In Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be.
In the final months of 1922, people all across the United Kingdom were gripped by a cause célèbre. In the early hours of October 4, Percy Thompson, a shipping clerk, and his wife, Edith, a twenty-eight-year-old bookkeeper and buyer for a millinery business, were making their way home after a trip to the theater in the West End. About a hundred yards from their house in Ilford, a lower-middle-class suburb in North-East London, a man suddenly appeared, stabbed Percy multiple times in the face, neck, and body, and then raced off into the night. Percy died almost instantly. Reporting on the event the following day, the Times declared that the details were still “a mystery,” and that the police were waiting for Edith to recover enough to be able to “give a coherent account of the incidents preceding her husband’s death.” Then, only twenty-four hours later, the case took an unexpected twist when the police announced that they’d charged two persons: Edith and a twenty-year-old ship’s steward named Frederick Bywaters, who had for a short time been the Thompsons’ lodger.
Edith and Bywaters had been conducting an illicit affair for the previous eighteen months. Their correspondence, written while Bywaters was away at sea, had been found by the police and was being used as evidence for the prosecution. By the time the trial began—two months later, on December 6, at the Old Bailey—much of the content of these letters was already all over the press. Every day the court’s public gallery was packed. The enterprising unemployed began queuing outside as early as 4 A.M., selling their spots to those with money in their pockets who arrived later in the day. For those unable to afford these escalating prices—in his book Criminal Justice: The True Story of Edith Thompson, René Weis reports that by the final day of the trial a seat in the gallery was going for more than the average weekly wage—the Times reproduced verbatim transcripts from each day’s proceedings. On Monday, December 11, the jury announced their verdict: both defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. As he was removed from the dock, Bywaters was still protesting that Edith was innocent, as he had done throughout the trial—a refrain that she herself loudly took up as the reality of her fate sunk in. Sobbing and screaming, she was half dragged, half carried back to the cells to await her execution. Read More