My interest in true crime dates from the time when, as a child, I listened to Edgar Lustgarten’s half hour programmes on Radio 4, when , in a rich, fruity voice he recounted famous murders of the past. So it was that I first heard about Armstrong the Hay poisoner, about the Brighton trunk murders of 1934, the Stratton brothers who, in 1905, became the first defendants convicted of murder on the basis of fingerprint evidence, and many other notorious cases.
Lustgarten seemed to revel in the often gory detail and he left no doubt that he considered the gallows a just destination for those who killed. He also believed that there had been few true miscarriages of justice and had a faith in the criminal justice system that few would have today. He even disputed the innocence of Timothy Evans.
There was really only one hanging that disturbed him and, when I first heard his account of the Ilford murder of 1922, I detected a tremor of emotion in his voice. For Lustgarten believed passionately in the innocence of Edith Thompson.
The facts of the case are well enough known. Thompson, who was 28 at the time of the killing, lived in Ilford with her slightly older husband Percy. Their life was one of middle class respectability and quiet prosperity. Edith was a career woman and had worked her way up to be head buyer for a firm of milliners. The marriage, however, was not happy and she embarked on an affair with a younger man called Freddy Bywaters. This proved her downfall. The jealous Bywaters, frustrated that Edith would not leave her husband, (something she could only do at huge personal cost) ran up behind the couple one evening as they walked home from the theatre and stabbed Percy Thompson to death.
There was no evidence that Edith knew that Bywaters had planned to do this, still less that she had incited him. Nonetheless she found herself on trial for murder. Bywaters had foolishly kept all her letters, in which she fantasised about killing or harming Percy, about putting ground glass in his dinner for example. These were pure fantasy but deadly in the hands of a prosecution seeking to plant a picture of Edith Thompson as an evil and manipulative woman. What was not fantasy was the fact that Edith had committed adultery and had had an illegal abortion. For the social conventions of the time this put her pretty much beyond the pale and led her to the gallows at Holloway.
The case inspired the novel A Pin To See The Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse that I have just finished reading. Her heroine is called Julia Starling, nee Almond, and the setting moved across London to Chiswick. Two thirds of the book is a portrait of London life from the period just before the First World War up to the early 1920s. Julia is a complex and contradictory character, attractive yet flawed. The narrative cleverly builds up the tension between the dreams fostered by her daily contact with the wealthy aristocratic women she mixes with at the shop where she works, women whose money allows them moral leeway, and the drab lower middle class existence she has to return to each evening. Like Edith Thompson, she embarks on a an affair with dire consequences.
The last third of the book is essentially a fictionalised retelling of the actual trial of Thompson and Bywaters. It is compelling but grim, the story of a woman caught up in the machinery of a system that she does not understand and which she is powerless to stop.
Jesse’s novel was also dramatised but a performing licence was refused by the Lord Chamberlain. It was, even by 1934, too sensitive a matter for the authorities. Eventually in 1973 it was serialised for television by Elaine Morgan, with Francesca Annis playing the lead role.
The case continues to fascinate, principally because of Edith Thompson. Everyone who studies the case finds her an attractive personality. She is in many ways strikingly modern, a career woman with a good salary and financial independence (something which was held against her), a woman who enjoyed sex, and gave eloquent expression in her writing to her erotic imagination. She was a woman trapped in her time and, importantly, her class. For, even in 1922, her life would have been different had she been born into the aristocracy and not the suburban lower middle class. She was a victim of class prejudice as well as misogyny. At the time commentators sneeringly described her as a kind of low rent Madame Bovary. Killing Edith Thompson was not enough it seems. Her reputation had to be trashed as well.
This all happened nearly a century ago but the case still has resonance. Women are still harshly treated by the criminal justice system, more likely to be imprisoned than mean for similar offences, this despite the fact that women are more likely to have childcare responsibilities. It is, at times, as if women defendants are judged not just for their crimes, but for falling short of some ill-defined ideal of what a woman should be.
We have, I suppose, moved on from the times when a 28 year old woman could be killed by the state for liking sex but not wanting to have a baby, but we haven’t moved far enough.