The Guilt of Lillian Sloan

for soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone, bass, chorus and orchestra

Commissioned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Lee and Brenda Freeman Foundation

premeried June 6, 1986 at Cahn Auditorium

An opera in two acts based on the Bywater-Thompson murder trial in the 1920’s.  The premiere production, premiered by the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Center for American Artists,  was directed by Frank Galati who also served as librettist.

The world premiere of “The Guilt of Lillian Sloan,” the first product of the Lyric Opera’s composer-in-residence program, proved to be a powerful and effective piece of music and theater in its performance at Cahn Auditorum in Evanston Friday. Wynne Delacoma, Chicago Tribune.

If you take the view that a theatrical experience must be evaluated in its totality, the effect here was that of a tightly unified, fast moving and intensely dramatic story of a crime of passion based on an actual British murder case of some 60 years ago. The libretto, credited to the composer William Neil and Frank Galati,is a strong book. a sturdy foundation for the action. The score consistently illuminated and instensified the words, and the cumulative effect in this staging, directed by Galati, was one of the significant talents significantly employed. Robert C. Marsh, Chicago Sun Times

The Guilt of Lillian Sloan
Donald Kaasch as Owen Evans with Joan Gibbons and the Lyric Opera Chorus
The Guilt of Lillian Sloan
Joan Gibbons as Lillian Sloan
The Guilt of Lillian Sloan
Lisa Bonenfant, Lillian’s mother with Joan Gibbons

 Read the reviews:

Detroit News Review

Chicago Sun Times Review

St. Louis Post Dispatch Review

 Audio from the premiere

Lillian and Owen Duet

Presumed guilty

In 1923, Edith Thompson and her lover were hanged for her husband’s murder. But was she innocent, condemned because of her ‘loose’ morals? Marcel Berlins on a film that tries to set the record straight

Edith Thompson did not know that she was being executed. Not long before, she had calmly nibbled on a piece of buttered toast and an apple as the Holloway prison wardresses helped her dress for her last appointment.

Suddenly, she began to scream and sob. A few minutes later, she collapsed. Four prison officers were needed to carry her into the hanging shed. By the time the noose was placed over her neck, she was unconscious. At exactly the same time – the home secretary had insisted – her lover, Frederick Bywaters, was hanged, barely a mile away at Pentonville prison. Calm to the end, almost his last words were to insist – as he had done many times before – that Edith Thompson was innocent of the murder of which they had both been convicted.

Nearly 80 years on, we are still no nearer to knowing whether or not Edith Thompson was a party to the killing of her husband Percy. There were only three people at the scene – the dead man and the two who were hanged. There was no dispute that the husband had been stabbed to death and that the lover had wielded the knife. But what was Edith’s role? An innocent and surprised witness, or an evil conspirator?

Another Life is the latest attempt to answer the question. It has a harder job than most “miscarriage of justice” films. In Dance With a Stranger (1985), the story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, there was no question that she had shot her lover; the injustice was that she was executed. In Derek Bentley’s case, movingly filmed in Let Him Have It (1991), the facts were clear, and he should never have been hanged, even by the rules of the time.

The Thompson-Bywaters case is not as simple to resolve, although the basic facts were clear. The 28-year-old Edith, clever, vivacious and passionate, had been having an affair for nearly 18 months with Freddie Bywaters, a family friend nine years younger than her. Her husband eventually found out, but refused to divorce her. So far, so ordinary. The next undisputed fact was that on October 3 1922, as Edith and her husband were walking back to their Ilford house after an evening in London, Bywaters came out of the shadows and viciously stabbed Percy Thompson to death. There was only one real question at the trial. Did Edith know what was going to happen because she and her lover had plotted the crime? The makers of Another Life claim that Edith Thompson was “hanged for her lifestyle”, because she was too lively, spoke French, bobbed her hair and liked sex; and because the middle-class society of the time couldn’t cope with her disregard of its moral code.

The telling evidence against her was in two parts: her behaviour after the killing of her husband, and a series of letters she wrote to Bywaters when he was away at sea, which appeared to show that they were constantly and enthusiastically planning ways to get rid of Thompson. In several of them, she describes attempts she made to kill Percy, for instance by trying to poison his tea and putting ground glass into his food. The tone of the letters is that of a woman telling her lover of the efforts she has made to fulfil the pact they have made. But were the contents of the letters genuine? Edith was a prolific reader of cheap romantic fiction, and had an excitable imagination. Were her letters wish-fulfilling fantasies or, perhaps, desperate in ventions to persuade Bywaters that she was intent on seeing her husband dead? She destroyed his replies, so we have no clues as to the truth. The jury, though, clearly found the letters relevant and persuasive.

What she did after seeing the attack on her husband was equally ambiguous. She called for help but pretended that her husband had been taken ill; she then changed her story but denied she had seen the attacker. Only later did she admit that she had recognised Bywater immediately. Was her confusion genuine and her lies a misguided attempt to shield him, or was it a plot between them?

What astonishes us today is the speed of the proceedings. Percy Thompson was killed on October 3. The trial took place in early December; the appeal against the jury’s verdict was heard and turned down on December 21. The lovers were hanged on January 9. In the less than three weeks leading up to the date of execution, petitions to the Home Secretary urging him to spare Edith’s life gathered nearly a million signatures. It was widely expected, even by the hangman himself, that she would escape execution. Speaking of the moment when he accepted the commission to carry out the act, John Ellis says: “I never dreamt Mrs Thompson would hang. I really believed the authorities would bow before the storm of protest from the public”. That public which, only a few weeks before, had exhibited antagonism towards a scarlet woman who had shamelessly broken all the rules of respectable middle-class behaviour before committing the ultimate sin, had quickly became sympathetic.

Did the public believe that she was fully innocent, in the sense that there was no plot and she had no idea of what Bywaters was going to do? Or that, although she’d gone along with the plan, she was the reluctant party, the dupe of an evil man, and therefore did not deserve to die? Or was it mainly a natural revulsion against executing a woman? Legally, if there was indeed a plot to kill, Edith Thompson could legitimately be punished as an equal party, even though she didn’t strike a blow. That was the law then, and still is. If an Edith Thompson were to be tried today, the proceedings would be strikingly similar. The jury would be faced with exactly the same issue, and, if they disbelieved her version of events, would convict her. But there would be no need to strap an unconscious woman and lift her into a noose.

Edith Thompson was a quite attractive 28 year old who was married to shipping clerk 32 year old Percy Thompson. They had no children and enjoyed a reasonable lifestyle, as Edith had a good job as the manageress of a milliners in London.

However, Edith was also having an affair with 20 year old Frederick Bywaters who was a ship’s steward. Their relationship had started in June 1921 when he accompanied the Thompsons on holiday to the Isle of Wight. He moved in as a lodger waiting for his next job on board ship but was evicted by Percy for getting too friendly with Edith. He witnessed a violent row between Edith and Percy and later comforted her. His next ship was to sail on the 9th of September 1921, and he saw Edith secretly from time to time until ultimately booking into a hotel with her under false names.

He was a decisive (impulsive) young man who, at least according to him, decided on his own to stab Percy Thompson whom he felt was making Edith’s life miserable.
On October 4th, 1922, Bywaters lay in wait until just after midnight for Edith and Percy who were returning home to Ilford (in Essex) after a night out at a theatre in London and then stabbed Percy several times. Edith was said to have shouted “Oh don’t!” “Oh don’t! “  Bywaters escaped and Percy died at the scene. Edith was hysterical but was questioned by police when she calmed down alleging that a strange man had stabbed Percy.
The Thompson’s lodger, Fanny Lester, advised the police about Bywaters having also lodged with them, and they also learned that he worked for P & O, the shipping line.
The police discovered the letters that Edith had written to him and soon arrested him and charged him with the murder.
Edith was also arrested soon afterwards and charged with murder or alternatively with being an accessory to murder. She did not know that Bywaters had been arrested but saw him in the police station later and said “Oh God why did he do it”, continuing “I didn’t want him to do it”.
Bywaters insisted that he had acted alone in the crime and gave his account as follows :
“I waited for Mrs. Thompson and her husband. I pushed her to one side, also pushing him into the street. We struggled. I took my knife from my pocket and we fought and he got the worst of it”
“The reason I fought with Thompson was because he never acted like a man to his wife. He always seemed several degrees lower than a snake. I loved her and I could not go on seeing her leading that life. I did not intend to kill him. I only meant to injure him. I gave him the opportunity of standing up to me like a man but he wouldn’t”. Bywaters stuck to this story during the trial which opened at the Old Bailey on December 6th, 1922 before Mr. Justice Shearman.
Edith had written no less than 62 intimate letters to Bywaters and stupidly they had kept them. In these, she referred to Bywaters as “Darlingest and Darlint“. Some of them described how she had tried to murder Percy on several occasions. In one referring, apparently an attempt to poison him, she wrote, “You said it was enough for an elephant.” “Perhaps it was. But you don’t allow for the taste making it possible for only a small quantity to be taken.” She had also tried broken glass, and told Bywaters that she had made three attempts but that Percy had discovered some in his food so she had had to stop.

Edith had sent Bywaters press cuttings describing murders by poisoning and had told Bywaters that she had aborted herself after becoming pregnant by him.
At the trial, Bywaters refused to incriminate Edith and when cross examined told the prosecution that he did not believe that Edith had actually attempted to poison Percy but had rather a vivid imagination and a passion for sensational novels that extended to her imagining herself as one of the characters.
Edith had been advised against going into the witness box by her lawyer but decided to do so and promptly incriminated herself when asked what she had meant when she had written to Bywaters asking him to send her “something to give her husband.”  She said she had “no idea.”  Hardly convincing!
The judge in his summing up described Edith’s letters as “full of the outpourings of a silly but at the same time, a wicked affection.”  The summing up was fair in law but the judge made much of the adultery.
Mr. Justice Shearman was obviously a very Victorian gentleman with high moral principles.
He also instructed the jury, however, “You will not convict her unless you are satisfied that she and he agreed that this man should be murdered when he could be, and she knew that he was going to do it, and directed him to do it, and by arrangement between them he was doing it.”
The jury were not convinced by the defence case and took just over two hours to find them both guilty of murder on the 11th December. Even after the verdict was read out, Bywaters continued to defend Edith loudly. However, the judge had to pass the death sentence on both of them as required by law.

Edith was taken back to Holloway and Bywaters to Pentonville, prisons half a mile apart (in London) and placed in the condemned cells.
Both lodged appeals but these were dismissed.
She was an adulteress, an abortionist and possibly a woman who incited a murder or worse still had tried to poison her husband. At least this is how she was judged against the morals of the time. That is until she was sentenced to death. The public and the media that had been so against her now did a complete U-turn and campaigned for a reprieve. There was a large petition, with nearly a million signatures on it, to spare her. However this, even together with Bywaters repeated confession that he and he alone killed Thompson, failed to persuade the Home Secretary to reprieve her.

So at 9.00 a.m. on January 9th, 1923, both were executed in their respective prisons.
Bywaters met his end bravely at the hands of William Willis, still protesting Edith’s innocence whilst she was reportedly in a state of total collapse. She had major mood swings even up to the morning of execution as she expected to be reprieved all along.

According to René Weis’ book The True Story of Edith Thompson, Dr. John Hall Morton who was both the governor and medical officer of Holloway decided to give Edith the following medications.  At 8.15 a.m., 45 minutes before her death, she was injected with 1/32 grain (2 mg,) of strychnine and at 8.40 a.m. she was given 1/100 grain of scopalmine-morphine (Purlight sleep) and 1/6 grain of morphia (10.8 mg.).  At the stated dose strychnine is a tonic and the other drugs would have sedated her with there maximum effect being reached after 20 minutes.  It has been variously stated that she fainted and had to be carried to the execution shed and that she was dragged screaming to it.  Elizabeth Cronin, who was deputy governor of Holloway and was present at the time, refuted these claims.  This is supported by a statement in the Commons, reported in Hansard of 27 March 1956, by then Home Secretary, Major Lloyd-George, stating that Edith was sedated and thus had to be carried to the gallows and supported on it.  Major Lloyd-George told Parliament that he had examined all the available evidence and concluded that nothing untoward happened.
The LPC4 form gives fracture/dislocation as the cause of death and mentions bruising of the neck from the rope.  However it does not mention that there was allegedly a considerable amount of blood dripping from between her legs after the hanging.

When hangman John Ellis entered she was semi-conscious as he strapped her wrists. According to his biography, she looked dead already.  She was carried from the condemned cell to the gallows in the execution shed by two warders and the two assistants (Robert Baxter and Seth Mills) and held on the trap whilst Ellis completed the preparations.  .  
Depending on whose version of events you read/believe, there was a considerable amount of blood dripping from her after the hanging. Some, including Bernard Spillsbury the famous pathologist who carried out the autopsy on her, claim it was caused by her being pregnant and miscarrying whilst others claim it was due to inversion of the uterus. 
Elizabeth Cronin, who was the deputy governor of Holloway and who was present at the hanging claimed that nothing untoward happened at all.
Edith had been in custody for over three months before the execution so would have probably known she was pregnant. Under English law, the execution would have been staid until after she had given birth. In practice, she would have almost certainly been reprieved. She had everything to gain from claiming to be pregnant so it is surprising that she didn’t if she had indeed missed two or three periods. However, she had aborted herself earlier and this may have damaged her uterus which combined with the force of the drop caused it to invert. The bleeding may equally have been the start of a heavy period. Research done in Germany before and during World War II on a large number of condemned women showed that menstruation was often interrupted by the stress of being tried and sentenced to death but could be brought on by the shock of being informed of the actual date of the execution, which in Edith’s case was likely to have been only one or two days before she was hanged. Whatever the truth, this hanging seemed to have a profound effect on all those present. In a written answer in the Commons, reported in Hansard of 27 March 1956, the then Home Secretary, Major Lloyd-George, stated that Edith was sedated and had to be carried to the gallows and supported on it.  Major Lloyd-George told Parliament that he had examined all the available evidence and concluded that nothing untoward happened.
Several of the prison officers took early retirement. John Ellis retired in 1923 and committed suicide in 1931.
Her body was buried “within the precincts of the prison in which she was last confined” in accordance with her sentence but was reburied at the massive Brookwood Cemetery in Brookwood, Surrey, in 1970, when Holloway Prison was being rebuilt.

Although there is no evidence suggesting that Edith had any physical part in the murder and I personally tend to believe that she did not actually intend Bywaters to kill Percy, there is the problem of “common purpose.”  In law if two people want a third person dead and conspire together to murder that person, it does not matter which one of them struck the fatal blow, both are equally guilty.
The law has always liked written evidence because it is much safer and stronger than hearsay evidence or the confused statements of witnesses. In this case they had a veritable pile of it, mostly incriminating. Letters that talked about poisoning Percy and letters asking Bywaters to “do something” etc.
The jury accepted the prosecution case that all this added up to common purpose to murder Percy, after a short 2-1/4 hour discussion.
So was she evil or just a silly, over romantic woman who gave no thought to the consequences of her irresponsible letters? My personal view having studied the case is that she was the latter.
It should be said that divorce was much harder in those days. If Percy refused to divorce her, which he had, her only alternatives were to run away with Bywaters or kill Percy.
As in all capital cases, the Home Secretary had the power of reprieve and many people were shocked that he did not exercise it in this case. I feel that he should have given her the benefit of the doubt. Her crime was hardly in the same class as four of the other seven women who had been hanged since the beginning of the century – they had been Baby Farmers!

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