Sunday, 7 February 2016

How does your worst-ever work mistake compare to Inspector Neil's terrifying "Brides in the Bath" experience in 1915?

When the News of the World published a story on 3rd January, 1915 headlined "FOUND DEAD IN BATH: BRIDE'S TRAGIC FATE ON DAY AFTER WEDDING", the bridegroom's fate was also sealed. Margaret Lofty, the newlywed who had drowned while taking a bath at the boarding house in Archway where the couple were honeymooning (!) was the third of George Joseph Smith's wives to die in similar circumstances. As he had used different names, and had committed the previous murders in different parts of the country, he would probably have got away with it again, had it not been for the newspaper story. Relatives of the first two victims read it, thought,"Hang on!" and contacted the police. Detective Inspector Arthur Neil, who was based at Kentish Town police station, investigated, Smith was arrested, and the three baths in which the women had drowned were collected together in one room.

There was no doubt that Smith - unless he was the unluckiest bridegroom in history - had murdered the three women. But how had he actually killed them? I've just read Truly Criminal: A Crime Writers' Association Anthology of True Crime, edited by Martin Edwards, in which 22 murder cases are described by a noted writer. In The Tale of Three Tubs, the excellent Peter Lovesey (Sergeant Cribb's creator) deals with with the famous Brides in the Bath case, concentrating on the baths in which the three women died. Now, we've all experienced gut-wrenching moments at work when we realise that we've just committed a a disastrous error of judgment which could mean the end of our careers: the one committed by Inspector Neil on the afternoon when he tried to pin down Smith's murderous modus operandi was particularly horrifying - and far more than his career was at stake:
[Inspector Neil] sought the help of a young woman swimmer "used to diving, plunging and swimming from early girlhood." All three baths were filled and "in each one demonstrations were given by this young lady in a swimming costume in many positions."
The volunteer must have been courageous to agree to climb into each bath in turn, knowing that a woman had died there, and was probably murdered. After a series of experiments to see whether there was a risk of accidental drowning as the woman lowered herself into the water and then leaned forward as if to wash her hair, she was asked to lie back and allow Neil to put pressure on her forehead and force her head under the water. It wasn't the answer. She grabbed the sides to save herself.
The next experiment almost resulted in another drowning. Neil wanted to test sudden immersion, so without warning he grasped the young woman's legs and lifted them. She slid below the water and showed no resistance. 
To his horror, Neil realised she had lost consciousness. He raised one of her arms and it was lifeless. He and his colleagues lifted her limp body from the bath. "For nearly half an hour my detectives and I worked away at her with artificial respiration and restoratives." That must have been one of the worst half-hours of Neil's life. Eventually, the life-saving efforts worked. Some colour returned to the subject's face. When able to speak, she said the water had rushed into her mouth and up her nostrils and she remembered nothing else until her consciousness returned. 
I don't know about you, but that genuinely brought me out in a cold sweat the first time I read it. The forensic pathologist on the case, the great Bernard Spilsbury, disapproved of Neil's actions when he he heard about them. Nevertheless, it gave the investigators the answer they needed, and made it easier to ensure a guilty verdict and an appointment with the hangman's rope for an appallingly callous psychopath.

Enthralling book - Martin Edwards is a superb anthologist.


  1. showers are clearly safer unless you are staying at the Bates Motel.

    1. As I'm nearly a foot longer than our bath, I feel pretty safe.


    The hard working design agency staff in Vermont who created the above arresting logo for Sanders Supporters must be credible contenders.

    1. Well, they're young, feel let down by the establishment, and they're trying to get an extreme socialist elected - the logo sort of suits them!

  3. Yes it may well do. Bernie's ethnic connections dovetail nicely with the cast of characters in a most interesting and award - winning book by Bryan Rigg , PhD (Cantab).