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BOOK REVIEW: LETTERS FROM A SUBURBAN HOUSEWIFE by MARK EDEN & BILL HILL

Posted on: November 28, 2017

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I’ve been fascinated by the Thompson & Bywaters case ever since reading F Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin To See The Peepshow about 30 years ago.  On the surface of it – as far as True Crime cases go – it wasn’t that extraordinary.  It was more a classic case of an eternal triangle that went tragically wrong.  It wasn’t particularly grisly, and there was no great Whodunnit element to the case.  But in the nearly 100 years since it happened, it has remained in the public interest, largely down to the fact that there is a general feeling that a huge miscarriage of justice occurred.   Like the case of Ruth Ellis, nearly 30 years later, it was felt that Thompson & Bywaters were hanged for their personal morals as much as the crime committed.   In France, it would likely have been dismissed as a crime passionnel. 

It was a classic case of curtain-twitching Sex In Suburbia.  Percy and Edith Thompson were a quintessential lower middle-class couple, who had a less than perfect marriage.  Edith, a hugely romantic, fanciful woman, had formed an intense relationship with Freddy Bywaters, a young man a few years her junior.  Both were frustrated by Percy’s continuing presence in their lives, and it is thought that Freddy suddenly flipped one dreadful evening in October 1922, and physically attacked Percy with a knife, whilst the married couple were walking home from the theatre.  Percy died of his injuries in the street, and Fred and Edie (as I’ve seen them called) were arrested for murder.

The main conundrum to the case was how complicit was Edith in the attack?  Did she know about it beforehand?  Did she actively encourage Freddy in his mad, headstrong impulse?  Freddy was adamant that Edith was completely innocent, and during the trial he went to great lengths to try and exonerate her from any blame.   The authors state that, by a dreadful irony, this may have actually helped to convict Edith.  The bulk of the evidence lay in the numerous letters the lovers exchanged over the previous months, hence the title of the book, (although Edith wasn’t strictly a housewife, she was in fact a businesswoman, who earned more than her husband).

Anyway, the paper-trail left by the lovers were the main factor in leading them to the gallows.  Without these incriminating missives, it is likely that Freddy may have done a short custodial term for manslaughter, and Edith would have been let off completely.   The letters were highly inflammatory, with Edith writing that she had ground up glass and put it in Percy’s food for instance.  The big question that tantalised True Crime buffs at the time and ever since was just how serious were these claims.  Was Edith genuinely trying to kill Percy in a premeditated, cold-blooded fashion (the Messalina Of The Suburbs as one novel depicted her), or was this just more toxic fantasising from a woman who, it is genuinely believed, struggled to tell fantasy from reality.  Edith was the sort of woman who habitually read romantic novels and saw herself in the lead role, and in fact one romantic novel served as evidence at the trial.

The authors present the facts of the trial in a very easy-to-digest way, and show how the presiding Judge deliberately led the jury, in one instance describing the case as “common and vulgar”, provocative words which should never have been used.   He also misquoted Edith’s defence lawyer.  Freddy comes out of the case as a likeable young man, who accepted that he had done wrong and was determined to meet his fate with dignity (which he did).  He also selflessly tried to protect Edith right to the end.   Edith … well I suppose all I can say is that she comes across as a passionate, idealistic woman who had trouble accepting reality at any time.   During her short term in prison she veered from stoic acceptance, to hysterical optimism that she would be reprieved, to complete emotional collapse.

Freddy and Edith were both executed on 9 January 1923.  The tale of Edith having to be literally carried to the execution chamber has gone down in British True Crime legend, and it still leaves you feeling emotionally pulverised after reading it*.  During her execution Edith’s “insides fell out”, which led to an Urban Legend for years afterwards that Edith had miscarried a baby on the scaffold.   This isn’t thought to be true, but from then on all condemned women had to wear a special undergarment to prevent such a thing happening again.

The executions had a long-lasting and profound effect on everyone involved with it.   Edith’s hangman, John Ellis, attempted suicide afterwards, and was to succeed on a second attempt in 1932, when he cut his own throat with a razor.   Edith’s devoted sister, Avis, who had worked tirelessly to try and secure a reprieve right to the end, converted to Catholicism, and refused to marry.  Freddy’s mother never recovered from the ordeal, and was broken-hearted until she died in the late 1930s.

Letters From A Suburban Housewife is a good, economic overview of the case, particularly if you are new to it.  I’m never very happy though about mixing fact with fiction in books, and having some scenes dramatised, although this sort of thing works fine with docu-dramas I suppose.   And at the risk of sounding pedantic, there are some typo’s.  These can become a bit intrusive, for instance “I” often appears as a capital “T”.   It has reignited my interest in this case though, and I look forward to Laura Thompson’s book, Rex v Edith Thompson, which is due out in March 2018.

I can also recommend a solid Lady Killers dramatisation of the trial, which is currently out on DVD (Lady Killers 2).  This was made in the late 70s/early 80s, and stars Gayle Hunnicutt as Edith, putting in a fine performance.  Margaret Tyzack is also superb as Freddy’s poor mother.   One day – I hope! – somebody may even release the 1970s TV adaptation of A Pin To See The Peepshow on DVD too.  I would love to see it.

*Not included in this book is an anecdote I read elsewhere.  On leaving the courtroom after being condemned to death, Edith had a brief meeting with her father in a room below.  She collapsed sobbing into his arms, and begged him to take her home.  Harrowing.

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