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