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The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath Hardcover – 1 Apr 2010

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: John Murray; 1st ed. edition (1 April 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1848541074
  • ISBN-13: 978-1848541078
  • Product Dimensions: 16.3 x 24 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 556,880 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


'A riveting and beautifully written book. A high point in the annals of murder, for every necessary ingredient - callousness, ruthlessness, mystery, recklessness, boarding houses, detection, a chase, money, sex and even a bit of glamour - is present. Miss Robins has made a thumping good book out of it'. (Daily Telegraph)

'In Jane Robins' excellent The Magnificent Spilsbury - part-whodunit thriller, part-social history, part-biography - there's delight in the detail.. This is a pacy page-turner underpinned by meticulous primary source research. Frankly, it's a treat.. as satisfying as a fine thriller'. (The Scotsman)

'Robins's description of the murders and of Smith's persuasive personality is gripping. The Magnificent Spilsbury teems with promise'. (Sunday Times)

'As well as being a gripping, pacy account of a gruesome murder trial, this book is also a compelling piece of social history. An author tackling a story like this has to fight hard to avoid tipping into prurience and ghoulishness. Robins wins the fight, and shines a light on a dark age for women'. (Independent on Sunday)

'Not just a compelling read but it also an intriguing slice of social history'. (The Express)

'An author tackling a story like this has to fight hard to avoid tipping into prurience and ghoulishness. Robins wins the fight, and shines a light on a dark age for women.' (Independent on Sunday)

'With the precision of her main character, Jane Robins examines these murders...Robins is excellent at setting this story in its historical context' (Sunday Telegraph)

'Like its hero, The Magnificent Spilsbury teems with promise ...' (Culture)

'The Brides in the Bath and the rise of Spilsbury as the father of modern forensics are both well-worn tales, but Jane Robins has convincingly succeed in reworking them into a cracking good read. It is a deceptively delicate task to examine trial transcripts, police depositions, letters and newspaper accounts and reforge them with such admirable immediacy...Robins should prepare herself for a summer bestseller' (The Daily Telegraph)

Outstanding. The book is about a pre-war conman who drowned his wives in the bath. It made my jaw drop (Kate Kellaway, Observer)

Written with economy, elegance and wit, the book grips with the ghoulish fascination of a murder mystery while educating about the unhappy role of women in Edwardian society, the early importance of the expert witness and the evil underbelly of human nature (Financial Times)

Book Description

A young woman marries. Before long, she drowns in her bath. No sign of a struggle. No suggestion of foul play. Edwardian England turns to Bernard Spilsbury to solve the mystery.

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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 28 people found the following review helpful By isabel in the kitchen on 3 April 2010
Format: Hardcover
The enthralling story of the desperate and dateless of Edwardian England. There was a huge over-supply of women in the early years of the century and "the country...was practically awash with girls who couldn't find a partner at dances". This was the sad fate of Bessie Munday, Alice Burnham and Margaret Lofty, all unremarkable women,spinsters rather past their prime for the marriage market and drifting through their uneventful lives desperate to be the bride and not the bridesmaid.

And so when they met a smooth-talking good-looking conman with charisma who offered them marriage, without hesitation or consulting with their families they jumped at the chance. As victims of scams in every place and every time their happiness was short-lived,- just long enough to make a will or insurance policy in favour of their new husband and take a bath.
And when the police investigation began the women kept coming out of the closet, including two survivors, one wife in Canada and Edith Pegler "the wife he always returned to".

You couldn't find a better murder story in fiction especially as this one comes complete with a latter-day Sherlock Holmes in the form of the forensic pathologist Bernard Spilsbury and a sleuthing Rumpole of a lawyer.

The details of the murders and career of the Bernard Spilsbury are interspersed with background detail creating a vivid picture of the preoccupations and daily life of the period, such as the evidence offered that in the case of an unplumbed-in bath and a small boiler it would take twelve journeys upstairs with a bucket to fill it halfway up and twenty journeys to fill it three quarters full. No wonder baths were only an option for the wealthy!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Damaskcat HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 7 Nov. 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This marvellously readable book is much more about Bernard Spilsbury's work than his life. The framework used for it is the chronology of the famous `Brides in the Bath' case in which George Joseph Smith disposed of three of his wives by drowning in order to collect their savings and their life insurance. It is the story of a conman in an age when respectable young women were desperate to marry and have their own homes rather than be left to eke out a miserable and lonely existence in a boarding house or as a poor relation in the homes of their male relations.

The descriptions of Spilsbury's painstaking work to understand the dead bodies on which he worked and how they met their death make compelling reading. While the book mainly follows the development of the Brides in the Bath case it also covers some of his other cases such as that of Dr Crippen and the Armstrong poisoning case. Spilsbury first came to public attention in the Crippen trial but it was the Brides in the Bath which made his name. Thereafter he was regarded as infallible and it may be that there were some miscarriages of justice because a jury would assume that if Splisbury was involved the accused must be guilty.

But it is not Spilsbury himself who dominates the book - it is George Joseph Smith. I did not know much about the case before I read this book and I was intrigued to learn about the way he was finally caught. Newspapers featured his last murder - that of Margaret Lofty - as a human tragedy and that caused relatives of his previous victims to write to the police at Scotland Yard. The letter landed on the desk of Detective Inspector Arthur Neil who was sufficiently intrigued by the coincidences to investigate further.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By sicutlilium on 5 April 2010
Format: Hardcover
To maintain suspense when recounting true crime requires considerable skill, and Jane Robins's account of the career and capture of one of the most famous murderers of the last century is as fast-paced as any whodunnit. The narrative cuts deftly from the modest backgrounds of the female victims, to the pursuit by the dogged detective, to the dramatic staging of the forensic proofs and finally to the gripping courtroom battle between Spilsbury and Marshall Hall - respectively the leading pathologist and criminal advocate of the era.
But this is more than a simple page-turner: Robins's background as a serious historian is evident in her use of primary sources, including Spilsbury's original case cards and contemporary newspaper accounts, to illuminate not only who and how, but also why. By building up a detailed picture of the insecure position of single women at the outbreak of WW1, Robins enables us to comprehend how the female desire for the status of matrimony could be so cynically exploited. Her scholarship is deployed with a light touch, using quotations from correspondence and court papers to delineate the characters of the victims and to demonstrate how George Joseph Smith was able to manipulate the gullible until the bitter end.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By J. Mcdonald TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 7 Sept. 2014
Format: Paperback
I found this to be an engrossing and informative read.

Jane Robins does three things in this book rather well; she re-examines the career of Bernard Spilsbury, reassessing his reputation and considering his contribution to the role of forensic pathology in the first part of the 20th century; she gives an excellently narrated account of the "Brides in the Bath" murders - the case that consolidated Spilsbury`s standing and brought him to public notice, and throughout the book she presents a wealth of historical detail providing a context for the modern reader which helps explain the social conditions, mores and position of women from the Edwardian era, on into the period of the First World War.
Robins - I think - treats Spilsbury with respect but is not afraid to question some aspects of his reputation; there is no doubt that he heralded in a new appreciation for scientific evidence and a fresh approach to crime investigation, but she also questions his working methods and objectivity, which I think is fair - I for one, feel that the Crippen case may well have been a miscarriage of justice.
The historical background she provides also makes it easier for the modern reader to understand how a rather weasel-like character like Smith was able to carry out his crimes, the social vulnerability women suffered due to the male/female population imbalance - and at a time before the further depletion of men of marriageable age due to the war.

There are probably better and more specific studies on both Spilsbury and this particular murder case available, but as a useful introduction for the casual reader this is a very good, recommendable book.
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