A tale of two murders Guilt, innocence, and the execution of Edith Thompson

Laura Thompson, 1964-

Book - 2018

A Tale of Two Murders is an engrossing examination of the Ilford murder, which became a legal cause ceþlèbre in the 1920s, and led to the hanging of Edith Thompson and her lover, Freddy Bywaters. On the night of October 3, 1922, as Edith and her husband, Percy, were walking home from the theatre, a man sprang out of the darkness and stabbed Percy to death. The assailant was none other than Bywaters. When the police discovered his relationship with Edith, she--who had denied knowledge of the attack--was arrested as his accomplice. Her passionate love letters to Bywaters, read out at the ensuing trial, sealed her fate, even though Bywaters insisted Edith had no part in planning the murder. They were both hanged. Freddy was demonstrably gui...lty; but was Edith truly so? In shattering detail and with masterful emotional insight, Laura Thompson charts the course of a liaison with thrice-fatal consequences, and investigates what a troubling case tells us about perceptions of women, innocence, and guilt.

Saved in:

2nd Floor Show me where

1 / 1 copies available
Location Call Number   Status
2nd Floor 364.1523/Thompson Checked In
New York : Pegasus Books 2018.
Main Author
Laura Thompson, 1964- (author)
First Pegasus Books hardcover edition
Physical Description
440 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, portraits ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 431-432) and index.
Contents unavailable.
Review by New York Times Review

PUT A PILE OF ANYTHING IN front of me - shoes, seashells, books - and I'll robotically start organizing them into categories. It soothes my mind to separate, say, con artists from gangsters, and it makes a jumble of true-crime books on a variety of topics easier to tackle. But since the ones right in front of me are about serial killers, let's start with those. Peter Vronsky's SONS OF CAIN: A History of Serial Killers From the Stone Age to the Present (Berkley, paper, $17) creeps off to a start with a chapter on "The Stone Age Reptilian Zombie Serial-Killer Triune Brain," slithers through "The Dawn of the Less-Dead: Serial Killers and Modernity" and slinks to an end with a section called "The New Age of Monsters: The Rise of the Modern Serial Killer." Vronsky's purplish prose is at its lip-smacking best in "The Rippers Before Jack: The Rise of Modern Serial Killers in Europe, 18001887." Splashed across his broad canvas are fabled butchers like Andreas Bichel, known as "the girl slaughterer" of Germany; Vincenzo Verzeni, "the vampire of Bergamo"; and Louis-Joseph Philippe, "the terror of Paris," whose grisly handiwork anticipated that of London's famed slasher by more than 20 years. Vronsky has an alarming theory about the "enormous glut" of American serial murderers who came of age during World War II and the postwar baby boom. He observes that the offenders who made their first kill during the peak years of "the golden age" of serial killers, between 1950 and 2000, "all lived in the wake of a receding shock wave of humanity's biggest, most viciously primitive and most lethal war." In lurid prose, he points out that some of these golden-agers were the offspring of the 16.5 million Americans mobilized during World War II. Although these veterans were conditioned to kill in combat, Vronsky could find no record that any of them returned as multiple murderers, but some of them fathered the serial killers of the next two generations. Those serial killers, in turn, have inspired the obsessive interest of crime writers. To research the kill jar: Obsession, Descent, and a Hunt for Detroit's Most Notorious Serial Killer (Gallery, $24.99), the screenwriter and private investigator J. Reuben Appelman spent what seems like a lifetime (10 years, actually) digging into the unsolved case of the Oakland County Child Killer, also known as "The Babysitter" for the care he took in tending and dressing the corpses of his victims. Over more than a year, in the late 1970s, this meticulous monster kidnapped four children, two boys and two girls between the ages of 10 and 12, and held them captive before killing them and dumping their bodies in plain view. Appelman grew up under the heavy hand of an abusive father and when he was 7 years old a man with "greasy brown" hair, "like motor oil," tried to snatch him off the street and into his car. Throughout the book, Appelman conflates scenes like this, from his own childhood dramas, with those from the lives of the murdered children. He especially identifies with 11-year-old Timothy King, "whom I've come to see as my boyhood self somehow." While these abundant self-references diminish the impact of the victims' ordeals, that personal factor appears to have motivated Appelman to undertake his project. So I guess the self-dramatizing was worth it. Jeffrey L. Rinek, who retired after 30 years with the F.B.I., has a different perspective on victimized children. The voice that narrates in the name of the children: An F.B.I. Agent's Relentless Pursuit of the Nation's Worst Predators (BenBella Books, paper, $16.95), which Rinek wrote with the journalist Marilee Strong, sounds warm and humane, qualities missing from much crime writing. Their book is a professional job, filled with illuminating details about the day-to-day operations of the bureau. Particularly interesting are the regular interviews agents are granted with sex offenders who are about to be paroled by the California Department of Corrections. "Only in this unique setting could we ask them about how they found their victims," Rinek explains, "how they groomed kids, how they outfitted their homes to make them places that would attract children." They had to answer every question or their parole would be denied. Rinek's voice softens when he speaks of victims like 8year-old Michael Lyons, "savagely tortured, mutilated and thrown away like trash," whose grave the agent visited for many years, and 6-year-old Danny Hohenstein, who had a miserable childhood and whose disappearance was one of Rinek's first cold cases. During the five years that Danny was missing, Rinek and his partner often visited the boy's mother and sister; when Danny's remains were finally found and laid to rest, the partners found one of the child's few surviving photographs, taken when a dentist had repaired his rotting teeth, and had it framed for his family. Not everyone is as kind and caring as Jeffrey Rinek, but true-crime writers do tend to identify to some degree with their subjects. In A TALE OF TWO MURDERS: Guilt, Innocence, and the Execution of Edith Thompson (Pegasus Crime, $28.95), Laura Thompson earnestly champions the lost cause of Edith Thompson (no, she's no relation), a woman caught in an awkward moment of history. If the year had been 1923, Edith might have simply divorced her inconvenient husband, Percy, and married her handsome young lover, Frederick By waters. But it was 1922, a year before the passage of the Matrimonial Causes Act that would make divorce a less onerous procedure - so murder seemed the swiftest option. A well-read woman, Edith wrote her lover many passionate letters, which were used against her at trial and which the author wisely quotes at length. (Freddy's epistolary style was banal, if not boring.) As their love affair intensified ("What erotic power this woman had!" Thompson marvels), Percy became even more of an encumbrance, and Edith's clumsy attempt to poison him only raised his suspicions. In the end, Freddy did the deed - with a knife. Edith was with Percy when he expired on a dark street in suburban London, and as the police escorted her back home, she said, presciently, "They will blame me for this." Indeed they did, and so did the public, in whose eyes she became "the very emblem of decadence," as much for her sin of adultery as for her complicity in the crime of murder. Had Edith Thompson had access to the royal art of poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul (St. Martin's, $27.99), by Eleanor Herman, she might have had more success in disposing of her husband. Herman takes a scholarly approach to her subject, but her tone is morbidly witty. (In an appendix called "The Poison Hall of Fame," she identifies arsenic as "the biggest stomach blaster" and says long-term mercury exposure results in the "most disgusting symptoms," including stinking black saliva and oozing sores.) To heighten the entertainment value of her study, Herman keeps the focus on the follies of the upper classes, who seemed to make a hobby out of poisoning their peers and whose creative personal application of "lead face paint, mercury enemas and arsenic skin lotions" constituted suicide by vanity. Among the chapters packed with information on the appalling health habits of past generations, my favorite is "Putrid Palaces," which contains this priceless 1660 entry about a cesspool, from Samuel Pepys's diary: "When go- ing down my cellar," he wrote, "I stepped into a great heap of turds by which I found that Mr. Turner's house of office is full and comes into my cellar, which do trouble me." Herman performs a public service with a chapter on "Modern Medicis: The Rebirth of Political Poison," in which she examines some notorious examples of political murder. With the exception of the deaths of the former Palestinian president Yasir Arafat and the brother of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, her examples are all drawn from Russia. And aside from some eyebrowraising theories about the "natural" deaths of Lenin and Stalin, she names names and identifies possible poisons. Her impressive list of examples ranges from Anatoly Sobchak, a politician who gravely insulted President Vladimir Putin and expired from breathing the vaporized fumes emitted by his poisonsoaked bedside lamp, to Alexander Litvinenko, another outspoken Putin critic, who succumbed to "a staggering amount of polonium-210" that left his body so radioactive the autopsy was performed by doctors wearing hazmat suits. "Russian assassins have developed toxic materials truly worthy of a nuclear superpower, cooking up new radioactive poisons that cause massive organ failure," Herman writes, with something like awe. "Some of these poisons elude even the most advanced tests to identify them." In the spirited words of Donald J. Trump, defending Putin from Bill O'Reilly's charge of being a murderer: "You think our country is so innocent?" No, not innocent. Just less Machiavellian - and funnier. For a sample of American style, see Paul Collins's lively exposé, BLOOD & IVY: The 1849 Murder That Scandalized Harvard (Norton, $26.95). People disappeared rather frequently in 19th-century Boston, and if their bodies never turned up, well, they were probably not worth finding anyway. But when a wealthy landowner, Dr. George Parkman, went missing, there was the devil to pay. And after his truncated body was found in the lower laboratory of the Massachusetts Medical College - teeth in the furnace, torso and a few body parts packed in a chest - society swooned in horror. Because of the disposition of the corpse and the long history of the college's "dark trade in cadavers," suspicions of body snatching were raised - gingerly, since passions were running high and the citizens of Boston had a history of indicating displeasure in strong terms. ("Rioting was an honored local pastime," Collins reminds us.) It was commonly known that, although the graveyards of Boston and Cambridge were filled to capacity, obtaining fresh cadavers for the dissecting theater was a challenge. Yet "Harvard's medical men certainly couldn't be seen coveting the skulls of the still living, or outright stealing the bodies of the newly dead." The case turned out to be a garden-variety murder of one man by another. John White Webster, M.D., was duly arrested, tried and found guilty of homicide. The most interesting thing about this case, aside from the application of expert forensics, was the defendant's defense: "A fellow like him simply couldn't have done it. He was, after all, a Harvard man." Well, he did, and he was hanged for it. But in point of fact, Webster was only the second and, as it turned out, the last Harvard alumnus to be executed in America. (The other was condemned as a witch in 1692.) Finally, for the edification of readers who might feel "soiled," as the Victorians would say, for dipping a toe into the sordid precincts of true crime, let it be known that when Charles Dickens was in Boston in 1868, swanning around with the local literati, he insisted that Oliver Wendell Holmes take him to the scene of the Parkman murder. MARILYN STASIO writes the Crime column for the Book Review.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [August 14, 2019]
Review by Booklist Review

London, October 1922. Edith Thompson and her husband, Percy, were on the way home from the theater. A man, Freddy Bywaters, came out of the shadows and murdered Edith's husband. It turned out that Bywaters was Edith's lover; they were both charged with Percy's murder, and they were both convicted and executed. In this intense and precise account of the case and its aftermath, the author explores the possibility that Edith was unfairly convicted; Freddy claimed several times that Edith wasn't involved, and it is quite possible he was telling the truth, not merely lying to save the life of the woman he loved. Thompson puts the case in vivid historical context: the early years of the twentieth century were tumultuous in many ways, and the empowerment of women, both politically and sexually, led to widespread changes to the traditional social structure. Was Edith Thompson, an intelligent and ambitious woman, truly guilty of orchestrating her husband's murder? Or did she fall victim to a society and a legal system that refused to accept that a woman who commits adultery might be innocent of murder? A terrific book: compassionate, nuanced, and thought-provoking.--David Pitt Copyright 2018 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Thompson (Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life) provides the definitive look at a British cause celebre in this riveting and multifaceted study of 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, Francis Bywaters, on October 2, 1922. Edith and Percy were walking home after attending a theatrical performance in London when Percy was fatally stabbed by a man later identified as Bywaters. Though there was no strong evidence that Edith had foreknowledge of the murder, her lies to the police about her relationship with Bywaters led her to be charged. The pair were convicted, and both were executed. Thompson leaves no doubt of Edith's innocence, no matter what she expressed in letters to her paramour that were made public at trial, and makes a convincing case that Edith's execution was tantamount to a second murder. Thompson's detailed description of prevailing attitudes about the role of women in British society gives the book a broader social relevance than most true crime books. (Nov.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Review by Library Journal Review

This is a comprehensive look at the Ilford murder, one of the most sensational crimes in 1920s England. It played out in the newspapers of its day much like a contemporary soap opera and is here brought up-to-date with tremendous good humor by the author and read with great vocal characterizations by Jilly Bond. Clearly, Freddy Bywaters murdered Percy Thompson, husband of Freddy's lover Edith, on the night of October 3, 1922, but what role did Edith play? The prosecution advanced a tenuous conspiracy theory based on interpretations of selected love letters from Edith to Freddy, which were read to the jury. Did Edith entice Freddy to murder Percy, or was she, a successful career woman, the victim of sexism, condemned for her "loose morals" in taking a lover eight years her junior? ­VERDICT This audio is highly recommended for adult crime collections. Macabre but a lot of fun.-Cliff Glaviano, formerly with Bowling Green State Univ. Libs., OH © Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

An exhaustive look into the passionate love affair that led to one of the most infamous murders in 1920s England.Moving beyond the standard courtroom drama, Somerset Maugham Award winner Thompson (Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life, 2018, etc.) painstakingly details the life and death of Edith Thompson, an Essex woman who gained notoriety in 1922 as she and her lover stood trial for the murder of her husband. The secret romance between Edith and Freddy Bywaters captivated and shocked a nation, as her love letters were introduced as evidence during their trial. For more than a year, Edith had cherished what few precious moments she could spend alone with her younger lover. The bulk of the narrative focuses on these brief trysts as described in Edith's writing, although the chronology of events becomes a bit knotted as the story reaches its tragic end. There was little doubt of Bywaters' guilt when he was accused of fatally stabbing Edith's husband, but as the intimate details of her affair became public, her role in the death of her husband was called into question. Although never intended for an audience, Edith's love letters, which "were perceived to redefine the concept of shamelessness," earned her lasting notoriety while also sealing her fate. Female sexuality, adultery, abortion: Edith wrote honestly about the issues affecting her and many other women but were deemed too taboo to discuss openly. As elaborately chronicled by the author, who displays a profound sympathy for her subject, Edith's own words were enough to condemn her in the court of public opinion well before she was sentenced to death in a court of law.This meticulously researched account of a fatal love affair carefully questions the nature of guilt and capital punishment in polite society, offering up a more profound lesson than is likely to be found in a typical true crime novel. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.