Hawley Crippen became the first criminal to be caught with the aid of wireless communication when police arrested him in 1910 for murdering his wife.
Crippen was born September 11, 1862 in Coldwater, Michigan, to Andresse Skinner (died 1909) and Myron Augustus Crippen (1827–1910). The family were prosperous, owning a dry goods store that enabled them to live a comfortable life, Crippen was nevertheless raised with a strict Protestant work ethic. Pursuing a childhood interest in medicine Crippen studied first at the University of Michigan Homeopathic Medical School and graduated from the Cleveland Homeopathic Medical College in 1884.
On completing his studies, he moved to New York, where he met and wed an Irish nurse named Charlotte Bell. They had one son together, named Otto, but Charlotte died suddenly of a stroke in January 1892, leaving Crippen a widower, with a young child. Unable to cope, he persuaded his parents, now living in California, to take care of Otto while he remained working. Having qualified as a homeopath, Crippen started to practise in New York, where in 1894 he married his second wife, Corrine “Cora” Turner (stage name: Belle Elmore).
Corrine was born in Brooklyn in 1873, her immigrant parents had named her Kunigunde Mackamotzki, a name she later changed to Cora Turner. She left home at 16, and parlayed her considerable sexual charms into acting and vocal lessons to advance her theatrical career. When Crippen met her, she was 19 years old, and an aspiring performer and opera singer. She would openly have affairs. In 1894 Crippen started working for Dr Munyon’s, a homeopathic pharmaceutical company. In 1897, Crippen and his wife moved to England.
His US medical qualifications were not sufficient to allow him to practise as a doctor in the UK. As Crippen continued working as a distributor of patent medicines, Cora socialised with a number of variety players of the time, including Lil Hawthorne of The Hawthorne Sisters and Lil’s husband/manager John Nash. Crippen was sacked by Munyon’s in 1899 for spending too much time managing his wife’s stage career, his employers felt that his concern with his wife’s career had jeopardized his interest in their business. He became manager of Drouet’s Institution for the Deaf, where he met Ethel Le Neve, a young typist, around 1903.
Moving from fashionable Piccadilly to down-market Bloomsbury, caused further tension as Belle could no longer support her ‘stage star’ lifestyle. In 1905 his more regular income enabled the Crippens to move again, this time to 39 Hilldrop Crescent, in Holloway. Belle insisted that they take in lodgers at Hilldrop Crescent, to provide her with additional income to fund her lifestyle.
Belle felt better able to conduct her entertaining. Belle became involved with the Music Hall Ladies’ Guild, who were taken in by her American ways and outrageous affairs, and her forthright manner made her an excellent fundraiser for the Guild. By now both Crippen and Belle lived almost entirely separate lives: Crippen consumed with his unrequited passion for Ethel, and Belle with her lovers and theater friends. Crippen was not aware that she had an ulterior motive with the lodgers until December 1906, when he came home early one evening to find Belle in bed with one of the student lodgers.
Although aware of Belle’s philandering, Crippen had never been subjected to it directly. Rushing off to seek solace from Ethel, they finally consummated their affair when she offered to console him. The break in Crippen’s marriage was now complete, although he and Belle continued to live under the same roof. Crippen and Ethel continued their passionate affair, practically under Belle’s nose. She remained unsure of the identity of her husband’s lover, until he left the homeopathic business to pursue a career in dentistry, taking his secretary Ethel with him. Belle’s cronies at the Ladies’ Guild took pleasure in informing Belle that Crippen and Ethel had been seen out, dining intimately together.
Now aware of Ethel’s existence, Belle received a shock when she found out, via her friends, that Ethel was pregnant. Crippen was delighted, but before he could broach the subject of divorce with Belle, Ethel had a miscarriage. Belle recognized that her days as a married woman were numbered and, despite her own numerous affairs, decided to play the role of the virtuous wife, cruelly deceived, most probably to try to save face in front of her Ladies’ Guild friends. The Guild social circle was paramount to Belle, where she now held the post of Guild treasurer. By the latter part of 1909, life at Hilldrop Crescent had become intolerable, with daily arguments between Crippen and Belle, as she threatened to ruin Crippen’s professional reputation by spreading gossip about his affair. After a party at their home on January 31, 1910, Cora disappeared.
The next day he attended to patients at his dental practice as though nothing was amiss. He told Ethel that Belle had left him, and made her a gift of some of her jewellery, pawning the rest of her jewelry later that day. He also asked Ethel to deliver a note to the Ladies’ Guild, in which ‘Belle’ resigned her post as treasurer, advising her friends that she had to travel to America to tend to a sick relative. The members of the Ladies’ Guild were suspicious from the outset, Belle having never mentioned any ailing relative to them. However, it wasn’t until February 20, when Crippen attended a Guild Ball accompanied by Ethel, who was wearing Belle’s jewelry, that they voiced their concerns openly.
Inundated almost daily by inquiries about Belle from various Guild matrons, Crippen tried to staunch the gossip by informing them that Belle had fallen seriously ill in California. He then sent a telegram to the Martinettis, the couple with whom he and Belle had shared their final meal, on March 24, 1910, saying that Belle had died. Crippen also disappeared for a short break to France with Ethel, which seemed unduly hasty, given the recent death of his wife. The Ladies’ Guild pressed Crippen for details of Belle’s funeral on his return; he claimed she was being cremated in the United States. Police began to take the matter more seriously when asked to investigate by a personal friend of Scotland Yard Superintendent Frank Froest, John Nash and his entertainer wife, Lil Hawthorne.
The house was searched, but nothing was found, and Crippen was interviewed by Chief Inspector Walter Dew. Crippen admitted that he had fabricated the story about his wife having died and explained that he had made it up in order to avoid any personal embarrassment because she had in fact left him and fled to America with one of her lovers, a music hall actor named Bruce Miller.
After the interview (and a quick search of the house), Dew was satisfied with Crippen’s story. However, Crippen and Le Neve did not know this and fled in panic to Brussels, where they spent the night at a hotel. The following day, they went to Antwerp and boarded the Canadian Pacific liner SS Montrose for Canada. Their disappearance led the police at Scotland Yard to perform another three searches of the house. During the fourth and final search, they found the remains of a human body, buried under the brick floor of the basement. Pathologist Bernard Spilsbury found traces of the calming drug scopolamine. The corpse was identified by a piece of skin from its abdomen; the head, limbs, and skeleton were never recovered. The case made huge headlines in England, and the story, with pictures of the fugitives, was carried in European newspapers as well. Crippen decided that they would be best travelling incognito, and he boarded the SS Montrose in Antwerp, bound for Canada, on July 20, 1910, traveling as Mr. Robinson, with Ethel disguised, rather poorly, as his young son.
Unfortunately for them, the Captain of the Montrose, named Kendall, took a local newspaper with him, on the day of departure, containing pictures of the fugitives. Ethel’s poor disguise drew attention; looking more closely, Captain Kendall recognized the similarity between the odd couple and the fugitives and on July 22, sent a wireless telegram to the White Star Line in Liverpool, claiming that Crippen and Ethel were on board. It was the first time that this new means of communications was used in the apprehension of a criminal. The information was passed immediately to Inspector Dew at Scotland Yard
Crippen and le Neve were tried separately at the London assizes, held at the Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey, London; Crippen’s trial took place from 18 to 22 October and Ethel le Neve’s on 25 October 1910. The pathologists appearing for the prosecution, including Spilsbury, could not identify the remains or even discern whether they were male or female. However, Spilsbury found a piece of skin with what he claimed to be an abdominal scar consistent with Cora’s medical history. Large quantities of the toxic compound hyoscine were found in the remains, and Crippen had bought the drug before the murder from a local chemist.
Crippen’s defence maintained that Cora had fled to America with another man named Bruce Miller and that Cora and Hawley had been living at the house since only 1905, suggesting a previous owner of the house was responsible for the placement of the remains. The defence asserted that the abdominal scar identified by pathologist Spilsbury was really just folded tissue, for among other things, it had hair follicles growing from it, something scar tissue could not have; Spilsbury noted that the sebaceous glands appeared at the ends but not in the middle of the scar.
Other evidence presented by the prosecution included a piece of a man’s pyjama top supposedly from a pair Cora had given Crippen a year earlier. The pyjama bottoms were found in Crippen’s bedroom, but not the top. The fragment included the manufacturer’s label Jones Bros. Curlers with bleached hair consistent with Cora’s were found with the remains. Testimony from a Jones Bros. representative, the store that the pyjama top fragment came from, stated that the product was not sold prior to 1908, thus placing the date of manufacture well within the time period of when the Crippens occupied the house and when Cora gave the garment to Hawley the year before in 1909.
Throughout the proceedings and at his sentencing, Crippen showed no remorse for his wife and concern for only his lover’s reputation. After just 27 minutes of deliberations, the jury found Crippen guilty of murder. The trial of Ethel Le Neve began at the Old Bailey, on charges of being an accessory to murder, after the fact, and a fugitive from justice.
Lasting only one day, her defense successfully painted a picture of an innocent young woman merely following the instructions of her lover, and she was found not guilty after only 12 minutes of deliberation by the jury. An appeal of Crippen’s sentence was refused, and his execution was set for November 23. Ethel visited Crippen in prison every day and followed each visit up with a letter. When he was executed at Pentonville Prison in London on November 23, 1910, he requested that the letters and a photograph of Ethel be buried with him. He also bequeathed his entire estate to her.
On the day that he was executed, Ethel left the country by ship, bound for New York; from there she travelled to Toronto, where she worked as a secretary for 5 years, before returning to the UK, where she married and settled in Croydon. She died in 1967 aged 84. Although Crippen’s grave in the prison grounds is not marked by a stone, tradition has it that soon after his burial, a rose bush was planted over it. Some of his relatives in Michigan have begun lobbying for his remains to be repatriated to the United States.
A theory which was first propounded by Edward Marshall Hall was that Crippen was using hyoscine on his wife as a depressant or anaphrodisiac, but accidentally gave her an overdose and then panicked when she died. It is said that Hall declined to lead Crippen’s defence because another theory was to be propounded. In 1981, newspapers reported that Sir Hugh Rhys Rankin claimed to have met Ethel Le Neve in 1930 in Australia and that on that occasion, she told him that Crippen murdered his wife because she had syphilis.
Whether Crippen murdered his wife has been disputed. The novelist Raymond Chandler commented that it seemed unbelievable that Crippen would successfully dispose of his wife’s limbs and head, and then, rather stupidly, bury her torso under the cellar floor of his home.
Dornford Yates, a novelist who was a junior barrister at the trial, records that the remains were placed in lime so that they would be destroyed, but suggests that Crippen failed to realise that while dry quicklime destroys, if water is added it becomes slaked lime and preserves. Yates used this fact in the plot of his novel “The House That Berry Built” and told the story of the trial from his viewpoint in his memoirs “As Berry and I Were Saying”.
In October 2007, Michigan State University forensic scientist David Foran claimed that mitochondrial DNA evidence showed that the remains found beneath the cellar floor in Crippen’s home were not those of Cora Crippen. This research was based on genealogical identification of three alleged matrilineal relatives of Cora Crippen (great-nieces, located by U.S. genealogist Beth Wills), whose mitochondrial DNA haplotype was compared with DNA extracted from a slide with flesh taken from the torso in Crippen’s cellar. This has raised new questions about the identity of the remains found in the cellar, and – by extension – over Crippen’s guilt.
One 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 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. The research team also argued that a scar on the abdomen of the body, which the Crown Prosecution interpreted as a scar consistent with one Mrs. Crippen was known to have, convincing the jury that the remains were Mrs. Crippen’s, was incorrectly identified, due to the tissue’s having hair follicles, whereas scars do not (a point which Crippen’s defence argued at the time).
These recent arguments for Crippen’s innocence have been disputed by some commentators. It has been argued that the DNA sample could have been tainted or mislabelled, or alternatively that the alleged relatives were not actually blood relatives of Mrs. Crippen. The research has since been published in the January 2011 issue of the Journal of Forensic Sciences. In a sceptical review of the new evidence, David Aaronovitch has written: “As to the body being male, well the American team was using a ‘special technique’ that is ‘very new’ and ‘done only by this team’ and working on a single, century-old slide, described by the team leader as a ‘less than optimal sample'”. However, Foran stated in an interview, “There was a lot more DNA work than what is portrayed in the film. Those tests showed unequivocally that the remains were male”.
John Trestrail had previously requested New Scotland Yard to provide samples of the blonde hair found in curlers at the scene (and now preserved in New Scotland Yard’s museum) to conduct DNA testing to see if they are Cora’s. New Scotland Yard has repeatedly denied his request. However, New Scotland Yard was willing to test a hair from the crime scene for a fee, which in turn was rejected by the investigators as “over the top.”
Trestrail has hypothesized that the police planted the body parts and particularly the fragment of the pyjama top at the scene to incriminate Crippen. He suggests that Scotland Yard was under tremendous public pressure to find and bring to trial a suspect for this heinous crime. An independent observer points out that the case did not become public until after the remains were found. In December 2009 the Criminal Cases Review Commission, having reviewed the case, declared that the court of appeal will not hear the case to pardon Crippen posthumously.
Given the publicity surrounding 39 Hilldrop Crescent, it is unsurprising that the house remained empty for most of the next 30 years. It was later destroyed in a German air raid during World War II.
The Crippen murder was featured in a popular song: