Emotion you will recognize

Characters drowned by the same ‘loving’ husband celebrate the lives they lost

Tara Bradbury tbradbury@thetelegram.com
Published on April 20, 2012

In December 1912, before she went to bed, Bessie Williams wrote a letter to her uncle.    “Last Tuesday night I had a bad fit, and one again on Thursday night,” she wrote. “My husband has been extremely kind and done all he could for me. He has provided me with the attention of the best medical men here, who are constantly giving me medical treatment and visiting day and night. I do not like to worry you with this, but my husband has strictly advised me to let all my relatives know and tell them of my breakdown. I have made out my will and have left all I had to my husband. That is only natural, as I love my husband.”

The next morning, Bessie was found dead in her bathtub in Kent, England; her death ruled a “misadventure by drowning.”

Over the next two years, two more English brides would be found mysteriously dead in their baths, seemingly without a struggle: Alice Smith, who died in a boarding house in the seaside resort of Blackpool, and Margaret Lloyd, who died in London on her wedding night. All three ladies were found in their tubs, head underwater, legs out straight and protruding from the water. All three had taken out wills in the days before their deaths, making their husbands the sole beneficiary. All three had a husband whose description matched that of George Joseph Smith.

Living under different aliases and personalities, Smith married seven women bigamously between 1908 and 1914. He targeted ladies who were vulnerable, lonely and had life insurance. In most cases, he’d manage to get a hold of their money, clothes and jewelry and would disappear; in the cases of Bessie, Alice and Margaret, once he had the money, he convinced them he had witnessed them having a seizure, and brought them to the doctor, sowing a seed for a potential cause of death. Days later, he drowned them unsuspectingly in their baths by quickly pulling on their legs so their heads were underwater.

Smith was caught when Alice’s family read details of Margaret’s death in the News of the World, and, realizing the details were similar to their Alice’s, wrote Scotland Yard, asking for an investigation. After a trial, Smith was found guilty of the three murders and sentenced, after 20 minutes of jury deliberations, to death. He was hanged in August 1915, later becoming known as the “Brides in the Bath Murderer.” Smith’s case set a precedent in forensics by comparing several cases to prove guilt.

Charlie Tomlinson, Beth Graham and Daniela Vlaskalic have written “The Drowning Girls,” based on the real-life stories of Bessie, Alice and Margaret with their manipulative husband. Originally performed at the Edmonton Fringe festival, the award-winning play has toured nationally. A local production, directed by Tomlinson, will run at the LSPU Hall starting next week.

The set is minimal: a shiny black and white tiled floor, three buckets, and three white clawfoot bathtubs, each with a working shower head. Bessie, Alice and Margaret — played by Bridget Wareham, Allison Kelly and Sara Tilley — emerge, drenched and dressed in wedding gowns, from the baths and from the dead to help each other tell the tales of how they were wooed and drowned.

“We’re there to help each other tell our version of the story, and it’s kind of ritualistic. Celebratory, even,” Kelly explained. “It sounds like it’s very dark and it is, but it’s a ton of fun, not just for us, but hopefully for the audience as well. Believe it or not, it’s a comedy.”

“(The characters) have a lot of fun playing out the stories, and of course there are moments that get very serious, but overall it’s actually quite uplifting,” adds Tilley. “The energy is very high, there are a lot of characters happening, and many of them are quite ridiculous.”

Smith apparently never had a specific type, and the personalities of his three wives are distinct: Alice, the youngest, is closest to what might be considered a modern woman. Bessie is the richest and the most romantic, married to Smith the longest. Margaret, the last wife, is a 38-year-old spinster from a religious family, uptight and prude, believing herself to be unloveable until she finally has a chance at romance with Smith.

Audience members never actually get to see Smith — his three wives take turns playing him in different personalities, but never go too deep inside his head. He’s there at the service of the women’s stories only.

“The inclination is interesting,” Kelly said. “We’ve had the script since November and I went on this kick where I was reading about serial killers and watching videos of interviews with them. You do wonder, and you would like to know what the hell they were thinking. This story isn’t telling that story — it’s telling what was going on through (the wives’) heads, to want to be with him, falling in love so blindly and to not have seen signs.

“I think what’s really interesting is these three women were killed and they never got to defend themselves, so they were always looked at as victims. We get to say from their point of view that they didn’t feel that they were.”

In the time period, growing old alone was like a living death sentence, Tilley, who plays Margaret, explained. There’s absolutely no victim acting going on in the play, she explained, and the women take the view that at least they had a shot at happiness.

“We’re challenging the audience with that — you think you’ve come a long way since 1914, but is your behaviour really that different from us in terms of how we relate to the other sex and what we let them get away with and how we try to fill the voids in our lives? The core of the emotional lives of these characters is very contemporary and very much something that will land on people; an emotion they will recognize.”

Along with physical acting and imagination, the water is an integral part of the story-telling, and almost becomes a fourth actor in the play, transforming into not only a murder weapon, but tea, perfume, ink and other objects. There’s water in each of the tubs, and water comes out of the showers during the play.

“The Drowning Girls” will open at the Hall with two pay-what-you-can previews on Tuesday and Wednesday, and run until May 6. Tickets are $30 ($25 for students, seniors and artists) for the nightly shows, $15 for matinees on April 28 and May 3. Tickets can be purchased online at www.rca.nf.ca, or by calling the LSPU Hall at 753-4531.

To watch a video trailer for “The Drowning Girls,” visit www.thetelegram.com.

tbradbury@thetelegram.com Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Brides (from left) Bridget Wareham, Sara Tilley and Allison Kelly are “The Drowning Girls.” — Submitted photos by Gina Rae Anderson