Last week, I told you about Annie Le, a Yale graduate student whose promising career was cut short by murder. This week, I have a classic crime from across the Atlantic. It’s the story of George Joseph Smith and the notorious “Brides in the Bath” case.
George Joseph Smith
Crime was an integral part of George Joseph Smith’s life from his early years. Born in London in 1872, he ended up in a reformatory at Gravesend by the age of 9. Later, he served time for theft and fraud. In 1896, he convinced a woman to steal from her employers, which earned him 12 months in prison.
Two years later, in 1896, he married Carolyn Beatrice Thornhill in Leicester. Despite many subsequent marriages, this was the only one that was legal. Soon after the wedding, the couple moved to London.
Carolyn worked as a maid for several employers, stealing from all of them at Smith’s behest. Eventually caught, she served 12 months and, upon her release, outed her husband. He went to prison for two years in January 1901.
Carolyn departed for Canada when Smith got out of prison. Unfazed, Smith married Florence Wilson in June 1908. A month later, he left her, but not before taking £30 (about $1,126 in 2023) from her savings account. He also sold the contents of their Camden Town residence in London.
Smith continued to marry and steal from women. Between 1908 and 1914, he contracted seven marriages, all of them bigamous. For a time, as with Florence Wilson, he stole what money they had and disappeared. But that was about to change.
George Joseph Smith Turns to Murder
In December 1910, Smith married Beatrice “Bessie” Mundy (using the name Henry Williams) in Weymouth, Dorset. The couple rented a house at 80 High Street. The house had no bathtub, so Smith rented one seven weeks later.
The new couple consulted a physician, Dr. Frank French, where Bessie complained of headaches. Smith told French a different story, that his wife suffered from epileptic seizures, even though she had no memory of them afterward.
On July 12, 1912, Smith called Dr. French to attend to his wife, saying she’d had another seizure. The doctor gave her some medicine and promised to check on her in the afternoon. However, Smith informed the doctor the next morning that Bessie had drowned in the bathtub during an epileptic seizure.
French found Bessie in the tub, her head underwater, her legs stretched straight, and her feet protruding from the water. With no visible trace of violence, he attributed her death to epilepsy. The inquest jury awarded “Williams” £2,579 13s 7d (almost $461,000 in 2023) as dictated by her will. She’d drawn up the will a mere five days before her death.
George Joseph Smith Arouses Suspicion
In January 1915, Division Detective Inspector Arthur Neil received a letter from one Joseph Crossley. Crossley owned a boarding house in Blackpool, Lancashire, and enclosed two newspaper clippings in his letter. One was from News of the World, dated Christmas 1914, which recounted the death of Margaret Elizabeth Lloyd (née Lofty). Mrs. Lloyd died at her home in Highgate; her husband and their landlady found her in the bathtub.
The second clipping, dated December 13, 1913, recounted the coroner’s inquest into the death of Alice Smith (née Burnham) in Blackpool. Her husband found her dead in the bathtub. In addition to her savings, Alice had a £500 ($78,487 in 2023) life insurance policy.
Crossley’s letter, dated January 3, expressed his and his wife’s suspicions over the striking similarity of the two deaths. He urged the police to investigate.
The Investigation Begins
DI Neil visited the house where Margaret Lloyd died. He found it difficult to believe a healthy adult woman had drowned in such a small tub. Investigating further, he found Margaret had made a will on December 18, 1914, three hours before she died.
Neil contrived to have the coroner, Dr. Bates, issue a favorable report to the insurance company. Expecting Lloyd/Smith to contact his lawyers, he had their offices watched. On February 1, a man matching Smith’s description appeared. After a few questions, the man admitted to the inspector that he was Lloyd and Smith. Neil promptly arrested him for bigamy.
By now, news of the “Brides in the Bath” case had begun to appear. On February 8, the police chief of Herne Bay, Kent, notified Neil of another death similar to Margaret’s and Alice’s. That was, of course, the death of Bessie Mundy.
The question that needed an answer was, how did the two women drown? Neil asked the eminent Home Office pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury to find a solution.
Spilsbury began by exhuming Margaret Lloyd’s body and conducting a second autopsy. He confirmed drowning as the cause of death, although the evidence was not extensive. He then ruled out poisons or diseases.
Given the dimensions of the tub and the size of the women, Spilsbury concluded that they couldn’t have drowned during a seizure. The muscular activity during an episode would have pushed them out of the tub.
Spilsbury suspected someone had grabbed the women by the feet and pulled them underwater. The sudden influx of water into the nose and mouth might cause shock and unconsciousness.
To test this theory, DI Neil hired several experienced female divers similar in size and build to the victims. Try as he might, he could not force the women underwater without leaving signs of a struggle. Then without warning, he pulled the feet of one of the divers. Her head glided under the water before she knew what was happening. Neil pulled the diver from the tub when she failed to get out of the water. It took him and a doctor more than half an hour to revive her. It was a close call, but it confirmed Spilsbury’s theory.
Trial and Conviction
Smith’s trial for murder at London’s Old Baily on June 22, 1915. Under English law, prosecutors could only try him for Bessie Mundy’s death. However, prosecutors used the other two murders to establish the pattern of Smith’s crimes. Smith’s counsel, the noted barrister Sir Edward Marshall Hall, protested, but Mr. Justice Scrutton allowed it. Smith decided not to testify in his own defense.
It took the jury about 20 minutes to convict Smith, and Mr. Justice Scrutton sentenced him to death.
Marshall Hall appealed the verdict on grounds that Mr. Justice Scrutton improperly admitted evidence of a “system.” Lord Chief Justice Lord Reading dismissed the appeal.
George Joseph Smith went to the gallows at Maidstone Prison on August 13, 1915.
The Smith case is significant because it was the first instance of introducing past crimes to prove a system or pattern. Although some have criticized the technique, it is a feature of many modern criminal cases.
The “Brides in the Bath” case appears in several biographies of Spilsbury and anthologies of famous crimes. Among these are The Father of Forensics by Colin Evans and Robin O’Dell’s Landmarks in 20th Century Murder. George Joseph Smith: Brides in the Bath, a book in the True Crimes series, and Jane Robins’ The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath also chronicle the case.
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