Monday, 23 January 2012



In 1915, the nation was temporarily transfixed by the 'Brides in the Bath' murders. At a time of such horror on the Western Front, George Joseph Smith's three murders were a talking point.

A man named as Henry Williams was arrested in London and charged with bigamy. After a whirlwind courtship, he had ‘married’ the genteel, Bessie Mundy, in August 1910, taking off within weeks with her savings. Over the next two years, using a variety of aliases, Williams pursued the same course with several women.

Then, in March 1912, perhaps by chance, he met Bessie again and she forgave him unhesitatingly. Off the couple went to Herne Bay where they set up house at 80 The High Street. This time they made wills in each other’s favour. On 10 July 1912, Williams took his wife to the doctor, concerned that she was having epileptic fits. She had not known that she was suffering fits until her husband told her but her husband explained to her that several nights, in bed, she had had a fit.. Three days later, Bessie was found drowned in a small zinc bath in front of the fire. The doctor had no doubt that she had had a fit. The widower arranged the funeral, asking for it to be ‘moderately carried out’ at the cost of seven guineas. The zinc bath, for which he had paid 37 shillings and 6 pence on approval, he returned later to the hardware store. Now affluent with the money from Bessie’s will, he purchased several houses in Bath and opened accounts in several names in various banks.

Two other women suffered a similar fate. First, Alice Burnham married him on 3 November 1913 and, heavily insured, died in a bath in Blackpool eight days later. She had the cheapest possible funeral. Moving on and calling himself John Lloyd, the constant widower met Margaret Lofty, a clergyman’s daughter with little cash but a good insurance prospect. They married on 17 December 1914 and the following evening, in Holloway, shortly after neighbours heard him singing ‘Nearer my God to Thee’ with harmonium accompaniment, she too was found in the bath. It was a too good a story for newspapermen to ignore. The headline ‘Bride’s Tragic Fate’ in the News of the World led Alice Burnham’s suddenly suspicious father to contact the police.

At the Old Bailey, George Joseph Smith, the ‘Brides in the Bath’ murderer, was tried for the murder of Bessie Mundy who had always believed herself to be Mrs Williams. It was demonstrated in court how, by pulling Bessie's heels, he had submerged her in the bath. Found guilty, Smith was executed at Maidstone Gaol on 13 August 1915.

But what has always stuck in my mind is the image of Smith going back to the hardware shop with the bath which he had on approval. How on earth can you buy a bath on approval? How on earth could he bring himself to return it One thing is sure, this second-hand salesman, was avaricious beyond measure. For his victim's coffins, nothing but the cheapest would satisfy him..

And then the business of singing 'Nearer my God to Thee.' This was to suggest that at that moment all was well in the house. Shortly after this Smith went out to buy something at the local shops and then, on his return, he went almost immediately to a neighbour to tell her that his wife had drowned in the bath. Actually, she was dead earlier than this, lying there while he sang the hymn. And was there a grim humour behind his choice of hymn? Or was he just so insensitive that he did not connect the words with the deed?

And just a last question? Were there only three women who suffered in ths way? Smith toured the country, buying goods for his second-hand business. But from 1910 till 1915 did he meet only three gullible women? Does it not seem likely that this undoubted charmer - unprepossessing to look at though he was - attracted more such vulnerable ladies?

Monday, 2 January 2012



At the Sussex Assizes held in Chichester in March 1805, there were 29 prisoners for trial of whom 15 were sentenced to death. Their offences ranged from sheep stealing and the theft of bridles and saddles to the theft of £3 in notes by a 14 year old boy. None involved murder or manslaughter. Fifteen of those charged were sentenced to death but as was common, at the end of the Assizes, before the judges left town, they reprieved seven people.

But one decision on this occasion reveals something of our forefathers' attitudes. Certainly they were not thirsting for revenge. But this example shows that there was a concern that a condemned girl should have time to reflect on her offence and to make her peace with God before her execution. It is her state of mind, the hope that she will accept her punishment and ask for God's mercy, and not the ultimate price she will pay which most concerns the writer of the following passage in the Sussex Advertiser.

'The unhappy young woman, for the murder of her bastard child, was to have suffered on Thursday last, but being represented to the Judge that her mind was in a state of distraction from the effects of her sentence, he humanely granted her a respite...'

Note that. '...he humanely granted her a respite.' Not a reprieve.

The paragraph continues: '… until her mind should become more quiet, and she was better reconciled to her melancholy fate...'

As if the more time she had to ponder over what was going to happen to her so much the better for her!

'...but of this she betrays no symptoms, as her excessive perturbation continues, and shuts out all hope of consolation, and her death is, we hear, in consequence, daily expected.'

This account is not devoid of sympathy for the young woman but it clearly accepts, with some regret, that the law must run its course.

Enough to make you weep? Well, in reaching guilty verdicts and in handing down the ultimate punishment, both jurors and judges were known to weep. Small wonder.