Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath

In the summer of 1915, the British public experienced a temporary, if morbid, diversion from the horrors of World War I. George Smith, a middle-aged serial bigamist who was accused of drowning three wives for their money between 1912 and 1914, stood trial for murder. The Fleet Street dailies christened it the Brides in the Bath case.

Smith targeted spinsters who were considered past marriageable age. Their gratitude at finding a husband in a world unfriendly to single women weakened their instincts and made them willingly give him control of their assets. After marrying Bessie Mundy (1912), Alice Burnham (1913), and Margaret Lofty (1914), he rented lodgings with a bath and had each wife make out a will and purchase life insurance, in both instances naming him as the beneficiary. Once all papers were signed, he convinced them that they were ill enough to see a doctor. Then Smith allegedly drowned them while they were soaking in the tub, using the recent doctor’s visit to suggest that the women had fainted from ill-health and died accidentally.

The inquests on all three women each absolved Smith of wrongdoing, but his use of the same modus operandi –a bathtub drowning in a boarding house- finally aroused the suspicion of Alice Burnham’s father. But Smith’s conviction was not guaranteed, especially since three inquest juries had seen fit to turn him loose. The Crown turned to eminent forensic scientist Bernard Spilsbury, whose talent for collecting and accurately assessing post-mortem evidence was unparalleled. His testimony withstood the barrages of the eminent Sir Edward Marshall Hall, who represented the defendant, and sent Smith to the gallows in August 1915.

The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath skilfully intertwines the new century’s most sensational domestic murder case to date and the evolution of scientific principles in murder investigations. Spilsbury asserted that George Smith had murdered the three women by suddenly grabbing and lifting their legs, forcing their heads under water and preventing any outcry that other lodgers might hear. His medico-legal testimony at the trial likened him to the deductive literary hero Sherlock Holmes, and the awestruck jury found Smith guilty.

But was he?

Author Jane Robins points out that Smith was an undisputed bigamist, but was he actually a murderer? He had married several women between 1908 and 1914, some of whom testified at the trial, and while he maltreated and robbed all of them, only three died. While the powerful similarity between the deaths of Bessie Mundy, Alice Burnham, and Margaret Lofty make his guilt probable, Robins debates whether he would have been executed if tried today. It’s an interesting question- perhaps a skilled defense lawyer would have raised enough reasonable doubt in a modern courtroom to gain Smith a lesser sentence.

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