I don’t read modern true crime or read the many forensic mysteries published these days or watch any of the CSI TV shows. But, I do love historical true crime. A nice domestic poisoning or unexplained death is just my cup of tea. Preferably Victorian or Edwardian. Jane Robins’s new book about forensic pathologist Bernard Spilsbury & the Brides in the Bath murders ticks all those boxes with a little social history thrown in.
Spilsbury was the first Home Office scientist who became a star witness for the prosecution in many murder cases during the first half of the 20th century. He was a meticulous man who performed thousands of autopsies, writing his conclusions on index cards & building up an unrivalled knowledge of death in all its forms. One of the first cases he gave evidence in was that of Dr Crippen, accused of murdering his wife, dismembering her body & burying her in the cellar. Famously Crippen tried to escape to America with his mistress, Ethel le Neve, & was the first criminal caught using the new technology of the telegraph. Spilsbury examined the remains found in Dr Crippen’s cellar & decided that there was no doubt that they were the remains of Cora Crippen. Although he wasn’t the senior pathologist on the case, his confidence on the witness stand impressed police & lawyers & his career as an expert witness had begun.
The Brides in the Bath trial of 1915 was one of the most sensational cases of the early 20th century. George Joseph Smith was accused of marrying three women, taking out life insurance on them, coercing them into making a will in his favour & then murdering them in their bath. However, there were no witnesses, the deaths were initially thought to be natural & there were no marks or signs of a struggle on the bodies. Smith used aliases & chose women who were living independently of their families or who had little contact with their families.
Bessie Mundy, Alice Burnham & Margaret Lofty were all in their 30s & would have been resigned to being unmarried. This was a period when marriage was considered essential for a woman. An unmarried woman had no status, and, unless she went out to work, was dependent on her family. There were few careers open to women at the time and the problem of the “surplus women” had been discussed since the mid 19th century. Bessie, Alice & Margaret all married Smith after a short courtship. The pattern of the relationships was very similar. Smith would encourage his fiancée to run away & marry him secretly without letting her family know or he would meet the family &, if they seemed suspicious of his motives as Alice Burnham’s family were, arrange for a secret wedding & move far away from any possible interference. Smith would take out life insurance on his wife & they would make a will in his favour. Then, on their honeymoon or shortly after, they would take lodgings. The new bride would complain of headaches or some minor illness which resulted in Smith consulting a local doctor. Shortly after, he would go out to buy something for dinner & when he returned, he would find his wife dead in her bath. He would send the landlady or a servant for the doctor or police & the death was attributed to the slight illness the wife was said to have, combined with the effects of a hot bath resulting in heart failure or fainting & subsequent drowning. Smith would telegraph his wife’s family giving brief details but they usually arrived too late for the inquest or the funeral, which was as cheap & nasty as possible. Then, after promising to keep in touch with his in-laws, Smith disappeared, with his wife’s few belongings & owing rent. He would collect the insurance & move on.
Alice Burnham’s family had been suspicious of Smith from the beginning but they could prove nothing. However, Mr Burnham saw a newspaper article about Margaret Lofty’s death & thought that the description of the bereaved husband could fit the man he knew as John Lloyd. The circumstances of Margaret’s death were identical to Alice’s. He went to the police & the case was taken up by Detective Inspector Arthur Neil in London. Neil’s meticulous investigation finally revealed that Lloyd & Smith were the same man. As the case gained publicity, other women came forward, claiming that Smith, under a variety of names, had wooed them & robbed them of their savings. Neil found out about Bessie Mundy’s death & eventually the three women’s bodies were exhumed & Bernard Spilsbury performed post mortems to try to ascertain the cause of death. The scene was set for a sensational trial where the scientific evidence was of great importance. That the three deaths were natural & it was all an unfortunate coincidence, strained credulity. But, with no marks noticed on the bodies at the time & the fact that they were now in a very poor state of preservation, could Spilsbury discover the cause of death?
The Magnificent Spilsbury is as exciting as any detective novel. The trial caused a sensation. Women were fascinated by Smith & travelled long distances to attend the trial. There were more revelations about his private life that raised questions about his psychological state. Smith protested his innocence throughout but the verdict was never in doubt. Not for the first time, the jury were swayed by the scientific evidence. Nobody had much doubt about Smith’s guilt but in Spilsbury’s later career, doubts were raised about the validity of some of his conclusions & there were fears that he’d become too fond of his fame.
Robins tells the story well with the domestic details that recreate the lower middle-class world of lodging houses & rented rooms. The chilling description of Smith playing the harmonium & singing Nearer My God to Thee as Margaret Lofty lay dead in the bath next door is quite horrible but gives an idea of the cold cruelty of the man. The voices of the landladies, servants, doctors & policemen involved gives an immediacy & poignancy to the sad story of the unfortunate women who met & married George Joseph Smith.