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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Mary Blandy, Arsenic Poisoner

This week, I’m reaching way back to 1751 for a murder by arsenic poisoning. This is a classic English case of the use of “inheritance powder.” Unfortunately for her, the poisoner, Mary Blandy, didn’t get away with it.

Setting the Scene

Mary Blandy was a young woman living at home with her father, Francis Blandy, an attorney in Henley-on-Thames. Mary was 26 in 1746, which in those days would have put her well into spinsterhood. However, that year, she met Captain William Henry Cranstoun, a Scottish military officer. The two planned to marry in 1751.

Mary Blandy, Arsenic Poisoner
Mary Blandy, Arsenic Poisoner (Public Domain)

There was just one problem. Cranstoun already had a wife and child in Scotland, having married Anne Murray the year before he met Mary.

Francis Blandy approved of his daughter’s proposed marriage—that is, until he learned about the wife in Scotland. Consequently, he forbade Mary to see Cranstoun. Cranstoun, for his part, claimed that his marriage to Murray was invalid. He even made several trips to Scotland to have his marriage annulled. But Anne was having none of it and Cranstoun was unable to obtain the annulment.

Poisoning Francis Blandy

Francis Blandy died on August 14, 1751 as a result of what authorities determined was arsenic poisoning. Servants had noticed a white powder in the bottom of a pan Mary had used to prepare her father’s food and saved a sample of it. So, naturally, Mary Blandy came under suspicion. But did she intend to murder her father?

Mary claimed that Cranstoun had sent her a “love potion” that she was to put into Francis’s food to make him approve the of her relationship with Cranstoun. Mary put the “potion” in Francis’s food. Of course, the “potion” turned out to be arsenic.

Mary Blandy on Trial

Mary went on trial at Oxford on March 3, 1752. Her trial was notable for being the first murder trial to include scientific evidence. Her father’s physician, Anthony Addington, testified that the powder given to Francis Blandy was arsenic. Addington proved the powder was arsenic by heating it and detecting arsine gas, which has the odor of garlic. (A more precise test for arsenic was decades in the future.)

Bottle of Arsenic
Vintage arsenic poison bottle on antique shelf

Mary presented the love potion story in her defense, but other facts brought out during the trial contradicted her. Not surprisingly, the jury convicted her.

Mary Blandy was hanged outside Oxford Castle Prison on April 6, 1752. Her last words were purportedly, “Do not hang me too high, for the sake of decency.”

Cranstoun fled to France and thereby escaped prosecution, but he died soon after on December 2, 1752.

How Guilty Was Mary?

Mary admitted feeding the “love potion” to her father, so there is little question of her technical guilt. But was she morally guilty? Was she simply a lovesick woman who believed her lover’s story of a “love potion?” Or were she and he more interested in the £10,000 dowry the elder Blandy had promised? The debate continued for several years. At the time, few people accepted her story on the witness stand, as most believed she was lying. Nineteenth century reexaminations of her case were more sympathetic to the “poor, lovesick girl” view.

Mary Blanchard had a reputation as a well-educated young woman, so I find it difficult to believe she could swallow the “love potion” story. I think it is more likely that she knew what she was doing. Mary may or may not have poisoned her father for love, but I believe Cranstoun’s motivation was the £10,000. However, more than two and a half centuries after the fact, determining the exact truth presents a challenge.

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The Ruxton Murders

Photograph of Dr. Buck Ruxton around the time of the murders.
Dr. Buck Ruxton

Like last week’s blog, the Ruxton murder case is one of domestic homicide.  The Ruxton murders are a case from England in the 1930s.  The case is famous for the minute detail used by the forensic examiners and the innovative technique used to identify the victims.

A Grisly Discovery

September 29, 1935 was a Sunday.  A woman out for a stroll looked down from a bridge along the Edinburgh-Carlisle road in Scotland and saw what looked like a human arm on the stream bank below.  After notifying police, investigators found seventy pieces of human remains.  Forensic pathologists concluded that the remains were of at least two bodies but probably nor more than two.

The killer appeared to have gone to great lengths to remove any identifiable features from the bodies.  The heads, when found, had the flesh and eyes removed along with most of the teeth, leaving little more than bare skulls.

A Clue to the Victims

Investigators’ first order of business was to identify the victims.  They found an immediate clue when they discovered that some of the remains had been wrapped in newspaper.  The paper was the Sunday Graphic dated September 15.  This was a special edition of the Graphic published and distributed only in the Lancaster district of northern England.  When police learned that a woman had been reported missing from that area, they knew they were on to something.

The missing woman was Mary Rogerson.  Mary was twenty years old and employed as a nursemaid to the three children of Dr. Buck Ruxton and his wife, Isabella.  Ruxton claimed that his wife had left him, which authorities viewed as a sinister coincidence.

Dr. Ruxton was born Bukhtyar Chompa Rustomji Ratanji Hakim in what was then Bombay, India.  At some point, he anglicized his name to Buck Ruxton.  He met Isabella in 1927.  Friends and neighbors presumed her to be his wife, but famed pathologist Sir Sidney Smith contends they were never formally married.  Regardless, Dr. Ruxton kept himself in the spotlight by demanding several times that police attempt to find his missing wife.

Forensic Science Reveals the Truth

Professor Dr. John Glaister had whole sections of the Ruxton house dismantled and reassembled in his Glasgow laboratory.  His painstaking investigation discovered human blood in many areas, especially in the bathroom.  Although DNA testing was decades away, the blood stains were an important clue, nonetheless.  Additionally, Mary Rogerson’s mother recognized an item of clothing that police found with the remains as her daughter’s by portion that she herself had mended.

Meanwhile, Professor James Brash used a new technique to identify the victims.  He superimposed a photograph of one of the skulls over a portrait if Isabella Ruxton.  The result was an eerily obvious match.  Every detail in the photograph fit Mrs. Ruxton’s skull.  However, the same technique did not produce as conclusive results for Mary Rogerson because Brash did not have a good portrait of her to work with.

Portrait photograph of Isabella Ruxton (L) and James Brash's superimposition of the unidentified skull (R).
Portrait photograph of Isabella Ruxton (L) and James Brash’s superimposition of the unidentified skull (R).

Convicted of Murder

Given the evidence, it is not surprising that a jury found Dr. Ruxton guilty and Mr. Justice [John] Singleton sentenced him to death.  The Ruxton murders generated quite a bit of public interest at the time and, surprisingly, despite the overwhelming nature of the evidence and the nature of the murders, ten thousand people, including six thousand Lancaster citizens, petitioned the Home Secretary to intervene and grant a reprieve.  He declined, and Dr. Ruxton was hanged at Strangeways Prison on May 12, 1936.

An Epilogue

The Ruxton murders had an interesting postscript. The Sunday following Dr. Ruxton’s execution, the News of the World published his signed confession.  He had written the confession, sealed it in an envelope, and given it to one of the paper’s reporters just two days after his arrest for murder.

Dr. Ruxton had a reputation for being very jealous and unduly suspicious that his wife might be paying attention to another man.  Twice police had been called to his house for what we call today domestic violence.  No one knows for sure, but it is unlikely that Dr. Ruxton intended to kill his wife.  They probably got into an argument that escalated out of control and ended in her death.  Mary Rogerson probably discovered evidence of the crime and became the second victim.

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