13 August 1915: The ‘Brides in the Bath’ murderer is hanged

Exactly 100 years ago, one of the early 20th century’s most notorious murderers found justice at the end of the hangman’s rope. His name was George Joseph Smith, but he was better known to the press as the Brides in the Bath murderer.

Between 1898 and 1914, Smith ‘married’ four different women using various aliases, except for one: his young housekeeper, Edith Mabel Pegler, whom he married under his real name in July 1908. Two of these women he robbed before moving onto his next victim.

In 1910, things took a darker turn. Bessie Constance Mundy was a single 31-year-old woman, whose finances were looked after for her by her uncle in a trust fund containing £2,500 in gilt-edged securities.

Smith married her and demanded of her uncle that he transfer the money. This being done, Smith swindled the money out of her, but this time, Smith didn’t leave.

Despite assuring her doctor she felt fine on 10 July, Smith insisted his wife was suffering from seizures. The doctor could see nothing wrong, but prescribed sedatives anyway. Two days later, Smith told the doctor that his wife had suffered another episode. On the third visit the next day, Smith told the doctor his wife was dead. She had suffered a fit in the bath, he said, and she had drowned.

Two more women, Alice Burnham and Margaret Elizabeth Lofty, would later be found dead in the bath under similar suspicious circumstances. Each time, Smith would arrange the finances in his favour, return home to report the tragedy, feign grief, and then insist on a pauper’s burial, none of which was lost on Detective Inspector Arthur Neil.

Confronting the suspect with his various aliases, Detective Neil extracted a confession, which Smith later denied in court. But the game was up. Drawing on the latest in forensic science, Neil proved to the court how Smith had killed his victims.

With the help of a courageous female nurse, Neil demonstrated that if someone is violently plunged unexpectedly into water, the shock can bring on a heart attack – which is what happened to the nurse. To the relief of everyone, she was successfully resuscitated.

With the evidence stacked against him, the jury took just 18 minutes to deliver a guilty verdict, and Smith was sentenced to hang. It was the first case in English law where the use of a serial murderer’s ‘system’ had been used to secure a conviction.

In a poignant note, The Times reported on “one of the great ironies” as mentioned by the defence council in his summing up – namely, that while thousands of young men were daily subjected to wholesale slaughter in the trenches of the First World War, the court was meticulously ruminating on the fate of one man. But this was, nevertheless, the right thing to do.

“In England, in this national crisis, we tried to carry on business as usual, we hoped with confidence for victory as usual, and we were determined to maintain justice as usual… as if this were a time of peace, instead of one of the greatest world disturbances ever known in history”.

Also on this day

13 August 1521: The fall of the Aztec Empire

Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec Empire, fell to the Spanish conquistadors on this day in 1521, bringing an end to Aztec rule. Read more here.