Black Dust

The Killer's Curse

This strange tale of John Ellis served as one of the United Kingdom's executioners for 23 years, from 1901 to 1924 and was to become a victim of a killer’s curse.

Born in Balderstone, Rochdale in October 1874, he worked in a number of jobs as a casual labourer in the Manchester area before getting a job at a spinning mill in nearby Bury. After a short stint in a factory he decided to follow his father Joseph’s trade by becoming a barber and in Rochdale. He also opened up a newsagent's that he ran with his wife and children.

He applied to the Home Office to become a hangman when he was 22 and was invited to attend training at Newgate Prison in London. His first participation in an execution was in Newcastle in December 1901, as assistant to Chief Executioner James Billington.

Ellis served as Chief Executioner from 1907 and took part in over 203 executions. Among the executions he performed were those of Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen in 1910 for the murder of his wife Cora Henrietta Crippen, Frederick Seddon in 1912 for the murder Eliza Mary Barrow, Sir Roger Casement in 1916 for treason and had his honours removed, Major Herbert Rowse Armstrong in 1922 who became the only UK solicitor in history to be hanged for murder, and notably of Edith Thompson in 1923 for the murder of her husband Percy along with Frederick Bywaters. Ellis took the responsibility of his position very seriously and hoped to despatch the condemned person with as little fuss and pain to the individual concerned as possible. An insight into his behaviour and way of thinking can be read in the book ‘Diary of a Hangman’ in which he describes his methods and recalls the final moments of some of those he executed.

The ordeal of executing Edith Thompson in 1923 had the most profound effect on Ellis. At 15, she met Percy Thompson who was 18 at the time and after six years together they married at St Barnabas Church in Manor Park E12. Four years later the couple became acquainted with 18 year old Frederick ‘Freddy’ Bywaters a school friend of Edith’s younger brother. She instantly became attracted to him as he was strikingly handsome and impulsive and his stories of his travels around the world excited Edith. They eventually started an affair after Percy had invited Bywaters to lodge with them.

Percy had found out about the affair, confronted the pair and threw Bywaters out from the home. A violent argument ensued between the married couple in which Edith claimed that Percy had hit her numerous times and threw her across the room in temper.

In 1922 the Thompsons were returning home after attending a performance at the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly Circus, when a man jumped out from behind some bushes near their home, and attacked Percy. After a violent struggle with the accomplice Percy was stabbed. Mortally wounded, he died before Edith could call for help. At the police station Edith appeared distressed and confided to police that the killer was Freddy Bywaters. She believed herself to be a witness, rather than an accomplice. She provided them with details of her association with Bywaters.

As police investigated further they arrested Bywaters, and discovered a series of more than sixty love letters from Edith Thompson to Bywaters, so they arrested her too. The letters were the only tangible evidence linking Edith Thompson to the murder. Allowing for the consideration of common purpose, namely that if two people wish to achieve the death of a third, and one of these people acts on the expressed intentions of both, both are equally guilty by law. Both Thompson and Bywaters were charged with murder.

Bywaters clearly stated at the trial that Edith Thompson had known nothing of his plans for the simple reason that he had not intended to murder Percy Thompson. His aim was to confront him and force him to deal with the situation, but when Thompson had reacted in a superior manner, Bywaters had lost his temper. On December 11, the jury had returned a verdict of guilty, and both Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters were sentenced to death by hanging. Thompson became hysterical while Bywaters loudly protested Thompson’s innocence.

Finally on January 9, 1923 in Holloway Prison, 29-year-old Thompson had collapsed in terror at the prospect of her hanging and, unconscious, had to be supported on the gallows by four prison warders. In Pentonville Prison, 20-year-old Bywaters, who had tried since his arrest to save Thompson from execution, was himself hanged. The two executions occurred at 9.00 am, about a half-mile apart as Holloway and Pentonville are located in the same district. The bodies of Thompson and Bywaters as the rule goes were buried within the walls of the prisons in which they had been executed.

According to the story, when the gallows trapdoor opened and Thompson fell, the sudden impact of the noose caused her to suffer a massive haemorrhage. The large amount of blood spilled on the floor and combined with the fact that Thompson had gained weight during her imprisonment even while resisting food, led to speculation that she may have been pregnant. All women hanged in Britain after Thompson were required to wear special knickers made of canvas to prevent a recurrence of the massive bleeding suffered by Thompson.

Ellis became traumatised by the execution of Thompson and took to drinking heavily and even attempted suicide the following year by shooting himself in the jaw. But as Suicide was deemed a criminal offence, Ellis was charged and bound over for 12 months at Rochdale Magistrates Court. In September 1932, and after another bout of heavy drinking, John Ellis succeeded in his suicide attempt by cutting his throat with a razor, ending the killer’s curse once and for all.


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