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on 3 April 2010
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!

It's a pity not more is known of the arch conman,the much married George Smith:he seemed to have a grudge against those women of a higher class than himself(he murdered these but spared his wives of a lower class)and was said to have hypnotised the Bishop of Croydon. Even his provenance and background is hazy and would repay more research,as would that of his victims who remain one-dimensional in this account.

A timeless tale of the unscrupulous preying on the desperate. Except that in 1910 they found each other via the pages of the Matrimonial Times rather than the Internet.

I throughly enjoyed it.
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on 5 April 2010
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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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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on 10 April 2010
This exceptional treatment of a notorious early 20th century English murder combines the page-turning interest of a well-written detective story with serious and wide ranging exposition of not just the scientific and legal issues in the case, but also of the social and historical context in which the all the protagonists lived.

Ms. Robins has used a wide range of materials with accuracy and insight to illustrate with well-chosen and striking examples not just the process by which George Smith was brought to justice but also the entire social milieu from which his victims were drawn as well as telling insights into the tensions in the English legal system in the early 20th century between the dramatic oratorical style of the Victorian era, personified by Smith's defence counsel Marshal Hall and the emergent scientific approach of the prosecution team whose pathologist, Bernard Spilsbury cemented his reputation with this case.

The author concludes with interesting reflections on later challenges to Spilsbury's reputation, both during his lifetime as he became increasingly dogmatic in realms perhaps beyond his own expertise and also what present scientific opinion would have to say about his evidence in this case.

This text wears its considerable scholarship lightly, and is a gripping read, but is well-footnoted (and generously illustrated)for those anxious to explore further. My one (pedantic perhaps) complaint is that in England witnesses in court do not "take the stand", they "enter the witness box".
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VINE VOICEon 4 April 2010
This is Jane Robins' second book and every bit as enjoyable, meticulously researched and well written as the first.

This is history as a page turning Edwardian detective story. Starting with the unexpected marriage of a provincial spinster to a handsome, London picture restorer the narrative takes in several equally improbably unions each sadly curtailed by the death of the bride. The deaths, first attributed to tragic misadventure, are only gradually revealed as an apparent series of domestic murders (the kind Orwell reminded us we like best). In the absence of a central police data base or google it's not until the father of one of the brides sees the reported death of another in the paper that suspicions are pursued. From there, the talents first of an assiduous detective then of the brilliant forensics expert, Spilsbury, change both the method of solving a crime and the court room resources of the prosecution forever.

The action reads like a novel, as gripping and impossible to put down as the best mystery. I hugely enjoyed it.
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 20 November 2012
I came across this book quite by chance, but was intrigued to find out what the book was all about. In the first chapter we read of Bessie Mundy, a lonely 33-year old woman who, while comfortably off financially, is smitten by a a chance encounter with a strangely hypnotic man of the name of Henry Williams. Bessie and Henry's relationship leads to Bessie's strange death. We are then introduced to Bernard Spilsbury, a young forensic pathologist, keen to make his way in his career and to use the new `science' in seeking justice for victims of mischance and foul play.

Alice Burnham, another young woman, finds herself in an entrancing relationship with a man by the name of George Smith. Six weeks after they marry, Alice dies in strange, but vaguely familiar, circumstances. By the time we read of how Margaret Lofty, wife of John Lloyd, died in yet another apparent `accident', the reader is drawn into a world of Edwardian mystery, seedy life, crushiing circumstances, all mingled with the newfound world of forensic science and the use of these tools in solving previously unsolvable crimes.

This is a most fascinating and intriguing book; one which really lays bare the underworld of polite Edwardian society. A world where old ways meet new sciences, and the truths that are uncovered are often shocking and horrifying; this was certainly the case for those following the cases at the time. Definitely a good read, and most interesting.
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 20 December 2015
I came across this book quite by chance, but was intrigued to find out what the book was all about. In the first chapter we read of Bessie Mundy, a lonely 33-year old woman who, while comfortably off financially, is smitten by a a chance encounter with a strangely hypnotic man of the name of Henry Williams. Bessie and Henry's relationship leads to Bessie's strange death. We are then introduced to Bernard Spilsbury, a young forensic pathologist, keen to make his way in his career and to use the new `science' in seeking justice for victims of mischance and foul play.

Alice Burnham, another young woman, finds herself in an entrancing relationship with a man by the name of George Smith. Six weeks after they marry, Alice dies in strange, but vaguely familiar, circumstances. By the time we read of how Margaret Lofty, wife of John Lloyd, died in yet another apparent `accident', the reader is drawn into a world of Edwardian mystery, seedy life, crushing circumstances, all mingled with the newfound world of forensic science and the use of these tools in solving previously unsolvable crimes.

This is a most fascinating and intriguing book; one which really lays bare the underworld of polite Edwardian society. A world where old ways meet new sciences, and the truths that are uncovered are often shocking and horrifying; this was certainly the case for those following the cases at the time. Definitely a good read, and most interesting.
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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.

The book raises some interesting points about the development of science and its application to the detection of crime. What is regarded as irrefutable fact at one point in history may subsequently be proved to be completely wrong at a later date. Ideas of what information should be given to the pathologist before the post mortem is carried out have changed completely since the early days of Spilsbury's career.

If you are interested in true crime then you will enjoy this book. There are notes on each chapter and a bibliography though no index in the e-book edition which I read and no illustrations.
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on 18 October 2014
If this book does one thing, it is to convince the reader how necessary it really is to abolish the death penalty. A great lawyer, an impartial judge or some "expert scientific proof" can easily send an innocent man to his death. While advances in science have certainly helped us to see and understand our world and our lives better than ever, it is clear that it is not certain enough to condemn a man to death. No expert is infallible.

The story is interesting and I love Jane Robins' style. I love all the little details on the day to day existence of turn of the century England. I do not like fiction and this book is a murder mystery far better than any fiction author could come up with. And a nice history book to boot. I highly recommend.
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on 28 November 2012
I have read this book immediately following Sir Bernard Spilsbury His Life and Cases Bernard Spilsbury: His Life and Cases (Panther Books) . My purpose in reading it was to see if I would learn anything new about him. I didn't because I think the author's main source material regarding Sir Bernard is Sir Bernard Spilsbury His Life and Cases. But what Robins has introduced in the final chapter is the beginnings of a critical examination of his opinions that he offered during key capital trials in the first half of the last century. Whereas the authors of the first book were obvious devotees of the man and his work, Robins in her final chapter begins to unpick his achievements. I think it is a shame that this was left until the end and that a critque was not woven throughout, but of course the title of the book would have needed to have a different slant away from the magnificent.

For me this book became richer as it progressed. As first I got somewhat irritated by the numerous passages and pages given over to other cases and seemingly unrelated contemporaneous newsworthy events. I just wanted Robins to get on with it and tell me about Sir Bernard and the case of the Brides in the Bath. There came a point approximately half way through when she did concentrate on the subject matter of the title of the book.

Others have described this book as being like a thriller and a real page turner and I think the second half certainly is worthy of this description.

If you want to find out about Sir Bernard Spilsbury then read the first book I have mentioned. But if you want to learn more about his involvement in this particular case and the case of the Brides in the Bath itself, then read this book. If you simply like having past murders and capital trials brought to life then this will be right up your street and I am not been deprecatory here.
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