In June 1915 Britain was at war, and yet a different story filled the front pages of the newspapers and captured the public imagination. The story of the trial of George Smith. He stood accused of marrying a young woman and then drowning her as she bathed. On three occasions.
The three young women were swiftly dubbed “the brides in the bath”, and it is they, not George Smith and not the Magnificent Spilsbury, who are at the heart of this book.
Bessie Mundy. Alice Burnham. Margaret Lofty.
Three very different women, but all three feared that they had been left on the shelf, and wanted nothing more than to secure a husband. That was the greatest possible achievement open to them.
But the losses of war and a history of higher male infant mortality meant that potential husbands were in short supply. Maybe that’s why neither Bessie nor Alice nor Margaret resisted when their new husband pulled them away from their family and friends, insisted they make a will, encouraged them to take out life insurance…
Jane Robins makes each of their stories compelling, and paints the picture of the society that they lived in perfectly.
Yet at the same time there is something timeless about their stories. Bessie, Alice and Margaret all wanted to be loved, wanted someone to put them first. And now, as then, that desire can make women vulnerable.
It took some time for their deaths to be linked. But Alice’s father was suspicious, and so was the landlord in whose house Margaret died. And eventually the diligent Inspector Arthur Neil would put together a case and make an arrest.
He uncovered George Smith’s history too. Seven marriages. Women manipulated and then abandoned. A chilling, and horribly believable, picture of a psychopath was painted.
By the time of the trial the police had 121 witnesses for the prosecution.
But an important question remained. Three deaths had been ruled to be accidents by coroners, without any suggestion at all that there had been foul play. How had he done it?
The crucial evidence came from one of a new kind of expert witness – a forensic scientist. Bernard Spilsbury, of London’s St Mary’s Hospital, had drawn attention when he gave evidence at the trial of the notorious Dr Crippen. At George Smith’s trial he drew conclusions from goose-flesh and a clutched bar of soap, and put forward a theory of “sudden immersion.”
George Smith was convicted on the strength of that evidence and executed on 13 August 1915.
Jane Robins tells the stories of the trial, and of Spilsbury’s rise, simply and clearly. It is clear that she has done a great deal of research, and she uses it well.
She makes it clear that the evidence is flawed, and that far too much credence is given to expert opinion.
Impossible to forget though the extraordinary similarities between the three deaths: women taken to distant lodgings, where their husband made certain that a bath was installed, and then pressed to visit a local doctor with complaints of a minor ailment, and encouraged to take a bath while their husband ran an errand …
The moral dilemma of what to do when you have a firm belief of guilt but there are unanswered questions, and maybe insufficient proof, looms large.
There were so many questions, there was so much to think about, and yet the book concluded with the story of the rest of Spilsbury’s career, and his eventual decline as the world moved on.
That unbalanced things for me. The social history, the extraordinary case, the stories of the three women and the man they married were enough, and they should have been the main focus. The forensic scientist’s story was interesting, but it came from a different angle. Two possible books fought for attention and only one could win.
And so I have to say that The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath is flawed, and maybe not quite as good as it could have been.
But it is still fascinating, informative, thought-provoking, and definitely well worth picking up.