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THE SELF-HELP OF G.J. SMITH FROM "MURDER FOR PROFIT" BY WILLIAM BOLITHO COPYRIGHT 1926 BY HARPER & BROTHERS REPRINTED BY ARRANGEMENT WITH THE PUBLISHERS. NO PART OF THIS WORK MAY BE REPRODUCED IN ANY FORM WITHOUT THE PERMISSION OF HARPER & BROTHERS
In answer to your application my parentage and age &c. My mother was a Buss horse, my father a Cab driver my sister a Roughrider over the Arctic regions, my brothers were all galant sailors on a steam-roller. G. J. SMITH.
We have but little to set against this claim of George Joseph Smith to be the issue of a phantasmagoria and not a human family. His birth certificate states that he was born at 92 Roman Road, Bethnal Green, London, on the 11th January 1872. His father, the "Cab driver," according to this meagre document, was also an insurance agent: an insecure category that may (risking something on the observed unspontaneity of a mass-murderer's imagination) include the practice of flower and figure painting, which, in one of his marriage explanations, George Joseph claimed for him. Beyond this cloudy genealogy it is vain to seek. The very surname is clueless, for all family trees lose themselves among the Smiths. If ants have names for each other, they must use a tiny equivalent for Smith. It has no handle for the curious to meddle with. It is a name unlimited by space or time; it is an anonymity that may cover an earl or a gipsy evangelist, and is a sort of evasion of the laws of heredity. "Smith" suited the fantastic figure of this man who hated identification. With it, his only heirloom, he could wander undetectably in the depths of any directory; he could enjoy some of the privilege of the disembodied spirit. He escapes the unplatonic ties of family, and promotes himself out of commonplace crime to the company of Mr. Hyde, and Spring-Heeled Jack; a phantasm haunting the hinder terraces of the Lower Middle Class, a subject for a new Tale of Wonder and Imagination, where, instead of Hermits, are Respectable Spinsters; instead of Dungeons, the shadows of boarding-house basements; instead of skulls, a more gruesome terror of Tin Baths.
From the obscure bourne from which he came to his first appearance in the light of record is nine years. Our knowledge of this first appearance is solely due to his own negligent confidence to a woman in days before his character had set. At nine years old he was sent to a reformatory, where he stayed until he was sixteen. Meagre as it is, the information has many implications. A reformatory boy is indeed seldom different from other boys when he goes in. When he comes out, he is a type. It is a punishment for acts which proverbially and in certain classes of society, practically are recognized as natural to the growing male: theft, cruelty, various destructions of property. In the complicated social system of England there is a contradictory attitude towards this phenomenon. If the family is rich, it is excused, or in certain circumstances even praised, as natural and a sign of health. Thus the theft of growing fruit, the breaking of windows or fences, is not only pardoned, but often encouraged by jocular reminiscence and approving laughter. Graver deeds are punished privately by the family. When the family is poor, or only callous, the boy who taken in any such act (in Smith's days) was certain of from four to seven years' imprisonment in a reformatory. An apple off a barrow, a stone through a window, a broken street lamp: any of these acts may have brought on Smith his sentence. If he had been out of his teens, such offences would have entailed a fine or a few weeks' hard labour. But for philanthropic reasons such leniency is considered against the interests of the growing boy, if he is poor, and it is usual to send him to imprisonment for such period of his boyhood as may remain. This imprisonment, of course, was quite different from that inflicted on the adult; in addition to the manual work of prisons, the reformatory boy had to work at his books, and while there was no ticket-of-leave or remission system for good behaviour, corporal punishment, practically abolished for the grown prisoner, was an important part of the reformatory method for the youngsters. This system, devised for the betterment of the lower classes, the correction of their faults, and to assist them to bring up their families hard-working members of the State, does not always succeed. The boys on their release may be divided into two categories: those who have either outgrown the destructive stage without damage to property in their confinement, or whom the wholesome lesson of the power of the forces of order has discouraged from ever again trying to oppose it; and those who from a feeling of revolt, or because of hereditary tares, are incorrigible and henceforth for the rest of their days are integrally attached to the police system as criminals.
The first class are set to the credit side of our system; they are assured that no stigma attaches to them for their past, and all they have to do is to persuade a trades union to recognize their irregular apprenticeship in the reformatory workshop and admit them to the practice of the trade they have been taught. The second class are our failures; nothing more can be done for them. But they may be certain that their future sentences will usually be longer than those given to other criminals who have not had advantages to excuse them.
Smith, we can detect from circumstantial evidence, particularly his correspondence, left the Reformatory in a state somewhat intermediary between reclamation and total loss. He was certainly neither cowed nor inspired sufficiently to make his peace with society. But unlike the majority of "bad cases," he had used his head during the seven years, and had learnt something important and useful beyond the beggarly R's and the amateur woodwork. He was released with a precise knowledge of the ethics, and even of the vocabulary, of that good world that governs reformatories. Where else than from a good-hearted clerical visitor could he have learnt to compose such a sentence: "I vow to take advantage of every future day that the great powers have ordained, until the miserable past is absolutely outlived and a character established which will be worthy of your appreciation." Or: "Possibly many years are before us all wherein peace and goodwill will always keep the past at bay, and a Christian brotherly feeling established." This peak-faced urchin from Bethnal Green has remembered word for word, almost to the intonation, what he heard on Sundays from his spiritual father, even to the characteristic nervous shrinking from New Testament onomatology. Certainly the young delinquent did something more than pick his nose during these seven years of reformation. He had acquired what no foreigner can ever hope to do, the practice of that difficult English undenominationalism under which our State Christianity hides itself against the double onslaught of the Education Act and Higher Criticism. He had mastered the right tone in which to speak of the past, the attitude towards the future expected of one on whom so much State money had been spent. In fact, the root theory of reform was in him. Of all his studies, the concept of "making good," social atonement in its simplest form to make a good living out of reach of the law was the firmest embedded. As to the way to achieve it, he had not been so well instructed. The only rule he retained of this latter part of the curriculum was that an alibi, moral, local, or historical, always requires two witnesses.
With this baggage it might have made him a masterly writer of begging letters he had also acquired at some time in between the imperceptible chinks of ceaseless routine one of those devastating egotisms with which, whether they arise out of fear or vice, all mass-murderers are afflicted. Besides their habit of living in a constructed lie, besides the lust of killing which is a mysterious but constant symptom, this damned class are invariably selfish to a degree of which the greatest actor can have no conception: passions that can be more justly compared with that of a mother for a sickly child than with any lesser love between the sexes. Such egotisms are not the growth of a day, nor within the reach of anyone who has not searched the bottom of possible miseries. To love oneself like a Troppmann or Smith is a lifelong paroxysm in which the adoration of Saint John of the Cross, the jealousy of Othello, the steadfastness of a Dante is imitated; if there were a measure of intensity, I would dare say, excelled. In other forms of love admiration may be a necessary factor. The love of a Smith for himself needs no such prop. It absorbs every globule of his being, so that when it is present God and Man alike have no part in him. His self-compassion, self-pity, wakened by what self-knowledge of wretchedness we do not know, sucked the meaning out of every existence but his own. In the life of Burke we suspected it. In the story of Troppmann we deduced its growth. In the case of Smith we see this demoniac Narcissism itself.
From the day of his release for two years Smith's history runs quite underground again. But there are two manholes. In 1890 he serves a week's imprisonment for a petty theft. In 1891 a London Court sent him to six months' hard labour for stealing a bicycle at that time a luxury peculiarly seductive to a young man of nineteen. Then the trace of his woes and adventures disappears entirely. Possibly he had enlisted. There is some vague allusion to Army Service in what his first wife remembered of his confidences; and once he claimed to a boarding-house keeper to have been a gymnasium instructor. There was some vague allure of the corporal about his walk; some trace of pipe-clay and the button-stick about his later elegance. His unnaturally tough biceps were shaped by some other process than ordinary toil.
Then comes another official memento of his crooked track, the most important since the record of the Reformatory. In 1896, in the name of George Baker, he received twelve months' hard labour for larceny and receiving. This event is strictly analogous to the breaking of the cocoon that frees the fully-grown night-moth. The man has separated himself definitely from the caterpillar that was G.J. Smith, to begin a series of lives in other names, each separate in environment both personal and local and only joined by the hidden chain of his own identity. A double life is not enough for him: henceforth he will make of every year, sometimes every month, a separate life, in which his own history, his name, his profession, as well as the set of personages in which it is spent, is completely changed. He has embarked on a serial adventure in which each episode is complete in itself, whose master-plot is known only to himself: a life divided into impervious compartments. Other men may have mysteries in their life every incident in his was a separate secret.
This development is simultaneous to his discovery of Woman. Every criminal out of his teens sooner or later collides with the Riddle of Women, and his fate depends, more critically than that of honest men, on the answer he gives it. He may be tangled in the sentimental obstructions of a woman who fears the code, and then be caught in one of the three perilous policies of taciturnity, desperation or reformation. If she is of the same turn he has to share her dangers, and double his own. But if he has even a part of the exalted egotism of Smith he is more surely doomed. He will then try to use women. He will embark on the forbidden and hopeless enterprise of exploiting all this ore lying to his hand: half humanity, with half humanity's property, and all humanity's spending. It is a grave moment in life when it suddenly appears that the ranks of the enemy are not solid; that besides men who fight, punish, resist, there are also women who may be persuaded to love. It is the moment also, if he but knew it, to rush back into the thick of the battle and, doing and receiving evils that he understands, continue open war. All music is there to warn him, the prickings of his own blood, the recesses of his earliest memory, that here is a temple in which sacrilege is desperately dangerous. But this outlying Smith, or George Baker, has no caution. From the day he met his first woman he set eagerly to exploit her. Somewhere in the tunnel he had developed the canaille virility of a Guardsman whose odour, heightened by hair pomade, blacking and tobacco, lures women out of the kitchen like a pack after aniseed. After a short fumbling with the elementary difficulties of their jealousies and timidity, he had his first team of hussies at work for him: their part being to pilfer from their masters and hand over the goods. We do not know what blunder led to the first failure of the scheme. The method, not the idea, was afterwards improved.
In this first essay Smith had come to taste, probably for the first time in his life, the strongest mental pleasure in our civilization the joys of property. They are peculiarly dangerous to a man of his type. Even the minute quantity of superfluity that his love-slaves put into their master's hands intoxicated him. He had always before lived on the breadline. None of his earnings had lasted longer than the shortest way from hand to mouth. His first exploitation of women opened to him a new world, garnished with reserve stores against the bitter surprises of life. It furnished his imagination with savings-bank books, cash-boxes, and money laid by. New avenues opened beyond him at the end of which shimmered title-deeds, scrip, fascinating intrinsically and still more in the promise they contained of the final salvation of his only darling, his adored, his own self.
The tiger had tasted blood; or just as accurately, George Joseph had experienced conversion, from the despairing vagrancy of a prison-dweller on leave, to a life of hopeful motive. Smith was a born possessor. The mere routine of acquisition sensually excited him. He picked up the jargon of property law as the Renaissance learned Greek, with the meticulous enthusiasm of a grammarian. Women, even when they kill, always give something. In his first brush with them he brought back that hobby of the lonely, that consolation of the fearful: Avarice. In its strange and twisted ways the neophyte was at once expert.
On his release he appeared in Leicester eager to begin his first hoard. We have mislaid the chain of little reasons that made him open a sweet-shop. But we are allowed for a long time to watch him through a plate-glass window, serving children bulls'-eyes and all the assortment of morsels of aniline and sugar for which they wait from Saturday to Saturday in modern towns; or paper bags of broken biscuits and cake refuse; enjoying a till and a lease; practising himself, as if they were sonnets, in the petty art of writing business letters, with Re and Yours to hand, acknowledging kind receipts and begging to state. But after closing hours when the last shelf had been counted and tidied, he would sally out with his chest rigidly squared in search of more women, to see if they had any more to give him. So he came upon one Caroline Thornhill and married her in the symbolic name of George Oliver Love. In his marriage declaration, he promoted his father to one of the most eminent ranks in society that he knew, that of detective.
But if every incipient miser was a business man, the banks would shut their paying desks. Love and Company were bankrupt in six months. The only asset saved was Mrs. Caroline Love. He took her to London and set her to work, after his first manner. He attended to the postal and receiving departments, that is, he wrote letters of recommendation to employers for her and took what she stole from them.
In the course of this business he came to discover the seaside. It delighted him. From Brighton they went to Hove, from Hove to Hastings, finding everywhere business easier, people more gullible. Smith had found his America. Everywhere around him were rolling prairies of single women, so tame that the hunting male could approach them with the wind. This English seaside has not been methodically explored, yet it is as fascinating in its way as the labyrinths of the vast industrial towns of which it is a sub-continent. The scheme is different, the manner of life and customs are different. Instead of the regular pulse of nine hours between factory and tenement the regular circulation of the traffic arteries that pump the crowd fresh and living into the vessels of production in the early morning, and the network of veins that conducts their sluggish stream back to the sleeping cells at night, soiled, fatigued at the seaside there are two other steady tides, at ten o'clock and four, towards the sea. To enable hundreds of thousands to look at the water at the same time, it has been fitted with a T-shaped road, made up of a concrete walk along the shore, and an iron and concrete jetty, a shorter arm, jutting at right angles into the sea. At the end of this jetty is a round glass booth of great size, which is the point of concentration of the whole life of the town. Here music of a special kind is performed: songs in which lifelong love is praised, and marches and dances. At the back of the towns the downs have been trimmed, and small plots of grass planted for the game of golf. In many places other plots of land have been fenced off for the other game of lawn-tennis. In these two amusements the majority of the better-class visitors pass their time, sometimes waiting for long periods for an opportunity to play. But in the lesser world of Smith these artificial distractions fill small place; most of its time is spent in the morning and afternoon walk on the sea-roads, or in station round the official music and the private choirs that are spaced along the main-road and the shore.
With these changed institutions of seaside life naturally goes a large alteration of social custom. The rigid observance of the English social code, a variety largely influenced by ascetic Christianity as well as by climatic, feudal and other conditions, depends so much on mutual policing that the slightest removal from the circle where he is known and by which his conduct is ruled produces a considerable relaxation in behaviour of the normal Englishman; and still more in that of the normal Englishwoman. This dissolvent comes into play in the seaside holiday, which like the annual orgy of many African tribes, the majority of our population periodically observes. It is a counterpart of the bodily release from the abominable round of drudgery to which the nation, by an unhappy development, is for the most part condemned, whose only intermission is this yearly visit to the free air of the sea. Once a year we must have leisure to breathe smokeless air. Probably the temporary abandonment of the corset of the innumerable niceties of conduct is as necessary to our naturally adventurous, unconventional, and even lyrical race, as the physical relief.
In this world Smith, for the first time introduced by the hazard of his business, felt so suited that he seldom afterwards operated elsewhere. He perceived the extraordinary advantage, to a man working irregularly and out of the organization, of a milieu in which freedom from work is the rule, discretion and change of identity conventional, and where sudden comings and goings cause no remark. But he had particularly noticed the possibilities of the changed rules of conduct among the women. In London, or even on Sunday nights in Leicester, their approach was always difficult, often impossible. But at the seaside, provided a minimum of nous, that principal barrier between the sexes the need of a formal introduction was down. Further, those venerated guardians of British morality, the board and lodging house and hotel-keepers, are disarmed at the seaside. This law of liberty stretching in depth as well as area, not only was his power of action on the servile class of women he had known hitherto greatly enlarged, but another stratum of the sex, higher and therefore richer than anything he had aspired to, was here within his reach. His first turn on the glistening promenades convinced him of this. But before we can follow him in his new discovery, we must press him back again, like a jack-in-the-box, into his cell for another two years' hard labour. Mrs. Love had ended the second episode in the usual way.
Silvio Pellico, Baron Trenck, and half a score other innocent and learned men have informed us of their sufferings in prison life. But, that I know of, no genuine thief has published his impressions of confinement. Yet there must be a difference of view, if only because the latter must be deprived of the moral snobbery that so comforted Pellico. From such observations (usually facetious!) as we find strayed among the memoirs of prison governors and the like, it would appear that there are three periods in the course of a long sentence: first, when the guilty prisoner is crushed with despair and hardly able to live; second, when the routine soothes, and the time-shortening effect of monotony emerges; third, when the man begins to count, and the long chagrin of calendar-crossing sets in. Conscripts know this abominable occupation; schoolboys know it. In any old barracks the plasterers find little sums pencilled on the walls: so many days endured, so many to come before "la classe." And insomniacs know, what convicts in their last months know, the precise length of an hour, the speed of the minute-hand. Perhaps these degrees are well known to all judges and enter into their standards for measuring the days, months, years, they apportion with such easy assurance to any variety of guilt. But the enormous mental constructions that men, by nature ungeared with reality, must be rearing in the silence of four walls, the strange and idiotic plans they must make in such a waking dream, we can only guess at. Happiest certainly of all those who, like Love, doing his 730 days for theft by receiving from his wife, have walled up along with them all that they adore, if it is only their wretched selves.
He was released in 1902, to find that Mrs. Love had fled to Canada. He must have pondered much on this circumstance, for a voyage to Canada becomes henceforth an integral ornament of his lies. Possibly he tried to make up his mind to follow her, seeing no other way of making a living, for one forgets more than one learns in a cell. But gradually what he had observed at the seaside came back to him; then he bethought himself of other women, more convenient to his hand. He left the Canadian voyage lying in his mental life, complete enough for him to have a working belief in its accomplishment ever afterwards; and returned to the exploitation of other women.
In 1899 he already had conquered his first middle-class spinster; perhaps this was one of the reasons for Mrs. Love's denunciation. She was a boarding-house keeper in London, whom he met at the seaside. He married her at once, and some time after his release returned to her. When she was sucked dry, he went on to others. For eight years he proceeded from spinster to spinster, leaving behind him a litter of closed savings-bank accounts. Some he got rid of at once, who bored or irritated him, by a set technique of taking them to a public exhibition, pretexting a bodily need that would separate them for a minute, and disappearing. Some were worth the troublesome business of marriage; for some the promise sufficed. Smith led in these years a leisured life. He began to frequent public libraries, and soon was praising himself for his literary taste. Some mysterious reminiscence of his father gave him a peg for believing he was an innate connoisseur of the arts. He indulged this talent by allowing himself a certain sum for buying an occasional piece of old furniture, which he would afterwards sell, and stood such losses as he met with in this traffic with equanimity. Secondhand dealing brought him in direct touch with more women. It satisfied his pride and fed his real business.
In 1908, as an incident in another episode, the details of which are totally lost, he became for a few weeks a servant in a West End club, then was dismissed for inefficiency. The next year with some £90, the largest gain he had yet made it came from a Brighton conquest he adventured to Bristol, and there opened a second-hand shop. For some time the idea of a settled base, as far as possible from London, without being out of reach of the hunting grounds of the coast, had occurred to him. Here he married his next-door neighbour, a Miss Pegler, marking the special nature of the union and his intention to make it permanent, by using the name of Smith.
Sooner or later Smith was bound to arrive at this end. Even the foxes need a base. It was the necessary complement of that hoard whose quest always now obsessed him. It would be a hiding-place in case of need, and the necessary fixed point from which he could estimate the pleasures and pains of his episodic adventures. He did not intend to make it more. He told Miss Pegler, besides the customary fable of his rich aunt, the truth that he intended to carry on his business of travelling about the country, with sundry warnings against curiosity, which she usually dutifully heeded. But from the foundation of this little fort henceforward directly developed the plot of his fate. These fantastic creatures of reverie, as long as they do not meddle with the humdrum of the world, seem for a time safe. But as soon as they leave the air, their story begins its last inevitable chapters. It is the phase which we have seen at its acute form in Burke, when confident in his security he had got to a pitch of madness; a stage at which Troppmann toys insolently with a whole family that he counts already dead and done with; when a deep illusion of relief takes possession of them and they stand-down the sentries. In Smith this feeling of confidence took the form of founding this home-base with a wife in Bristol, both a feature of his life of petty swindler, which it capped and ended, and the first stage of his career of murder, which it began.
For with a home, Smith indulged himself in another of his dreams; he bought his first house. The superfluity that began with his first use of women had grown to a hoard of £240, which he used towards the purchase price of a cottage in Southend, whither, giving up the Bristol shop, they then removed. At last he could enjoy title-deeds, the process of transfer, the full consciousness of possession. It spoiled him for work. This was no Casanova, drawn by an everlasting curiosity and passion to seek new women all his life. Smith, like all his class of women-exploiters, was nothing but a lady-killer, a man essentially monogamous, whom sexual novelty inwardly disgusts and repels, who persists in the hunt only for the money or boasting it can give him. It may be that an intuition of this kernel of monogamy in these false Don Juans is the sting or the prize that makes their success. Sensuality in both sexes is as rare as a real passion for rare foods, or wines, or jewels. Smith, having his property and his Pegler, stayed at home in his own house. He fell into a shirt-sleeve life, and in the evening, instead of a lingering promenade past basement grids, or along sea-fronts, he would sit over a dish of sausages or potter with paint and nails, saving money, not making it. His great pleasure was to go over the grocer's book and feel the head of a family. Occasionally he would visit the Saturday afternoon auctions and listen knowingly to the remarks of the dealers, or drop in to a workman's flat just to take a look at a sideboard that had been in the family for years. But saving halfpennies on the kitchen bills by itself will not pay them. In spite of all his niggling thrift at length Smith was forced to let the house and go back to lodgings in Bristol, then to raise money on his sacred deeds on mortgage from the Woolwich Insurance Company from whom he had bought it. The raising of these first loans gave him so much pleasure in the officialism, the documents, testimonies, receipts, application forms they entailed, that he almost missed their disagreeable meaning. When the money was spent he roused himself for another raid on the women. With temper, as a man is aroused from sleep on a cold morning. Pegler and his next victim had to know it.
It was not necessary for him, it proved, to journey to his usual grounds by the seaside. In Bristol itself, somewhere in an evening walk, in the bare street, or under trees by some forlorn cricket-ground I do not know he brushed acquaintance with Bessie Constance Annie Mundy. She was then thirty-three years old, a full spinster, of that unhappy breed plentiful in late Victorian families. A full and critical study of her class, like that of most other phases of English social life of the nineteenth early-twentieth century, has not yet been made, though their bizarre originality will doubtless tempt many an investigator in future centuries. Here will suffice a brief muster of general characteristics, in order to explain the fall of Miss Mundy to the power of Smith, and to a certain extent the seemingly impossible, but in reality very frequent, liability of the Mundy class to the Smith class. Fundamentally, though not obtrusively, the class of women to which she belonged was an economic product of the immense days of English trade, which beginning coincidently with the downfall of the French Empire created a huge new middle-class. The absorption of this into the rudimentary schema of the English eighteenth-century aristocracy forms practically the whole of the modern social history of our race and its institutions. The men of this new bourgeoisie were somewhat easily assimilated to the elder, petty gentry of the country, who, with a beautiful tolerance unknown in any other country, and which in its earliest stages excited the contemptuous wonder of Napoleon Bonaparte (ever a snob), received them as readily, if not as eagerly, as Early Christian Missionaries baptized the Goths into civilization. The generic title of nobility, "gentleman," was extended to them with such philosophical and ethical explanations and notably false etymology as made the process plausible. Accepted as spiritual equals, the neophytes pressed their assimilation earnestly in manners and ways of thought. The mercantile gentlemen sent their sons to these special schools with which the Renaissance had equipped the country gentlemen, schools specifically designed to the needs of this latter, where, by internal discipline and the almost exclusive study of the classics, the English lesser noblesse had been raised, if not to the cultural level of the French, at any rate far above that of the rough clodhoppers and Junkers of other northern countries. In this unlikely melting-pot the new-comers lost many of the qualities that had made their fathers' fortunes, in exchange for a culture which at its highest adds something Greek to the common round of rustic amusements and tasks. As far as the lowest borders of the middle-class the ideal, in short, became the country gentleman; and instead of a sharp, spectacled exporter with a pen over his ear, the popular image of England became that bluff, prosperous English squire, John Bull. Only one of the consequences of this development interests us: its effect on the status of women, and particularly on the creation of that class or order, the English genteel spinster. The English squire, for whom the quasi-totality of Englishmen who could read and write now strove to be mistaken, had the ascetic views on women natural to an open-air, uncourtly life, and this accordingly became the standard of the middle-class of the nation. The brother had become a gentleman, the sister, naturally, a lady. If the boy had to pretend that the shot-gun was his main tool and not a pen, though his high stool, six days in the week, was his only hunter, the girls had to perform the far more difficult make-belief of being the chatelaines of the gloomy town houses their fathers necessarily continued to live in, and model their conduct, their outlook, their ways upon that of fortunate prototypes who had fields, servitors, gardens, and all the multifarious occupations of the country-side. As direct consequence sprang into existence a class of women who had nothing to do, whom their chosen norm of behaviour forbade anything which would differentiate them from their country model, and thus "be unladylike." Barred from Court and salon, as well as hunt-meet and the still-room, they were bereft of any reason for existence, except the passive wait for marriage. But not all could marry. From time to time (it is one of the strongest fascinations of the English nineteenth century) educators and reformers sought to fill this vacuum. The most notable of them, Ruskin, inspired these middle-class spinsters to a doughty attempt to interest themselves in Art, particularly Italian and Medieval Art, which has lasted almost until our own days. In that pre-war year with which we are concerned there had finally evolved a type out of all these influences to which Miss Mundy, and thousands of others, rigorously conformed. Over a superfluity, a complete uselessness, if such a word can be applied with a full sense of sympathy and pity, as no Stamboul odalisque ever was useless, they had bravely trained a tenuous decoration of books and tastes and principles: the Rosary and Tosti's Good-Bye, and Sesame and Lilies, with Way-Farer Anthologies and Botticelli prints, and limp-leather editions of the poets, with fifty other like motives, which in their combination have a certain, essentially tragic, poise. For underneath the garland was a misery and a lack, all the more tormenting because in most cases it was unconscious and undefined, of that Reality which three generations of fantastic theorizing of men had in no way disposed of. Some of them escaped it by working in the one ironical way possible to Ladies, by educating another generation of girls to their own sad situation. But thousands more, like Miss Mundy, whose circumstances allowed of it, carried their load of meaningless days and years wherever hazard took them, over the whole of England and to watering-places, boarding-houses and pensions over the western half of Europe. The loveless, superfluous middle-class spinster is that institution round which George Joseph Smith, that other typical product of our civilization, has for some time been prowling.
The father of Miss Mundy was a bank manager in a country town, an intelligent and capable man who left his daughter a comfortable legacy of £2,500. This sum, invested and controlled by her uncle, produced £8 a month and some small additional fraction, which he held as a reserve for her. It sufficed for a simple life which she spent in various boarding-houses up and down the country, passing from one to the other at the hazard of the season or the movements of her friends. She was a tall, educated woman, extremely reserved, who accepted her nomadic fate, her daily round of perfectly meaningless acts, outwardly with complete resignation. Into such a life, in which the only object is to stay "respectable," the intrusion of a Smith is almost supernatural. It is as if through the gate of a quiet convent, in the hours of the night, there should burst with shouts and torches the monstrous and obscene band of a Callot orgy. What unbelievable forces urging her towards a share in real life, beyond the round of shop-gazing and the prattle of her likes, must have been massing up behind the dam of her education and reserve before such a meeting could take place! What abominable science in this man of the unexplainable sufferings of a woman's heart before he could dare to sidle up, cough, raise his hat, look at her eyes and begin to tell her what he thought of the weather!
We need not resort to the absurd fable that Smith completely deceived her. Truth loves economy; there is no need to make her a fool, or him a genius. There is a simpler likelihood that he did not try to conceal his rank or the (unspecified) badness of his past. The first would have been useless in a country where a man cannot open his mouth without betraying his breeding. The second, presented without details, might have been necessary as a counterweight to the first. A proletarian such as Smith's opening vowels must have announced, whose life had been a humdrum, would neither have dared to accost Miss Mundy, nor would she have carried the acquaintance farther. When she set out to see the evening alone; when she noticed at the turning that a man was following her; and after the first flurry slacked her pace, then stopped against the railing and waited; when she saw him come near with a swagger in his arms and hesitation in his feet, and saw the soldier's shoulders and the shape of biceps in his coat-sleeves, the carefully jutted chin, it was not expectation, be sure, of a talk with an industrious artisan that made her breathing an embarrassing pleasure and prompted her little bow. It was a messenger who brought a ticket to life, the great ball of pain and change from which she had been lawfully but unjustly excluded. He must prove he had lived.
So, as soon as she could help him to it, the bold spectre must have declared that he had a wild past. They parted late, she to notice the change in her room, as if all the furniture had been moved and ornamented, from the black hygienic bedstead to the row of pocket poets in limp leather. He, to exercises of deductive arithmetic, working from half-perceived rings and a brooch to the unknown resources of ladies that were ladies. Sleep sound, both of you; don't worry that the other will not keep the rendezvous. Henceforth your lives, and your deaths, are welded together.
In two days they were kissing. In three they were off to Weymouth. No half-human plausibility could have seduced her at this speed. The population of fifty genteel boarding-houses had been pushing her to it for ten years. Her decision had been under steam for ten years; Smith's knuckles only needed to touch the throttle. Nor was it a mad flight; her companion's grudging of the marriage fees could not dissuade her from two rooms, the first night, and four days later a permission from the registrar to Henry Williams, thirty-five, bachelor, picture-restorer, son of Henry John Williams, commercial traveller, and Bessie Constance Mundy, to sleep as they pleased thereafter. She, indeed, not Life, had the last word in the bargain after all, and wrung her contract, in the exact prescribed terms of lifelong support and faithfulness, out of the very jaws of the adventure. The same evening Smith was mollified for his expense and trouble by learning the value of his prize. Hereupon he sat down after supper and wrote to his bride's trustee recalling to him that £8 a month on £2,500 left odd shillings in hand, which in the course of years must now amount to no less than £138, for which he would be obliged to request early remittance, at your earliest possible convenience. A postscript in the hand of his niece informed the trustee both of her adventure and its triumphant success.
This stage is summed up by the lover himself, in his admirably personal style, in another letter to her trustee uncle.
14 RODWELL AVENUE, WEYMOUTH,
Believe me, yours faithfully,
On this was added, in her hand: "I am very happy indeed. BESSIE WILLIAMS."
This letter was the beginning of a month's postal struggle between the trustee and Smith, in which each called in the aid of solicitors. As for Bessie Williams, her will is asleep, either from the exhaustion of the upheaval, or because her uncle's goodwill, having been risked in the greater, did not count with her in the lesser injury her husband was doing to it. Meanwhile, the subject of his past was tacitly dropped between them, with the phraseology of courtship; indeed his romantic sins seemed to fade into nothing but a busy and painstaking greed for money. He was always absent-minded, always waiting for the post, or preparing another letter for it. The solicitor they visited together deposes that she sat silent at the interviews. She was probably puzzled, but inwardly convinced, since the marriage certificate was there, that in the end it would be all right.
The moment that the money came, at last, Smith had used all the time he had to spare for her. He cashed it in gold and disappeared. It was part of his terrible thrift that he never left a woman without writing back to her some vague excuse, as if to save her for an uncertain, unplanned future use. Although he had thoroughly convinced himself that there was not the dimmest possibility of touching through her the locked-up capital of her fortune, over which the raging uncle was mounting a fierce guard with all the power of the law on his side, yet the mysterious man did not neglect his usual leave-taking. But in this case, besides the disturbing recommendations to save money, more precise and more menacing than ever before
"Ask your uncle about a week before the 8th to always send your cash in a money order so that you can change it at the P.O. Pay the landlady 25s. weekly for board and lodging and take my advice and put 30s. out of the £8 into the Savings Bank so it will come handy for illness or other emergencies or for us when I return. If you do not I shall be angry when I return."
there was a new and dreadful variation in the pretext for the desertion. In his flights from other women, Smith had never gone beyond a vague plea of "urgent business." But to this poor devil he made a charge (that she had infected him with venereal disease) that showed a bloody hatred, already full grown. We are now at last treading near that lust of killing, that apparition from the depths, whose fullest meaning will appear in the case of Haarmann. Such an insult, unnecessary as well as untrue, could not be an accident tacked on to the hurried lie of a coarse rogue. It is an act, a corporal violence, like the thong of a whip laid across her face, the apparently senseless, but by no means causeless, worrying of a sheep by a vicious dog. The passivity, the meekness of this educated woman had aroused some other nameless devil in him besides his biting fear-born avarice. Other dupes were to him only jumping figures in a cash-book. This most unhappy woman was to him flesh and blood. She had landed on the island of his egotism; he was afraid he was not alone.
Shaking off her presence with the blow he went back to his realities, the pasteboard wife he had contrived for himself, the mortgages and the deeds. A week after his sin, he was in the office of the Insurance Company, with a bag of sovereigns, asking to pay off £93 of the mortgage. He began to play at dealing again, and took Miss Pegler-Smith to Southend, then Walthamstow, then Barking Road, London, then back to Bristol again, his fort. For two years he seems to have lived without another victim. The Mundy episode had scared him without any obvious cause, for even a novice would know that he would never hear from her again.
She showed the letter to her landlady; then when she was able to travel her brother came and fetched her away.
In February 1912, Smith had no more money. The presentiment, or whatever it was, fatigue or inertia, that had kept him in his own quarters for two years, notwithstanding, must be thrown off and another slinking adventure begun. He handed over the bare shop to his creature (she sold the goodwill for £5) and he disappeared again. She watched his train out of sight "steaming in an easterly direction," and then packed up and returned to her mother's. Another of Smith's hoards put away neatly until wanted.
On the 14th of March in the same year, Bessie "Williams" is a guest at the house of Mrs. Tuckett, a boarding-house called "Norwood" at Weston-super-Mare. Mrs. Tuckett knows what is the matter with her, for Bessie's aunt has told her the story. She is always called Miss Mundy. She is treated with firm kindness, as if she was an invalid; sent out for a walk at regular hours; encouraged to eat a lot. On this day she went out at eleven to do a small commission for Mrs. Tuckett. She returned late, at past one o'clock, "very excited." As soon as she had gone out she had met her husband. He was looking over the sea; she went up and touched him. He turned round and said: "All a mistake." Mrs. Tuckett listened to this with pressed lips and sent a wire with the news of the catastrophe to Miss Mundy's aunt. At three o'clock the man himself arrived, unendingly loquacious. While he was talking, Mrs. Tuckett sat still and stiff; Bessie, in her chair, thinking of something else. When his spring grew sluggish, Mrs. Tuckett asked him, hard and dry, why he had left his wife at Weymouth? He replied with a new gush, sideways, that he had been looking for her for twelve months, "in every town in England." Mrs. Tuckett said that she did not understand the necessity seeing that he knew the address of her relations. He answered quickly that, as a matter of fact, it was her brother or her uncle who had finally put him on the track.
He lied. The meeting on the front, however it might seem to show traces of human handiwork, was the freak product of nature, or Destiny, who had arranged her cosmic time-tables to suit, to ruin this pair. One of them, possibly both, did not desire the meeting, before it was malevolently thrust upon them by Providence. But, now it was accomplished, neither would call the bluff of the Gods and fly for their lives. Each reaccepted the other as food for that hungry imagination each lived marooned with, a character to be woven into the story each was living: Bessie had her human, handsome man again to be reformed, submitted to: Smith recovered a good business project to be carried to success by strict attention and diligence. That very afternoon he took her to a solicitor, signed a note acknowledging a "loan" of the £150 with interest at 4 per cent. It was his idea of perfect reconciliation. Hers was to sit still and nod to all this queer simple lover proposed. In the enthusiasm of a man who returns from a long holiday, Smith turned to arrears of work and with the same candid methods as before tried his best to reconcile the family. An ordinary explanation might be difficult, but could they resist the straight thing from a solicitor? So his version of the return went to the uncle and brother, emphatically adorned with mention of the 4 per cent, under the stamped heading and over the signature of Messrs. Baker & Co., solicitors. But Smith's veneration of the law and all the actions of its limbs is not necessarily shared by honest men. His stamped and witnessed excuses only alarmed the relatives.
That night Bessie said to Mrs. Tuckett: "I suppose I may go back to my husband?" The good woman, angry but helpless, replied: "You are over thirty, I cannot hold you back." Man and wife they went away, promising to come back that night, but did not return. Instead, Smith sent a letter which did more credit to his reformatory teachers of what was the "right thing" than his picked-up superstition about solicitors' letters. In it is, in solution, the whole of his views on the British middleclass, their ethics, their customs and their numerous soft spots. It must be read in full.
In consequence of the past and the
heated argument which possibly would have occurred if
wife and self had to face you and your friends this
evening, thus, for the sake of peace we decided to
stop away and remain together as man and wife should
do in the apartments which I
have chosen temporarily. Later on I will write a long
letter to all Bessie's friends clearly purporting all
the circumstances of the whole affair solely with the
intention of placing all your minds at rest,
concerning our welfare. All I propose to state at
present beside that which has already been stated by
Bessie and myself before the solicitors that it is
useless as the law stands and in view of all the
circumstances together with the affinity existing
between my wife and self for any person to try and
part us and dangerous to try and do us harm or
endeavour to make our lives miserable. It appears that
many people would rather stir up strife than try and
make peace. As far as Bessie and I are concerned the
past is forgiven and forgotten. Bessie has not only
stated that on her oath to the solicitors; but has
also given it out to me in a letter written by herself
to me which I shall always prize. Thus my future
object and delight will be to prove myself not only a
true husband but a gentleman and finally make my peace
step by step with all those who has been kind to
Bessie. Then why in the name of heaven and
Christianity do people so like to constantly interfere
and stir zap past troubles. It would be more
In this witness to the influence of the three pillars of Smith society on Smith's soul, the parson, the magistrate, and the solicitor, it is only needful to comment that the cautious threat, without which hardly any letter of the man is complete, would not imply any physical reprisal, but only to bring the law on them. Pleased with this effort and still full of zeal, Smith went on to write another to the brother, which begins with the peerless lines: Dear Sir I know not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolished lines to you nor how you will censure me for using so strong a prop for supporting so grave a burden . . . . To this Bessie had added a postscript her correspondence from the moment of the reunion was all at the tail of her husband's screeds in which was the terrible phrase heavy with all the besotted illusions of her whole life: "I know my husband better now than ever before. I am perfectly happy."
Meanwhile the succubus, gravely satisfied with the "steps" he had taken, now devoted himself to a long examination of that trust-fund. Before making any definite plans on it he consulted the supreme oracle of his world: counsel's opinion, which made it clear that the mutual wills he had devised were useless, and that the only way to be certain of laying hands on it was that its owner should die, quickly, before the trustees, set on "stirring up strife and unpleasantness," exercised their power of using it to buy an annuity for her. Those sinister "higher powers" were closing in on Smith now, like policemen, to march him to that bourne in which he and Bessie will never again come upon each other by accident.
They were now at Herne Bay. In this climax, in which he would show all that he was, all that he had grown to, all that he had been taught, Smith will not desert the wide sands where he was most at ease. On May 20th he hires a house in the High Street. To the clerk of the owner, Miss Rapley (afterwards an important witness against him), he is talkative and conciliatory: "My wife is a cut above me," he confides to Miss Rapley. "Her friends did not at all approve of her marriage. My wife has a private income paid monthly. I have not anything except that; I dabble in antiques." At the end of his confidences, he was allowed to pay in advance for the rent instead of producing banker's references. The house, one suspects, must have been hard to let, possibly because of the old-fashioned absence of a bath, or he would not have been accepted as a tenant, for he made a doubtful impression on shrewd Miss Rapley.
Mutual wills were drawn up and executed on July 8th. The next day Smith went to the shop of Hill, ironmonger, and bargained for a tin bath. £2 was the price asked. He got it for £1 17s. 6d. It had no taps or fittings, but had to be filled and emptied with a bucket.
One more thing remains, before the end. On the day following Smith took Bessie to a young doctor, and stated to him that she had had some sort of a fit the previous day, and had lost consciousness. It is most probable that Smith meant a "fainting fit," which may or may not have had some foundation in fact. The doctor decided that he meant an epileptic fit; passed him leading questions on the symptoms, to which Smith agreed. This lesson on epilepsy Smith retained for future use. The woman did not remember anything so serious having happened to her; she had always been healthy; since Mr. Williams said so, it must have come and gone outside her consciousness. All that she remembered was a headache. With a prescription for bromide of potassium they went home.
The next night, past midnight, Smith returned to the surgery and rang the night-bell. His wife had had another fit: please to come at once. When the two men reached the bedroom, Mrs. Williams was sitting up, hot and flushed. It was a Senegalian night; she complained of the heat. At three next afternoon Smith and she went again to the dispensary; she looked in perfect health. Smith said she was much better. That same night she wrote to her uncle: "Last Tuesday night I had a bad fit. . . . My whole system is shaken. My husband has provided me with the best medical men, who are . . . attending me day and night. I have made my will and left all to my husband. That is only natural as I love my husband . . . ."
This letter can only mean that the romantic obedience she was playing at had ended in her quite laying aside the use of her brain: a perilous thing for any human being, in any circumstances. Reason, sublime and faithful ally in all the snares with which our life is so beset, is never to be jilted, even for Love, even for Piety, even for that fidgety gossip, Conscience who indeed had nothing to say to this poor woman dreaming with all her might, on the brink of the gulf. Nor was the killer himself, in these last days, better guided. As completely as his victim he had abandoned good sense. In its place he was plying himself with all the mental drugs to which his miserable life had made him addict, soaking himself with illusions, to tone his will for the infernal leap just ahead. Until now he had practised only sharp dealing, of a size and shape indeed that society particularly despises, but still possible for the trained imagination of a prison-formed egotist to accept as equally meriting the name "business" as company-promotion or munition-manufacture. But now he had come to a profound verge where ordinary self-deception must fail, to a limit over which, if ever he was to sleep again, he must be aided by a wilder, stronger illusion. To the making of this hypnosis in the few days that remain, he intensifies all his ways of thinking, as an athlete prepares his muscles for a record test. Everything that could recall to him the Reality, the personality of the woman beside him, he rigidly put out of mind. At all costs he must regard her as "raw material," and crush out every reminder of her humanity. To this end he calls in the aid of every drop of disgust and contempt which in his nature of faux-homme-aux-femmes he felt for all women but one. For fear she should "put him under an obligation," he insists on doing all the housework himself, this lazy man. He does the shopping and insists on her staying in bed late, so that he can hate her. He had all the mean tidiness of routine of the incipient miser; he encouraged a hundred daily irritations of it; and he carefully concealed from her the way he liked things done, so that she could offend him. For the last few days he even paid the bills out of his own pocket, though every day he got nearer his last penny. The way of a murderer and a boa-constrictor are opposite. Where the one sweetens with his saliva, the other must carefully contrive to hate. To the same end, he refused to listen to any account of her life since they parted, pretexting his sensitive remorse; he definitely cut her strand by strand from life in his mind and memory before he killed her. Above all, he insisted with himself that it was business, business; and for this he forced himself to think only on the ledger-side of what he was doing. For this he haggled over the bath; if for the first time in his life he had bought a second-hand object without huckstering it would have been to recognize to himself that this was not business, but murder. In the nights he called up the ethics they had taught him, clause by clause; the pettifogging religion of the police-courts, the casuistry of evidence, that makes or unmakes a crime; and cited to himself many social examples of crimes that were not crimes; recalled from his soldier days that killing need be no murder. So with nourishing of contempt, watering of hatred, with artificial incomprehension, with the exercise of his life-system of thought, he diligently prepared himself to kill. If he had more difficulty than those whose cases we have examined before, it may be an illusion due to our lack of knowledge, unjustly favouring him or depreciating his breed-mates; it may be that this man, the most odious of all mass-murderers, in reality had less aptitude for the trade than the rest.
Then on Saturday morning, so that the inquest could pass without her relatives being able to hear the news and attend (owing to the absence of Sunday mails), he calls his wife at seven o'clock and suggests to her she should take a bath. There was a reason apparently why this should be not opportune; but intent on her Griselda-play she obeys. He had placed the bath, not in its natural place an empty room over the kitchen where there was but one flight of stairs to mount with the water-buckets but in another room, a flight farther: because the kitchen room had a bolt, the other, none.
At eight o'clock the same doctor as before, summoned by a note, enters the house, is met by Williams, and taken to the bathroom. In it, cold and naked, lies Bessie Mundy, drowned. A square piece of Castile soap was clutched in her right hand. Williams was calm and very ready with his dates and hours. Another who had found murder easier than he expected! His story was that he had gone out to fetch herrings for breakfast; when he returned his wife was dead. With this story the coroner and his jury, in spite of a letter of cautious warning from the brother, agreed. Smith's behaviour must now carefully be watched; there is much to learn from it. He has two problems, one inward the struggle with himself, to keep his nerves straight and his heart on ice; the other objective to carry out his simple plot to delude the police. The second is obviously the easier. He has only to stick to his pat story of the earlier visits to the doctor and point resignedly to the bath. But even so there are flaws in it, bad flaws, which in the presence of the letter from Herbert Mundy the coroner must have been uncommonly dense not to see. Why did Smith not lift her at once out of the water? Why did he wait for the doctor to find her with her face submerged? Why should the bath be placed in an inconvenient room without a lock? And especially, how could a woman of her stature be drowned, unaided, in a bath too small for her? The plan over which some have wasted intellectual admiration was only the elementary cunning of a second-rate mind; with any intelligence to contend with, Smith would have ended his career of murderer at his first kill. His inward problem, too, has a nasty repercussion. He is in the quandary: I dare not feel any pity for her: how am I to show it? Show it he ought to, and here he is a failure. The clerk of the landlord, Miss Rapley, related later Smith's awful complaisance; in her presence he made a bad pretence of weeping and talked about the "lucky thing my wife had made her will." Everyone he had to relate the happening to had the same impression: the woman who came to lay out the body, who found it lying naked on the bare boards; the undertaker, whom Smith instructed to bury his wife in a common grave, in the cheapest manner possible; the relations, to whom again he sent grossly unconvincing letters, packed with sentences such as "Words cannot describe the great shock, and I am naturally too sad to write more": enough to rouse the suspicion of a Bessie Mundy herself. But Smith is caught in his own gin, from which neither here nor in later murders can he shake free; he has set his mind to think his victims into business items. Without this he could not have done away with them, and it is impossible to feign without trying to feel. For this reason he is obliged to keep the money advantage of her death so constantly in his mind that it slips out to Miss Rapley; for this reason he is obliged to huckster the very coffin; for this reason he cannot squeeze out even one sympathetic word to her relations; for this reason he is obliged to plunge at once into the most cold-blooded and suspicious attempts to collect her fortune. The family entered a caveat against the will; but later, discouraged by the coroner's verdict, and secretly afraid of the fellow snarling at the bottom of the affair, they yielded and Smith received the wage of his damnation. The day after, "Williams" had vanished, and Smith was writing to his institutional wife, Edith Pegler, to join him in Margate. She told him she had searched for him everywhere, even calling at his accommodation address with the Insurance Company at Woolwich. At this he made as if he would strike her with his fist, then suddenly thinking of something else, contented himself with a warning never again to try to look into his affairs. He told her he had been to Canada again, done big business with a Chinese idol picked up for a song and sold for over £1,000, and went to write business letters.
With the money, the tormented man now began an intricate and fundamentally idiotic series of transactions, transferring his money (split up in innumerable cheques) from one bank and from one end of the country to the other, as if he was afraid it would melt away, or be traced; really, to beguile his mind by the pretence of constant business. When he was tired of this form of the game of Patience, he embarked on an equally miscellaneous series of property transactions, an orgy of buying and selling, signing and releasing, and entering and transferring, which lasted for months, dealt with some ten small houses and ended, as far as an outsider in such matters can judge, with a net loss of over £700. Another idea then seized him its origin is sufficiently obvious he would have no more houses, but an annuity, that brought money in regularly. On this he spent what remained of the woman's money, to bring in £76 1s. a year. Then some time later, he thought better of it, and tried to release the money again for some other series of operations he had thought out, but after its wild excitements the fortune of Bessie Mundy had reached immobility. The purchase of an annuity cannot be repented.
To the agent who had sold him this annuity (Mr. Plaisance), Smith, in October 1913, brought new business, and at the same time made an enigmatic promise to buy another £500 worth of annuity "out of land transactions in Canada" the following January. For this business he was obliged to return to his real name, and even to forgo all mythology and produce his birth certificate. So the next episode, his marriage with Alice Burnham, is played out in the name of Smith. It was this young woman, a stout merry nurse, in the best of health and spirits, whose life Smith insured with Plaisance. At first Smith wanted the sum to be £1,000, payable at death; but learning that marriage would make the premium on this amount out of his means, he contented himself with one for £500 on a twenty-year endowment.
His confidence in the "Canadian" deal shows that he had fully made up his mind to continue in the trade for which Bessie Mundy had paid his apprenticeship. To make it pay, he was resolved to turn to the most common and dangerous method of life-insurance, which has hanged innumerable murderers before him. The exploitation of, death ranges from the horrible sale of the body itself, as with Burke (but there are even simpler means than that, as we shall see in the case of Haarmann), which solves the problem of disposal of the body and covers its tell-tale witness to the cause of death; through the simple despoliation of the personal possessions of the victim furniture in the case of Landru, trust funds in the example of Bessie Mundy to the insurance fraud, which Smith was now premeditating. There is no other method to gain money by the death of a person who has no possessions, and Smith was, for whatever reason, unable to venture on another moneyed spinster. But the essence of mass-murder, to be profitable and safe, is that the victims must stand in a loosened relation to the rest of society. The wolf who knows his business only attacks the isolated members of the herds, the wanderers, the outliers. To strict observance of this principle, Burke owed his immunity. It was in a terrific attempt to snap the chains that bound Kinck to his fellow-men that Troppmann peopled the plain of Pantin with corpses. But the exploitation of life-insurance, while it allows on the one hand of the selection of poor strayers riches being the most powerful chain to hold society's interest in a man's personal fate yet the very act of giving a powerful commercial organization a direct interest that the victim should not die wakens an enemy whose determination and acumen is more dangerous to the assassin than all the Dogberrys of all the local inquest courts. Thus, while apparently cunning, it is the stupidest folly for a professional murderer to pick out a friendless victim and then give the victim's life over to the protection of a most powerful and interested corporation. It is a common folly, and tempted that stupid rogue, Smith. Nor indeed was his intended victim, this Alice Burnham, without friends. Her father was a retired coal-merchant, immensely more shrewd than the small shyster that thus pushed into his family circle; there were brothers, sisters, and a mother who loved her. Only over the girl herself, whom he had met in his accustomed manner at Portsmouth, had the murderer any advantage; not one, to be sure, of intellect, but given to him, an eligible male, by nature and the social system. Miss Burnham is a less enigmatic character than her predecessor, though hardly less tragic. She was a strong capable woman, hardworking in her profession, to whom celibacy with all its accompaniments was as irksome as it was despairing to Bessie Mundy. Every atom of Miss Burnham's body and her tastes repelled her from the state to which the customs of her country had condemned her. She was twenty-six years old when she accepted the company of this man, on whom she could have had less illusions even than Bessie. She was eager to risk all the smug-faced monotony of comfort and esteem, even the affection of her family, for the single chance of a natural life; and she was a cheerful gambler.
But first she made a bold attempt to impose her "young man" (Smith was now 40) on her family. Smith cut a pitiable figure at the family home in Aston Clinton, where he was invited; the bluff father had met many such before, and concealed neither his contempt nor dislike for this stranger whose manner wavered always between brag and servility. The mother, whose ideas of the minimum qualifications of a husband were less exacting than those of Charles Burnham, tried to moderate her husband; but in the end the prospective son-in-law was kicked out, muttering threats, and Alice accompanied him to the station. That was the 31st October 1913. On the 4th November following they were married, without anyone of the family being present.
On retiring from business, Mr. Burnham had presented each of his children with £40, the eldest son taking over the succession. To this sum Alice, from her savings, had added £60, and given the whole £100 to her father for safe keeping. He paid her 4 per cent on it. This nest-egg Smith now set himself to collect, with his mixture of greed and legal stupidities. He poured forth a stream of letters to the father in his usual county-court cum lay-reader tone; he accused him of "taking refuge in obdurateness, contempt, and remorse," and threatened "to take the matter up without delay." In the course of the correspondence, a post-card from Smith conveyed the genealogical information at the beginning of this study. Another ran, "I do not know your next move, but take my advice and be careful." Another pointed this vague threat (which sounds nastier to us who know the man's past than probably it was intended) with the explanation, "I am keeping all letters that pass for the purpose of justice." In the end, Burnham, dreading a long and vexatious law-case with this sinister sea-lawyer, yielded and sent the money.
By this ungainly procedure, Smith had achieved the opposite of what he no doubt intended, and set an estrangement between the daughter and her family. A similar action about a paltry sum owed by her sister completed the effect. But without meaning it, he had blundered into the only possible chance of the success of the deed he was planning the isolation of the woman. The next act in his fixed repertory which he had composed from the circumstances of his first crime, after the habit of mass-murderers, was to take Alice Burnham on a trip to Blackpool. In the choice of this distant resort, he showed both a knowledge of geography and a nice science of the social usages. Blackpool in winter is out of season, yet the relaxation of censure and curiosity still might be hoped to prevail. The respectable by-roads of Herne Bay suited admirably in his former venture; but both the life and death of the gay little nurse would fit better into the setting of the People's Paradise of the North. And it was as far as possible from her family and any friends her infatuation for him could have left.
When they arrived in the cold grey air, there were no tunes from the merry-go-rounds to greet them; the shooting-galleries were quiet; the promenade empty and windy. They put up for their unseasonal honeymoon with a family named Crossley, in lodgings in Cocker Street. Previously Smith had tried elsewhere, but failed to find the convenience of a bathroom. In the Crossleys' house, for ten shillings a week, they could use the bath when they liked. All they had brought for luggage was a brownish hold-all and a paper parcel. The Crossleys were good Lancashire folk, very anxious to please in this lodgerless month. Mrs. Crossley agreed to cook the visitors' meals. They would buy the materials themselves. Smith knows no other method of preparing himself for great acts than to soak his mind in petty meannesses. He grumbles astonishingly at the departure of every penny. Mrs. Smith seemed to the Crossleys charming; it is a pity that this Mrs. Smith has a train-headache from the journey. But in spite of it and Mr. Smith's noticeable stinginess, she insists on going out the same evening to the cinematograph.
Smith is desperately quick this time;
he is afraid this lively little Alice will either
escape him or ruin
Two days later, that was a Friday, they went out for a walk, leaving instructions for a bath to be prepared. The bath was to be for Mrs. Smith. Smith had already inspected the bathroom. Before this look-round the bolt worked perfectly. It was above the kitchen. At tea-time, the evening meal, the Crossleys, the mother, the son, the grown-up daughter-in-law, were sitting round the kitchen table, when one of them noticed a great stain of water on the ceiling. They all looked at it and saw it enlarge and drip down the wall, behind a picture. Such a thing had never happened before. The elder woman said, "Oh, Alice, go and tell Mrs. Smith not to fill the bath so." But the girl answered, "Oh, mother, they will think we are grumbling already, and they not two days in the house."
Then suddenly the pale Smith came into the kitchen. He lumped a package on to the game and said, "I have brought these eggs for our breakfast in the morning." The girl got up to take them, wiping her mouth with her napkin. Smith then went upstairs. They heard him call shrilly, "Alice, put the light out." The daughter-in-law, who had this Christian name, thought he was speaking to her, rose and went up to him. He said, "No, I, was speaking to my wife, Alice, to put the light out." The living Alice went back into the kitchen. Then Smith, who was standing on the mat on the bathroom landing, said suddenly again, "My wife will not speak to me." Good Mrs. Crossley stood up at this sort of scream, and said, "Oh, what is it?" "Fetch Dr. Billing in a hurry," he said.
Mrs. Crossley: Dr. Billing lives quite near. I ran for him and he came to my house for a few minutes. I waited on the stairs and when he came down I asked him what was wrong, and he said, "Oh, she is drowned. She is dead." Smith was upstairs on the landing then. I went back to the kitchen and my daughter, called Mrs. Haynes, came in. After the doctor had gone, Smith came down into the kitchen. I said to him, "How dreadful: what an awful thing this is!" He said he would not be surprised at anything that would happen afterwards.
Behind this stiffness that shocked we may catch a glimpse of a soul clinging with all its might to unreality, a wretch, terror-stricken to the heart, striving with all his might to believe that he had simply done a good stroke of business. Under the water-splash on the ceiling, amidst the remnant of an evening meal, the two eyed each other, he helpless to relax his grip, not daring even to pretend to cry, she with an angry uneasiness growing every second. They are both tongue-tied. She breaks it off finally, in a new tone. "Now, Smith, you cannot stop here tonight." He can only say, "Why?" "Because I'll take good care not to have a callous fellow like you in the house." He gulps, but does not protest, except, "When they're dead, they're dead." He had to write his letters in the next-door house that night. Across the post-card on which he left with her his address, Mrs. Crossley wrote, in spite of the inquest, in spite of the verdict, the memento, "Wife died in bath. We shall see him again."
This bungler had succeeded again. The mere fact that the woman had died in a bath and that no one as yet had heard of this stealthy form of murder seemed alone to be in his favour. Hang-dog and perpetually busy, he fixed his affairs, collected the money from the company without a murmur, and paid over to Plaisance the promised £500. Acting more near instinct than by free thought he repeated the chain of his acts as he had devised them in the former case, down to their least detail. He had prepared the doctor, prepared her parents, killed on Friday to avoid their presence, made up the same trumpery alibi of a small purchase outside. Now he completed the chain, sold the dead woman's jewels and clothing and cleared out to another seatown, then sent for the Bristol wife, with another tale of dealings in Canada.
The success of this second murder must have confirmed the man in the complicated unreality he had adjusted round himself. He no longer found it hard to believe that he was a bold business man, successful in a very serious line, who must, after all, look after his health. He became exacting with Pegler; with those annuities locked in his private drawer, he dared to begin to believe he had done it "all for her." The thought of another long sea-voyage to Canada, to find another valuable antique, oppressed him more than it did his companion; he had made symbols like this for everything in his life and used them even in his private thoughts. Every day he seemed more cynical about the hardness of the world. He pitied himself profoundly, because his nature was a handicap. He confided to his wife sometimes parts of what he had suffered in his last journey: how a certain man had tried to humiliate him about his birth, how the miserable suspicions of boarding-house keepers and the like just showed you. So by these symbolisms he managed to relieve himself of the only burden that weighed, the memory of humiliations, the scratches on his pride. Then he would spend hours reading the small print on the backs of his annuities and checking his old house-accounts. At intervals he would be stung with the recollection of what he had lost and he would leave the Bristol house for a week's trip. But never as far as Canada lesser affairs in the earlier manner. Matters of savings, small deals with servants and the like.
At last those higher powers, who had so whimsically rejoined him and Bessie together, again intervened. At Clifton, near the spot where a man he knew named Henry Williams once met a girl called Mundy, he fell in with Miss Margaret Lofty, a small, wistful shape, who was walking in the cool of the evening to calm certain private anguishes. She was the daughter of a clergyman, dead for years, a lady's companion no longer young. A year before, she had been happy, but the man she was engaged to had turned out to be a married man and now she was alone. She was struck by Smith's eyes, eyes that showed he, too, had suffered, eyes that gave her the sensation of "having been there before." She learned that his name was "Lloyd," a man beneath her station, of course, but a God-fearing, handsome fellow who understood.
She clung to him as if she were drowning. She made a show to him of all her accomplishments, fell in eagerly with all his ideas. When he talked about insurance and how it was a principle of his to make provision for the future, she picked up all its mechanism in an hour or two's quiet chat. He complimented her on her intelligence, regretted he had not had himself the advantage of much education. A shy and retiring man, he was too nervous to meet her family, which suited her, as she felt a tiny grudge against her mother and sister for their uncomprehension in the terrible affair the year before, and now they might not understand. At thirty-eight a woman's affairs are her own concern, and seldom easy to tell. She told them nothing about Lloyd, and made up an innocent story about a new position (which was true after all) when she went away to be married. After she had gone to see the insurance-manager (she struck him as "having the business at her finger's ends") and taken out a policy for £700, "Lloyd" had the licence ready. They took train to Bath and the same day were man and wife.
Miss Lofty drew out her life savings, £19, and advanced it to her husband. This money carried them to London, where Smith, who knew the neighbourhood from one of his former existences, had booked lodgings in the superior district of Highgate. Coroner's juries would push complaisance to its limits in such a neighbourhood. But when they arrived at the address, Smith-Lloyd had a great shock. He stumbled across the war.
For during all these years while the man intent in his own cult pursued his private ritual of murder, a mightier killing was being prepared, a world-wide massacre, one of whose immense circuits of force lay through the very house he had selected for his last crime. As absent-minded as a weasel on the blood-scent, possibly until this moment he had never heard of the war. It was the 17th December 1914, the miraculous year. The day before, his own hunting grounds, Scarborough, Whitby, were shelled by German cruisers. Two months before the London mob in a patriotic ecstasy had sacked the German shops, and every unfortunate German in the country was still trembling. Amongst them the mistress of the very house that he had chosen. On his first visit he had noticed her attitude. Little in a woman's manner ever escaped that professional eye. So automatically he had swelled in his manner, played the masterful. When she asked timidly for references, he did not give her an easy lie, but pulled six shillings out of his pocket and tapped them on the desk. She was afraid to refuse them; but more afraid, in such times, when every one of her actions was dangerous, to step even for an inch outside the safety of law. When he returned with the woman, this foreign woman had fortified herself with a supreme reinforcement, a real detective, friend of the family. It was this man (Dennison) who met the couple when they arrived and told Smith-Lloyd, with one of those precognitional glances of which those of his calling have the secret, to be off, and quickly.
The couple went out in silence, at hazard, when Smith had been paid his deposit. In a side-road near by, Bismarck Road, they found another place, kept by Miss Blatch. His formula, for a moment checked, begins to run: "Have you a bath?" They are accepted. Then Mrs. Lloyd sits down to send the letter mentioning an illness; then they visit the nearest doctor, then the preparation of the bath, and the full canon of the slaying: with this exception, that there was a splash, a sigh, a strange visit of the man to the harmonium where he played "something" for a few minutes. Mrs. Lloyd is dead. There is again the rushing through the house, the terror of the landlady, the calls, the doctor's dash up-stairs, the splashing in the bathroom, the policeman's knock on the door; evidence; a grim man who has a clear story and a bad manner, a word-for-word repetition in the coroner's court. Letters, packings, bargainings with grave-diggers, another £700 safely received.
But this time something more. A coincidence, one of those queer logical figures with which the stream of becoming sometimes playfully diversifies its course, one of life's punning rhymes, which science hates and art abhors, but which fascinate the attention of mankind. Smith, painstaking imitator of nature, who had modelled his ferocity on her accidents, had unthinkingly composed a perfect, a triple coincidence.
He had been betrayed by the first law of murder: repetition. Let but one man stumble upon this coincidence of the bath, and Smith, by it alone, like an incurable poison, will die as surely and cruelly as Bessie Mundy.
That man was Charles Burnham. He noticed an account of the Highgate inquest in a Sunday newspaper, the News of the World, which is a collection of the happenings of the week, curious, dramatic, horrible and comic, immensely diffused among the English masses. "Death" and "Bride" are index-words to the tastes of the readers of this journal; their conjunction in one case gave the news a good place in the paper. Almost with greed, this quiet unhurrying man, lying in not hopeless ambush for the return of the phantom who had destroyed his daughter, caught the devilish assonance, the infernal rhyme with all the circumstances of his own loss. The description of this Highgate mystery made Burnham's long-waited revenge as simple then as the pull of a trigger; he cut out the printed account, pinned it to that in his possession of his own daughter's end, and sent them both to the police.
Thereafter there are two feverish activities running side by side, one out of sight and below the other. The figure of a man grown greyish, with an intangible history, working at accounts, very intent on the business of settling his wife's affairs with solicitor, Somerset House, the Insurance Company; and below him, like hounds out of sight in a sunken road, the detectives grappling with his faint and twisted trail back into the past. All that Smith may have noticed in this fortnight is a slight clogging of his affairs, an almost imperceptible increase of the customary delays, the shadow of obscure inhibitions behind the Insurance Company's formal letters. All his senses were sharpened in the darkness in which he worked. At times, deep in his correspondence, he would pause and listen as if through their typed formalities he could hear a far-off noise of running steps. Sometimes for two days in succession he would stop on his way to the solicitor's office and turn back thoughtfully: then for long hours fight with himself to pull back to the business standpoint. On the 1st of February 1915, as he left the solicitor's office, he saw with a great start that three soberly-dressed men wanted to speak to him. They came round him so close that he felt their coat, and one said something about Alice Burnham. As in an accident, it was too sudden for him to have any fear. If he had heard "Miss Mundy" he might, have screamed; but the man said, "Alice Burnham," a name that only recalled a long and nasty business affair, in which he was in the right, quite in the right, and no jury would give a verdict against him. So, without any blink he admitted that he did know her, that he was the George Smith who had married her at the Portsmouth Registry Office: what about it? He was arrested at once on a charge of causing a false entry in the marriage register. He did not need the customary caution not to say more.
England found time to try the man at the Old Bailey; for the nine days between 22nd June 1915 and the 1st July his affairs competed for public interest with the first defeats of the Russians in Galicia and the first victories of the Italians in the Dolomites. A prosy judge, a high-spirited defender (Marshall Hall), let out the regulated driblets of information allowed by English law on the surly, absent-minded mystery fenced in their midst in dock. Under the weight of contrasts, Smith's deeds seemed more terrible than the crash of armies, his tin baths more evil things than bridge-destroying artillery, this minor devil more sinister than all the hell outside.
At times he would take his own part and yell at them. The whole court would stare at him with amazement as if his chop-law was speaking with tongues, and his blind belief in his own innocence because they could not tell him the precise method he had killed, whether by pulling the feet, or by holding the heads a thing never heard of in experience. But to this, and other last consolations of the mass-murderer the inanimation of his victims, all trace of whose living personalities had long been expelled from his brain: the joy in the legal bickerings, so much to his taste: the sense of consideration and elevation that the dock confers Smith, like Burke, like Troppmann, now left himself entire. Alone in the court he neglected to look at the iron coincidence, three women identically killed, for identical motives after marriage with the same man, and attached importance to the cunning details which that recurrence contemptuously destroyed. Alone in the court, like a rigid juryman, he refused to believe in his own guilt, because a coincidence was not evidence.
These fundamental errors of thought no doubt sustained him in the condemned cell in which, a safe for precious objects, he was carefully preserved for death by hanging. Irreality has lordly rewards for her devotees, whether solipsists or drug fiends or murderers. In her humblest, more eerie form which had rotted this mass-murderer's imagination, she stood staunch by Smith to his end; if, on the scaffold, with the ropes round his elbows and a bag over his mouth, his legs failed, it was a physical, not a moral, terror that prevailed.
AN AFTERWORD ON