Dr. Crippen Murders His Wife for Love — Maybe

From last week’s tale of scandal in old Hollywood, we turn this week to a genuine classic of the true crime genre, the case of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, dubbed by the press as the “North London cellar murder.”

The Background of Dr. Crippen

Despite the very English flavor of this case, Hawley Harvey Crippen was an American born in Coldwater, Michigan, in 1862. He qualified as a homeopathic physician and established a practice in New York. In that city, he met and married an aspiring opera singer, Corrine “Cora” Turner (born with the improbable name of Kunigunde Mackamotski), in 1894.

Doctor Hawley Harvey Crippen, who was arrested for murder in 1910 while onboard a transatlantic liner, the SS Montrose, became the first fugitive caught by using wireless telegraphy; he was found guilty and hanged.
Doctor Hawley Harvey Crippen, who was arrested for murder in 1910 while onboard a transatlantic liner, the SS Montrose, became the first fugitive caught by using wireless telegraphy; he was found guilty and hanged.

In 1897, Dr. Crippen and Cora moved to London, where he was a distributor for Dr. Munyon’s homeopathic patent medicines. Cora turned her attention from the operatic stage to the music halls, where she styled herself as Belle Elmore. Promoting Cora’s music hall career cost Dr. Crippen his job at Munyon’s, and he took a series of lesser-paying jobs.

Crippen's wife, Cora Crippen.  She also used the stage name Belle Elmore
Cora Crippen used the stage name “Belle Elmore” in her efforts to launch a music hall career

By 1910, the Crippens lived at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, a respectable address in the Holloway section of London.  Their marriage couldn’t have been happy. Dr. Crippen was meek and quiet, while Cora was overbearing and flamboyant. She was also unfaithful, taking a series of younger lovers and flaunting them in public. In 1908, Crippen took a mistress himself, Ethel Le Neve (born Ethel Clara Neave), his secretary.

Dr. and Cora Crippen lived at No. 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Holloway, in 1910 (REX/Shutterstock 1135715a)
Dr. and Cora Crippen lived at No. 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Holloway, in 1910 (REX/Shutterstock 1135715a)

Cora Disappears

No one saw Cora after a dinner she and the doctor had at their home on January 31, 1910. To friends who inquired, Dr. Crippen replied that Cora had returned to the United States. Later, he added that she had died in America and had been cremated in California. This explanation looked fishy when Ethel moved into the Hilldrop Crescent home and began wearing Cora’s clothes and jewelry when the pair appeared in public.

Prodded by Cora’s friends, Scotland Yard charged Chief Inspector Walter Dew with investigating her disappearance. Dew interviewed Crippen, who confessed that he fabricated the story of Cora returning to America. He was too embarrassed, he said, to tell people that Cora had absconded with one of her music hall lovers, Bruce Miller. Dew then briefly searched the house and, finding nothing, accepted Dr. Crippen’s story at face value.

Scotland Yard's Chief Inspector Walter Dew, ca. 1920
Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Walter Dew, ca. 1920

Dew planned to write a report on his investigation and close the matter. However, when he made a second visit to clear up a couple of points with Crippen, he learned that the doctor had suddenly left town. With his suspicions now aroused, Dew returned to Hilldrop Crescent and searched several more times. On his fourth search, a loose brick in the floor of the coal cellar led him to dig further. There, he found a mass of rotting human flesh wrapped in a pair of pajamas.

Dr. Crippen and Ethel Flee and the Chase is On

Unaware that Dew was about to close the investigation, Crippen and Ethel panicked and fled to the continent. At Antwerp, they engaged passage to Canada on the Canadian Pacific liner S.S. Montrose. On board, with Ethel thinly disguised as a boy, they passed themselves off as Mr. and Master Robinson, father and son.

Despite the attempted disguise, the captain of the Montrose, Henry Kendall, recognized the pair. As the ship passed Land’s End, he sent a message to the ship’s owners using the new Marconi wireless. “Have strong suspicions that Crippen London cellar murderer and accomplice are among saloon passengers.” The owners contacted Dew at Scotland Yard.

Now on alert, Inspector Dew boarded the faster SS Laurentic at Liverpool. With wireless updates from Kendall, the papers printed daily updates on the chase. Dew beat Crippen to Canada, and disguising himself as a pilot, he boarded the Montrose. There, he arrested the fugitive lovers.

Chief Inspector Dew (in Derby) leads a disguised and handcuffed Crippen off the ship at Liverpool. Ethel is in the large hat on the left.
Chief Inspector Dew (in Derby) leads a disguised and handcuffed Crippen off the ship at Liverpool. Ethel is in the large hat on the left.

Dr. Crippen Tried and Convicted

Crippen’s trial at London’s Old Bailey started on October 10, 1910, and lasted four days. Bernard Spilsbury, who would make a name for himself as a brilliant forensic scientist, testified that he found an abdominal scar in the remains. The scar corresponded to a surgical scar Cora was known to have. The defense contended that the “scar” Spilsbury found was a fold in the skin but was unable to overcome Spilsbury’s authoritarian demeanor on the stand.

Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve at their remand hearing at the Bow Street Police Court (Arthur Bennett, 1910)
Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve at their remand hearing at the Bow Street Police Court (Arthur Bennett, 1910)

Home office chemists also testified to the presence of hyoscine (scopolamine) in the remains. This dovetailed with records showing that Crippen bought five grains of the drug before Cora disappeared (as little as one-quarter of a grain could prove fatal). The prosecution contended he used it to poison his wife.

Throughout the trial, Dr. Crippen maintained that Ethel knew absolutely nothing of the business and denied that he killed Cora. It was all for naught. Based on the scientific and circumstantial evidence, the jury took just 27 minutes to convict him of murder. Mr. Justice Alverstone donned the black cap and sentenced Crippen to death.

Ethel was tried separately as an accessory and acquitted. She visited Crippen daily at Pentonville Prison up to the day before his execution. British justice being swift in the early twentieth century, he was hanged at 9:00 a.m. on November 23, 1910.

H.M. Prison Pentonville  in 2020 (Glyn Baker)
H.M. Prison Pentonville in 2020 (Glyn Baker)

Did Dr. Crippen Do It?

The Crown presented a solid case of circumstantial evidence backed by one of the early uses of scientific testimony. But there is still some question as to whether Crippen was guilty. One puzzling question is that having successfully disposed of the head, limbs, and skeleton (they were never found), why bury part of the torso in his coal cellar? Also, modern forensic science questions Spilsbury’s authoritative declaration that the tissue he examined was a scar rather than a fold in the skin.

In a potentially stunning development in 2007, Dr. David Foran reported that mitochondrial DNA from Cora’s great-nieces did not match the remains. He also found that the flesh sample was male. However, there is room to question the validity of DNA testing on such an old sample.

Probabilities are, based on the evidence and on Crippen’s and Ethel’s behavior, that Dr. Crippen did, indeed, poison Cora. Furthermore, it is possible (though not proven) that Ethel was not as innocent as she and Crippen claimed.

Hawley Harvey Crippen at trial
Hawley Harvey Crippen at trial

Epilogue

The Crippen case was significant for the role that wireless messaging played in capturing the fleeing doctor. The daily updates added spice to an already sensational case and aroused immense public interest. It also marks one of the earliest uses of forensic science in a murder trial.

Ethel never spoke of the case after Crippen’s execution. She briefly moved to Canada before returning to England, where she married. She had two children who never knew she was the infamous Ethel Le Neve of the Crippen case. Ethel died in 1967 at the age of 84.

An errant Luftwaffe bomb destroyed No. 39 Hilldrop Crescent (and much of the block) during World War II.

Read more about the Crippen case and the parallel development of wireless telegraphy in Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck.

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Fatty Arbuckle Throws a Wild Party with Disastrous Consequences

After reviewing Monster City last week, I decided this week to present an infamous scandal from the early days of Hollywood. Fatty Arbuckle may not be a familiar name today but in Hollywood’s silent film era, he was a top star.

Silent Film Star

Roscoe Conkling “Fatty” Arbuckle got into pictures at a time when the film industry was just beginning to establish itself in California. Early production companies established in New York or Chicago found the climate of Southern California ideal for making motion pictures. The abundant sunshine provided natural lighting for outdoor filming. Also, the landscape made for exotic backdrops and a perfect setting for Western dramas.

Photo of Fatty Arbuckle ca. 1919
Roscoe Conkling “Fatty” Arbuckle ca. 1919 (Public Domain)

Fatty Arbuckle quickly became a regular at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios. There he worked with such top silent stars as Mabel Normand and Harold Lloyd. Despite his 300-pound bulk, Fatty Arbuckle was remarkably agile and acrobatic. He was also fond of the classic “pie in the face” gag. The studio frequently paired Arbuckle with Normand and their films were exceedingly popular.

Mabel Normand, Arbuckle's frequent
Mabel Normand, Arbuckle’s frequent co-star, in 1916 (Public Domain)

The Party

Over Labor Day weekend in 1921, Arbuckle took a break from filming and drove to San Francisco with two friends. Their they took three rooms in the St. Francis hotel, one of which, 1220, was the “party room.” Despite prohibition, alcohol flowed freely, and several women were invited.

Room 1221 at the St. Francis Hotel shortly after the party
Room 1221 of the St. Francis Hotel shortly after Arbuckle’s party (Public Domain)

One female guest was a young aspiring actress, Virginia Rappe (pronounced rap-PAY). Partygoers found Rappe seriously ill in suite 1219 and called the hotel doctor. The doctor assumed her symptoms were from intoxication and gave her a shot of morphine. Two days later, Rappe went to the hospital. She died a day later from peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder.

Virginia Rappe. When she died a few days after the party, Fatty Arbuckle was accused of killing her.
Virginia Rappe ca. 1920 (Public Domain)

The problem for Fatty Arbuckle was that the woman who accompanied Virginia Rappe to the party, one Bambina Maude Delmont, told Rappe’s doctor that Arbuckle had raped her friend. Doctors found no evidence or rape. Indeed, it later developed that Delmont had a criminal record and was involved in prostitution, extortion, and blackmail. However, the police were more credulous. Ambitious district attorney Matthew A. Brady (he wanted to run for governor) decided to prosecute Arbuckle for manslaughter. Ultimately, Brady would take Fatty Arbuckle to trial three times.

Bambina Maude Delmont was the one who accused Fatty Arbuckle of raping Virginia Rappe
Bambina Maude Delmont

Three Trials

The trial that began on November 14, 1921 at the San Francisco city courthouse was lurid. Prosecutor Brady presented witnesses whose “evidence” was questionable, including a “criminologist” who breezily concluded that Rappe had tried to flee the hotel room and that Arbuckle stopped her by putting his hand over hers as she grasped the doorknob. There was also testimony that Rappe suffered from chronic bladder infections and hints that she may have had a recent abortion. The jury deadlocked at 10-2 for acquittal and the judge declared a mistrial.

Fatty Arbuckle with his defense team at the first trial, November 1921.
T. M. Smalevitch, Milton Cohen, Gavin McNab, Charles Brennan, Roscoe ("Fatty") Arbuckle, and Arbuckle's brother at trial, in San Francisco, of Arbuckle on manslaughter charge. He was charged in the death of a 26-year-old aspiring actress named Virginia Rappe. This photograph is from the first of three trials in the case.
Arbuckle with his defense lawyers at the first trial, November 1921 (Public Domain)

On January 11, 1922, Brady tried again. The prosecution, defense, and even the judge were the same; only the jury was different. Unlike the first trial, Rappe’s history of promiscuity and heaving drinking featured prominently. Also, the defense discredited some major prosecution evidence. Arbuckle’s attorneys were so confident of an acquittal they did not put him on the stand. This was a mistake. Some on the jury (improperly) took Arbuckle’s not testifying as a sign of guilt. This jury deadlocked 9-3 for acquittal, resulting in another mistrial.

Autographed photo of Fatty Arbuckle in 1919
Autographed photo of Fatty Arbuckle in 1919

Fatty Arbuckle’s third trial began on March 13, 1922. This time, his defense attorney, Gavin McNab, left nothing to chance and mounted an aggressive defense. This jury returned with acquittal after deliberating for only six minutes. They spent five of those minutes writing out a formal apology statement.

A number of authors have written books on Arbuckle and the trials, including Brad Kronen and Andy Edmonds.

Epilogue

Regardless of the acquittal and apology, Fatty Arbuckle found that exhibitors refused to show his films, and no one would hire him. There was a determined effort to destroy copies of many of his films. Many of his important pictures have no remaining prints. His wife, actress Minta Durfee, filed for divorce. Unable to find work, Arbuckle retreated into alcoholism.

Eventually, the man known as Fatty Arbuckle was able to find work as a director using the pseudonym of William Goodrich. Later, in 1932, Warner Brothers signed him to star in six two-reel comedies. Then on June 29, 1933, Arbuckle signed a contract with Warner’s to star in a full-length feature film. Celebrating with friends, he reportedly told them, “This is the best day of my life.”

Fatty Arbuckle died of a heart attack in his sleep that night.

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Monster City Book Review

Monster City book cover

Last week, I discussed the Colorado case of the Watts family murders. In this week’s blog post, I review Monster City: Murder, Music, and Mayhem in Nashville’s Dark Age.

The Central Character

Monster City is a book by criminologist and author Michael Arntfield, Ph.D. It is part biography (of detective Pat Postiglione), part crime history, and part criminal psychology. With so many threads, the book has something for just about everyone.

Detective Sergeant Patrick Postiglione grew up in New York City, where he worked in his father’s heating and air conditioning business. A stint in the military left him with two goals: to see the South and find a law enforcement career. As part of his first ambition, he took a “vacation” to Nashville, Tennessee, in January 1978, which became permanent. In 1980, he was part of the Nashville Police Academy’s last training session of 1980.

The protagonist of Monster City, Pat Postiglione with his wife, Margaret.
Patrolman Pat Postiglione (R) with his wife, Margaret

From patrolman, Postiglione quickly worked his way up to homicide detective. As a detective, he showed unusual ability and seemed particularly adept at closing serial homicides and cold cases. Arntfield follows Postiglione’s career by examining several cases he worked on and solved. Many of these were years or decades old.

The Cases Featured in Monster City

Arntfield organizes Monster City around six significant investigations. First is the Vandyland Murders, a series of murders occurring near the campus of Vanderbilt University. Second are the Motel Murders, the murders of high-risk women in seedy motels in Nashville and elsewhere. Third is the Dive Bar murders, the random killing of an aspiring musician and his wife who had just arrived in Nashville trying to make it big in Music City, USA. Fourth is the Tanning Bed murders at a “tanning studio” on Church Street. Fifth, the Fast Food murders. Sixth and perhaps the most challenging is the Rest Stop murders since the killer was a long-haul trucker who could be anywhere.

Although the six investigations form the nexus of the book’s organization, Arntfield also mentions cases. It is a thorough picture of Nashville crime from the mid-1970s through the first decade of the twenty-first century.

My Take on Monster City

Monster City held my complete attention from the first page to the last. Not only are the stories fascinating to true crime fans, but Arntfield tells them with a panache that keeps his readers enthralled. I enthusiastically recommend it.

Disclaimer

I have something of a personal connection to the book. I grew up in the Nashville area, and although most of the crimes described in the book occurred after I moved on, two did not. The murder of Sarah Des Prez occurred a block from the campus during the time I was a student at Vanderbilt, but I do not recall it. The disappearance of Marcia Trimble was another story. When the nine-year-old went missing from her Green Hills home, it was a massive local news story. Newscasts on all three local television stations prominently and repeatedly displayed her picture until her body was found.

Pat Postiglione, Deadly Recall, Nashville, Tennessee, 2019

I left Nashville three years before Pat Postiglione hit the streets as a rookie cop. Therefore, I was long gone before he started making a name for himself as a homicide detective.

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The Watts Family Murders

Last week, I discussed the 1959 murder of the entire Walker family in Florida. This week’s topic is the Watts family murders. This crime occurred in 2018 in Frederick, Colorado. But the killer in this case was not an outsider.

The Family

Christopher “Chris” Watts and Shan’nann Rzucek were natives of North Carolina. They met in 2010 and married in Mecklenburg County in November 2012. Shan’nann had been briefly married before, but in Chris, thought she had found her perfect mate. In 2013, they moved to Frederick, Colorado, a suburb of Denver near Boulder. Chris worked as a field technician for Anadarko Petroleum while Shan’nann was a representative for a multi-level marketing company, Le-Vel, selling a product called Thrive.

By the summer of 2018, the couple had two daughters, Bella, 4, and Celeste whom they called CeCe, 3. Shan’nann was also pregnant with their third child, a boy. Although they lived in a lovely five-bedroom home in Frederick, all was not entirely well. They were apparently living beyond their means because they declared bankruptcy in 2015.

Shan'nann, Bella, and CeCe Watts, victims in the Watts family murders
Shan’nann Watts with CeCe (L) and Bella (R)

Trouble really started brewing in the summer of 2018, when Shan’nann took the girls to North Carolina for six weeks to visit family. Chris did join the family for the final week. But he did little to defuse the tension that had arisen between Shan’nann and her in-laws. Besides, in the interim, he had acquired a girlfriend, a coworker named Nikki Kessinger.

Chris Watts with his girlfriend, Nikki Kessinger.  Photo taken before the Watts family murders.
Chris Watts with his mistress, Nikki Kessinger

The Watts Family Murders

Shan’nann went to Arizona for a Le-Vel meeting and returned in the early hours of August 13, 2018. Friends became concerned when they were unable to locate the usually social and loquacious young woman. Reluctantly reporting her absence to police, Chris theorized that she had taken the children and gone off somewhere. This seemed unlikely since Shan’nann’s car and the girls’ car seats were still in the garage.

It didn’t take police long to finger Chris as their prime suspect, especially after he failed a polygraph examination. Slowly, the truth began to emerge. At first, Chris claimed that he killed Shan’nann in a rage because she had killed the girls. But that story didn’t hold water. Eventually, he admitted to smothering the girls and then strangling Shan’nann.

However, Chris failed to kill either of his daughters initially and they were alive as he drove them—with their dead mother’s body on the floorboard—to one of the oil well site where he worked. There, he finished off the girls and dumped each little body into a different oil tank. Disgustingly, he described to investigators how he waited to hear the splash each body made as it hit the oil. Then he dug a shallow grave and buried Shan’nann.

Mugshot of Christopher Lee Watts after being arrested for the Watts family murders
Christopher Lee Watts mugshot

Watts Avoids Trial—And the Death Penalty

Prosecutors charged Chris with five counts of first-degree murder, unlawful termination of a pregnancy, and three counts of tampering with a deceased human body. An additional count for each child made up the five. This was for “death of a child who had not yet attained 12 years of age and the defendant was in a position of trust.”

Rather than face a possible death penalty verdict, Watts chose to plead guilty to all counts. This both shocked and displeased his family, who initially believed him to be innocent. But subsequent interviews leave no doubt that Watts is every bit the monster these crimes show him to be.

On November 19, 2018, Christopher Watts was sentenced to three consecutive and two concurrent life sentences, all without the possibility of parole. He received an additional 48 years for unlawful termination of a pregnancy and 36 years for tampering with the three corpses.

Shortly after sentencing, the State of Colorado moved Chris to the Dodge Correctional Facility in Waupun, Wisconsin. This is the same facility that housed infamous serial killer Ed Gein until his death. Inmate exchanges between states are not common but may be used in cases where the inmate is in particular danger.

More to the Story

The Watts family murders were the subject of a book, My Daddy is a Hero, by psychologist Lena Derhally . Beyond presenting the grim story, Ms. Derhally attempts to analyze why an apparently normal and happy family man suddenly became a family annihilator. There probably will never be a completely satisfactory answer to that question.

Today Chris Watts sits in prison. He gives occasional interviews. In most of he moans about how he messed up his life. Too bad Shan’nann, Bella, and CeCe don’t have that same opportunity.

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