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The Magnificent Spilsbury

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The Magnificent Spilsbury
and the Case of the Brides in the Bath
By Jane Robins
John Murray Publishers, 2011
ISBN: 978-1848541092

Reviewed by Harry S. Chou - November 21, 2011

Bernard Spilsbury (1877-1947) was a British pathologist who was one of the first well-known expert witnesses both in and out of the courtroom - his area of expertise: forensic pathology. He entered the media spotlight in 1910 when he testified at the murder trial of Dr. Crippen. However, it was the 1915 murder trial of George Joseph Smith (1872-1915), a thief, bigamist, and murderer that established his fame as a medical detective. Smith became known as the Brides in the Bath murderer because of his habit of having his new wives take out life insurance policies that named him as the beneficiary and then drowning them in a bathtub a day or two later. It was this trial that truly brought the field of forensic pathology to the publics attention. Almost overnight, Spilsbury and the science he practiced, became regarded as infallible. In hindsight, Spilsbury was fallible, but that is another story...

The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath, by Jane Robins is a cross between a popular history and a biography, Robins begins by alternating chapters between looking at Spilsbury's life and work (including a chapter devoted to the Crippin murder trial), and the actions of Smith. With alacrity, Robins recounts how Smith wooed (using various names), married, and then murdered three women, Bessie Mundy, Alice Burnham, and Margaret Elizabeth Lofty. She then introduces Detective Inspector Arthur Neil, the man who was destined to put all the pieces together and determined that the three women did not die accidently, as was previously thought. Using good old-fashioned police work, Neil determined that all three women were married to the same man - despite the fact that he used a different name in each case, and that he murdered them after having them write out wills naming himself as heir, and taking life insurance policies in which he was the beneficiary. As Neil was to discover, these were not Smith's only wives. He did not always murder his wives, and merely robbed and deserted several of his wives. He also had one wife, his first, that he hung onto, and would return Edith Pegler whenever he did not have another woman in his life. Once caught, Robins provides a candid look at Smith's trial, the evidence presented, and the public reaction to the trial.

In writing this book, Robins not only recounts the case of the Brides in the Bath murders and the resulting trial, but also provides fascinating biographies of both Spilsbury and Smith. Most important, she provides a telling overview on how the science of forensic pathology developed, how Spilsbury became viewed in the courtroom and by the public as a real life medical detective along the lines of a Sherlock Holmes. She also looks at how evidence garnered by forensic pathology came to be accepted in the courtroom and how the public viewed forensic evidence. Robins also examines Spilsbury's later career and how his eminence faded over the years as people began to question how he obtained his evidence, and the conclusions that he derived upon viewing the collected evidence.

From first page till last, I found this to be a riveting book, not just because I'm interested in forensic science, but because The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath is also a work of social history that opens a window into a pivotal period of British history. It sheds light upon a time when many women were willing to marry basically anyone who asked simply because the alternative of remaining unwed was deemed so repugnant. It is also an interesting case to examine because Smith's murder trial took place against the backdrop of World War I, and despite the war and the Zeppelins filling the sky's over London, people still waited for hours for a chance of getting into the courtroom to get a glimpse of Smith. As well, his story filled the newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic. It was the O. J. Simpson trial of the period with all the accompanying fan fare and virtual stardom for the key players at the trial, notably the accused as well as Neil and Spilsbury.

The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath is a well written book and a must-read book for fans of true-crime stories, mystery afficionados (how Smith drowned his wives so that all the deaths appeared to be accidental has still not been satisfactorily solved), as well as those interested in the history of forensic science and criminal justice.


Related Reviews:

The Bewitching of Anne Gunter: A Horrible and True Story of Deception, Witchcraft, Murder, and the King of England, By James Sharpe.
A case study of Anne Gunter claim of demonic possession and the resulting witch trials - including her own.

Beating the Devil's Game: A History of Forensic Science and Criminal Investigation, by Katherine Ramsland.
Rather than focusing on modern crimes and current forensic technologies, this book looks at the history and evolution of forensic science and the development of crime scene and criminal investigation techniques.

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