Between the Wars there were a number of high-profile murder trials where the accused was female.What is striking (but perhaps unsurprising) about the different cases is the fickleness and variety of press and public responses and how much that reaction was influenced by issues to do with contemporary social attitudes, particularly regarding sexual propriety, rather than the crime itself.
Elvira’s case took place within this context and I think there are some useful comparisons to be made, as well as some rather worrying insights into how public perception and the demeanour of the accused affected actual verdicts. Furthermore, the women at the centre of each “scandal” get mentioned in later accounts – writings about Elvira refer to Madame Fahmy, Edith Thompson’s name is brought up in discussions of Alma Rattenbury – and so forth. Although each set of circumstances was unique, over time a sort of composite picture was drawn of “women who kill”, with great stress on their unconventionality and (supposedly) over-active libidos. I intend to take a brief look at some of the best-remembered, and most pertinent, examples, starting with Edith Thompson.
Bywaters, Thompson and Edith Thompson
Edith Thompson was executed in 1923 for her role in the murder of Edith’s husband, Percy, stabbed to death by Frederick Bywaters, Edith’s younger lover. Edith was 30 and Frederick 21 and although she took no part in the killing she was deemed to be equally guilty, largely because of her “influence” over the younger man and because of a series of letters she had written, which were full of fanciful imaginings, sexual references and a recurrent desire to be rid of Mr.Thompson. Most incriminating was an ambiguous remark about putting ground glass in her husband’s food. Although this was pure fantasy, it proved very damaging at the trial.
Thompson and Bywaters
Some women became tragic heroines, some villainesses. Edith was constructed, initially anyway, as very much the latter. Both the media and the authorities considered her decidedly odd and a threat to the social order.Imaginative, stylish and intelligent (with a special aptitude for mathematics), she was, in many ways, a not untypical example of a new generation of young women. Like so many already mentioned in this blog, she was very fond of music and the theatre, and had once hoped to be an actress. Instead she found a good job with a London fashion house. In a later time she would have thrived. Unfortunately, her lower-middle class environment (Ilford) wasn’t ready for her – and nor, it would seem was the trial judge - or the Press.
She had kept her job (as a clothes buyer) after her marriage and had yet to produce children. In fact she had self-aborted on more than one occasion. Almost as scandalous to some, she thoroughly enjoyed the then unusual lifestyle of a professional woman – lunching with clients and making buying trips to Paris. Edith was someone who wanted and felt she merited “something more” out of life.
Her husband, who had presumably been drawn to her by the very qualities he now found irksome, was a stifling influence. Prematurely middle-aged, a bore and something of a bully, he was not exactly a “soul mate”. When she re-met the adventurous and impulsive Bywaters, a Merchant Seaman who had gone to sea at the first opportunity, the resultant affair was highly predictable. The young man she had known as a boy was to provide an excitement her husband could not offer.
Freddie, Edith and Percy
In the dock, Edith unwisely attempted to justify her actions, but succeeded only in appearing “arrogant and flirtatious” . Worryingly, she also showed a distinct lack of ability to distinguish fact from fiction. She would have done better not to take the stand at all (her Defence tried to persuade her not to do so) or to have adopted the requisite distraught and overwhelmed aspect that Elvira managed so successfully.
The judge seemed more horrified by adultery than murder and his remarks to the jury showed a bias that was both outrageous and unprofessional. After the inevitable guilty verdict a million plus people signed a petition calling for a halt to the execution but, incredibly, that was on Bywaters’ behalf not Edith’s. She was viewed as the instigator and prime mover in the murder.
As is well known, her death was uncommonly messy and obscene and was still being cited in the debates about capital punishment in the 1950s and 1960s. Partly because of her traumatic end, Edith has, over the year,s been transformed from villain to victim and latterly, in certain quarters, into a proto-feminist icon.
The Thompson-Bywaters case has provided the basis for a number of books. F.Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to See the Peepshow (1934) is the best known (semi-) fictional account. Fryniwyd Tennyson Jesse , the first female editor of the classic Notable British Trials series, was shocked and deeply disturbed by the treatment of Thompson. Peepshow captures the claustrophobic suburban world perfectly and paints a sympathetic portrait of Julia (Edith). It is, I feel, one of the great 1930s novels.The play based on the novel was banned for some years but was eventually produced on the stage by none other than Peter Cotes, whose interest in Elvira was to some extent triggered by his exploration of this earlier murder.
The trial and its aftermath coincided with the boom in Golden Age Detective fiction and some of the writers most associated with that endeavour drew directly from the source. Dorothy Sayers’ (The Documents in the Case 1930) and Francis Iles’ (As For The Woman 1939) are both thinly-disguised meditations on the affair. Indirectly – thanks to the suburban setting with much dark passion buried behind a respectable facade – it undoubtedly acted as inspiration for many other tales. Even in this century,P.D.James’ The Murder Room (2004) could make profitable use of the tragedy.
Away from the crime genres, in recent years there has been the thoughtful film Another Life (2001) and Jill Dawson’s much-praised Fred and Edie. Non-fictional works have also been plentiful, with Rene Weis’ Criminal Justice being as good as any.
Another Life 2001
Academic interest has lately focussed on Edith’s letters which, it is argued, display a distinct textual modernism. This is not quite as silly as it sounds and, anyway, is one in the eye for T.S.Eliot, who was one of the more strident voices calling for Edith to be hanged. All commentators at least agree on Edith’s own “Modernity” as opposed to the “Tradition” which surrounded her and the case, now viewed as a barbaric miscarriage of justice, remains culturally significant.
Her name crops up repeatedly in general histories of the inter-War years, often in the context of changing attitudes about (and towards) women. I think it is most telling that another figure of some notoriety,club-owner Kate Meyrick. devotes part of her account of her own time in Holloway documenting prisoners’ reminiscences of Edith. This is not to suggest that Edith had already(1932) become a heroic figure but her symbolic value as a marker of generational change and the status of women had been partially recognised.
The official voice of male authority and pre-war morality is best summed up in Filson Young’s closing remarks to the Notable Trials edition on Thompson and Bywaters. This appeared within weeks of the verdict (Young specialised in this, his much read book on the Titanic was published less than a month after it sank) and the contrast with the opinions of Tennyson Jesse, who as stated earlier also wrote for the series, could not be greater.
In an otherwise thoughtful essay on the conflict between emotional desires and social conformity, Young rather closes down the debate by concluding,
“Mr. Justice Shearman frequently referred to Bywaters as “the adulterer,” apparently quite unconscious of the fact that, to people of Bywaters’ generation, educated in the ethics of dear labour and cheap pleasure, of commercial sport and the dancing hall, adultery is merely a quaint ecclesiastical term for what seems to them the great romantic adventure of their lives. Adultery to such people may or may not be “sporting,” but its wrongness is not a matter that would trouble them for a moment. Sinai, for them, is wrapped in impenetrable cloud. And if we are not prepared to adapt the laws of Sinai to the principles of the night club and the thé dansant, I see no other alternative but to educate again our young in the eternal verities on which the law is based.”
Dancing Halls and Night Clubs – it all sounds rather familiar. Throw in a jibe at the “overpaid” workforce and new leisure activities and the generational conflict is complete. This, to the letter, could be the voice of Joynson-Hicks, scourge of the Bright Young People and the great enemy of all things youthful and hedonistic.
“Jix” by William Low 1924
This is not to diminish the horror of murder. Nor am I trying to celebrate the once fashionable concept of “Transgression”. The whole thing was, as my aunt would say, “a bad business”. What it does suggest is that the fascination and fears that surrounded issues of male-female roles and female sexuality in particular were what really lay at the heart of this celebrated trial. The public , like the judge, was more interested in adultery (and the female adulterer) than the snuffing out of a human life. Something similar will be seen again and again in other “causes celebres” over the next twenty years.
To move from the tragic to the seemingly trivial, forgive me if I point out that, on the night of the murder, the Thompsons had been to the Criterion in Piccadilly to see The Dippers. This was a musical comedy written by farceur Ben Travers. It was his first West End success, featuring music by Ivor Novello and starring Binnie Hale and Hermione Gingold. A more 1920s’ collection of names, I can hardly imagine and I’m sure it was Edith’s rather than her husband’s choice of show.
In 1928 Binnie Hale would perform a song that will forever be associated with the whole era. Its innocence could hardly be less appropriate for the Thompson-Bywaters case and for many other of the less salubrious activities of all the Elvira’s and Alma’s and Edith’s – much as they would probably have adored it. It was, of course, “Spread A Little Happiness“.