John Murray £16.99

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

How a cult pathologist condemned a lady killer

The title of this book is slightly misleading. Bernard Spilsbury, the celebrated pathologist of the early 20th century, is not the focus; the "brides" are, along with what their stories tell us about marriage and morals in a Britain where women didn't have the right to vote. Or, for that matter, too many other rights. As the person who supplied the evidence that clinched the guilty verdict in the trial of the bigamous psychopath and serial killer George Joseph Smith (aka George Oliver Love, aka Henry Williams, aka John Lloyd, etc), Spilsbury figures heavily, but only as a vital supporting character. His tale is the story of the rise of science in legal evidence, and also of the cult of personality in the reporting of prominent legal actions. And standing against science we have Smith's barrister, Edward Marshall Hall, a frustrated actor-manager with a shaky grasp of legal procedure but a spellbinding way with words.

So, as well as being a gripping, pacy account of a gruesome murder trial, this book is also a compelling piece of social history, saying much about the progress made in the first 30 years of the past century. Jane Robins is very strong on historical context: Smith's first murder comes shortly after the sinking of the Titanic, while his trial occurs at the height of the First World War, and Robins makes connections with both without straining the reader's patience or credulity.

The details of the basic relationships between Smith and his doomed brides say much about the time. How did he get his hooks in? Robins sets the scene skilfully. The mortality of male infants being higher than that of females had left a massive imbalance which favoured males seeking a partner, and leaving what were known as the "surplus women". Men could, without shame, advertise for brides and specify a dowry.

Smith's victims Bessie Munday, Alice Burnham and Margaret Lofty were all surplus women – ladies who had been prevented by advancing years or plainness from attracting the attention of a man. When one came along and swept them off their feet, they were too dazzled and/or pathetically grateful to question why he was arranging their wills or suggesting that they take out life insurance. That such a man would assume the name Love can possibly be seen as a sick joke. Marshall Hall came to believe in his client's guilt, but believed that he had hypnotised the victims into drowning themselves. Whether this was oblivious, or a sly reference, to his own hypnotic qualities in the court room will never be clear.

Just as Marshall Hall prided himself on the ability of his oratory to get any defendant off the hook, it looks likely that Spilsbury was himself guilty of mind control, his reputation becoming sufficient that his presence in a court room was enough to condemn a defendant. Some of his conclusions are, with hindsight, utter cobblers. Spilsbury's evidence against Smith was indicative rather than conclusive, and it was the dogged determination and relentless logic of the arresting detective, Arthur Neil, which made it compelling. This time around, the right man had been fingered, but the success of the trial was a major contributor to Spilsbury becoming unimpeachable for much of the rest of his career – something he came to relish. To be fair, pioneers in any field have to make mistakes, but in murder trials with hanging as the ultimate sanction, the stakes were unusually high.

An author tackling a story like this has to fight hard to avoid tipping into prurience and ghoulishness. Robins wins the fight, and shines a light on a dark age for women.

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