Caroline: If a terrible accident takes place and a woman dies, it’s just a tragedy. If the same thing happens again, in almost identical circumstances, it might arouse pity and raise a few eyebrows, but it’ll mostly be written off as an appalling coincidence. But the third time? That’s when things start to get suspicious.
This is exactly what happened in Britain in the eighteen month period between July 1912 and December 1914 — three women died in precisely similar ways, each time leaving a husband who stood to inherit substantial legacies and collect on recently taken out insurance policies. But it wasn’t until after the third death that people began to put the pattern together.
The ensuing investigation and trial gripped the nation to the extent that it knocked news from the battlefields of the First World War off the front pages. The twists and turns of this extraordinary story had a dramatic and lasting effect on how stories about crime and detection were told too, with aspects of it appearing in work by Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers and others.
This is the story of the brides in the bath.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. This is another instalment in my series about the real life crimes that inspired the writers of classic detective stories. In this episode, we’ll learn who the brides were and what contemporary circumstances enabled their murders to go undetected until the sheer volume of crime could no longer be explained away as a coincidence. We’ll also look at what details from this blockbuster case ended up in the detective fiction of the subsequent decades and how it still affects the way we think about narrative and crime today.
But first, a short note. I wanted to try something a bit different in the way I tell this story. Once the trial was in full swing, the newspaper reports were full of shocking revelations about the three murders and the way one individual linked them together. Subsequent retellings have mostly followed this same pattern, I’ve found in my researches, essentially beginning at the last, most gory and dramatic, point in the story and only going back to fill in other events as it seems necessary. But I think there’s another, more interesting way to look at this. There were at least seven brides, not just three, and to me they are far more worthy of your time and interest than the man who became the focus of such ghoulish celebrity because of his violent acts. This string of marriages actually began in 1898, and by meeting six of these women in turn (whether or not they ended up in a bath at the end) I think you build up a fascinating picture of British society in the first 15 years of the twentieth century, and the role that women were able to occupy in it. I also think it helps to see this kind of violence as part of a continuum — this murderer didn’t pop out of nowhere, he was doing awful things to women for decades beforehand, which is a point that both a lot of true crime storytelling and contemporary media coverage of crime tends to gloss over. Instead, here, you’re going to meet all of the brides and hear their stories. I think you might recognise some of what they have to tell you, too.
The First Bride
Her name was Caroline Thornhill, and in 1898 when she was 19 she married a 25 year old man calling himself George Oliver Love. She had met him the year before in Leicester, and he had told her about his dreadful childhood and teenage years spent at a Reform School in Gravesend in Kent (a kind of state youth correctional institution, think something Charles Dickens would write about but worse). Victorian legislators had believed that vagrancy and a predilection towards crime could be “cured” by a harsh regime of physical punishment, frequent humiliation and quasi-military drilling. No doubt as a result of these confidences, Caroline quickly grew close to George, and when he proposed marriage she accepted. Her parents, after meeting him, declined to give their permission to the match, but Caroline was so sure about her choice that she went ahead with the marriage without their blessing.
Not long afterwards, Caroline’s new husband’s business failed (he was then running a bakery) and she said later that he abused and threatened her into applying for jobs as a domestic servant with bogus references written by George himself. Once she found employment, she was to steal as much as she could as quickly as possible. Her husband even made her sell the jewellery and other goods to the fence herself so that he technically had little or no involvement in the crime. They moved around constantly, flitting town as soon as the theft had been carried out. Eventually, in Hastings, Caroline was arrested (George ran away) and served a three month prison sentence. When she got out, her husband had vanished, so she took a job as a servant again. A year later, in November 1900, Caroline happened to be walking down Oxford Street in London when she saw George looking at a shop window. She found a policeman and he was arrested, screaming and raving about how he would “punch her head off”. She gave evidence against him at a trial back in Hastings and he was sentenced to two years in prison. Caroline then returned to Leicester, reconciled with her family and found work at a factory.
But when her husband — they were still technically married, divorce was complicated and expensive and rare, as we talked about in the previous episode about Maud West — got out of prison, he came looking for Caroline. She saw him hanging around outside her house, and it was only because her two brothers chased him off that he didn’t see her. To be absolutely sure, though, she decided to emigrate to Canada. In 1906 she departed across the Atlantic, eventually marrying and settling there. She only came back to Britain in 1915 at the behest of the police. Astonishingly, after all of this, she was still one of the lucky ones.
The Second Bride
Her name was Edith Pegler, and in 1908 she answered an advertisement in a local Bristol newspaper placed by someone looking for a housekeeper. She got the job, and started work as a domestic servant for a man called George Joseph Smith, who ran a second hand furniture business. Within weeks, Edith and George (yes, recognise that name?) were married. They moved around every few months, living all over the south of England, often in seaside towns. Sometimes George would take over a local shop to sell his antiques, but sometimes he just did what he told Edith were private deals. He regularly left her for weeks at a time, telling her that he was travelling around the country looking for things to buy for his business. Often when he returned from these trips, he suddenly had a lot of cash — once he told Edith that he had managed to buy a Turner painting cheap and sell it on to a collector, and that’s why he suddenly had so much more money. He wrote occasionally, and he always came back in the end. On 23 December 1914, he reappeared just in time for Christmas, which he and Edith celebrated happily with her mother. Then he departed again on 1 February 1915, and Edith didn’t see him again until she spotted a photograph of a man who looked an awful lot like her husband in the newspaper. He was wanted in connection with a string of crimes including murder and bigamy, so Edith contact the police to tell them she’d been married to this man for seven years, or at least she thought she had.
Although Edith said that George was sometimes threatening to her and he did used to abandon her for months at a time, sometimes without any contact or knowledge of his whereabouts, she was relatively content to remain in the marriage. And for his part, George seemed affectionate towards her, and he did always return to her, eventually. In her excellent book The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Brides in the Bath, author Jane Robins advances the theory that the reason for this was because Edith was from a similar class background to George himself and he therefore had no feeling of inferiority with her — something he was apparently very sensitive to. She was from the lower echelons of the working class and seemingly had no middle class pretensions or connections. Perhaps it was indeed her supposed ordinariness that made him semi-faithful to her. Either way, she at least got to stay safe.
The Third Bride
Her name was Sarah Falkner, and in 1909 she met a man named George Rose in Southampton. They got chatting after a chance meeting on a walk one day, and every day for the next two weeks he called at the lodging house where she was staying. He asked her to marry him at the end of this fortnight, and initially she refused, but after he made it clear he would follow her around until she said yes, she changed her mind and agreed to be engaged. They married quickly in a registry office and then took a train straight to London, where her new husband took Sarah to a bank and encouraged her to withdraw all of her savings and hand them over to him for safekeeping. She had £300, which is equivalent to about £20,000 in today’s money. After this business was taken care of, the newlywed couple went on a trip to the National Gallery in central London. George asked Sarah to sit and wait for him in one of the rooms while he went to the toilet. She waited for an hour and he still didn’t appear, and when she asked the gallery attendants for help, they couldn’t find George either. Eventually she went back to the room they had rented in Clapham Junction, and found that George had been there before her and taken all of her jewellery and clothes, as well as the money she had drawn out from the bank. She did get to keep her life, though. The next bride wasn’t quite so lucky. Hear all about that, after the break.
The Fourth Bride
Her name was Bessie Mundy, and in 1910 while out for a walk in the Clifton area of Bristol, she met an attractive stranger called Henry Williams. Bessie lived in rented rooms and although she seems to have had a cordial relationship with her extended family back in Dorset, her parents were dead and she lived a relatively lonely life. She was 33, an age by which the societal convention of the time dictated that she should have already been married for half a decade or more. She was well off, having inherited a legacy of £2,500 when her father died (around £200,000 today), which her uncles had invested for her so that she had a stable and regular monthly income and therefore no need to work.
Her romance with Henry Williams was a whirlwind affair. A few short weeks after first meeting him, she accepted his proposal of marriage and they ran away without telling her family to Weymouth and got married. Henry was immediately very concerned about her income, and insisted that she make her uncles send her £123 she was owed in back interest immediately. Bessie was a bit taken aback, but she wrote to her relatives and, although they had serious doubts about her new husband and even took legal advice to see if they could withhold the money, they eventually had to send her a cheque. Immediately after it arrived, Henry had it cashed and then told his new wife that he had to go to London on business for a few days and would be back the following week. He never returned.
According to the couple’s landlady, Bessie had a “hysterical fit” when she found out what had happened, but eventually pulled herself together, paid off their debts in Weymouth with her remaining pennies, and went back to Bristol to restart her life. She even enrolled in college on a secretarial course with a view to getting a job once she had finished training. She had lost that money to Henry Williams, but the trust her uncles had created had protected the full amount of her legacy from him, and now her life was getting back on track.
But then, fatefully, she decided to take a short holiday to the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare on the west coast of England. And who should she run into there on the promenade one day, but Henry Williams? He was contrition itself, saying that he had believed himself to have venereal disease and had therefore abandoned her for her own protection, and then once he realised his mistake he couldn’t track her down again. Amazingly, rather than immediately running to the nearest policeman, Bessie swallowed this story, and the couple reunited. Bessie never returned to her secretarial course or to visit her family. She and Henry moved to another seaside resort, Ramsgate in Kent, and then to nearby Herne Bay where they rented a house and furnished it themselves.
Henry was very busy after their move, getting a local solicitor to draw up wills for them both, leaving all their property to their spouse, and making sure Bessie signed hers. He also purchased a cast iron bath and had it delivered to their new home, although it was never connected to a water supply, so had to be filled manually with jugs or buckets. Almost a week after the bath arrived, on 10 July, Henry took Bessie to a local doctor and told him that she had had a fit. He did most of the talking for her, but when the doctor asked if she had any history of fits or if anyone in her family had them, Bessie was at least able to reply in the negative. Although there was no physical evidence of any fit, the doctor took Henry at his word and prescribed Bessie some medicine to help should it happen again.
Three days later, on 13 July, the same doctor was summoned at 8 in the morning by a note from Henry Williams, who said to “come at once, I am afraid my wife is dead”. When he got there, the doctor found Bessie in the bath, her head below the level of the water, which had cooled to tepid. He lifted her out and attempted to resuscitate her, but she was already dead. Given the previous consultation for the supposed fit, it was presumed that she had had another fit while in the bath and drowned. A tragic, terrible accident.
Henry, intermittently distraught about his wife’s death, haggled hard over the price of the funeral and had Bessie buried quickly and inexpensively. He then sold the almost-new furniture, gave up the lease on the house and even managed to get all his money back for the bath, the shopkeeper apparently happily accepting it as a return.
The Fifth Bride
Her name was Alice Burnham, and she lived in Southsea on the south coast of England and worked as a nurse. In September 1913, she met a man called George Smith and a month later, she wrote to her family that she was going to marry him, and that the couple wanted to come and visit her childhood home before the wedding. George and Alice went, but the visit did not go well, with the Burnhams forming a very negative impression of their daughter’s fiancé, who seemed very argumentative and extremely concerned with his much money his future wife might be entitled to. Later, Alice’s father Charles said that he sensed “something evil” about George. But in the moment, he did no more than tell his daughter to take her fiancé away, and withhold his blessing on their marriage.
They were married about a month later, without Alice’s family present. The day before the wedding, Alice handed in her notice at work and, at George’s behest, took out a substantial insurance policy on her own life. The couple then departed on a honeymoon to another seaside resort, this time in the north of England, Blackpool. There, they looked for lodgings, with George rejecting at least one place because it did not have a bath. After several days there, Alice had a persistent headache and George insisted on her seeing a doctor, who couldn’t find much wrong with her but prescribed some general remedies for good health. A couple of days after that visit, Alice took a bath one evening. Shortly after, the landlady in the kitchen below noticed water dripping through the ceiling, and assumed their guest had allowed the bath to overflow. About twenty minutes later, they heard George shouting that a doctor must be summoned, and someone ran for the one Alice had seen about her headache. Doctor Billing found Alice insensible in the bath, her husband supporting her head above the water. They lifted her out, but could not revive her. An inquest held the next day returned a verdict of accidental death, assuming that Alice had died of heart failure from a too hot bath. Her husband of six weeks buried her in Blackpool with the minimum of expense, and then departed. Alice’s family, telegraphed the news of her death by George, arrived just in time to attend the burial.
The Sixth Bride
Her name was Alice Reavil, and in September 1914 while on holiday in Bournemouth, she met a man called Charles Oliver James who came up to her on the promenade to talk about the weather and then told her he admired her figure. After four days of acquaintance, he asked her to marry him and she accepted. He asked her to sell her existing furniture and draw her savings out of the bank and give him the whole lot for “safe keeping”. Three weeks after they had first met, they went to London as husband and wife, where they moved into rented rooms in Battersea. The next day, they went for a walk in a nearby park and Charles asked Alice to wait on a bench for him while he went to the lavatory. She waited an hour and he didn’t reappear, so she went back to their room to find that he had taken anything of any value and left a letter saying he had gone to Canada. Alice lost her life savings, but perhaps surprisingly was never encouraged to take a bath — lending credence to Jane Robins theory about class. Alice, before her marriage, had like Edith Pegler worked as a domestic servant.
The Last Bride
Her name was Margaret Lofty, and she really, really wanted to get married. She had already had one engagement end in misery when it turns out that her husband to be was already married to someone else. A few months later, one afternoon in mid December she told her mother and sister, who she lived with in Bristol, that she was going out for the afternoon for tea. In fact, she went to the Post Office to withdraw her savings of £20 and then kept her appointment to meet a man named John Lloyd, who took her by train to Bath where he had arranged accommodation for the night. The next day, the pair travelled to Highgate in London, where Lloyd had already been in advance to sort out rooms, rejecting an option without a bath in favour of a house with one. Two days later, they got married at a registry office. On the evening of their wedding day, John took Margaret to see a local doctor, telling him that his wife had had a bad headache. She barely spoke, but the doctor thought she seemed a bit dazed and she had an elevated temperature — he suspected she might have the flu. He gave her some medicine and told her to return if she felt worse. The next day, John took his wife to see a solicitor so that she could make a will in his favour — she already had life insurance she had arranged before their marriage.
That evening, Margaret went up to take a bath, and the landlady downstairs heard a noise of splashing, followed by a sigh. Then she heard the organ in the sitting room being played — John was playing the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee”, which was the music the band were said to have played on the Titanic as the ship sank. A few minutes later he summoned the landlady to help because he had found his wife insensible in the bath. The landlady ran outside and found a constable, who attempted to revive Margaret with no success. Her funeral, which John haggled over the cost of fiercely, took place just before Christmas.
You don’t need to be a master sleuth to work out that all of these men — George, Charles, John, and so on — were the same man. Over a couple of decades, he honed a method of meeting women by chance, often in seaside resorts, and quickly convincing them to marry him. In some cases, he just robbed them, and in others he drowned them in a bath in such a way as to make it look like an accident, then claimed on the life insurance and disappeared. He had a type — usually a slightly older, middle class woman, often over 30, who was conventional enough to be desperate for matrimony because life alone was too unorthodox or difficult — and he was ruthless in seeking them out.
He was only caught in 1915 because the News of the World covered the death of Margaret Lofty, and the father of Alice Burnham saw it. It was a terrible mistake of George’s (his real name was George Joseph Smith, by the way) to go to London, where the national newspapers were based and interesting, tragic deaths like that of a bride just after her wedding would be reported and sent off around the country. The lack of records that had allowed him to assume so many different aliases and get married so many times undetected was finally trumped by the widespread distribution of newspapers. Charles Burnham sent a cutting about his own daughter’s death in the bath in Blackpool as well as the story about Margaret to his local police station, who in turn passed it on to Scotland Yard. Eventually, it arrived on the desk of Detective Inspector Arthur Neil, who doggedly set about piecing together the tale of the brides in the bath. Along with a pathologist called Bernard Spilsbury (more about him in a future episode), who conducted post mortars on the three dead brides, Neil eventually got his man in a trial that gripped the nation. Britain was at war, of course, but a serial killer with a magnetic personality and a seemingly-undectectable method of murder was much more interesting to both the press and the public. Spilsbury, by the way, conducted extensive experiments with “an experienced lady swimmer” to see how exactly one might drown a woman in a bathtub without leaving any marks of a struggle. By chance, he found that if the murderer were to approach by the feet, suddenly grasp the ankles and hoick the victim’s legs up so that their torso and head was suddenly plunged under the water, the change in pressure and rapid inflow of water into the lungs would kill almost instantly. The lady swimmer survived this experiment, as it happened, but it took them about half an hour to revive her, she swallowed so much water.
A decade after George Joseph Smith was executed for his crimes, his name had become a byword for the serial murderer who sticks to his method and yet somehow gets away with it. It’s in this guise that he is evoked in several well known novels of detective fiction’s golden age. Agatha Christie got in first, with Poirot remarking in 1923’s Murder on the Links that “Man is an unoriginal animal… The English murderer who disposed of his wives in succession by drowning them in their baths was a case in point. Had he varied his methods, he might have escaped detection to this day.” Peter Wimsey makes a similar point in 1927’s Unnatural Death, saying “Criminals always tend to repeat their effects. Look at George Smith and his brides”. In 1937’s Busman’s Honeymoon Wimsey makes a joke to his new wife Harriet Vane when a new acquaintances mentions a honeymoon in Herne Bay (“Monster, do your worst! There are only hip baths here,” she retorts). Christie was still using “brides in the bath” as a shorthand in 1964’s A Caribbean Mystery — Miss Marple gently points out that “If a man gets a formula that works he won’t stop. He’ll go on.”
Ernest Robertson Punshon, a member of the detection club alongside Sayers and Christie who isn’t quite so well read today, devoted an entire novel to this subject with 1936’s The Bath Mysteries. His detective, a Scotland Yard man called Bobby Owen, is drawn into a long and complicated insurance fraud that involves a long string of men seemingly by accident drowning in their baths. It’s a good yarn, and I recommend that you seek it out. Something that Punshon grasped about this case is the sheer mundane horror of it — at one point, when Owen is waiting in hiding with colleagues outside a house to surprise a suspect, they hear the noise of running water and one policeman says “There’s water running, that’s all. Someone’s having a bath.” Owen is seized with terror, because “having a bath” is no longer just that to him, an everyday act of ablution. Having a bath could now mean someone is about to be murdered.
Perhaps the best and most thought provoking use of the brides in the bath in fiction, though, is by Margery Allingham. Her short story “Three is a Lucky Number” from 1955 is based on it, with her main character Ronald Torbay stepping into Smith’s shoes and modus operandi:
“Each of his three marriages had followed the same pattern. Using a false name, he had gone on holiday to a place where no one knew him. There he had found a middle-aged, unattractive woman, with some money of her own and no family. He had talked her into marrying him, and she had then agreed to make a will which left him all her money. Both his other wives had been shy, too. He was very careful to choose the right type of woman: someone who would not make friends quickly in a new place.”
The main difference with the setup is that Allingham makes Torbay take longer between marriages; clearly she considered Smith’s haste (I think he actually married three women within the same year at one point, killing two of them) unrealistic for fiction. She also alters the means of killing, instead having Torbay put an electric heater in the bath, conceal it with bubbles, and wait for his wife to be in the water before turning the outlet on so that she would be electrocuted instantly.
The other big change is the agency of the final bride. In Allingham’s version, Edyth is not a hapless innocent going blindly to her death; she is far too self aware for that. “Did you not realise, Ronald, that any middle-aged woman who has been rushed into marriage to a stranger will ask herself about her husband’s reason for marrying her?,” she writes in the letter she leaves for him to find among her financial paperwork in her writing case. Once he conned her into making a will straight after their wedding and started fiddling around with the bathroom, she went to the police. Two undercover officers are living next door, having convinced her to help them catch Ronald in the act. She never got into the deadly bath, instead she climbed out the window and down a ladder she had stationed here ready under the cover of clearing leaves out of the gutter, going straight next door to alert her co-conspirators so they can catch Ronald in the act.
“I was stupid to marry you,” she writes, “but not quite as stupid as you thought.” With this story, Allingham belatedly gives Smith’s victims agency. She rewrites the ending, giving the last bride the murderer targeted for a watery death (in real life, it would have been Margaret Lofty) the glory of bringing him to justice. First published in a periodical in the mid 1950s as “Bluebeard’s Bathtub”, it was republished under several other titles, including “Bubble Bath No 3”, “Murder Under the Surface”, and finally “Three Is a Lucky Number”.
In Allingham’s version of the story, the brides have their revenge.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books and sources I’ve mentioned at the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/bridesinthebath. There, you can also read a full transcript.
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I’ll be back on 18 September with another episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: Knock Knock .