Thursday, July 29, 2010

Past Crimes Revealed: The Magnificent Spilsbury and the case of the Brides in the Bath, by Jane Robins

John Murray Publishers
292 pp.

As England was heading into and then in the opening years of World War I,  within the short space of three years, three women, all of whom had married George Joseph Smith (who used multiple aliases) drowned while taking a bath.  Each individual death had been legally attributed to natural causes after proper inquests, the doctors finding no evidence of foul play.  But early in 1915, Detective Inspector Arthur Neil from the Kentish Town police station was going through his workload and came across an official memo, attached to which were two newspaper cuttings.  The first was headlined as "Found Dead in Bath, Bride's Tragic Fate on Day After Wedding;" the second as "Bride's Sudden Death in Bath. Drowned After Seizure in a Hot Bath." It seems that the father of the now-dead Alice Burnham, who had married Smith in 1913 and died in the bath during  her Blackpool honeymoon, had seen a news article about Margaret Lofty, a young, newly-married woman who drowned in her bath in Highgate, and brought the similarities between the death of his daughter and Margaret to the attention of the Aylesbury police. They brought it to the attention of Scotland Yard, who sent it to Neil. As official investigations proceeded, and the story became public, another police department informed Neil of yet a third possibility, that of Bessie Mundy, who had also been found dead, again drowned during a bath.

Jane Robins recreates and analyzes the case, drawing from a multitude of modern and contemporary sources. One by one she takes the reader through the three victims lives, how they came to meet George William Smith, and why the women may have been drawn to him, considering that this man was such bad news. Interwoven with their stories, Robins sets the stage in terms of historical context, including contemporary social attitudes and psychology, current events, the current state of police procedure, and traces the science of forensic pathology, which was still in its early stages as a tool for crime solving.  She introduces her readers to Dr. Bernard Spilsbury, a forensic pathologist whose work on the Hawley Crippen case of 1910 helped to send Crippen to the gallows after his return from his interrupted escape to Canada. Spilsbury returns to the stand again as a prosecution witness, with his professional theories about what happened in the cases of the Brides in the Bath. As in the Crippen case, his opinions also led the jury to a verdict of guilty and to a death sentence for Smith.  But  was Spilsbury's opinion accurate?  Was it indeed reflective of what had actually happened to these women? Would his evidence hold up in a modern court of law?

The Magnificent Spilsbury is a pleasure to read, both in terms of the period and because of my absolute fascination with historical true crime. It's quite obvious that Robins did a great deal of research, poring over old trial records, letters, documents, police records as well as examining relevant modern sources. Her constant interweaving of contemporary events and writings allows her to analyze her findings, rather than just setting them all down in a purely factual manner, always asking questions and putting forth a great deal of effort to answer them.  She's also able to bring the case and the principals involved to life through her writing, especially Smith and the women he victimized.

I only have a minor issue with this book. At times there may have been a bit too much period detail. One example: the three pages of treatise about the history and use of zeppelins that proved to be a bit distracting, causing me to want to skim and move along to get back to the story at hand. There were a few spots like this where she could have made her point and then moved on, but chose instead to prolong the discussion.  But overall it's a good book and one I would definitely recommend.

As an aside, if you are interested, I found an article about Spilsbury here.

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