by Dr Adam Lynes, Criminologist at Birmingham City University

Ian Stewart, the fiance of children’s author Helen Bailey, has today been sentenced to 34 years in prison for her murder. The conviction of Ian Stewart has raised questions into how and why a seemingly loving partner would want to kill their spouse. In exploring this question, it’s important to examine past cases in order to glean some insight into such a horrific crime.

From my own research into serial murder, one particular case shares some striking similarities – that of the murderer George Smith.

Smith was an English serial killer and bigamist. In 1915 he was convicted and subsequently hanged for the slayings of three women, with the case becoming known as the ‘Brides in the Bath Murders’. The events leading up to each murder were the same: Smith would enter a relationship with each of his victims and would then marry them before drowning them in a bathtub in an effort to make it seem as if they had suffered a fatal and unfortunate accident. In following this pattern of offending, Smith would inherit their wealth shortly before moving to a new location and repeating this cycle of manipulation and eventual murder.

Smith was eventually caught when the pathologist, Bernard Spilsbury, determined that these women did not die from accidental drowning. In particular, Spilsbury suggested that Smith must have seized his victims by their feet and suddenly pulled them up towards himself, sliding the upper part of the body underwater. Through this action, the sudden flood of water into their nose and throat would have caused shock and sudden loss of consciousness, explaining the absence of injuries and minimal signs of drowning on each of his victims.

There are of course more contemporary examples that share particular traits to that of Smith. For example, in 2011 Malcolm Webster was found guilty of killing his first wife and attempting to murder his second wife in order to receive some form on financial award. What is also similar here to the murders of Smith was that Webster tried to make his murders look like accidents, though in this case he attempted to disguise his crimes in the form of car crashes. Here we see another key similarity with Smith, in that both men worked tirelessly to conceal their crimes in the form of unfortunate accidents.

With this mind, it is evident that these men are indeed very good at manipulating others, be it their spouse or the authorities they are attempting to evade. Looking deeper into Webster’s past reveals a series of women whom he attempted to exploit or attempt to murder for profit – again another similarity with Smith and a key theme for this particular type of killer.

It would appear that Ian Stewart, whose first wife’s death is now being revisited, may also join this list of the male equivalent of the ‘Black Widower’ – an individual who enters a relationship with the sole purpose of gaining some sort of financial reward through the death of their partner.

Image credit: Hertfordshire Police /PA

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