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Bernard Spilsbury - the First Forensic Scientist?

Updated on June 2, 2019
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Sir Bernard Spilsbury
Sir Bernard Spilsbury

Famous for uncovering vital evidence in murder cases such as Dr Crippen and the Brides in the Baths, Bernard Spilsbury had an enviable reputation in the then little-known field of forensic pathology. His testimonies helped to send killers to the gallows, but was the evidence he provided completely reliable, and could it stand up to the scientific standards of today?

Birth of a Scientist

Born in Leamington Spa, Bernard Spilsbury studied at Magdalen College, Oxford attaining a BA in natural sciences, before taking up further studies at St Mary's Hospital London where he discovered his interest in forensic pathology. Working with, and subsequently succeeding from Augustus Pepper, Spilsbury worked as a pathologist and morbid anatomist. His work led eventually to his being approved by the Home Office as a forensic pathology advisor.

Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen
Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen | Source

Murder Most Foul

In January 1910, a mild-mannered and rather insignificant individual named Dr Crippen made a visit to Lewis and Burrow's shop in New Oxford Street. Here he ordered five grains of hyoscin hydrobromide - a large amount, necessitating that a special order be placed via the wholesalers.

American Hawley Harvey Crippen was then living with his second wife Cora at 39 Hilldrop Crescent in London's Camden Town. The couple were not on terribly good terms with each other: Cora had enjoyed some success as a music hall performer and often spent money on jewellery and furs. Though the couple did have savings - around £600.00 - more than half of this was in Cora's name. She was known as a vivacious and fun-loving woman, a fact, which friends must have noticed, was in stark contrast to her quiet and unassuming husband.

Crippen's lover, Ethel Le Neve
Crippen's lover, Ethel Le Neve | Source

Cora vs Ethel

Crippen had been having an affair with Ethel Le Neve - a young woman he'd employed as a secretary during one of his many failed business ventures. This fact, together with his wife's need to enjoy herself led to Cora's decision to leave her husband, taking the couple's savings with her.

On the night of 31 January 1910, the Crippen's entertained two guests - Mrs and Mrs Martinetti - who stayed quite late after dinner playing cards. Over the next few days, it seems that Dr Crippen pawned some of his wife's jewellery, while his lover Ethel moved into Hilldrop Crescent. Meanwhile, at the Music Hall Ladies Guild, two letters arrived, purporting to be from Belle Ellmore (Cora's stage name), advising the organisation that she was resigning from her position as Honorary Treasurer as she was travelling to America to visit sick relatives.

While Crippen and Ethel were away in France, Cora's friend Mrs Martinetti received a telegram stating that Cora had died. The telegram had been sent from Victoria Station in London, presumably before Crippen left for France. This news, taken with the many discussions among Cora's friends led a Mr Nash to Scotland Yard, where he told police of his suspicions.

With Dr Crippen back from his travels, Chief Inspector Dew questioned him about his story. The timid doctor finally admitted that he'd lied about his wife's death and had simply made up the story to protect himself from scandal - Cora had run off with on of her old music-hall associates, Bruce Miller, and poor Crippen couldn't face the humiliation in his small circle of friends.

Nevertheless, the Inspector organised a warrant to search the house.

Although the initial search found nothing, Inspector Dew returned to the property after Crippen and Le Neve fled to Antwerp. This second search of the cellar uncovered what appeared to be the remains of a body.

Bernard Spilsbury's notes show his certainty that although no head was found, the body was that of Cora Crippen:

Human remains found 13 July. Medical organs of chest and abdomen removed in one mass. Four large pieces of skin and muscle, one from lower abdomen with old operation scar 4 inches long - broader at lower end. Impossible to identify sex. Hyoscine found 2.7 grains. Hair in Hinde's curler - roots present. Hair 6 inches long. Man's pyjama jacket label reads Jones Bros., Holloway, and odd pair of pyjama trousers.

A portion of skin was found showing a scar, probably the a result of an operation. This was examined closely by Dr. Pepper, assisted by Spilsbury.

The Chase

Crippen and Ethel Le Neve's capture via the then recent invention of wireless, is a well-known tale. With Ethel disguised as a boy, the couple's inappropriately romantic behaviour left the Captain of the Montrose to suspect they might not be quite what they seemed. Chief Inspector Drew was informed and quickly boarded the SS Laurentic - a much faster vessel - and the escapees were apprehended and brought back to London to face trial.

Cora Crippen
Cora Crippen | Source

Damning Evidence

Spilsbury's evidence confirmed the analysis that had been performed on the skin sample and that this sample included a portion of the scar. He concluded this was definitely a scar rather than a mere fold of skin and also stated that the presence and arrangement of certain muscles demonstrated further proof that the specimen came from the lower abdomen. (The fact that Spilsbury had already known about Cora Crippen's abdominal scar before he examined the skin tissue, was, he stated, not relevant to his examination and did not affect the evidence he gave).

In recent times Bernard Spilsbury's evidence in the Crippen case has come in for much discussion and many people now believe that the body found in Crippen's cellar was not that of Cora Crippen and in fact, was not even female.

Nevertheless, the fact of Cora's disappearence combined with Dr Crippen's odd behaviour cast him as guilty. If there'd been any doubt in the jury's minds that he had not poisoned and dismembered his wife, it wasn't enough of a doubt to keep him from the gallows. Hawley Harvey Crippen was hanged at Pentonville Prison in November 1910.

Bessie Munday
Bessie Munday | Source

The Brides in the Baths

When 33-year-old Bessie Mundy met eligible bachelor Henry Williams in the hazy summer of 1910, she had little idea that the smooth-talking art dealer would lead her not only to marriage, but to her death. Spinster Bessie was to be the first victim of bigamist and murderer George Smith (Williams being one of several aliases). But it wasn't until Smith's third killing that his activities came to the attention of the police, and the keen eye of Bernard Spilsbury.

No sooner were the couple married, than Smith persuaded Bessie to make a will in his favour, as well as asking her family for a sum of money they were holding on her behalf. Though Bessie's Uncle Herbert was suspicious, there was little he could do but forward the money as requested. Shortly after this, Smith left his new wife high and dry, leaving only a note claiming he had caught a sexually transmitted disease from her and had gone to London to seek a cure. He did not return.

However, eighteen months later, having struggled to start a new life without her husband, Bessie was enjoying a holiday in Weston-Super-Mare, when she ran once again into the bigamous arms of George Smith. No doubt surprised at seeing her, Smith lost no time in setting up Bessie for another fall. He was full of apologies and persuaded her to set up home with him in Herne Bay, Kent. It was in their rented house at 80 High Street that Bessie met her death.

An Inspector Calls

Following an investigation headed by Detective Inspector Arthur Neil, George Smith found himself arrested on charges of bigamy and murder.

By this time Smith had killed two more women, but with little to go on other than the bare facts of three women dying in similar circumstances, the police were desperate to find evidence that would confirm their theories.

Spilsbury was called in to look into how the three women died and his first act was to order the exhumation of the body of Smith's latest victim, Margaret Lofty.

George Smith - Murderer
George Smith - Murderer | Source
Margaret Lofty, Smith's second victim
Margaret Lofty, Smith's second victim | Source

Margaret had married Smith (under his assumed name of John Lloyd) on 17 December 1914. As with his other 'wives' Smith persuaded his new bride to make a will leaving all her possessions to him.

That evening, the couple's landlady recalls hearing splashing noises and 'a sigh' coming from the bathroom. Margaret was having a bath while her husband went out to buy tomatoes. On his return, Smith made a point of drawing attention to there being no response to his knocking on the bathroom door. The landlady entered the room to find Smith struggling to lift his wife out of the bath. According to Dr Bates, who also performed the autopsy, the young woman had probably died of asphyxia from drowning.

By 23rd of January, Margaret was in her grave and if it hadn't been for the suspicions of Charles Burnham, that might have been an end to it. Burnham, whose daughter Alice had also mysteriously drowned in a bath, thought it was odd that two other women had suffered the same fate. Sending newspaper clippings to Inspector Neil, he asked the policeman to look into the possibility that the three cases were linked.

Death by Drowning?

Even in our modern age, it can be difficult to determine death by drowning, and Bernard Spilsbury had an even more challenging task - to determine if these women had drowned accidentally, or by force. Having continued his investigations with the exhumations of Bessie Mundy and Alice Burnham, one of the scientist's dilemmas was that death seemed to have occurred almost immediately. There was also the curious fact that Bessie Mundy had been found still grasping a bar of soap, which surely would not have been the case had she been fighting for her life. In addition, there was a distinct lack of unexplained marks on the bodies that should have been present if the victim had been involved in a struggle. It seemed there was no obvious answer to the underlying question: if these women had drowned accidentally, how had it happened?

Testing the Water

Faced with very little evidence to show that Smith could in fact have drowned his victims without marking their bodies, Spilsbury decided to conduct an experiment: he had taken careful note of the measurements of each of the baths used and had some ideas about how their deaths might have been achieved. Enlisting the help of an experienced lady swimmer, Spilsbury conducted his experiments. These included having the subject lay in each of the baths in turn, in different positions, while the scientist attempted to demonstrate if any of the victims might have been murdered simply by pushing their heads under water.

This initial idea however, proved useless, as the swimmer was easily able to grasp the sides of the baths and make enough of a commotion to discount this method as a means of a quick and quiet death. Spilsbury's next experiment very nearly landed him in deep water however, when he used the technique of grabbing the swimmer's legs and yanking them upwards, forcing the poor woman underwater. She became immediately unconscious and Spilsbury and his police colleagues spent nearly half an hour trying to resuscitate the woman before she finally came round.

This then, could well have been the method George Smith used, as it had the effect of rendering his victims unconscious long enough for him to finish his grisly task and end their lives forever.

Hiroshi Sugimoto - The Brides in the Bath Murder, 1994,
Hiroshi Sugimoto - The Brides in the Bath Murder, 1994, | Source

The Trial of George Smith

At the time of the trial, it was not customary for individuals to be tried for more than one crime, so George Smith was tried for the murder of Bessie Mundy. However, since the fact of there being two other victims, the prosecution were allowed to use the deaths of Alice and Margaret to show how the killer had developed a system for despatching his victims. This judgement was to set a precedent for future murder cases.

Smith was defended by popular barrister Edward Marshall Hall, who had convinced himself that his client had used hypnotism as a means of luring his victims to their deaths. This theory did not help the case, though, and George Smith was found guilty of murder and hanged in August 1915.

Norman Thorne with his fiancée Elsie Cameron
Norman Thorne with his fiancée Elsie Cameron | Source

The Murder of Elsie Cameron

Bernard Spilsbury's successes were many, but in later years, his evidence was not taken for granted quite as readily as in the case of George Smith. In 1925, Spilsbury gave evidence at the trial of Norman Thorne, whose fiancée Elsie Cameron had disappeared on 5 December 1924. Following new evidence, Thorne was taken in for questioning. He claimed he hadn't seen Elsie, but despite his protestations, the police set about digging up his land and soon uncovered the young woman's dismembered corpse.

Changing his story from a rather pathetic version that Elsie had never arrived at his smallholding, Thorne told how he and the young woman had had a heated argument and that after storming off to calm down, he had returned to discover Elsie had hanged herself with a length of washing line. Claiming a fit of panic, the chicken farmer told how he had cut up and buried her body, as he feared being held responsible for her death.

At the trial, Bernard Spilsbury described his findings: he had found the dead woman to have a ‘remarkably healthy body’, with no signs of broken skin or discolouration. He had, he said, discovered evidence of trauma under the skin, illustrating that she must have been the victim of violence. Spilsbury had not, however, taken the time to examine the skin around the woman's neck, choosing instead to assume the creases in the skin were those found naturally.

Police digging up the remains of Elsie Cameron
Police digging up the remains of Elsie Cameron | Source

A Clash of Pathologists

The difficulty was that Spilsbury claimed that while there were no visible marks on her skin, his analysis of the tissues had shown evidence of bruising. He did not explore the possibility that such bruising could have been caused by the process of lividity, but that they must have been as a result of violence committed on her body.

Fellow pathologist Dr Robert Matthew Brontë on the other hand, undertook a second examination of the body for the defence team and his evidence challenged that of Spilsbury's. He endeavoured to show how Elsie Cameron might have only partially hanged herself and was threfore still alive when Thorne found her. On discovering the body, Brontë argued, the hapless farmer had assumed she was dead and in a panic, tried to get rid of the corpse. This could account, thought Brontë, for the bruises, but did not necessarily confirm a violent assault (as Spilsbury claimed), but were in fact evidence of bruising that had occurred as Thorne was cutting down her body.

In the event, the jury decided that Spilsbury's version of events was the right one and Norman Thorne was sentenced to death. He was hanged at Wandsworth Prison on 25th April, 1925.

Bernard Spilsbury in later years
Bernard Spilsbury in later years

© 2015 Colin Garrow


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    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      5 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      Thanks for reading, Chase, glad you enjoyed it.

    • dreamaserve profile image

      Chase Smith 

      5 years ago from London, Great Britain

      This is a really interesting article! I enjoyed reading it

    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      5 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      I think they maybe relied on it a bit too much in the early days. At least they don't hang folks in the UK anymore, so if the forensics people get it wrong, nobody ends up dead! Thanks for reading, Cyndi.

    • Cyndi Gibson profile image

      Cyndi Gibson 

      5 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      Very interesting. I did not realize that forensic medical testimony has been relied upon for so long.

    • FatBoyThin profile imageAUTHOR

      Colin Garrow 

      5 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

      I think forensic science is a fascinating area - though it's probably not as exciting in real life as it sounds on paper! Thanks for reading.

    • Akriti Mattu profile image

      Akriti Mattu 

      5 years ago from Shimla, India

      I've always had an inclination towards forensic science even though i didn't take it as a career. I've read a couple of books in this regard. Your post is really informative. Voted up :)


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