This book is about Bernard Spilsbury a forensic pathologist whose scientific mind was compared to that of the famous detective Sherlock Holmes through his appearances at murder trials as an expert witness in Edwardian Britain.
As a backdrop to the man himself, Jane Robins retraces the story of three suspected murders known at the time as The Brides In The Bath because in each case the woman in question had been found dead in the bath shortly after being married. In the case of the first two women the deaths were put down to fitting or fainting whilst bathing, but when the father of one of these women read a newspaper article about a very similar death he campaigned to Inspector Neil to investigate. In turn Neil turned to Spilsbury, but there was one problem, murder by drowning is unusual, the only records were the pitiful bundles where mothers had murdered their offspring. That wasn’t to stop Spilsbury though, he worked night and day testing his ideas, either in the mortuary or in the lab in his house and soon bodies were exhumed and theories espoused. In one chilling experiment to work out how the women could have been killed without a struggle female swimmers dressed in bathing costumes were recruited for experimentation.
She slipped under easily, but to me, who was closely watching, she seemed to make no movement. Suddenly I gripped her arm, it was limp. With a shout I tugged at her arm-pit and raised her head above the water It fell over to one side. She was unconscious. For nearly half an hour my detectives and I worked away at her with artificial respiration and restoratives. Things began to look serious, and then a quick change began to take place, and her pretty face began to take on the bloom of young healthy womanhood. It had given us all a turn, so practical demonstrations in baths were from that moment promptly discontinued.
Thank goodness for that!
Jane Robins does far more than simply recount the murders of the women in question though, with a chapter devoted to each of the murder victims, she also seeks to explain why they would have married a man so quickly and then proceeded to acquiesce so totally to their husband’s demands, such as visiting a doctor with symptoms of a headache, writing letters to their families which had clearly been dictated and agreeing to bathe in a boarding house without securing the door. The answer proposed is the need for marriage was at the forefront of every woman’s mind, there was a shortage of men even before the First World War and the need to keep that man, the place woman held in society and in part the way the man George Joseph Smith behaved, some suggested his approach was hypnotic.
Of course the subject of the book didn’t just spring to prominence as a forensic expert, Jane Robbins also uses the case of Dr Crippen who was tried for murder in 1910 to illustrate how Spilsbury became so prominent in the field.
Under cross-examination, Spilsbury supported Augustus Pepper, stating that the person who had removed the viscera ‘must have had considerable dexterity and considerable anatomical knowledge’…. Re-examined by the prosecution he said, loud and clear: ‘It is beyond doubt that this is a scar…. There is my opinion, no room for doubt that the mark was a scar’
It was this trial that really sealed the role of the medical expert in criminal trials of this nature and although with the advances in science over the last one hundred years may have thrown some doubt on Spilsbury’s assertion, in this case a man was hanged on his evidence.
This is a fascinating book following the investigations into two major trials in the early part of the twentieth century when forensic evidence was being used for the first time. This, as pointed out by Jane Robins, dovetailed neatly with the popularity of a new type of fictional detective, the esteemed and scientifically minded Sherlock Holmes. From this time on, murderers could no longer rely on luck to escape the law, science was allowing the victims a voice and men like Spilsbury were able to read the clues left behind. I suspect from reading this book that Bernard Spilsbury as well as being incredibly dedicated to his role got something of an ego boost from the unusual type of fame it afforded him.
I recommend this book to any lover of historical true crime, Jane Robins writes in an accessible way neatly separating the book into chapters complemented by a light historical lesson in the changes that this period was experiencing.