Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Underwater Forensics

How Did He Do It?

In 1914, Margaret Lloyd  died in her bath in Highgate, England. A relative of the victim of a similar drowning also previously married to Lloyd's widower, George Joseph Smith, spotted Lloyd's obituary and brought the matter to the police. An investigation uncovered Smith's criminal record, revealing that he had not only married Margaret Lloyd under an assumed name but had actually married three times, and each of his wives in turn had drowned in her bath. Despite the vanishingly small possibility that this had been coincidence, it seemed unlikely that someone could have assaulted the women in their bathtubs without a fierce struggle. Yet there had been no mark of violence on any of the bodies.

George Joseph Smith
George Joseph Smith

Smith was arrested, and a rising young pathologist, Bernard Spilsbury, supervised the exhumations of Smith's two previous wives for autopsy. Studying the first woman's remains, Spilsbury decided that "gooseflesh" on her skin indicated she had died suddenly, and her organs showed no defect or disease that might have killed her. Smith's attorney claimed she had experienced an epileptic fit, but Spilsbury was determined to prove something more nefarious had occurred.

Forensic model of the murder scene
Forensic model of the murder scene

He dismissed the possibility that the five-foot-seven woman could have suffered a fit in a five-foot-long tub that would have placed her head under water, but he wanted to demonstrate how she might have died by homicide without a sign of struggle. With Detective Inspector Arthur Neil Young, he devised an experiment to explore the possibilities.

Several women agreed to don bathing outfits, sit in a bathtub similar to the one in Smith's home, and allow Young to try to drown them. After repeated failures, the feat seemed impossible without an incredible struggle. But then the detective deduced the answer: Smith had killed them by suddenly raising their knees into the air, which pulled their heads down and rendered them helpless to the rush of water. In fact, as the procedure was performed in front of a jury, the female participant went unconscious at once and had to be revived. It was a convincing show, which paid off. Since Smith had benefited financially from all three deaths, his motive was clear. Within twenty minutes, the "Brides in the Bath Killer" was convicted. In 1915 he was hanged for it.

Since that time, investigations about deaths in water have come a long way.

 

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