Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…
😀 😀 😀 🙂
In 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.
Meanwhile, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…