The strange story of Dr Crippen, killer or not?
Accused, sentenced and hung for murder, Crippen is the UK’s most notorious killer. But did he really commit murder?
Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen
Having qualified as a homeopath, Hawley Harvey Crippen started to practise in New York, where in 1894 he married his second wife, Corrine “Cora” Turner. (stage name: ‘Belle Elmore’), born Kunigunde Mackamotski to a German mother and a Polish-Russian father. She was a would-be music hall singer who openly had affairs.
In the same year Crippen started working for Dr. Munyon’s, a homeopathic pharmaceutical company. In 1897, Crippen and his wife moved to England to continue working for Munyon’s.
His US medical qualifications were not sufficient to allow him to practise as a doctor in the UK, but Crippen continued working as a distributor of patent medicines nevertheless.
Crippen was finally sacked by Munyon’s in 1899, apparently for spending too much time managing his wife’s stage career and not enough time distributing medicines.
He became manager of Drouet’s Institution for the Deaf, where he met Ethel Le Neve, a young typist, sometime in 1903. After living at various addresses in London, the Crippens finally moved in 1905 to 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Camden Road, Holloway, London, where they took in lodgers due to Crippen’s meagre income.
Crippen came home one day and found Cora in bed with one of the lodgers. She had been unfaithful to him before, this prompted Crippen to seek out other company, and he and Ethel soon began an affair.
On February 1st, 1910 Cora Crippen vanished. Her husband said she had gone back to the United States for a few months. In March Ethel moved into the Hilldrop Crescent house with Crippen, who now gave out that Cora had died in America. Cora’s friends grew suspicious, Scotland Yard was alerted and Detective Inspector Walter Dew talked to Crippen in July.
Crippen took fright and fled to Brussels with Ethel, who was dressed as a boy. This prompted the police to search Crippen’s Hilldrop Crescent house. The police quickly discovered a body, they found the gruesome remains of a body beneath the coal cellar. Wrapped in a male pyjama jacket, which was later identified as Crippen’s, it had no head, no limbs, no bones and no genitals.
It was later discovered that there were traces of a poison that Crippen was discovered to have bought not long before Cora’s disappearance. A hue and cry began, followed excitedly by the press. Ports and stations were watched and police forces abroad were alerted.
On the run
On July 20th Crippen and Ethel sailed from Antwerp for Canada on the liner Montrose. He called himself Robinson and Ethel posed as his teenage son, but they behaved too lovingly and the captain grew suspicious and informed the ship’s owners by telegraph. They passed the word to Scotland Yard and Dew pursued the fugitives across the Atlantic in a faster liner, the Laurentic, which reached Father Point in the Gulf of St Lawrence ahead of the Montrose.
Dew was waiting, went aboard with the pilot vessel and arrested Crippen and Ethel. He afterwards said that he had never in his life felt such a sense of triumph and achievement. The Montrose took all of them on to Quebec, accompanied by reporters who had swarmed on board. Dew regarded the latter as an infernal nuisance, but the dramatic story that George Orwell said no novelist would have dared to make up created a frenzy of excitement in the press.
Crippen’s trial at the Old Bailey
So did the trial at the Old Bailey in October, which made the name of the pathologist Bernard Spilsbury, who had examined a piece of flesh and confirmed that a scar on it corresponded to an operation that Cora Crippen was known to have had for the removal of her ovaries.
This has since been challenged, but it helped to demolish Crippen’s claim that the corpse must have been there all along, unknown to him and Cora. However, he did succeed in his heroic effort to persuade everyone of Ethel’s innocence. Tried as Crippen’s accomplice, she was acquitted.
A new twist
American academics in 2007 claimed that the DNA of the dead body in Hilldrop Crescent did not match that of some of Cora Crippen’s distant relatives, which meant that the body was not Cora’s – This has now raised new questions about the identity of the remains found in the cellar, and over Crippen’s guilt.
One unlikely theory is that Crippen may have been carrying out illegal abortions; it may be that one of his patients died and that he disposed of the body in the way he was accused of disposing of his wife.
However, the remains were also recently tested for sex at Michigan State, using a highly sensitive assay of the Y chromosome. On this basis, the researchers found that the body parts were those of a man.
In December 2009 the British Criminal Cases Review Commission, having reviewed the new evidence, declared that the court of appeal will not hear the case to pardon Crippen posthumously. An appeal to this ruling is currently underway.