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….
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….
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….
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….
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….
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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