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 . . .