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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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