The ‘Brides in the Bath’ murder case was an international sensation at a time when millions were dying in the trenches of World War One and Zeppelins were flying over London.
It is the story of three women who died in almost identical circumstances shortly after marrying a bigamous swindler called George Joseph Smith.
Smith’s crimes only came to light after the third victim was found drowned in a bathtub in Highgate, north London.
Margaret Lofty was 38 years old and desperate to escape spinsterhood when she met Smith – then using the name of John Lloyd – in late 1914.
On December 17 that year, a week after taking out a £700 life insurance policy, she married him at Bath Registry Office before taking a train to London and renting a room at 14 Bismarck Road (now Waterlow Road).
The following day the couple went to a solicitor’s office on Islington High Street to draw up a will leaving all of Margaret’s possessions to her husband.
At just before 8pm, Margaret took a bath. A few minutes later the landlady heard the sound of splashing, a noise like someone grabbing the side of the tub and then a sigh. Moments later a song started to play on the harmonium. It was ‘Nearer My God to Thee’, the hymn supposedly played as the Titanic sank.
Her husband then left the house, supposedly to buy tomatoes for supper, and on his return made a show of not getting an answer when he knocked on the bathroom door.
The landlady Louisa Blatch responded to his call for help and saw him trying to get his wife out of the bath. Her body was cold, her lips blue and swollen, and froth was coming from her nose and mouth. There were no signs of a struggle and the doctor carrying out the postmortem believed she must have fainted in the bath. Margaret was buried at Islington Cemetery on December 23 and on January 1 an inquest recorded a verdict of accidental death. ‘John Lloyd’ then disappeared owing 10s in rent.
The truth only emerged because of the suspicions of a Mr Charles Burnham, whose daughter had also drowned in a bath at a boarding house in Blackpool a year earlier.
In January 1915 he sent newspaper clippings about both the Blackpool and Highgate cases to Detective Inspector Arthur Neil at Scotland Yard and asked him to investigate.
The following month the police arrested George Smith as he visited his solicitor’s office in Uxbridge Road, Shepherd’s Bush.
A week later, on February 8, the detectives learned that a third woman, Bessie Mundy, had drowned in a bathtub in Herne Bay on July 13, 1912. Her husband, a man by the name of Henry Williams, had collected more than £2,500 left in her will drawn up five days before her death.
Witnesses and relatives of the victims quickly confirmed that John Lloyd and Henry Williams were in fact George Joseph Smith, born on January 11, 1872, at 90 Roman Road in Bethnal Green, east London.
As the investigation continued a series of women came forward to say that they too had fallen prey to George Smith. It emerged that Smith had made a habit of pursuing women, marrying them and then disappearing with all their money. Only the first marriage, to an 18 year-old baker’s assistant in 1898, was genuine. There were seven other ‘wives’ including the three murder victims.
On June 22, 1915, Smith went on trial at the Old Bailey for the murder of Bessie Mundy (the murders of Alice Burnham and Margaret Lofty were used as supporting evidence). The case was notorious not only because of the dominating, almost hypnotic figure of George Joseph Smith but also the role of pathologist Bernard Spilsbury, said to be the ‘father of modern forensics.’
Spilsbury, who also gave evidence in the trials of Dr Crippen and Frederick Seddon, came up with the theory that Smith yanked the victims’ feet up as they lay in the bath, causing their heads to sink under the water. The sudden rush of water into their nose and mouth caused them to lose consciousness and quickly drown.
The jury took 22 minutes to find Smith guilty of murder on July 1. He was executed on August 13, 1915, his last words to the hangman being: ‘I am innocent.’
Image 1) Alice Burnham, murdered in 1913 by her husband George Smith.
Image 2) First victim: Bessie Mundy was killed by Smith in 1912. He planned her murder by claiming she had epileptic fits.
Image 3) Margaret Lofty, who died in 1914 at his hands. Both were said to have suffered headaches and drowned in the bath tub.