The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath by Jane Robins

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

the magnificent spilsburyIn 1910, 30-year-old spinster Bessie Mundy was desperate to find a husband. No easy task at a time when young men were heading to the colonies in droves, leaving a surplus of unmarried women behind. Poor Bessie wasn’t particularly attractive but she did have the advantage of having an inheritance. A cynic might think this was what attracted handsome, charismatic Henry Williams to her. And when, after making her will in her new husband’s favour, she subsequently died in her bathtub, a cynic might even think nefarious deeds were afoot. Unfortunately for the future wives of Williams, aka George Smith, the inquest jury weren’t cynical enough, and found her death to be accidental.

Crippen-scarMeanwhile, also in 1910, Bernard Spilsbury was beginning to make his name as a forensic pathologist in the Crippen case. Amidst the gloopy yuckiness that was all that remained of the corpse found in Crippen’s basement was a small scrap of skin, with what looked like scar tissue on it. Spilsbury used this to positively identify the corpse as Crippen’s missing wife Cora, and despite the best efforts of the defence, he was unshakeable in the witness box. Crippen hanged. Top defence barrister Edward Marshall Hall later claimed that, had he been defending Crippen, he’d have made a case in court that would have over-ridden Spilsbury’s evidence and got Crippen off.

These three men, Bernard Spilsbury, George Joseph Smith and Edward Marshall Hall would eventually face each other at the trial of Smith in what became known as the case of the Brides in the Bath.

The Brides in the Bath - Bessie Mundy, Alice Burnham and Margaret Lofty
The Brides in the Bath – Bessie Mundy, Alice Burnham and Margaret Lofty

Robins tells her tale well, widening out from the specifics to look at the society of the time. She discusses the place of women, still indoctrinated to see marriage as the only fulfilment even if they had enough money or skills to survive alone. With the relative shortage of men, which would only worsen when WW1 commenced, Robins shows how women would resort to advertising for husbands in the newspapers, often mentioning their financial worth as an incentive. If successful in finding a husband, she would then become almost entirely subordinate to him, regardless of his behaviour. Divorce was still scandalous and hard to obtain – in fact, Robins uses Marshall Hall’s suggestion of how he would have defended Crippen to show that often juries would be sympathetic to those who murdered intolerable spouses as the only way to be shot of them. Vulnerable women were easy prey for men like Smith, who preferred to inherit from his dearly departed wives rather than working for a living.

George Joseph Smith
George Joseph Smith

The other main strand is the growing importance of the expert witness in criminal trials, especially pathologists. Robins shows that it was sometimes as much a matter of how well the evidence was presented that could sway juries, since they often didn’t understand the technicalities of the science. Spilsbury was tall and good-looking with a commanding presence and an unshakeable confidence in his own expertise – a nightmare for defence lawyers to break. Again in the case of Smith, Robins cites Marshall Hall, who pointed out that, had Smith been rich, he’d have been able to hire expert witnesses of his own, but in the days before legal aid the field was left open to Spilsbury acting on behalf of the prosecution to give his evidence more or less unrefuted. Robins also shows that some of the evidence that Spilsbury gave as definite fact doesn’t stand up to subsequent advances in science. The courtroom takes on aspects of theatre with Marshall Hall and Spilsbury vying to win over the audience by the quality of their performance, with truth becoming something of a victim of the process.

Edward Marshall Hall
Edward Marshall Hall

So, much of interest in the book and Robins writes well, holding the reader’s attention even through some of the necessarily detailed (and occasionally gruesome) forensic stuff. However, there are a couple of weaknesses too, which stopped me from enjoying this one as thoroughly as I did her later book, The Curious Habits of Dr Adams. Firstly, a lot of the information that she gives us about Smith’s murders must, I think, have come from the records of the trial, so that, when the book actually gets to the trial, it becomes very repetitive of much that has gone before.

Bernard Spilsbury
Bernard Spilsbury

Secondly, and more importantly, Smith murdered three women in an identical way, shortly after marrying them. The sheer fact of a man losing three wives by drowning in bathtubs after they had made out wills in his favour was surely more than enough for reasonable doubt to disappear, without any need for forensic evidence. He had only got away with it for so long because no-one had connected the cases. Once connected, and with the judge ruling that evidence regarding all three deaths could be introduced into the trial regarding the murder of Bessie, it hardly required a brilliant prosecution to prove his guilt. The fact that the jury convicted after just 22 minutes of deliberation would seem to confirm that. Therefore, it seemed to me that Spilsbury’s evidence as to the specific manner of death, however interesting and however well presented, was actually incidental to the case. I rather wished Robins had chosen a different case where the conviction was more dependent on the scientific evidence, or where some doubt existed as to guilt.

The sensational trial gave people something to take their minds off the war...
The sensational trial gave people something to take their minds off the war…
Jane Robins
Jane Robins

Robins finishes with a brief run-through of Spilsbury’s subsequent life and career, and left me wishing this part has been expanded. It’s largely a matter of subjective opinion, but for me the book would have been improved by concentrating more on Spilsbury’s work in general than on this one specific case, which, however sensational, was from a detection point of view rather straightforward.

However, I still found enough in the social aspects of the time and the conduct of trials and use of expert witnesses to make this both an enjoyable and informative read, and I look forward to seeing where Robins heads next. A little bird (namely, Cleo) told me that’s she’s going to be writing a crime novel – an enticing prospect! But not due out until December 2017 – I shall be waiting impatiently…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 15
Book 15

37 thoughts on “The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath by Jane Robins

  1. I love these real crime books, especially from this period. But you’re right, it’s not the best case to study as the three dead wives should have been enough to convict at the time, rendering the detective elements rather redundant. Still, it’s always nice to see pictures of chaps with super moustaches and stern expressions, don’t you think?

    • I do too, and this one was good – just not as good as her later one. I really prefer reading ones where I don’t know the case, so I can pretend to be a member of the jury. Haha! I wrote the review based on the book calling Smith handsome and charismatic – I was a little discombobulated when I then googled his picture. Hmm – tastes change, eh? 😉

      • That’s so funny, because I had to skip back and check I was looking at the right picture for ‘handsome and charismatic’! I suppose it could apply to the moustache alone? I suppose after a few glasses of wine I could be convinced… 😉

  2. What an interesting look at the social life of the times, FictionFan! And I find the process of using evidence in course really interesting, too. I can see how you found a great deal to like about this book, even if you have a few reservations. It makes one wonder what would have happened in some of these cases if Spilsbury had been less self-assured. I read Sir Sydney Smith’s autobiography (Mostly Murder) which casts a different light on Spilsbury. Smith went up against Spilsbury a few times in his role as a medical expert, and I found that aspect of the book fascinating.

    • It is indeed – I love that late Victorian/pre WW1 period for true crime. Modern enough to see forensic science being used, but still old enough to be fascinating about society. Oh, the Sydney Smith sounds interesting – I must try to track a copy down. *sighs* Poor old TBR… 😉

  3. Another one I haven’t read, FF, but this one sounds most intriguing. Having covered more than my share of criminal trials during my days as a journalist, I enjoy a good courtroom scene. However, I find myself agreeing with you that this particular case feels a bit like overkill(!). I mean, three wealthy spouses killed the same way?? Couldn’t Mr. Smith have used more ingenuity?!!

    • Oh, that must have been interesting! Mind you murder trials tend to go for ages these days – not like back in the good old days when the trial was over in a few hours and the murderer was hanged a few days later! Haha! I know! You have to wonder if he never considered that it might look a bit suspicious… 😉

  4. I do love learning about this stuff – and sometimes it works out better for me to read someone’s review of it than to read the whole book myself. Saves me a little time. So, thank you for that! 🙂
    Based on everything here, I would have to agree with you that his case seems pretty obvious and that it would probably be more interesting to follow Spilsbury’s career and some other cases he worked on over the years.
    If you’re interested in more true crime type books, Debra Komar writes some good ones about crimes that have taken place in Canada. I read her first (or second?) and thought it was well-done. She has written four of them now. One of the things I liked about it was learning how the justice system has improved and developed based on historical cases. If you like that kind of stuff, she might be worth checking out!

    • My pleasure – glad you enjoyed it! I like reading other people’s reviews of factual books for the same reason – I get the gist of the subject even if I never have time to read the book. 🙂

      Oh, now that sounds interesting! I actually prefer reading true crime about cases I don’t know – put myself in the position of the jury. Quite often with British cases I know what the outcome was, so there’s no feeling of tension or uncertainty. Whereas I certainly won’t know about any of the Canadian cases, and it would be intriguing to see a different justice system in operation too. Thanks for the rec – I shall check the books out! 😀

  5. I read this some time ago and enjoyed it more than I had thought. Robbins does an excellent job of recreating the society as well as the crime and the early forensics. I agree the trial bits were less enthralling than I had expected.

  6. I’m a huge fan of this author as I think she manages to get the information across in such an engaging manner but you are of course right that it didn’t take a genius to realise that Smith was guilty of the murders but fascinating how he managed to stay under the radar for quite so long!!

    • I think so too, and am really looking forward to seeing how she does writing fiction. I know – I kept thinking while reading it that it couldn’t happen now, and then remembering all the cases that have happened recently where it’s hard to believe they got away with it for so long – Shipman, the Wests, etc. But Smith seemed to just think people would believe him, he didn’t seem to make much effort really to hide what he was doing.

  7. This book sounds fascinating. Thank you for your review. I’ve always enjoyed medical examiner stories. I can’t help thinking of the Cadfael books, which were not as grisly, but very enjoyable.

    • Oh, I loved the Cadfael books! In fact, they’ve been showing up in the Kindle deals recently and I’ve acquired a couple to re-read. I also loved the Derek Jacobi Cadfael series – he’s such a great actor. 🙂

    • I think you’d enjoy her writing. My recommendation would be for her second book though – The Curious Habits of Dr Adams. I found the actual case more interesting in that one… 🙂

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