Notorious interwar murders (part 1)

This blog post is the first of a three-part series on notorious interwar murders. The next part of the series will be published over the next weeks.

In Decline of the English Murder, written in 1946, George Orwell marks out the period between 1850 and 1925 as a ‘great period in murder.’[1] With ironic nostalgia, he sketches a picture of the ‘perfect murder’ which is committed by a ‘little man of the professional class (…) living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs, and preferably in a semi-detached house, which will allow the neighbours to hear suspicious sounds through the wall.’ The motive should be extramarital passion, and the murder should be end point of ‘long and terrible wrestles with his conscience.’ The act should be very well planned bar one detail that trips the murderer up; the weapon of choice is poison.[2]

The features of the imaginary murder case described by Orwell were firmly embedded in British interwar culture, and are also echoed in crime fiction of the period. The murder in Malice Aforethought, for example, plays out almost exactly like Orwell’s ideal murder.[3] The cultural stereotype was based on a series of real-life murder cases which were covered by an increasingly sensationalist press. The main popular newspapers each boosted a circulation of over one million throughout the interwar period, and especially in London and the South East of England, the vast majority of people regularly read newspapers.[4] The large numbers of readers, combined with the newspapers’ increased tendency to report in emotive language, ensured that murder cases became collective experiences which became cemented in popular culture.

The first murder case that became a national obsession actually occurred before the First World War: in 1910, Hawley Harvey Crippen was found guilty of the murder of his wife Cora, and executed. Dr Crippen, an American by birth, tried to escape to America by ocean liner. Thanks to the still relatively new telegraph, however, British authorities were warned by the ship’s captain and they managed to arrest Crippen before he could even disembark. Crippen was a doctor, and the murder of Cora had taken place in a suburban house in Holloway – the first elements of the classic story were already there.[5]

Across 1921 and 1922, another case involving a ‘little man of the professional class’ gave newspaper audiences a new story to get their teeth into. Herbert Rowse Armstrong, a solicitor, became known as the ‘Hay Poisoner’ after the village on the Welsh border where Armstrong lived and committed his murders. Armstrong first killed his wife with arsenic; a murder which was initially undetected. Mrs Armstrong’s death was ascribed to natural causes by the family doctor.

However, Armstrong then tried to poison Oswald Martin, another solicitor practicing in Hay. Martin first became sick after eating a scone at Armstrong’s house. Armstrong then sent chocolates to Martin which his wife ate, after which she also became sick. The pair raised their concerns with the Home Office, which after investigation promptly informed Scotland Yard. Armstrong was arrested at the very end of 1921 and appeared before the Magistrate on 2 January 1922. His wife’s body was exhumed on the same day, and Armstrong was convicted of murder and executed on 31 May 1922.

The Hay Poisoner solidified the stereotype of the ‘respectable’ man killing his wife to escape domestic drudgery or to be able to pursue other women. Later in 1922, however, a woman would turn this narrative on its head. Edith Thompson’s behaviour was so far out of the norm that it likely led to her being convicted of a crime in which she took no active part.

Edith Thompson and her husband, Percy, lived in the kind of suburban house that fit right in with the murderous stereotype. Rather than Percy looking to get rid of Edith, however, Edith was the one to strike up an affair with the younger Freddy Bywaters. The couple exchanged many letters during their courtship, in which they described fantasies of killing Percy. Edith destroyed the letters she got from Freddy; but he kept hers. On 3 October 1922, Edith and Percy were walking home late when Freddy suddenly ran up to them, stabbed Percy, and ran off. Although Edith probably did not know about Freddy’s plans to attack Percy, the letters she had written him were enough to get her arrested alongside Freddy.[6]

It was Edith’s behaviour that was on trial, rather than her actual involvement with the murder. Edith had a job, an affair, no children: ‘she smoked, danced, bet on the horses, and read an inordinate amount of books.’[7] In short, she did not conform to the ideal of the quiet suburban housewife. Freddy, on the other hand, was represented in some parts of the press as ‘a kind of hero.’[8] Young, good-looking Freddy fit a stereotype whereas Edith defied conventions. Although on the basis of the police evidence Freddy was definitely guilty and Edith was probably not, both were executed and in popular opinion Edith was considered to be more guilty than Freddy.

The Thompson-Bywaters case inspired several writers of the interwar period to write up fictionalised accounts of the story. Today, historians have used the case to explore gender bias in the British interwar justice system. Although the case was notorious, it did not solidify into one of those classic English murder cases. The method – stabbing – was generally considered ‘un-British’ and the possibility that other suburban women were having affairs and plotting to murder their husbands was too uncomfortable to contemplate.

[1]George Orwell, Decline of the English Murder (London: Penguin, 2009), p. 15

[2] Ibid., pp. 17-18

[3] Francis Iles, Malice Aforethought (London: Gollancz, 1931)

[4] Political and Economic Planning, Report on the British Press: a survey of its current operations and problems with special reference to national newspapers and their part in public affairs (London: PEP, 1938), p. 239

[5] Modern forensic re-investigation of the Crippen case has suggested that his conviction was not safe.

[6] Lucy Bland, ‘The Trials and Tribulations of Edith Thompson: The Capital Crime of Sexual Incitement in1920s England’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 47, No. 3 (2008), p. 625

[7] Ibid., p. 628

[8] Ibid., p. 641