When Alice Met George
On Wednesday 10 December 1913 as darkness was falling a newly- wed couple knocked at the door of a boarding house at 16, Regent Road, Blackpool. They were answered by Mrs Crossley the landlady.
Alice the bride was big and bonny and independent minded. She supported the suffragette movement and had qualified as a nurse in spite of coming from a comfortable background. The gentleman was dapper. They asked anxiously if a bath was available. Baths were a rarity in Edwardian Blackpool . The couple had already rejected a boarding house in Adelaide Street because it did not have a bath. The landlady Mrs Crossley showed them the combined bedroom and sitting room and they agreed to stay there.
That first night they went out. Regent Road joins Church Street and from there it is a short walk to the Promenade passing the Winter Gardens. At the Promenade the Pier and Blackpool Tower are within easy walking distance.
The next day they went out to buy chops for lunch. In those days guests would buy their own food but the landlady would prepare it. George bought chops. They had lunch at 1.00 and since Alice had a headache they went to see Doctor Billing who prescribed for Alice’s headache and stomach ache. They returned with butter and milk for their tea and in the evening they went to the cinema.
On Friday 12 December they had a breakfast of bacon. They bought stewing steak for lunch which they had at one o’clock. They went out and returned at 5.00 for tea. They went out and Alice asked if she could have a bath on her return. Alice had written to her sister: “I have the best husband in the world. “ She posted the letter and they returned just before 8.00. Alice went for her bath. Alice, Margaret and Joseph Crossley sat down for a meal. They noticed water running down the wall and guessed that Alice Smith had overfilled the bath. George appeared with two eggs for their breakfast in the morning.
George rushed downstairs saying: “Fetch Dr. Billing she knows him. Dr Billing and George Smith lifted her out of the bath and Dr Billing pumped her stomach but she was dead. Joseph Crossley returned from work and met Police Sergeant Robert Valiant and George Smith. The three went to the Police Station in King Street which adjoins Regent Road.
George Smith had an unsentimental attitude and was prepared to sleep in the room where his dead wife lay. However Margaret Crossley told him he would have to move next door.
Next morning saw George Smith arranging the cheapest possible funeral at Layton Cemetery. At 11.30 the sent a telegram to Alice’s family. Her mother and brother Norman immediately started a journey to Blackpool. This came as a bit of a shock to George Smith who saw them on Sunday morning and asked the undertaker John Hargreave if he could arrange a more expensive funeral. John said it could be arranged but the funeral would have to be put back from Monday to Tuesday. Alice’s mother, her brother Norman and George had lunch at the Crossley’s and George Smith played the piano.
The next morning John Hargreaves took the coffin to the mortuary at Layton Cemetery and placed Alice in her coffin and screwed down the lid and there was a brief service at the chapel in the cemetery. George Smith had to rush off to get a train and he promised Alice’s mother that he would send Alice’s clothes.
George Smith stepped out of their lives. George had not had a happy relationship with his in-laws. Charles, Alice’s father, had taken a particular dislike to him. He regarded him as a spiv and a fortune-hunter. Alice loved her family but was firm in her desire to marry George. She claimed to her family that she had met George at a Congregationalist Service.
Charles was seriously alarmed by George Smith. He hired a detective to look into George and tried to withhold money to which Alice was entitled. George was not conciliatory. When his father in law sent him a letter asking about his background he wrote back:
In answer to your application regarding my parentage etc My mother was a Buss Horse, my Father a Cab Driver, my sister a Rough Rider over the Arctic Regions. My Brothers were all gallant sailors in a Steam roller…Your despised son-in law. “
Mrs Crossley also did not take to George Smith and throughout his eventful life he seems to have encountered people who loathed him. On the other hand he was attractive to some women.
For a year nothing was heard of George Smith and the troubling episode was almost forgotten. It is said that Conan Doyle remarked on the case to detectives at Scotland Yard.
One year later Mrs Crossley was reading the “News of the World” when a story caught her eye: “BRIDE’S SUDDEN DEATH IN BATH, Bride’s tragic fate on Day after Wedding.” She contacted the Blackpool Police. In the meantime Alice’s father had also noticed and contacted the Police at Aylesbury. In January the matter came to the attention of Inspector Neil.
Margaret Lofty had met and married John Lloyd after having her life insured and made a will. On Friday 18th December 1914 the couple were honeymooning in Bismarck Road, Highgate. Margaret Lofty asked for a bath at about 8.00 pm. Miss Blatch their landlady heard splashing in the bathroom. Then she heard the harmonium being played in the Lloyd’s sitting room. John Lloyd was playing: “Abide with me.”
John Lloyd went out and later rang the bell. He said he had forgotten the key. He had been out to get some tomatoes for Margaret’s supper. He went upstairs to find Margaret and shouted down for help.
Margaret was drowned in the bath. George went out to find a doctor and policeman. As it happened he had taken Margaret to see the Doctor.
Inspector Neil had to be careful not to alert John Lloyd. He arranged to keep watch on the Solicitor who was arranging the insurance payment. Eventually John Lloyd and it was quickly established that he was George Smith.
There were grounds for suspicion but there were also problems. First of all in each case a Doctor determined that each death was from natural causes. Secondly there was the question of method. How can you drown a fully grown healthy person without a struggle, and there was no sign of a struggle. Finally if George Smith were charged with murder he would according to legal precedent be charged with one murder and therefore evidence about the other drowned bride would not be available to the jury. It is difficult to see how a jury could convict. Bernard Spilsbury the most eminent pathologist of his time was engaged. Margaret Lofty’s body was exhumed at midnight to avoid publicity.
George Smith was charged with making a false statement regarding his name at his wedding which ironically was at Bath. Following the exhumation at Highgate it emerged that another bride had been found in a bath at Herne Bay. Her maiden name was Bessie Mundy. Inspector Neil learned this on 8 February 1915 as he arrived in Blackpool. Her husband had been Henry Williams. He was also George Smith.
Inspector Neil was visiting Blackpool for the exhumation of Alice Burnham. He met Bernard Spilsbury at Blackpool Railway Station. The exhumation and examination must have been a grim and heartbreaking business for everybody involved especially Alice’s family. It was carried out in the mortuary which is still in Layton Cemetery although it is now used to store equipment.
People were dying in large numbers in France but the case caught public attention. Pictures of George Smith had been published. A number of other “brides” appeared and also ladies who George Smith had courted and robbed. He was “married” seven times. Strangest of all he did appear to have a regular partner Edith Pegler. He conscientiously returned from jaunts around the drowning brides and collecting insurance mone in time for a traditional family Christmas.
George Joseph Smith was tried for the murder of Bessie Mundy. Zeppelin raids had dropped bombs on London and loss of life in France dominated the news but for a time front pages were devoted to the trial. George had reason to be confident. He was represented by Edward Marshall Hall. He was on trial for a death which a Doctor had deemed accidental at the time.
Contemporaries rated Edward Marshall Hall as an excellent rather theatrical advocate but had reservations about his grasp of the law.
His opponent Archie Bodkin was more matter of fact but had great skill in matters of law. In the absence of the jury he made the case that evidence about Alice and Margaret were admissible because they demonstrated “a system.” That meant that there were outstanding similiarities. The judge agreed and Edward Marshall Hall’s task became impossible.
There were more than a hundred witnesses, landladies, undertakers, doctors, solicitors. Edgar Wallace, later to stand as MP for Blackpool, reported the case for Tit Bits.
Mrs Crossley attended and gave evidence. George enlivened proceedings by shouting that she was “a lunatic.” Bernard Spilsbury the pathologist theorized that the lack of sign of a struggle came about because the head was suddenly immersed in the bath by lifting up the legs and that sudden immersion causes shock which prevents resistance.
Edith Pegler his partner was impressively honest, she had no idea of George’s other life. At one stage George warned Edith of the dangers of baths: “I should advise you to be careful of those things, as it is known that women often lose their lives through weak heart and fainting in the bath.”
The jury took twenty two minutes to find George guilty.
Marshall Hall believed that George hypnotized his victims and more than one survivor mentioned his mesmerizing eyes. He was also a very strong physically dominating person. Alice Burnham had gonnorhea which goes to show that the life of single women could be more exciting than expected in Edwardian England. This may account for her attachment. She had found a man who accepted her difficulties.
George Joseph Smith was hanged at Maidstone by John Ellis on Friday13 August 1915. Game to the last he managed to convince the Bishop of Croydon that he was innocent until Marshall Hall put him right. His last words were: “I am innocent.”
What can we make of George? George was self-confident but inept. He said wildly inappropriate things without realizing how other people would react. For example he said about Bessie Mundy: “Was it not a jolly good job I got her to make a will?”
There is a mystery about some of George’s past. When did he learn to play the piano? Had he ever been in the army as he claimed? Had he been abroad? There are years missing in his biography. How did he evolve the idea of drowning a bride? Once he got the idea he carried it out in an almost robotic way.
The day after he was executed his only legal wife Caroline Thornhill who had returned from Canada to give evidence married a Canadian soldier she had met. Clearly she did not mourn George.
There is a very interesting summary of the case in
Jane Robins: The Magnificent Spilsbury