Rob Hardy on books


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CSI a Hundred Years Ago



Rob Hardy


Newspaper readers in England in the 1920s were familiar with the headline, "Spilsbury Called In." It meant that there was a murder mystery and the top medical investigator was on the job. Bernard Spilsbury is forgotten now, but he had a spectacular career. The story of one of the most gruesome series of crimes Dr. Spilsbury ever researched is told in The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath (John Murray) by Jane Robins. Spilsbury is, however, mostly a supporting character in this story, although his evidence did secure a verdict of murder. Robins has not only told the story of the crimes and Spilsbury's involvement in their solution, but has told much about the relationship between the sexes at the time, the women's suffrage movement, the social changes within the First World War, and much more. She has dug through research in the National Archives, Spilsbury's original notes, and the reports of the press at the time. The resolution of the case will not be a surprise; as Robins tells the story of serial killings, the murderer's guilt is obvious. There are, however, some reflections on Spilsbury's methods at the end that do provide a surprise and much to think about. 




Robins sets the sociology of the time skillfully. In 1910, when the book opens, more boys than girls died in infancy, and large numbers of young men were leaving Britain for the colonies. There was a surfeit of women, and a sense of despair among unmarried women that they had nothing before them except work of low status and low pay. This was a problem given the name "the surplus women." George Joseph Smith (aka George Oliver Love, aka Henry Williams, and aka other names as he married along his criminal way), a man of no means in his early forties, was able to take advantage of this imbalance. There were three surplus women victims; Bessie Munday who died in 1912, Alice Burnham in 1913, and Margaret Lofty in 1915. Smith's pattern in the marriages was similar. He would approach the woman who would otherwise not attract a man's attention due to her plainness or age. He had a beguiling personality (many later felt he had hypnotized the women), and the women were grateful for his care toward them. Such care included making sure that their wills were in order, that they took out life insurance, and that they visited a physician about some minor complaint. He had each wife write her family for any moneys she was due; these were not rich women, but he was going to get all he could. He also made sure that when man and wife moved in together, the new home was equipped with a bathtub, even purchasing a bath for installation if one was needed. He contrived to be ostensibly out of the house or in some other way inaccessible at the time that each wife drowned in her bath. Minutes after the death of one he was belting out "Nearer My God to Thee" on the harmonium, feigning ignorance of her plight. On the day he was burying another victim (they all got the cheapest of funerals), he confided to an acquaintance, "Wasn't it a jolly good job I got her to make out her will?" 




Perhaps there would have been a fourth victim, or more, if the father of one of the women had not read in the papers similarities about the third death and that of his daughter. He sent the clippings about the murders to his local police, who forwarded them to those in the town of the third mysterious demise. The tenacious Detective Inspector Arthur Neil was on the case. He visited the scene of the crime, and could not believe anyone could have drowned accidentally in that particular bath. Neil found enough evidence that the deaths were linked, and arranged for Smith, when he went to collect an insurance payout, to be arrested. Relatives and friends of the dead women confirmed that Smith was the one who had married each woman (and it turned out he had a standing marriage with a woman in Canada, as well). Neil's problem, though, was that at each death, the local coroner, unaware of any pattern, had determined that the drowning was accidental; after all, each woman had been recently diagnosed with fits or headaches or a weak heart. There was no documentation of any struggle. 




Enter Spilsbury. He had worked obsessively in the unfashionable, physically demanding, and gruesome field of forensic pathology. He might not have been an intellectual giant or a scientist of genius, but he was dogged and eager to devote his time to the strange art and science of reading corpses. As pathologists did, he toiled away in the morgue, but some such workers got tapped to go make a presentation in the courtroom. "When the forensic pathologist left the hospital for the public stage," writes Robins, "and took the role of 'expert witness,' he was transformed into a powerful figure who might, through his evidence, set a man free or send him to the gallows." Spilsbury's initial star turn came with the 1910 trial of the infamous Dr. Crippen, buried within whose cellar was found the decomposing body identified as his wife. Spilsbury had identified a scar line on a patch of decomposing skin that correlated with a previous operation. Called into the Smith case, he exhumed the bodies of the three victims, finding no evidence of prior illness or poisoning. He enlisted the help of a "very fine lady swimmer," and did experiments in baths similar to the ones in which Smith's victims had died. These experiments were so successful that the lady swimmer was nearly drowned in them. Spilsbury was convinced that Smith had casually approached each woman while she was bathing, and then pulled up her legs suddenly so that her head went under and she drowned almost instantly.  




He was so to testify at the Old Bailey in Smith's trial in 1915. Smith's defense was handled by the greatest barrister of his day, the handsome and theatrical Edward Marshall Hall. Robins frames part of the trial as a duel between a pathologist who could not let emotions overpower the path of pure reason and the defense attorney who made spellbinding emotional oratory. Spilsbury was to carry the day, giving testimony about the physical positioning of the bodies and about a peculiar finding of something called "goose flesh" found in cases of sudden death, in particular sudden death from drowning. Spilsbury was a splendid witness, and won the praise of the public and of the medical establishment of the time. His confidence and assertiveness of pathological facts also won the case, and doomed Smith, who went to the hangman protesting that he was innocent. 




Spilsbury was compared in his time to Sherlock Holmes, and can be held to be the founding archetype of medical forensics and of the expert medical witness. Time, though, has not been kind to him. "Goose flesh" is "now regarded as so much nonsense," for instance, and even the tissue on which he memorably found the scar of Mrs. Crippen has been determined to be from someone else. Spilsbury presented the best science of his time (and incidentally, it is hard to see how all those brides could have died other than at Smith's murderous hands), and that was sufficient. Robins concludes that "... courts are still faced with the problem of the changing nature of science and, its close relative, the need to distinguish good science from bad." Her detailed account of horrifying crimes helps explain how this important line of thought started.



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