One hundred years ago this year, Herne Bay was the scene of a notorious Edwardian murder which became national front page news and led to a sensational trial at the Old Bailey.
On 13 July 1912, Bessie Williams (above) was found dead in her bath at Number 80 the High Street. (After the street was renumbered in the 1930s the address where the murder took place became Number 159.) It was discovered that Bessie had made a will five days before her death in favour of her husband, Henry Williams, by which he benefited from £2,579, 13 shillings and 7 pence (about £150,000 today). When his wife’s body was discovered, Henry was questioned closely by the police. However, the opinion of the doctor who examined Bessie’s body apparently convinced them of his innocence.
At the inquest, Doctor Frank French, stated that he believed Bessie had suffered an epileptic fit and that the cause of her death had been asphyxia brought about by drowning. When asked whether the death could be due to anything else, Dr French replied, “I have no reason to suspect any other cause than drowning.” The jury at the inquest did not ask for a post mortem and returned a verdict of Death by Misadventure.
But Henry Williams was far from innocent and this was not even his real name. He was really George Joseph Smith and he had married Bessie Mundy a few months earlier with the express intention of getting hold of her inheritance. The couple’s first address in Herne Bay was at Kingsbury Villas, Kings Road, but as part of Henry’s plan to obtain her money, he took her to a better house in the High Street. The property did not have a bathroom so Henry installed a temporary bath in a spare room upstairs, which he ordered from Adolphus Hill, an ironmongers in the High Street (although he never actually paid for it). Henry then convinced both Bessie and her doctor that his wife suffered from fits that caused her to become unconscious. He murdered her by drowning Bessie in the new bath and persuading everyone she had had one of her fits.
With Bessie’s legacy secured, Henry (or George) disappeared to the north of England where he married his next victim, Alice Burnham (above). Alice’s father had severe doubts about his prospective son-in-law, whom he described as being ‘of evil appearance’ but the marriage went ahead. Shortly after their wedding, Alice took out life assurance worth £500. Her body was found drowned in the bath of the couple’s lodgings in Blackpool on 12 December 1913. Once again there was an inquest and once again George Smith walked free. The jury agreed that Alice Smith had ‘accidentally drowned through heart failure when in the bath’.
George married his third and last victim in London under the pseudonym of John Lloyd. His wife, Margaret Lofty (below) also took out a life assurance policy soon after their wedding. Her body was discovered at 14 Bismark Road, Highgate, almost exactly one year after Alice’s death. On the afternoon of 18 December 1914, Margaret Lloyd went to see her solicitor and made a will in favour of her new husband. Later the same evening, John Lloyd told the owner of the house that he was going out to buy some tomatoes for his wife’s supper whilst she took a bath.
When he returned he called out to Margaret but got no answer. He went into the bathroom and found that she had drowned. The inquest took place on New Year’s Day 1915 and once again a verdict of accidental death was recorded.
On January 3, Joseph Crossley, in whose house Alice Smith’s body had been found, wrote to the Metropolitan Police, enclosing a newspaper cutting about the death of Margaret Lloyd. He drew their attention to the remarkable similarities between her death and that of his lodger, Alice, a year earlier. The police began an investigation and it was quickly apparent that George Joseph Smith had many other aliases and wives. He had married Caroline Thornhill (under his real name) in 1898 and Edith Peglar (using the name Oliver George Love) in 1908, even though his first wife was still alive. When he married Bessie Mundy (as Henry Williams) in 1910 Edith was also living.
George Smith was arrested on 1 February 1915 in Uxbridge Road, by Divisional Detective Inspector Arthur Neil. He appeared at Bow Street Police Court on 8 February charged initially with causing a false entry to be made in a marriage register. The chief police officer of Herne Bay read a report of the arrest and circumstances of the enquiry and contacted Inspector Neil. He drew his attention to the similarities between the case and the earlier death of Bessie Mundy.
The bodies of all three victims were exhumed and re-examined by Neil and pathologist, Doctor Bernard Spilsbury. On 23 March, Smith was charged with the murders of Bessie, Alice and Margaret and sent for trial at the Old Bailey. During Inspector Neil’s investigation he formed the opinion that it would be impossible for anyone to accidentally drown in any of the baths in question. The investigation is now famous as one of the earliest to use modern forensic techniques to provide sufficient evidence to convict Smith of the murders.
George Smith was found guilty and sentenced to death on 1 July. It took the jury just twenty minutes to reach their verdict. He was executed at Maidstone Gaol on 13 August 1915. A film based on his life and trial was produced by Yorkshire Television in 2003. It was written by Glenn Chander, creator of Taggart, and starred Martin Kemp as Smith.