memoirs – “Diary of a Hangman”….and even attempted at an acting career, playing the part of William Marwood (the executioner) in a play entitled “The Life and Adventures of Charles Peace” which featured a mock hanging. The play was ill-received being regarded as being in bad taste and closed after just a few days…. Ellis had put his own money into the production and so took his ‘gallows’ out on the road – putting on performances at venues such a seaside resorts and charging sixpence a view…. This particular public may have loved it – but the Government did less so as it made a mockery of the justice system…. Ellis claimed there was “no pension for the hangman” and he had to earn a living….

Ellis continued to have financial problems, still suffered from depression and all the while carried on drinking. It was on the 20th of September 1932 after one particularly heavy bout of drinking that he threatened to behead his wife and daughter with a razor…. He proceeded to turn the razor on himself, slashed his own throat, almost decapitating himself….

During his role as executioner Ellis felt it was his duty to ‘help’ the poor wretches through their ordeals…. It seems there was nobody there to help him through his own wretched ordeal. After he had given 23 years of service nobody from the Home Office even attended his funeral….

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You may also enjoy Martha Brown….the woman who inspired Thomas Hardy….