Was Dr. Hawley Crippen Innocent?
A crime committed more than a century ago still resonates in Britain.
Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen was born in America and moved to England in 1900 with his wife Cora. He set up a homeopathic medical practice in London and his wife pursued her musical career.
Dr. Crippen’s Wife an Unpleasant Person
Born Kunigunde Mackamotski, Cora Crippen preferred to be known by her stage name, Belle Elmore.
According to a Crippen family genealogy website, Belle Elmore had a mean streak and a disagreeable temperament. She has been described as “a blowsy, heavy-drinking nightmare, vain, bullying, and promiscuous.”
Although a woman of a robust build, her singing talent was of a lesser size. She openly entertained gentleman callers when her husband was at work, and Dr. Crippen, in turn, sought comfort in the arms of his lover Ethel Le Neve.
Mrs. Crippen Disappears
After a house party on January 31, 1910, Cora disappeared. Her husband said she had returned to the United States. Later, he said she had died in America.
When Ethel Le Neve moved in with Crippen, suspicious people began to think something nasty had happened. The gossip reached the ears of Chief Inspector Walter Dew of Scotland Yard.
The police interviewed Hawley Crippen and searched his house and left, apparently satisfied that no crime had been committed. However, Crippen and Le Neve were so unnerved by the visit that they took flight, boarding the SS Montrose, which was bound for Canada. This set off a great hue and cry.
Famous Use of Wireless Telegraph
The Times retold the story of the doctor’s capture: “The captain (of the Montrose) had recognized the doctor from newspapers and had become suspicious of Le Neve, who had disguised herself as a boy, and he famously used the newly-invented wireless telegraph to alert the British police.”
The chase was on. Chief Inspector Dew boarded a faster ship and set off to capture the fugitives when they reached Canada. The pursuit was covered breathlessly by the world’s press.
Crippen was arrested and brought back to England.
A renewed search of Crippen’s house unearthed the decaying remains of a body under the floor of the coal cellar. The corpse had no head, limbs, or genitals.
Sensational Trial of Dr. Crippen
On October 10, 1910, Dr. Crippen’s trial opened in London’s Old Bailey Central Criminal Court.
There was a heavy weight of evidence against him; he had bought poison in January 1910, he had pawned some of his wife’s jewellery, expert witnesses said the body had been professionally dissected, and the doctor had run away.
Interestingly though, the pathologist, Sir Bernard Spilsbury, was unable to say whether the carcass was that of a male or a female. However, Sir Bernard identified a piece of flesh that appeared to have a scar on it similar to one that Cora had as a result of an operation to remove her ovaries.
Hawley Crippen maintained his innocence throughout the five-day trial, but it took the jury only 27 minutes to find him guilty of murder. He was sentenced to be executed by hanging and met his fate a month later in Pentonville Prison.
His plan to elude the hangman by committing suicide with broken glass from his spectacles was foiled. His executioner, John Ellis, spent some time with his client and remarked that “Crippen came across to me as a most pleasant fellow.” He seemed calm in the moments before the trapdoor opened and he plunged to instant death.
The Crippen case was the O.J. Simpson case of 1910. I don’t think any murder in history had been covered that much in the newspapers. It was being read about all over the world.”
Forensic toxicologist John Trestrail
New Evidence May Exonerate Crippen
On June 7, 2009, The Observer reported that, “The case of one of the most notorious murderers in British history, Hawley Crippen, is to be referred to the Court of Appeal, where the infamous doctor may secure a posthumous pardon 99 years after he was hanged.”
An examination of tissue from the body found in Crippen’s cellar has been compared with the DNA of Belle Elmore’s relatives. The samples don’t match.
Further, tests carried out by Professor David Foran, director of forensic science at Michigan State University show the corpse to be that of a man.
There are other holes in the prosecution case. Toxicologist John Trestrail told the BBC that poisoners never mutilate the body of their victims: “A poisoner wants the death to appear natural so he can get a death certificate. This is the only case I know of where the victim was dismembered. It doesn’t make sense.”
And Raymond Chandler the great crime novelist, who knew a few things about the methods of murderers, had doubts about Dr. Crippen’s guilt. He commented that it’s ludicrous that Crippen would be able to successfully dispose of his victim’s head and limbs never to be found again and then bury the torso under his own cellar floor.
There are suggestions that the police planted the dissected torso; there would have been a plentiful supply of unclaimed cadavers in the city morgue.
Lawyer Giovanni Di Stefano is acting for J.P. Crippen who is trying to clear the doctor’s name. He told The Observer, “We have been told categorically that the case is being referred and we are now just waiting for the paperwork. The body was a man and so the pardon is deserved.”
However, in July 2010 BBC News reported that despite the new evidence “J.P. Crippen has failed to get the case reopened. The Criminal Cases Review Commission declined to refer it to the Court of Appeal, because he is too distant a relative to have sufficient interest.”
Cora Crippen never turned up again. Ethel Le Neve was cleared of any involvement in the murder. She change her name, married, and had two children. She died in 1967 at the age of 84.
A wax effigy of Hawley Harley Crippen still graces the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in London.
- Inspector Walter Dew, as a young detective constable, was involved in the Jack the Ripper case. He said he was one of the first on the scene of Mary Jane Kelly’s murder. He wrote that the sight of her mutilated body was “the most gruesome memory of the whole of my police career.”
- Not long before his execution Dr. Crippen, wrote a prophetic note to Ethel Le Neve: “Face to face with God, I believe that facts will be forthcoming to prove my innocence.”
- The pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury, whose evidence against Dr. Crippen was a major factor in his conviction, has come under a metaphorical forensic examination himself. In a 2007 biography, Lethal Witness, Andrew Rose describes him as an inflexible plodder who saw everything as black or white with no grey areas. He was always impeccably dressed and projected an air of unshakable confidence in his evidence from the witness box. He gave testimony in nearly 200 trials and rarely suffered the indignity of seeing the accused found not guilty. Author Rose concludes that Spilsbury evidence sent at least two innocent men to the gallows and made several other guilty verdicts unsafe.
- “Was Dr Crippen Innocent of his Wife’s Murder?” Stephen Tomkins, BBC News, July 29, 2010.
- “Appeal Judges Asked to Clear Notorious Murderer Dr Crippen.” Mark Townsend, The Observer, June 7, 2009.
- “The Execution of Dr. Crippen.” Richard Cavendish, History Today, November 11, 2010.
- “Hawley Crippen.” PBS, undated.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor