Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Death in Miniature

Bathtub Death

While Lee generally based the dioramas on a combination of items, one can only wonder how much sensational news reports at the time had influenced her.  Botz mentions the famous "Brides in the Bath" case from the early 1900s in England as a potential inspiration, at least in part, for the Nutshell labeled, "Dark Bathroom."  She indicates from her research that Lee was certainly familiar with it.

Dark Bathroom
Dark Bathroom

In Highgate, Margaret Lloyd had died in her bath.  It seemed an unusual albeit accidental drowning, and the case might have been closed had not a relative of a victim of a similar drowning spotted Lloyd's obituary and gone to the police.  That victim's husband had been one George Joseph Smith, who also turned out to be the husband of the unfortunate Lloyd, under an assumed name.  Detectives then turned up the fact that Smith had been married three times, and all three wives had died mysteriously in their baths.  Coincidence seemed unlikely, though the police were hard-pressed to explain how a person could be drowned in a bathtub without evidence of a struggle.  Truthfully, there had been no mark of violence on any of the three bodies.

George Joseph Smith
George Joseph Smith

Pathologist Bernard Spilsbury experimented with young women in bathing outfits who agreed to sit in water-filled bathtubs and allow him and a detective to try to drown them.  After repeated failures, it seemed to investigators impossible to make a person drown in this context and they were about to let Smith go.  But then they figured it out: Smith had killed each woman by grabbing her by the feet and pulling her torso and head into the water.  The quick action and rush of water had made her helpless.  When the team tried this with the experiment participants, one of them went instantly unconscious.  It was evidence enough to believe that Smith had figured out what to do to kill these women without much effort, and had enriched himself on their money or life insurance.  He was convicted, and in 1915, executed.

Smith's arrest photo
Smith's arrest photo

The scenario that Lee depicted was somewhat different, but it involved a woman lying face up in her tub, with the water running on her face. Rather than being the victim of outright murder, however, she might have been the accidental victim of friends attempting to revive her after some hard partying.  Botz suggests an addition influence from a case that Magrath had investigated in 1927 of a woman found dead outside, lying in a strangely posed position.  This murder was pinned on Frederick Knowlton, who had left the body in a sitting position for a while before dumping it.  He, too, was subsequently executed.  Neither case is quite like that in "Dark Bathroom," but both offer elements suggestive of the scenario.  It's rather fun to try to link crimes from Lee's day to some of her Nutshells.

 

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