Jeffrey MacDonald: Horrific Murder is a Big Media Case

In my last blog post, a doctor poisoned his wife, Rosemarie “Rosie” Essa, with cyanide, then fled the country. This week, I examine the case of Jeffrey MacDonald. MacDonald was an Army doctor accused (and convicted) of murdering his wife and daughters.

Jeffrey MacDonald

The Jeffrey MacDonald case is one of America’s most perplexing and controversial criminal cases. The brutal murders on February 17, 1970, shocked the nation and led to a long, convoluted legal battle. Jeffrey MacDonald, a Green Beret doctor, stood accused of killing his pregnant wife, Colette, and their two young daughters, Kimberly and Kristen, in their Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home. The case received widespread media attention, sparking debates about MacDonald’s guilt or innocence. Decades later, the MacDonald case continues to intrigue and divide people.

Captain Jeffrey MacDonald in October 1970 (The Fayetteville Observer)
Captain Jeffrey MacDonald in October 1970 (The Fayetteville Observer)

Jeffrey MacDonald was a respected Army officer and physician. He claimed that a group of intruders, whom he described as “hippies” and “drug-crazed individuals,” broke into their home and attacked his family while he was asleep on the living room couch. MacDonald himself was injured in the alleged assault. However, investigators began to suspect MacDonald’s involvement due to inconsistencies in his story and evidence at the crime scene.

Colette MacDonald with daughters Kristen and Kimberly
Colette MacDonald with daughters Kristen and Kimberly

Forensic evidence argued strongly against MacDonald’s account. Investigators discovered that the murder weapon, a knife, belonged to the MacDonald household and showed no signs of anyone else using it. Also, bloodstains suggested that someone had staged the crime scene to look like a violent intruder attack. These factors led to MacDonald’s arrest and subsequent trial.

Jeffrey MacDonald on Trial

Jeffrey MacDonald went on trial in 1979, nearly a decade after the murders. The prosecution argued that MacDonald had killed his family in a fit of rage. They pointed to inconsistencies in his story, his motive due to marital issues, and forensic evidence seemingly contradicting his account.

Ft. Bragg MPs stand guard as workers prepare to leave the site of the MacDonald murders at 544 Castle Drive on Fort Bragg on June 7, 1984. The apartment was being cleaned out and repaired.  (Cramer Gallimore/The Fayetteville Observer)
Ft. Bragg MPs stand guard as workers prepare to leave the site of the MacDonald murders at 544 Castle Drive on Fort Bragg on June 7, 1984. The apartment was being cleaned out and repaired. (Cramer Gallimore/The Fayetteville Observer)

MacDonald maintained his innocence throughout the trial, asserting that intruders were responsible for the murders. He claimed that the Manson family, a notorious cult, may have been involved. MacDonald’s defense team suggested that the initial investigation was flawed and failed to pursue alternative suspects adequately.

Jeffrey MacDonald is led out in handcuffs after being found guilty of murdering his family in 1970 at the federal courthouse in Raleigh on August 29, 1979 (Cramer Gallimore/The Fayetteville Observer)
Jeffrey MacDonald is led out in handcuffs after being found guilty of murdering his family in 1970 at the federal courthouse in Raleigh on August 29, 1979 (Cramer Gallimore/The Fayetteville Observer)

After a lengthy trial, the jury found MacDonald guilty of murder, resulting in three consecutive life sentences. However, the case did not end there. Over the years, numerous appeals and legal proceedings followed, highlighting the many controversial aspects of the trial.

Critics argue that the prosecution relied heavily on circumstantial evidence and failed to establish a clear motive. They claim that investigators mishandled the forensic evidence and, therefore, it was unreliable. MacDonald’s defense team maintains his he did not kill his family and contends that prosecutors either ignored or suppressed crucial evidence supporting his innocence

Prison photo of Jeffrey MacDonald (U.S. Bureau of Prisons)
Prison photo of Jeffrey MacDonald (U.S. Bureau of Prisons)

The MacDonald case received renewed attention in the 1980s, thanks to journalist Joe McGinniss’ bestselling book, Fatal Vision, which presented a damning portrayal of MacDonald. However, subsequent investigations and interviews raised doubts about the book’s accuracy and alleged bias.

Legacy of the Jeffrey MacDonald Case

The MacDonald case remains a subject of intense debate and analysis within true crime circles. The case has inspired numerous books, documentaries, and podcasts, each presenting different perspectives on the events and raising questions about the validity of the conviction. The case’s enduring legacy underscores the complexities of the criminal justice system and the impact media can have on public perception and legal proceedings.

In recent years, new DNA testing techniques have emerged, offering the possibility of reevaluating crucial evidence from the crime scene. MacDonald’s legal team continues to fight for a new trial, arguing that advancements in forensic science could exonerate him.

Epilogue

Decades after the murders, the question of MacDonald’s guilt or innocence continues to haunt those familiar with the case. With ongoing legal battles, emerging scientific advancements, and a passionate community of supporters and skeptics, the MacDonald case serves as a constant reminder of the complexities and uncertainties that can surround high-profile criminal trials.

There are many books about the MacDonald case. The best-known is Fatal Vision, published in 1983 by journalist Joe McGinniss. MacDonald hired McGinniss to write a book proving his innocence. However, his research led McGinniss to conclude that MacDonald was guilty, and Fatal Vision reflects that conclusion. McGinniss also authored Final Vision as a rebuttal to the writers who contend MacDonald is innocent.

In 1997, Jerry Allen Potter and Fred Bost published Fatal Justice, a critical response to Fatal Vision. Also firmly in the “MacDonald is innocent” camp is A Wilderness of Error by filmmaker Errol Morris.

Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer studies MacDonald’s lawsuit against Joe McGinniss for breach of contract. In it, she accuses McGinniss of “betraying” MacDonald and excoriates the entire journalism profession.

Today (July 2023), Jeffrey MacDonald is 79 years old and resides at the Cumberland Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland.

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George Joseph Smith: Bridegroom Makes for Unusual Serial Killer

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.

George Joseph Smith in 1915 (Police Gazette, 1915)
George Joseph Smith in 1915 (Police Gazette, 1915)

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.

George Joseph Smith during his murder trial
George Joseph Smith during his murder trial

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.

The 'Brides in the Bath' murderer George Joseph Smith (1872 - 1915) standing in front of a painted backdrop with the first of his murder victims, Beatrice "Bessie" Mundy, (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The ‘Brides in the Bath’ murderer George Joseph Smith (1872 – 1915) standing in front of a painted backdrop with the first of his murder victims, Beatrice “Bessie” Mundy, (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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.

Margaret Elizabeth Lofty
Margaret Elizabeth Lofty

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.

Alice Burnham (findagrave.com)
Alice Burnham (findagrave.com)

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 Solution

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.

Home Office pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury in his laboratory
Home Office pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury in his laboratory

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.

Reconstruction of the Brides in the Bath murders in Madam Tussauds Chamber of Horrors, London
Reconstruction of the Brides in the Bath murders in Madam Tussauds Chamber of Horrors, London

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.

Handwritten note by George Joseph Smith to his counsel, Edward Marshall Hall, indicating that he did not wish to give evidence in his own defense
Handwritten note by George Joseph Smith to his counsel, Edward Marshall Hall, indicating that he did not wish to give evidence in his own defense

It took the jury about 20 minutes to convict Smith, and Mr. Justice Scrutton sentenced him to death.

Epilogue

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.

Sir Edward Marshall Hall
Sir Edward Marshall Hall

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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John Lee: Amazing Killer, “The Man They Couldn’t Hang”

Last week, I covered the sad case of Gloria Pointer. Gloria was a 14-year-old Cleveland girl who was abducted and murdered on her way to school. This week, we look at the mysterious case of John Lee, a condemned prisoner who survived three execution attempts.

John Lee, Condemned Murderer

John Henry George Lee was born on August 15, 1864, in the English village of Abbotskerswell in the county of Devon. His early life was a mystery, although he was known to have served in the Royal Navy. He also had a reputation as a thief.

In 1884, Lee worked for a woman named Emma Keyse in Babbacombe Bay near the seaside town of Torquay. On November 15, Keyse was killed with a knife, and Lee was charged with murder.

John Henry George Lee
John Henry George Lee

Lee went on trial the following year. There was little evidence against him other than his prior record and an unexplained cut on his arm. However, he was the only male in the house at the time of the crime. Weak as the case was, and despite his claims of innocence, a jury convicted him of murder. His sentence was death by hanging.

They Can’t Hang John Lee

Lee’s execution date of February 23, 1885, arrived, and warders at HM Prison Exeter led him to the gallows. Everything was routine until the executioner, James Berry, pulled the lever to open the scaffold’s trapdoor. The trap failed to open. A puzzled Berry, who had tested the apparatus earlier, tried again, and again the trapdoor refused to open. Berry tried once more with the same result.

At this point, the medical officer refused to participate in further attempts to hang Lee.

The execution chamber of HM Prison Shrewsbury. The prison was decommissioned in 2013 and is now open to the public.
The execution chamber of HM Prison Shrewsbury. The prison was decommissioned in 2013 and is now open to the public.

Executioner Berry couldn’t explain why the trapdoor failed to open. He describes the incident in detail in his memoir, My Experiences as an Executioner, although he only mentions two attempts.

John Lee's would-be executioner, James Berry
John Lee’s would-be executioner, James Berry

The Home Office ordered an investigation into the malfunction. It revealed that the drawbar became misaligned when the gallows moved from the old infirmary to the coach house. As a result, the trapdoor hinges did not drop cleanly through.

Epilogue

Home Secretary Sir William Harcourt commuted Lee’s sentence to life in prison. After serving 22 years, the Home Office agreed to release him.

 John Lee shortly after he survived three attempts to hang him
John Lee shortly after he survived three attempts to hang him

After his release, Lee traded on his celebrity, lecturing on his life and becoming the subject of silent film. His whereabouts after 1916 are murky, but recent research concludes lived in the United States as “James Lee.”

John Henry George Lee died on August 15, 1945.

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Arnold Rothstein: Big Man Behind World Series Gambling Scandal

Last week’s case told the story of Michelle Mockbee, a mother of two brutally slain in the warehouse where she worked. This week, we look at Arnold Rothstein, a gambling kingpin known as “The Brain.” We briefly met Rothstein in a blog post from December about throwing the 1919 World Series.

Arnold Rothstein

Arnold Rothstein was a notorious gambler, businessman, and racketeer best known for fixing the 1919 World Series. He had an impressive gambling career spanning more than two decades. Despite his shady dealings and criminal activities, he was respected in New York City.

(7/22/1928-New York, NY- Photo shows Arnold Rothstein, big time gambler, as he appeared in New York State Supreme Court, fighting a bankruptcy receiver's attempt to collect $366,000. (Getty Images)
(7/22/1928-New York, NY- Photo shows Arnold Rothstein, big time gambler, as he appeared in New York State Supreme Court, fighting a bankruptcy receiver’s attempt to collect $366,000. (Getty Images)

Rothstein was born in 1882 in New York City to a family of Jewish immigrants from Poland. His father owned a successful garment business, which allowed young Arnold to live comfortably and attend private school. At 17, he began working as a clerk for one of his father’s business associates but soon became bored with the mundane job and decided to pursue gambling instead.

Arnold Rothstein in his office (Jack Benton/Getty Images)
Arnold Rothstein in his office (Jack Benton/Getty Images)

Rothstein quickly developed a reputation as a master gambler and began amassing wealth through high-stakes poker games. He soon expanded his operations to include illegal activities such as bootlegging, loan sharking, drug trafficking, and prostitution rings. Despite these illicit activities, he kept out of trouble with law enforcement until 1919, when he became embroiled in the infamous Black Sox scandal.

Arnold Rothstein and the 1919 Black Sox

In 1919, Rothstein became involved in fixing the World Series between the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds. It is believed that he bribed some players on the White Sox team to throw the game in exchange for cash payments from gamblers who were betting on the series’ outcome. Although Rothstein denied any involvement with fixing the game, several players later admitted that they had received money from him for their efforts.

The 1919 Chicago White Sox (Chicago Tribune)
The 1919 Chicago White Sox (Chicago Tribune)

After the bribery scandal came to light, Major League Baseball appointed Kennesaw Mountain Landis, a respected judge, as Commissioner of Baseball. Landis had almost unlimited power over the sport and banned eight former White Sox players from the game for life.

Rothstein continued to engage in illegal activities until his death in 1928 at age 46 following an altercation at Manhattan’s Park Central Hotel. He died two days after being shot by an unknown assailant during an argument over a large amount of money owed to him by another gambler, who had lost it playing craps. To this day, no one has been able to identify Rothstein’s killer, and the case remains officially unsolved. However, many believe it was someone close to him due to their familiarity with his daily routine.

Epilogue

Although there is still much debate over how much truth there is behind some of Arnold Rothstein’s most infamous stories—such as his involvement in fixing the 1919 World Series—there is no denying that he left an indelible mark on American culture both during his lifetime and long after his death. From inspiring characters like Meyer Wolfsheim in F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby to becoming part of pop culture references today (like “A Bigger Gamble” episode on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire), without question that Arnold Rothstein will remain a significant figure for a long time to come.

Arnold Rothstein's grave in New York's Union Field Cemetery (findagrave.com)
Arnold Rothstein’s grave in New York’s Union Field Cemetery (findagrave.com)

Several books portray the life of Arnold Rothstein, while others focus on the 1919 World Series scandal. Three biographies are Arnold Rothstein: The Life and Legacy of the Notorious Mob Kingpin Accused of Fixing the World Series, produced by Charles River Editors, The Big Bankroll by Leo Katcher, and Rothstein by David Pietrusza.

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