Murderer, famous as the first to be caught by wireless telegraphy.

Early Life

Hawley Harvey Crippen was born in 1862 in Michigan. He attended medical school in Philadelphia and London. In 1885, he received a specialist diploma in eye and ear medicine from the Ophthalmic Hospital in New York.

While in New York, he married a young actress. The couple had a son, Otto, in 1887. The two of them moved around the United States with Dr Crippen's practice. The first Mrs Crippen died of tuberculosis in 1890, and Otto was sent to live with his maternal grandparents.

Dr Crippen returned to New York, where he met a young opera singer calling herself Cora Turner. The couple married in 1892, when Cora was 17.

The Marriage

At about this time, Crippen abandoned the practice of medicine and began selling patent medicines for the Munyon Company. By 1900, the couple had moved to England so that Crippen could manage Munyon's London branch. He also became involved in several other patent medicine and medical equipment companies, including the Yale Tooth Specialists.

Meanwhile, Cora Crippen pursued a music hall career under the name of Belle Elmore. She did not have the success she hoped for, because her voice was not adequate to the task, because she could not act, or because she began to gain weight (sources vary). However, although she was not a critcal success, she was a social one, becoming very popular in the music hall community. She was described by her friends as "vivacious and pleasant", but they also admitted that she bullied her husband unmercifully. He was only able to keep her happy by showering her with jewels and furs.

Although she had not had much of a music hall career, Belle Elmore played the retired artiste to the hilt. By 1899, she was honorary Treasurer of the Music Hall Ladies' Guild. She and Crippen were tired of one another by this time, and she had a number of affairs with fellow performers. The lover whom Crippen most resented was Bruce Miller, a former prize fighter whose act consisted of playing the banjo, harmonica and drums simultaneously.

Crippen, meanwhile, was also in love. Ethel le Neve had been working as a typist at the Yale Tooth Specialists since 1903. By 1907, she and Crippen were lovers. Physically, she was very different from Cora Crippen, being slight and fair, soft-spoken, and kind to Crippen.

On September 21, 1905, the Mr and Mrs Crippen moved to 39 Hilldrop Crescent, a semi-detached house in a pleasant area of Camden Town. The house was too big for their needs, and Cora Crippen made her husband run it as a boarding house to supplement their income.

By December of 1909, the Crippens' marriage was on the verge of collapse. Cora threatened to leave for good, taking the couple's savings with her. Although Crippen probably wanted her gone, he did not want to lose the money.

On January 19, 1910, Crippen purchased hyoscine from a chemist, signing the poison book.

The couple held a dinner party on January 31, 1910. Another music hall couple, Paul and Clara Martinetti, dined at Hilldrop Crescent and played whist until 1:30 am. There was noticeable tension between the hosts, but the Martinettis thought little of it.

Cora Crippen Disappears

In early February of 1910, Crippen pawned some of his wife's jewelry. At the same time, the secretary of the Music Hall Ladies' Guild received a letter signed by Belle Elmore, resigning her post as honorary Treasurer because she had to go to America to visit a sick relative. The letter was not in Cora Crippen's handwriting.

On February 20, Crippen and le Neve attended a Music Hall Benevolent Fund ball. Several of Cora Crippen's friends noticed that le Neve was wearing the missing woman's jewelry. Soon, they found out that le Neve had moved into Hilldrop Crescent.

Around Easter of 1910, the word went around the music hall community in London: Belle Elmore had died in Los Angeles. Those of her friends who wanted to send flowers found Crippen unhelpful. There was no point sending anything to California, he said, because her ashes would eventually be coming back to London.

One of the music hall set, Mr Nash, was travelling to the United States on business. While there, he tried to enquire further into Cora Crippen's death, but found no information. Suspicious, he and his wife went to Scotland Yard upon his return. There they met Chief Inspector Dew, who promised to investigate.

On Friday September 8, 1910, Dew called at Hilldrop Crescent. Le Neve, who answered the door, said Crippen was at work. The Chief Inspector interviewed him at his office, where Crippen told a very different story than he had told his wife's friends.

He said that Cora had left him for Bruce Miller, one of her music hall friends. The couple were in Chicago, and Crippen had claimed she was dead to avoid any scandal. Inspector Dew was still suspicuious, and obtained a search warrant for Hilldrop Crescent. However, a detailed search turned up nothing, and Dew began to believe the doctor.

Discovery, Flight and Capture

Although the worst was over, Crippen was alarmed by the visit from Scotland Yard. He panicked, packed his bags, and fled to Antwerp with Ethel le Neve. The two decided to take a ship for Canada.

In the meantime, Inspector Dew decided he had a few supplementary questions for Crippen, just to tidy up the case. He returned to Hilldrop Crescent on Monday, July 11, to discover that the doctor was gone. After raising the alarm and circulating a description, Dew undertook a more thorough search of the house.

He noticed that the bricks in the floor of the coal cellar were loose, and pried them up. Underneath he found portions of a body, wrapped in pajamas and doused in slaked lime. The manhunt intensified, with descriptions of the missing pair in newspapers throughout England.

Meanwhile, Crippen and Ethel le Neve had boarded a steamer called the Montrose, due in Quebec after an 11 day journey. Ethel le Neve was disguised as a boy, and the couple traveled as "Mr and Master Robinson". The captain of the Montrose, Captain Harvey Kendall, became suspicious when he caught the two cuddling by the lifeboats. He ordered his radio officer to contact Scotland Yard on Friday, July 22.

Inspector Dew immediately boarded the Laurentic, also bound for Quebec, but scheduled to take only 7 days. The chase on was on, with the world watching. Captain Kendall radioed daily reports of "the Robinsons" shipboard life, including an account of their dinner at the Captain's table one night. The conversation turned to radio, and Crippen was quoted as saying, "What a marvellous invention the wireless is. We are lucky to be living in this age of progress."

The Laurentic overtook the Montrose and delivered Inspector Dew to Quebec on Saturday, July 30, 1910. On the 31st, he posed as a pilot, boarded the Montrose on the St Lawrence River, and arrested Crippen and le Neve. The three journeyed back to England in a storm of publicity.

The Trial

Hawley Harvey Crippen was tried for the murder of his wife on October 18, 1910. His barrister, AA Tobin, KC, advised him to plead guilty and throw himself on the mercy of the court. By painting a picture of the way that his wife treated him, Crippen might have been able to avoid the death penalty. However, to make that strategy work, Tobin would have to call Ethel le Neve as a witness, and try to place some of the blame on her. Crippen refused, instead claiming that the body must have already been at Hilldrop Crescent when he moved there in 1905.

The pajamas wrapped around the body became the key piece of evidence in the case. The maker’s label said “Jones Bros Limited, Holloway”, and a representative of the company testified that Jones Brothers had become a limited company in 1908. Furthermore, the fabric for the pajamas had been acquired by the company in 1908. It was therefore impossible that the body should predate the Crippens’ occupancy.

The Home Office pathologist, Bernard Spilsbury, then took the stand. This was the first case in his long and distinguished career. He testified that the body had contained a lethal dose of hyoscine. Also, although very little was left to help identify the victim, he stressed the presence of a 4 inch abdominal scar. This matched a surgical scar that Cora Crippen was known to have. Spillsbury’s testimony was precise, professional and damning.

The jury took just 27 minutes to convict Hawley Harvey Crippen of murder, and in the absence of any mitigating factors, Chief Justice Lord Alverstone sentenced him to death. He was hanged in Pentonville Prison on November 23, 1910. His final request was to be buried with a picture of Ethel le Neve.

Ethel le Neve was acquitted of any complicity in the murder. She changed her name, moved to Canada for a time, and finally died in London at the age of 87. Her children were unaware of her past until a documentary maker tracked them down in the 1980’s.

Number 39 Hilldrop Crescent was destroyed in the Blitz.

Most descriptions of the Crippen murder imply that Cora Crippen somehow deserved her fate. Crippen comes off as a sort of Turn of the Century Walter Mitty, rising up to strike back at his oppressor. It’s true that she was unfaithful, greedy, and cruel; even her friends admitted as much. But Crippen didn’t kill her to escape from the marriage; she had already decided to leave him. The deciding factor was money, which makes Crippen an extremely ordinary, sordid killer.

The element of the story that is most extraordinary is the care Crippen took of his lover. His conduct at his trial was designed to keep any shadow of blame from her. While awaiting execution, all of his attentions were directed to her comfort.

The trial revisited a century later

The transcript of the Crippen murder trial is an interesting document to read. Dr. Crippen himself elected to testify. The only evidence against him was the filleted remains of a body which had been buried in a shallow grave in the cellar of the Crippens’ home at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, traces of hyoscin found in the organs, the fact that Dr. Crippen had purchased hyoscin on 19 January 1910, and the fact that on the night of 31 January / 1 February 1910, Cora Crippen was seen for the last time. In the result, Dr. Crippen was convicted on the basis of largely circumstantial evidence, as it was not even proven that the body which had been found was that of a female, let alone proven beyond reasonable doubt that it had in fact been Cora Crippen.

There was serious dispute in respect of a very particular identifying mark found on the skin of the body in the grave. Mrs. Martinetti, a particularly good friend of Cora Crippen’s, and incidentally one of the three people who had last seen Cora Crippen on the night of her disappearance, testified that Cora Crippen had an operation scar on her abdomen, running from just above the pubis to just below the navel. What was particularly important of her evidence, was that she was absolutely positive Cora Crippen had retained her navel after the operation.

The portion of skin with what may have been an old operation scar was the topic of much cross-examination of medical experts during the trial. Two experts, called by the defence, were of the opinion that while the portion of skin may have come from the abdomen, it was possible that it was from the inner thigh, which would explain the pubic hair, the presence of which had lead the experts for the prosecution to conclude that the skin had come from the abdomen. This evidence in itself should have been sufficient to provide reasonable doubt.

In any event, it was not in dispute that the portion of skin used during the trial very obviously had no navel – giving credence to the conclusion that it may very well have not been abdominal skin, or indicating that it could not possibly have belonged to Cora Crippen, if the skin did indeed come from the abdomen. It was further in dispute whether the mark on the skin was in fact a scar, or whether it had developed post mortem due to the skin being folded and subjected to pressure. Admittedly, one of the experts called by the defence who was not convinced that the mark was in fact a scar, Dr. G. M. Turnbull, did not come out of cross-examination all too well. He was obviously flustered and became defensive, never a good sign in any witness.

Needless to say, the mere fact that the skin may have come from the thigh and not the abdomen, together with two eminent physicians prepared to testify that they were not convinced the mark was actually scar tissue, should have persuaded the jury to return a verdict of not guilty. Almost a hundred years later, Dr. Crippen may be exonerated. Dr. David Foran, head (in 2007) of the forensic science programme at Michigan State University, together with John Testrail, a toxicologist of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Beth Wills, a genealogist, may have succeeded in finding the proof that Dr. Crippen did not kill Cora.

Dr. Foran did an analysis of the DNA from the body exhumed from its shallow grave (bits of it have been preserved), and this was compared to the DNA from surviving family members of Cora Crippen. Mitochondrial DNA is passed from mother to daughter, and remains unchanged in families for many generations. It is therefore possible to compare DNA from someone from a totally different generation to that of a person very much alive today, and establish whether they are in fact related. Despite fully expecting to find that the body was that of Cora Crippen, Dr. Foran has surprisingly concluded that the body in the cellar was not related to Cora Crippen’s relations alive today. In fact, the body was proven to have been male, and not female at all. Dr. Foran is convinced that the body was not that of Cora Crippen.

John Testrail also did some digging of his own. He was not convinced of the truth behind the allegation that Cora had been poisoned, and then literally filleted, by all the bones being removed. His approach was that poisoners don’t as a rule advertise their work in that fashion. The whole point behind poisoning someone is precisely to hide the cause of death as far as may be possible - otherwise why not simply use the well known blunt object? So Testrail started some digging of his own. He came across some startling documentary evidence that was not used during the trial, and may in fact have been deliberately suppressed, evidence which if true, also indicates that whatever else Dr. Crippen may have been hiding in the broom cupboard, he certainly did not kill Cora Crippen.

A letter was sent to Dr. Crippen during the trial from the United States, purporting to be a letter from Cora, informing him that she had no intention of coming from America to assist him in his plight. This letter was never made available to Dr. Crippen or his defence team, and was easily intercepted in view of the fact that Crippen was boarding at his Majesty’s prison for the duration of the trial. The possibility now surfaces that the prosecution may have deliberately withheld evidence that may have saved Dr. Crippen from the gallows. It is a well known tenet of English law that there is a particular duty on the prosecution to not only prove the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt, but also to make known evidence of an exculpatory nature. There is yet another twist to the tail: Ten years after Dr. Crippen was hanged, a lady named Belle Ellmore, the stage name Cora Crippen had assumed formerly when she aspired to be a music hall artiste, was found to have been living with Cora Crippen’s sister in New York. This particular lady had entered the United States from Bermuda, shortly after Cora Crippen’s disappearance at the end of January 1910 . . .






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