Continuing the background research on the real-life case behind The Drowning Girls (written by Canadians Beth Graham, Daniela Vlaskalic and Charlie Tomlinson), as presented by director Taryn Jorgenson to members of Alumnae Theatre Company on Oct 29. To recap: English conman George Joseph Smith had seven bigamous marriages between 1908 – 1914. He murdered three of those brides in bathtubs, and their stories are told in the play The Drowning Girls.
Smith was nabbed through sheer chance: the father of Alice Burnham (victim #2) just happened to see a newspaper story about Margaret Lofty (victim #3), and the suspicious similarities between their deaths prompted him to have Scotland Yard investigate. Within a month, the detectives uncovered the death of Bessie Mundy (victim #1) a few years earlier under identical circumstances.
As the investigation continued, a series of women came forward to say that they too been duped by Smith (but luckily escaped with their lives). What had so enthralled these women? He wasn’t especially handsome, but “The power lay in his eyes”, one wife claimed. It’s possible he used some type of hypnotic suggestion on the women…
Smith was tried for the first murder (Bessie) only, but the murders of Alice and Margaret were used as supporting evidence – the first time this had been done. The prosecution relied on the expertise of eminent pathologist Bernard Spilsbury, now known as the “father of modern forensics”. He demonstrated how Smith managed to drown the women with no noise (the bathroom doors were ajar), no struggle, and no wounds or bruises. Smith was convicted, and execution (hanging) carried out in August 1915. He protested his innocence right to the end.
For a blow-by-blow of the case, trial, and evidence used to convict Smith, see http://www.watfordobserver.co.uk/nostalgia/crimelibrary/georgejosephsmith/bridesinthebath/ or http://www.murdermap.co.uk/pages/cases/case.asp?CID=481303864&VID=731&Case=George-Joseph-Smith-and-the-Brides-in-the-Bath
On first reading The Drowning Girls, Taryn told us, she asked herself, “Why are these women telling this story? Why do they feel the need to tell and re-live their tragic fates?” Well, there was a lot of pressure from society at that time to be married – the average age to marry was 18, and a woman not married by 35 (in the play, Margaret is 38) might as well give up all hope! So when they found Smith – or rather, he found them: he had an uncanny ability to sniff out desperation in his victims – they thought they were saved.
But that time was a hundred years ago; now women are no longer defined by their marital status. Still, almost all women who experience violence from their loved one never report it. They blame themselves for their own abuse, thinking they could have changed his ways or “not made him so angry”. The brides in the play tell their stories to rid themselves of the guilt and shame they feel, knowing it was their own foolishness which doomed them.
Taryn shared some scary statistics from the websites of Canadian Women’s Foundation and National Coalition Against Domestic Violence:
– Statistically, a woman is in far more danger in her own bedroom than on the seediest of urban streets in the middle of the night.
– On average, every six days a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner.
– In Canada, yearly arrests resulting from domestic violence account for 12% of all violent crime in the country. But since only 22% of all incidents are reported to the police, the real number is much higher.
– After falling for a decade, rates of domestic violence have now flat-lined. In 2009, the rate of self-reported spousal violence was the same as in 2004.Victims are now less likely than ever to report an incident to police.
Taryn told us that The Drowning Girls really challenged her as a director: working with real bathtubs, real wedding dresses and real water (which will be warmed so the actors aren’t sodden and frozen!). She loves the non-linear structure of the play and unconventional stylistic elements, like the way the brides switch from scene to scene and character to character. Each woman plays not only a murdered bride, but also enacts the people from the others’ lives, as well as their own murderer. And in spite of the subject matter and the message, Taryn describes the play as “both shocking and exciting; humourous and touching”.
The Drowning Girls runs in Alumnae Theatre’s Studio, Nov 16 – Dec 1. firstname.lastname@example.org