MYSTERIES IN HISTORY: TRUE CRIMES AND REAL PEOPLE WHO INSPIRED GREAT STORIES
Dr. Bernard Spilsbury
and the Brides in the Bath
by Bradley Harper MD, FCAP
Dr. Spilsbury (1877 – 1947) was one of the earliest full-time forensic pathologists in the world. Tall, handsome, and confident bordering on arrogant, he was the one witness for the Crown that defense barristers dreaded cross-examining above all others. Early in his career, he made a name for himself by identifying the body found in Dr. Crippen’s cellar as Mrs. Crippen’s, but his fame was established for all time when he unraveled the puzzle of “The Brides in the Bath.”
Edwardian England had a shortage of young, single men. Infant mortality was significantly higher among male infants, and many men left for the colonies as soon as they were able to seek their fortune. Thus, the tall and flamboyant George Joseph smith (under various names) had little difficulty in finding women willing to marry him. He lacked a knack for keeping them, however, though he did manage to keep them long enough to go through their life savings and steal any jewelry they had.
At some point Mr. Smith decided he wasn’t getting as much out of the experience as he might, so beginning with a Miss Bessie Mundy, he married them, took out a generous (to him) insurance policy, then murdered them in the bathtub.
In January 1915, Detective Inspector Arthur Neil of Scotland Yard received a letter written on behalf of a landlord in Blackpool. The landlord and his wife had rented a flat for a brief time to a newly married couple in 1913 when they were called to the bathroom by the distraught husband upon “finding” his wife dead in the bath. The landlords were struck by another, similar death reported in the papers recently occurring in Highgate, London.
Inspector Neil went to the lodgings in Blackpool and was struck by how small the tub was and failed to see how an adult could have “drowned” in a bathtub three-quarters the length of the deceased. He also discovered that the widower had taken out substantial life insurance policies on his wife a day before her death.
In London, he met with the coroner who had examined the second body. He said the only finding at autopsy was a small bruise above the left elbow. The tub was once again smaller than the deceased. The coroner mentioned the husband had contacted him as he needed a final report to file his insurance claim. Neil advised the coroner to file a false report citing natural causes, and when Mr. George arrived to claim it, he was arrested on suspicion of murder.
Enter Spilsbury. He had the two bodies exhumed, but found no traces of poison, and the evidence for drowning was inconclusive. Death seemed in both cases to be almost instantaneous. Finally, he ordered the two bathtubs be taken to his laboratory where he could examine them more closely. Meanwhile, the press had gotten hold of the story, prompting a third report of a death under similar circumstances in High Street, London. Subsequent photographs of the various husbands proved they were all Mr. George J. Smith.
WARNING: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!
For weeks, Spilsbury pondered the riddle of the bathtubs. Bessie Mundy was described as having her feet out of the water, her head submerged. Spilsbury reasoned Smith must have seized her by the feet and jerked them up toward himself, sliding the upper part of the body under water. The sudden flood of water into her nose and throat might cause sudden loss of consciousness, explaining the absence of injuries and minimal signs of drowning.
Inspector Neil hired experienced female divers of the same size and build as the victims. He tried to push them under water by force but could not do so without leaving signs of struggle. Neil then without warning jerked up the feet of one of the divers, and her head slid underwater before she could react. Neil was shocked to see the woman become motionless as soon as her head went underwater and it took over half an hour to revive her. When she finally came to, she said that all she remembered was the rush of water before losing consciousness, confirming Spilsbury’s theory.
It took the jury about 20 minutes to find George Joseph Smith guilty of murder. Smith was hanged shortly after in Maidstone Prison, and until then had to content himself with a prison shower.
The “Brides in the Bath” have been mentioned in various mystery stories, most notably by Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery and The Murder on the Links, and Dorothy Sayers stories Unnatural Death and Busman’s Honeymoon, as well as more modern works by other authors.
An interesting footnote to Dr. Spilsbury’s career occurred during WWII, when he was involved in selecting a body that could be used to simulate a British officer who had drowned while carrying official secrets, in order to deceive the Germans as to the actual site of the Allied landing on Sicily. The ruse was entirely successful and immortalized in the movie, The Man Who Never Was.
Bradley Harper is a retired US Army Colonel and pathologist who has performed over two-hundred autopsies and some twenty forensic death investigations. A life-long fan of Sherlock Holmes, he did intensive research for his debut novel, A Knife in the Fog, which involved a young Doctor Conan Doyle in the hunt for Jack the Ripper, including a trip to London’s East End with noted Jack the Ripper historian Richard Jones. Harper’s first novel was published in October 2018 and was a finalist for a 2019 Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America for Best First Novel by an American Author and is a Recommended Read by the Arthur Conan Doyle Estate.
Knife went on to win Killer Nashville’s 2019 Silver Falchion as Best Mystery. The audio book, narrated by former Royal Shakespearean actor Matthew Lloyd Davies, won Audiofile Magazine’s 2019 Earphone award for Best Mystery and Suspense. The book is also available in Japan via Hayakawa Publishing.
His second novel, Queen’s Gambit, involving a fictional assassination attempt on Queen Victoria, Won Killer Nashville’s 2020 Silver Falchion Award twice, once for Best Suspense, and again as Book of the Year.