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A look back at the notorious Brides in the Bath murders which saw murderer hanged at Maidstone Prison

It was the summer of 1910 when a young woman out walking in Bristol was greeted by a slim, attractive man with piercing eyes.

He introduced himself as Henry Williams, a picture restorer from London, and the woman, Bessie Mundy, was whisked off her feet. So much so, after just a few weeks the pair were married, later moving to Herne Bay.

George John Smith was a womaniser who would do anything to get their money
George John Smith was a womaniser who would do anything to get their money

But little did Bessie know she had just signed her life away to a prolific con-artist, bigamist and soon-to-be serial killer whose name was actually George John Smith.

A villain from the start?

Born in Bethnal Green, Smith's life was riddled with crime from an early age. By the time he was nine, he was sent to a reformatory in Gravesend and was later locked up for swindling and theft.

As Smith matured, he began manipulating women to do his dirty work for him, gaining their trust through marriage. And so began a repetitive chain of "I dos", which quickly turned into "you will dos".

Between 1908 to 1914, Smith entered seven bigamous marriages, using various aliases to shroud his identity.

After he had forced his wives to steal or pocketed any money they had for himself, he'd be gone in a flash and move onto the next unassuming young woman.

However, Smith soon set his heart on greater wealth, but this required a far more sinister approach and led to three girls becoming the centre of an infamous case known as 'the Brides in the Bath Murders'.

Shopping for your own death

Two years after Bessie and Smith married, they moved to Herne Bay High Street.

Soon after, Smith asked his wife to write a will in his favour. Her late father was a bank manager and had left £2,500 in his daughter's name, which would be around £150,000 today.

Once the changes to the will had been signed off, Smith visited an ironmonger to inquire about the price of a cast-iron bath, which he was told would set him back £2.

Two days later, Bessie was sent to the shop to haggle for a better price, totally unaware that she was making a deal for her own instrument of death.

Smith knew a small fortune awaited him upon his wife's death, but he had to be sly and make sure he wasn't caught.

And what better way to cover your tracks than to convince everyone your victim died of their own sorry accord?

A sinister gaslighting process ensued, with Smith insisting his wife was suffering from frequent epileptic fits about which she remembered nothing afterwards.

In truth, the young woman had no history of such problems, but trusting her husband's observations, she agreed to go to the doctors for an examination, repeating the symptoms Smith had described to her.

The very next day, it appeared the fits had become so violent the very worst had happened - Bessie had drowned in the bath.

But little did everyone know the true cause of of this sudden death.

"Come at once. My wife is dead."

As the local doctor entered the bathroom he was faced with a dreadful sight.

He'd rushed to an address in Herne Bay High Street after receiving a pencil-written note from Smith: "Come at once. My wife is dead."

Bessie's body lay eerily still, her face partially submerged in the water.

Smith claimed this is how he'd found her and with no signs of anything suspicious, an inquest jury confirmed his story - she drowned after a fit.

With his wife dead, the now-murderer was quick to secure her small fortune for himself.

Smith and Bessie Mundy, who was the first victim of a trio of callous murders
Smith and Bessie Mundy, who was the first victim of a trio of callous murders

But despite his sudden wealth, little was spent on the funeral. Smith choose the cheapest coffin available and refused to pay for a private graveyard plot.

In true psychopathic style, he even returned the very bath his wife had died in for a refund.

And after everything went so smoothly, with a successful method figured out, Smith wasn't going to stop there.

He was confident he would never get caught, but in actual fact, he had overlooked one thing. When the doctor visited the house on that fateful day, he quietly noted how Bessie had a tight grip around a bar of soap - something which later proved crucial in securing Smith's conviction.

Two more baths for two more brides

No sooner was Bessie dead and buried that Smith met his next unassuming victim in Southsea.

Two months later, on November 4, 1913 the killer not only married Alice Burnham but had also arranged for her to take out £500 life insurance, with him as the beneficiary.

Money always seemed to be the motive of Smith's blood-curdling crimes.

For a delayed honeymoon, the couple journeyed to Blackpool, where they lodged with a widow called Margaret Crossley.

Three days after they arrived, Mrs Crossley noticed water dripping from her kitchen ceiling.

Cautiously, she ventured upstairs to check on Alice, who had told her she was having a bath.

However, Smith was swift to distract her before she reached the bathroom, striking up a conversation. Shortly afterwards he instead went upstairs and 'discovered' his wife dead in the bath.

With, again, no signs of anything suspicious, this time the jury put the death down to drowning after Alice had fainted.

It had been just a month since they married.

But Smith's third victim, Margaret Lofty, lasted just 24 hours.

Posing as a rich land agent called John Lloyd, the murderer ironically met her in the city of Bath.

A day after tying the knot, the sound of splashing and wet hands rubbing alongside the tub from the bathroom above were heard by the newly-weds' landlady.

Despite these being the sounds of Margaret's final moments, Smith was able to cover his tracks by dashing outside after the killing and knocking on the front door to say he'd been to the shop and forgotten his key.

With the landlady failing to notice anything odd, the death was put down to 'misadventure.'

Smith had now earned £3,700 from his brutal crimes, which would be around £190,000 in today's money.

A link in the deaths

Smith might well have gone on to kill even more innocent women if it hadn't been for Alice Burham's father spotting a newspaper article about Margaret Lofty's death, which sounded remarkably similar to his daughter's.

Suspicions heightened, Mr Burham got in touch with the police to report a possible link.

Then, in February 1915, Smith was arrested while he was sat with his solicitor discussing Margaret's will.

Kent Police suggested the suspect could also be linked to Bessie Mundy's death, and witnesses came forward and the bodies were exhumed from their graves.

With no signs of violence or struggle, the investigation was brought back to Bessie's tight grip around the bar of soap.

If she'd had an epileptic fit, like Smith suggested, her hands would have relaxed, so this didn't add up.

But how could she and the other girls have all died so suddenly if it was indeed Smith's fault? Surely it would have taken some force to keep their heads underwater, even if he was physically stronger?

The solution

For weeks, an investigator, Spilsbury, wracked his brains to think of the solution.

And then it suddenly hit him.

If Smith had grabbed the ankles of each of his lovers as they lay in the tub and without warning, yanked them towards him, the women's heads would be instantly submerged in the water.

He pondered if the sudden flood of water into the nose and throat might cause such a shock that a person could lose consciousness, explaining the absence of any injuries.

To try out the theory, police hired experienced women divers of the same size and build as the victims.

They tried to push them underwater by force but, as expected, the women struggled. But when one of the diver's feet were unexpectedly pulled, she glided beneath the water and stopped moving.

It took a doctor more than 30 minutes to revive her - the theory was confirmed.

The trial

On June 22, 1915, George Smith stood trial for all three murders at the Old Bailey.

It took the jury just 20 minutes to decide his fate on July 1.

After being found guilty, he was sentenced to death and, despite protesting his innocence to the very end, he was hanged at Maidstone Prison a month later.

Never revealing how he did in fact kill his victims.

Others have suggested alternative solutions over the years.

One of the more obscure is that he hypnotised them and was inspired by American bigamist George Witzoff who is said to have persuaded more than 100 women to marry him and hand over their life savings all through the power of the mind.

Even Smith's own barrister, Edward Marshall Hall, thought this might be the case.

But some professional hypnotists argued you can't make someone do something which will harm them and that Bessie's firm grip on the soap proves she wasn't in a trance.

Others suggested the cold-hearted killer forced his wives to submit to their death out of pure fear.

The truth is, we will never know exactly how Smith murdered his wives - the innocent victims of a notorious case which still sends shivers down the spine more than 100 years on.

Read more: All the latest news from Herne Bay

Read more: All the latest news from Maidstone

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