The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath

Written by Jane Robins
Review by Sarah Cuthbertson

Between 1910 and 1914, three respectable women a little past their prime were found drowned in their baths not long after rushing into marriage with dapper, smooth-talking men. In each case there were no signs of violence or struggle. That two women should die in this way shortly after marriage might be coincidence, but three pointed decisively to murder. Determined, meticulous Inspector Neil of Scotland Yard was brought in to investigate, aided by the equally painstaking forensic pathologist Bernard Spilsbury, a household name since his work on the 1910 Crippen murder.

Jane Robins enthrallingly interweaves her account of the Brides in the Bath case with the life-stories of the naïve victims, the callous murderer and the brilliant pathologist. Whilst this makes for an absorbing tale in itself, the author enriches it with details that create a vivid snapshot of the period. The suffragettes were on the march; women could work as teachers, nurses and secretaries. But marriage was still the ultimate female goal, and a set of dentures had become ‘an aspirational beauty product’. It was also a time when there weren’t enough men to go round and women’s greatest fear was being ‘left on the shelf’ to eke out lonely lives in rented rooms or seedy seaside boarding-houses. Nor are we allowed to forget that the trial took place during the First World War. ‘It was a diversion from the Zeppelins and the terrifying events in Europe,’ Robins writes, ‘and it had a reassuring element to it. Here was evil that could be recognised and contained within the embrace of British justice – unlike the evil of war, which was rampant and beyond control.’