Thunderstruck: Technology Catches a Man Wanted for Murder

It’s been quite some time since I reviewed a true crime book for this blog, but I recently read one I wanted to share. The book is Thunderstruck by Erik Larson, who also authored The Devil in the White City. Thunderstruck explores the parallel paths of Guglielmo Marconi and Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen to the point where their paths converge with the latter’s arrest in Canada in 1910.

The Stories in Thunderstruck

I profiled the Crippen case in September 2020. Briefly, Dr. Crippen was an American homeopathic physician who managed the London office of a patent medicine company. He found refuge from his overbearing wife, Cora, in the arms of his secretary, Ethel Le Neve. Cora, who had ambitions to be a music hall performer, disappeared in February 1910. Not satisfied with the doctor’s explanations, her theater friends persuaded Scotland Yard to investigate. Chief Inspector Walter Dew accepted Crippen’s explanation that she had absconded to America with another man. He was on the verge of closing the case when Crippen and Ethel vanished.

Cover of Thunderstruck (Crown Publishing Group)
Cover of Thunderstruck (Crown Publishing Group)

Marconi was an Italian self-trained early pioneer in wireless telegraphy. His lack of formal scientific training earned him criticism from the academics researching the properties of radio waves. Marconi’s secrecy and combative nature only made the conflicts worse.

Guglielmo Marconi (Library of Congress)
Guglielmo Marconi (Library of Congress)

Nevertheless, with considerable trial and error, Marconi made significant strides in sending and receiving radio waves over long distances. In January 1903, he sent a wireless message from U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt to King Edward VII of England. Sending a radio signal from a transmitter at Wellfleet, Massachusetts, to a receiver in Wales was an achievement, but the telegram was primarily a publicity stunt. Reliable messaging across long distances remained not easy to achieve. The spark-gap technology of the time required powerful transmitters and was prone to generating radio frequency interference.

Technology and Crime Converge in Thunderstruck

By 1910, the reliability of wireless telegraphy had improved. Although spark-gap transmitters could only send signals in Morse code, radio became essential equipment on ships traversing the Atlantic. And that’s where Marconi’s path intersects with Dr. Crippen’s.

Hawley Harvey Crippen (Public Domain)
Hawley Harvey Crippen (Public Domain)

It was July 1910 when Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve fled London. First, they went to Brussels. From there, they boarded SS Montrose, a steamship bound for Canada, with Ethel thinly disguised as a boy. Despite the ruse, the Montrose’s captain, Henry Kendall, recognized the couple and used the ship’s wireless to contact the steamship company. The company, in turn, notified Scotland Yard.

Inspector Dew gambled that Kendall was correct in his identification and boarded a faster ship. Newspaper headlines all over the globe chronicled the trans-Atlantic Chase. Dew won the race and arrested Dr. Crippen and Miss Le Neve as Montrose entered the St. Lawrence River.

My Take on Thunderstruck

Overall, I found Thunderstruck to be fascinating. Larson captures Marconi’s long struggle to send signals across the ocean. The unfolding love story of Crippen and Le Neve and the development of the murder case are riveting as well. My only complaint is that the narrative switches between tracks at what often seems like awkward points in the story. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and found it difficult to put down. It’s too long to read in one sitting, though.

Epilogue

Wireless telegraphy was crucial in rescuing survivors when RMS Titanic sank on its maiden voyage in 1912. It also helped save lives after a German submarine torpedoed RMS Lusitania off the coast of Ireland in 1915.

Following World War I, continuous wave transmitters allowed radio waves to carry speech and music, making Marconi’s spark transmitters obsolete.

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