When Mr. Charles Burnham read the newspaper story about Margaret Lloyd, a young bride who had tragically drowned in her bath in London’s suburban Highgate neighborhood the week before Christmas 1914, the story sounded terrifyingly familiar. Mr. Burnham’s daughter, Alice, had died in an eerily similar way, almost exactly one year before, after being recently married, by drowning in her bathtub while on her honeymoon in Blackpool, England with her husband George Smith.
Charles Burnham contacted the landlady of the honeymoon suite in Blackpool, one Mrs. Crossley, who confirmed that Margaret Lloyd’s husband looked suspiciously like the man who married Alice. The two went directly to London’s metropolitan police who immediately began an investigation that would ultimately reveal a horrifying history of bigamy, insurance fraud, and murder.
George Smith (aka John Lloyd, Henry Williams, and other aliases) was convicted of murdering three women by drowning and hanged on Friday, August 13, 1915. The trial lasted eight days and the jury took just 22 minutes to find George Smith guilty of the murders of Alice Burnham, Bessie Mundy, and Margaret Lofty; all of whom were married to Smith, and all of whom were drowned by him for their money or life insurance policies.
How could Smith get away with it? At least three times? At least three women? Three recent brides? Three drownings in nearly identical circumstances? Was it because criminal investigative techniques were so much more primitive in the late 1800s? Possibly.
The Daily Mail in the UK poses a different possibility. In April of 2010, The Daily Mail, in an ongoing series detailing some of the UK’s most horrific mass murderers, wrote, “In the 1890s, large numbers of young men were emigrating to the colonies, which left British females outnumbering men by more than half a million by 1910. The newspapers of the day were full of stories about women who could not find husbands.” These “spinsters,” as they were viciously named by the popular media, were largely poor and working-class women with little to no hope for financial advancement. At a time when women were not able to find employment beyond being servants, housekeepers, or the like, the prospect of a life of poverty was not only a possibility, it was the most likely outcome. In a culture that valued being a wife and mother as the most noble of callings to which a woman could aspire, the lack of potential mates was likely panic inducing.
And it was in this environment that George Smith hunted for his victims. The Daily Mail continues, “Such spinsters were perfect prey for Smith, a smooth-talking spiv with a slim, muscular physique and a penchant for flashy gold rings and brightly-colored bow-ties. He prowled seafronts and parks in his search for lonely and vulnerable females, mesmerizing them with his deep-set grey eyes.”
Backstage.com’s recent coverage of a production of The Drowning Girls says, “George Joseph Smith was working a ghastly racket. Posing as a man of independent means, he would court the daughters of wealthy families and those who were of little means. Before the wedding he would have the lady’s will and finances put into order, leaving him the sole beneficiary in the event of her untimely death. Then—sometimes a few years after the wedding, sometimes just a single day later—he drowned his new wife in a bathtub, took the money, and ran. Smith accomplished this gruesome scam at least three times within three years, leading to his conviction and execution.”
The Brides In the Baths murders are among the most notorious in all of England’s history, and follow a tragically familiar narrative. Young women pressured by society to marry; a handsome gentleman with promises of love and a comfortable lifestyle; a cultural predilection to disbelieve women’s stories of abuse; a dismissive attitude towards the value of a woman’s life; and a justice system inclined to side with men over women. A tale as old as time, really.
But in this remarkable reimagining of the deaths and lives of Alice, Bessie, and Margaret, the writers of The Drowning Girls do more than just illuminate sexism and the prevalence of violence against women; they also give the victims of this violence a voice, a chance to not only tell their stories but explain their choices, reflect on their lives, prove their cases, and to meet each other in a macabre sisterhood.
When I first read The Drowning Girls I knew immediately that Bag&Baggage should produce the show. Not only is it based on the actual court transcripts of the trial of George Smith, but it was also written in such a way as to be almost Shakespearean in poetic style. Without question, The Drowning Girls is unique in the performance history of the company. Written by contemporary female playwrights from Canada, in a style that is largely non-realistic and hauntingly simple, the story is one of tragedy and celebration; part cautionary tale, part courtroom drama, and part love story. The Drowning Girls gripped me while I read it. Given the remarkable women who work with this company, as actors and as artists, it was a simple decision to ask those artists to give the victims of George Smith the chance to live, breathe, laugh, love, warn, and fight again. Maybe in this sisterhood, we can all find strength together.
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