Murders most foul: The dapper knight who sunk the ‘brides in the bath’ killer
Our brilliant new series began in Saturday’s Weekend magazine with a countdown of the 80 most compelling True Crime TV shows and podcasts available.
It continues all this week in the Mail with four-page specials featuring stories from our archives — with Crimes of Passion, Rough Justice, Serial Killers and Unsolved Crimes to come.
But today Christopher Stevens explores the Super Sleuths who nabbed some of our most notorious killers…
Today we call it ‘gaslighting’ — using lies and manipulation to make a victim doubt their own senses.
The word comes from a 1944 Hollywood thriller in which Ingrid Bergman believes she must be losing her sanity: the gaslights in her home seem to be flickering and dimming, yet her husband insists it’s all in her imagination.
But this cruel psychological trickery was used by a killer to cover up a string of murders decades earlier.
And it was uncovered by a man many regard as the greatest forensics expert who ever lived: Sir Bernard Spilsbury.
George Joseph Smith is pictured with one of his wives and victims, ‘Bessie’ Mundy. Smith persuaded Bessie that she was epileptic, suffering from fits so sudden and violent that she couldn’t even remember them
George Joseph Smith was a bigamist and a conman, who grew up in a Victorian East End reform school.
He married in his 20s to Caroline, a teenage bootmaker so besotted with him she went to jail after he persuaded her to steal from her employers.
For the next ten years Smith, handsome, muscular and charming with striking grey eyes, preyed on women.
In 1910, he married a bank manager’s daughter, Beatrice Constance Mundy, known as Bessie, who happened to have a fortune of £2,500 (£300,000 today) from her parents.
Over two years, he worked away at her self-doubts, ‘gaslighting’ her until she no longer trusted her own mind.
Smith persuaded Bessie that she was epileptic, suffering from fits so sudden and violent that she couldn’t even remember them. Gradually, she became convinced her illness was real, and went to her GP to report it.
The next morning, Smith sent a hurriedly pencilled note to the doctor: ‘Come at once, my wife is dead.’ She had drowned in their cast-iron bath tub, a recent purchase.
The death was ruled an accident, and Smith inherited his wife’s fortune. Then he took the bath tub back to the shop for a refund and disappeared.
Smith reveals the body of his next wife Alice to his landlady. The death was again ruled accidental. But Alice’s father Charles, a fruit grower, was suspicious
Three years later, he married a ‘pretty and plump’ nurse in Southsea named Alice Burnham, and took out a £500 insurance policy (worth £60,000 today) on her life.
Before they had been married three months, she reported to her doctor that she was suffering from unexplained fainting fits.
One evening her landlady Mrs Crossley saw water dripping down her kitchen wall from the bathroom above. Before she could go upstairs, Smith came in looking rumpled with a bag.
‘I’ve been out to buy these eggs for our breakfast,’ he said. He went upstairs and moments later, shouted to Mrs Crossley to fetch a doctor. Alice was dead in her bath. The death was again ruled accidental.
But Alice’s father Charles, a fruit grower, was suspicious. He scanned the papers for more news of Smith — and a year later was staggered to read that he had married again — to a woman named Margaret who was found dead in her bath on the day after their wedding. Her life had been insured for £700 (£84,000 today).
Mrs Louisa Blatch — their landlady in Highgate, North London — confided in police that, on the night Margaret died, she had heard strange noises from the bathroom upstairs, while she was ironing in her kitchen.
Expert witness: Sir Bernard Spilsbury is pictured in his lab at St Bart’s hospital. Giving evidence at the Old Bailey, Spilsbury emphasised how easy it was to drown a victim in just a few inches of water — while accidental death was ‘almost an impossibility’
First she heard splashing, and then a creaking sound like wet hands being rubbed along the metal bath, and finally a long sigh.
Shortly after that, Smith left the house, then returned saying he’d bought tomatoes for his wife’s supper. Later that evening he announced he’d found her dead in her bath.
Police tied the three cases together and declared Smith a serial bigamist: his marriage to his first wife, Caroline, had never been dissolved. But they had no way to prove the deaths of the ‘Brides in the Bath’ were not some monstrous coincidence.
Then they called in Sir Bernard Spilsbury. Tall, charismatic and always impeccably dressed with a carnation in his buttonhole, he was described by the Mail as ‘the greatest criminologist of his time’ who ‘might have stepped into the world from the pages of a detective novel’.
A pathologist who conducted 20,000 autopsies during his career, Spilsbury argued that all three women had been murdered by Smith using the same method, in such a way as to leave no mark.
He set out to prove it with an experiment. A bath tub was filled and a nurse in a swimsuit got in. Spilsbury grabbed her ankles and tugged hard. As her head was jerked underwater she gasped, and water rushed up her nose into her throat.
The pressure this put on the vagus nerve in her neck caused her to black out instantly.
The experiment was almost too successful, and the half-drowned nurse had to be revived.
Giving evidence at the Old Bailey, Spilsbury emphasised how easy it was to drown a victim in just a few inches of water — while accidental death was ‘almost an impossibility’.
If Smith grasped his wives by the ankles and pulled hard, ‘death might follow in a second or so after submersion’.
Sir Bernard’s greatest cases
Nabbed by dentures
When Rosaline Fox’s body was found in a burned-out Margate hotel room in October 1929, it appeared the 63-year-old widow was too badly burned for the cause of death to be established.
Her son Sidney (left with his mother), had raised the alarm, and at first the coroner recorded a verdict of misadventure. But detectives discovered Mrs Fox’s life was insured for £3,000 (about £180,000 today), to be paid to her son — and the policy was due to run out the day after she died.
Spilsbury was called in to examine the body and found she had drunk a large amount of port before she died.
Crucially, he also proved that during her death throes she had bitten her tongue badly, yet her false teeth were in a glass on the washstand. A jury decided Fox was guilty and he was hanged in April 1930.
Her son Sidney (above with his mother), had raised the alarm, and at first the coroner recorded a verdict of misadventure. But detectives discovered Mrs Fox’s life was insured for £3,000 (about £180,000 today), to be paid to her son — and the policy was due to run out the day after she died
Spilsbury’s most celebrated court appearance helped to convict Dr Hawley Crippen (below) in 1910, who was caught with his lover Ethel Le Neve as he tried to flee Britain on a transatlantic liner.
Crippen’s wife had disappeared and Spilsbury was able to prove human remains found in a cellar were hers, thanks to microscopic examination of a piece of skin with a unique scar.
Spilsbury’s most celebrated court appearance helped to convict Dr Hawley Crippen (below) in 1910
The second bullet
In another case he examined the body of a Polish officer slumped in an armchair with two bullet wounds.
The suspect, another officer referred to in court only as ‘Colonel X’, claimed the gun had gone off accidentally during a struggle.
But Spilsbury proved the first shot had killed the man, and the second wound was inflicted after he was dead.
Spilsbury gave evidence in the murder case in 1919 of Kitty Armstrong, wife of a Hay-on-Wye solicitor, who died suddenly after suffering gastric illness, paralysis and delusions.
Few believed Herbert Rowse Armstrong could be responsible, but when a business rival was also taken ill, detectives asked Spilsbury to examine Mrs Armstrong’s corpse.
She’d consumed so much arsenic she could not have moved, yet had continued to swallow arsenic. The evidence was damning, and Armstrong was hanged in 1922.
A similar technique would be to slip an arm under the arched knees and jerk them upwards. Spilsbury added that, if the women were accustomed to talking to Smith while they bathed, they might not have suspected that they were in any danger, right up to the moment they died.
The prosecuting barrister, Sir Edward Marshall Hall, asked: ‘Do you mean the effect would be so momentary that she would be precluded from struggling?’
‘Yes,’ replied Spilsbury, ‘I think she would; and even from crying out in some cases.’
He added, however, that the first victim, Bessie, had been holding a bar of soap before the attack — and her hand crushed it to jelly as she died.Detectives never found out how Smith learned this swift, bloodless method of murder, or how many times he had used it. But during the trial, another wife was discovered.
Edith Mabel Pegler, from Bristol, married Smith in 1908. She insisted he had treated her well — and that the only time he mentioned a bath was to warn her never to take one.
‘He would not have much to do with them if he were me,’ she said, ‘as they were dangerous. He said it was known that women had often lost their lives through fainting fits or weak hearts.’
Smith refused to stay quiet during the trial, shouting from the dock. The policeman who led the investigation, Detective Inspector Arthur Neil, told the court that following his arrest Smith made a terse statement: ‘My conscience is clear.’
At once, Smith began yelling: ‘I said that because he said he charged me with murder. As soon as they’d had the bodies exhumed they charged me with murder. That was my reply. He is a scoundrel. He was charging me with murder and then he says he never said so. He ought to be in this dock. He will be some day.’
The outburst caused such excitement that several people in the public gallery were on their feet, straining to see. The judge rebuked them: ‘People must keep seated, and if they cannot behave themselves they must go outside.’
The Mail’s reporter noted Smith’s ‘furtive eyes’ and ‘pitiful affectation of bravado’, and described him as an odd specimen: ‘On his feet his broad shoulders give the impression of a powerful athletic frame. When he sits down, his diminutive and strangely shaped head . . . is of extraordinary formation, being strangely narrow and lacking bulk both in front and at the back.’
The Old Bailey judge, Mr Justice Thomas Edward Scrutton, surprised observers with occasional levity during the trial.
When one expert witness answered a question during cross-examination by saying, ‘Not necessarily,’ instead of the more honest, ‘I don’t know’, the judge retorted with a scathing joke. ‘
Some day,’ he said, ‘I should like to have an Act of Parliament by which witnesses who say ‘Not necessarily’ shall be shot!’ The court erupted in laughter.
But when it came time to sum up to the jury, Scrutton was impressively grave. In June 1915, Britain had been at war with Germany for almost a year.
‘Since last August,’ said the judge, ‘all over Europe, sometimes in England, sometimes on the seas, thousands of lives of combatants and sometimes of non-combatants have been taken daily with no warning.
‘Yet while this wholesale destruction of human life is going on, for nine days all the apparatus of justice in England has been considering whether one man should die.’
The Mail’s reporter called the verdict ‘a foregone conclusion’ and Smith was sentenced to death. He was hanged on August 13, 1915.
Spilsbury’s forensics genius helped police solve innumerable cases. The greatest tribute to his skill, said distinguished judge Sir Patrick Hastings in 1951, was that he never made mistakes: ‘One can find no case in which he himself has been guilty of any carelessness which has resulted in a miscarriage of justice.’ This will be challenged later in our series.
But, tragically, his composure in the face of death could not keep its shadow from the people he loved most. He was devastated when his son Peter, a junior doctor, was killed in the Blitz in 1940.
After his oldest son, Alan, died from tuberculosis after the war, his grief became too much.
Spilsbury killed himself in his lab by inhaling coal gas from a Bunsen burner — ending his life with typical forensic precision.
Bestial brothers foiled by fingerprints
The first to be hanged on fingerprint evidence alone were a pair of notorious London siblings found guilty in 1905
There are more sweat glands on the tips of your fingers and toes than any other place on the body — 3,000 to the square inch.
And these sweat glands have sent hundreds of murderers to the gallows. The first were a pair of thuggish brothers known to the police, Alfred and Albert Stratton.
Sweat on our fingertips gathers in microscopic rivulets in the ridges and troughs of our fingerprints. When these touch a smooth surface they leave sharp imprints, like ink stamps . . . and every one is different.
This physiological fact was only just beginning to be understood by police in 1905, when a shop assistant called William Jones turned up for work at a paint shop on Deptford High Street in South London one Monday.
He was surprised to find the shop locked. His elderly employers, Thomas and Ann Farrow, usually opened up early but Jones had to break in.
On the shop floor, he discovered Thomas’s body, his skull crushed by a blow with a blunt instrument.
Killers Alfred and Albert Stratton are pictured above. The brothers were so confident they had nothing to fear that they swaggered into the courtroom on the last day, whistling music hall tunes and stamping their feet in rhythm to the music
Upstairs, he found Ann, dying from similar injuries and unable to say what had happened. Jones called the police, who found the store’s cash-box had been crowbarred open.
Detectives found two discarded masks made from stockings. It appeared the robbers broke into the shop in the small hours and ransacked it. When Thomas intervened, he was bludgeoned to death. Then the killers went upstairs to raid the Farrows’ home and beat his wife.
Ann Farrow died five days later. By then, the press were calling the crime ‘The Mask Murders’.
Scotland Yard’s assistant commissioner, Melville Macnaghten, visited the crime scene on the first day. The cash box was still on the counter, and he noticed smudges on it.
Remembering a lecture he had attended about the new forensic science of fingerprinting, he sent the box to the Yard’s new Fingerprint Branch for analysis.
The Mail’s coverage of the court report is seen above
Meanwhile, detectives heard of two notorious brawlers, the Stratton brothers, seen with wads of money around Deptford’s pubs. They questioned them — and, crucially, took their fingerprints.
When a thumbprint on the box matched that of Alfred Stratton, 23, Macnaghten ordered the brothers’ arrest. He was going out on a limb: apart from the fingerprints, police had almost nothing to convict their suspects.
Over the next few days, at the inquest into the deaths of Mr and Mrs Farrow, the case against the Strattons fell apart. Even circumstantial evidence, such as bruises on Alfred Stratton’s hands, proved useless. A detective was obliged to admit to the coroner that witnesses agreed the brutish man had injured himself while ‘knocking a woman about’.
The brothers were so confident they had nothing to fear that they swaggered into the courtroom on the last day, whistling music hall tunes and stamping their feet in rhythm to the music.
This cocky display might have inclined the jurors against them. Despite the lack of evidence, the foreman of the jury returned their unanimous verdict of ‘wilful murder’, enough for the coroner to send them to trial at the Old Bailey.
Macnaghten played his trump card at the next stage of the legal process, when the Strattons appeared at Tower Bridge Police Court to be formally committed for trial.
The brothers remained nonchalant in the dock. One was grinning, reported the Mail; the other was chewing a toothpick.
Scotland Yard’s assistant commissioner, Melville Macnaghten, visited the crime scene on the first day. The cash box was still on the counter, and he noticed smudges on it
But for the first time, an officer from the Fingerprint Department gave evidence. DI Charles Collins told the magistrate that the Metropolitan Police had about 90,000 sets of prints in their files, obtained by dusting surfaces with fine carbon soot.
The dust stuck to the residue left on it by fingers, picking out in precise detail the pattern of lines and ridges.
Collins compared the prints on the cash box with the Yard’s database. This was organised according to three basic types of pattern: arches, loops and whorls.
The fingerprints of two people might be alike in a couple of ways — there were even cases that saw three direct parallels.
But no two prints ever shared four or more distinctive marks… and on Alfred Stratton’s thumb there were 12 unique points. It was inconceivable the thumbprint on the cash box had been left by anyone else.
The magistrate was convinced but, when the jury trial opened at the Old Bailey, everything went the brothers’ way. The police called more than 40 witnesses who were one by one made to look foolish or even dishonest.
On the final day of evidence, one forensic scientist for the prosecution was dismissed in disgrace by the judge after it transpired that he had offered to adjust his testimony to suit the defence.
Detectives found two discarded masks made from stockings. It appeared the robbers broke into the shop in the small hours and ransacked it
Sweat on our fingertips gathers in microscopic rivulets in the ridges and troughs of our fingerprints. The brothers’ discarded masks are pictured above
It seemed the verdict hung in the balance, and with it the future of fingerprinting as a reliable source of evidence. Yet the jury took just two hours 25 minutes to reach a unanimous decision and pronounce both brothers guilty.
They were sentenced to hang. On May 8, 1905, the Daily Mail covered the hearing under the headline, ‘Mask Murders. Brothers Sentenced To Death.’
The story read: ‘A grey-bearded usher rose in court and said in a loud voice, ‘Oyez, oyez, oyez! By the King’s command, all present will keep silent under pain of imprisonment while sentence of death is pronounced.’ ‘
There was a moment of intense silence. People turned to the judge and saw he had a black square of silk resting on the top of his wig. In clear, quiet tones he spoke: ‘Alfred Stratton and Albert Ernest Stratton, the jury, after a patient consideration of the case against you, have felt it their duty to find you guilty of the crime of wilful murder. For that crime, there is but one sentence — that of death.’
Albert’s close-pressed lips had gone white; Alfred’s mouth had opened loosely. They took a look at each other and at the court. Sullen agony was in the eyes of both. The warders turned them towards the steps that led out of the court, and they walked down automatically.
The day before they were to hang, the Strattons were allowed to see their family. Alfred was still defiant.
‘My life has been only an existence,’ he told his sister. ‘It is women, women. I am glad I am leaving them.’
In his last letter to his mother, he wrote, ‘I don’t mind the turn events have taken. The time passed quickly at the trial. As it was the first I had seen, I was rather interested.’
Their mother was not so composed. In the cells, she was not allowed to kiss her boys. Her grief, a warder told reporters, was heartbreaking to see.
Undone by his DNA
He murdered two girls then tricked the police — only to be caught out by a drunken boast
Before DNA profiling was used to catch a killer for the first time, it achieved something no less remarkable in the history of criminal forensics: it cleared an innocent man.
Richard Buckland confessed to the murder of 15-year-old schoolgirl Dawn Ashworth in 1986.
Two years older than the victim, he had learning difficulties, with a mental age of about 11.
Colin Pitchfork in 1987. DNA tests proved beyond doubt that Pitchfork was the double killer, and he was sentenced to life with a minimum 30-year term
Police picked him up for questioning because he had known Dawn and he soon admitted to killing her — then denied it, then confessed again.
But the case was further complicated by a previous murder in Buckland’s home village of Narborough, Leicestershire.
Three years earlier, another 15-year-old named Lynda Mann had been killed in the same way.
Both were ambushed in rural areas, raped and then strangled with a scarf. It was evident the same killer had murdered both Lynda and Dawn.
But Buckland consistently denied having anything to do with Lynda’s death, and at the time of the first attack he had been just 14 years old. Something didn’t add up.
By 1986, a chemist at nearby Leicester University had achieved a breakthrough in genetic science that was making headlines.
His name was Alec Jeffreys and he could extract DNA from cells and embed it on photographic film.
When the film was developed it showed a series of lines, like a vertical barcode — and no two people’s DNA ever produced the same pattern.
The press were quick to dub his method ‘genetic fingerprinting’ and he used it to establish the true parentage of children in a paternity court case.
When he suggested in a lecture that it could be used to help identify criminals, there was laughter from the audience . . . but Leicestershire police were less sceptical.
A campaign was launched, urging every local man to give a DNA test. Some objected on the grounds that they didn’t like needles or that they resented being regarded as potential murder suspects, but public opinion swept away their complaints
In an effort to prove Buckland killed both schoolgirls, Jeffreys was hired to analyse DNA taken from both murder scenes and compare it with DNA in Buckland’s blood.
The results proved the same killer was indeed responsible for the deaths of both girls — but that Buckland hadn’t done it. He was freed, to the amazement of many.
Detectives decided to take the same science that had thwarted their inquiry and turn it around to catch the real killer. A campaign was launched, urging every local man to give a DNA test.
Some objected on the grounds that they didn’t like needles or that they resented being regarded as potential murder suspects, but public opinion swept away their complaints.
If you had nothing to hide, so the logic went, you had nothing to fear. In eight months police tested thousands of men. But there was no breakthrough. A DNA match could not be found.
That changed in August 1987. Ian Kelly, a 23-year-old bakery worker, bragged in the pub he had earned £200 from a colleague named Colin Pitchfork by taking the test in his place.
Pitchfork, 27, had doctored Kelly’s passport with a photo of himself and coached Kelly how to forge his signature.
Six weeks later, police received a tip-off and Pitchfork was arrested.
A detective read him his rights and asked why he had chosen Dawn. ‘Opportunity,’ Pitchfork replied with a shrug.
If you had nothing to hide, so the logic went, you had nothing to fear. In eight months police tested thousands of men. But there was no breakthrough. A DNA match could not be found. Men are pictured providing their DNA
‘She was there and I was there.’ He confessed to both killings, even telling officers that when he murdered Lynda his baby son had been asleep in the back of his car.
The girls had been killed, he said, to prevent them from identifying him after he raped them.
DNA tests proved beyond doubt that Pitchfork was the double killer, and he was sentenced to life with a minimum 30-year term.
The prosecuting barrister, Brian Escott-Cox QC, told the jury: ‘He exhibited great self-control and a total lack of remorse. Neither his wife, whom he picked up later, nor anyone else suspected he’d been involved in this terrible crime.’
DNA testing has been used in many high-profile cases since, such as helping to convict the killers of Stephen Lawrence nearly 20 years after he was stabbed to death in South London.
One of the most astonishing, though, was the killing of David Guy in Hampshire in 2012. Cat hairs found on his corpse were proved through DNA to belong to a pet owned by David Hilder, Guy’s neighbour.
The motive of Hilder, who was convicted of manslaughter, was never discovered, but detectives believed the two may have argued about whether the cat was properly looked after.
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