- Hawley Harvey Crippen, known almost universally as Dr Crippen, was one of the twentieth century’s most famous murderers. Yet, as so often with great criminals, the details of what he actually did have grown murky over time so that the true significance of his case has been somewhat distorted in popular minds. The most common misconception is that Crippen was a serial killer. In fact, as far as is known, this mild-mannered, often apparently hapless, individual committed just one murder, the one for which he was subsequently caught and hanged in 1910. The murder was undoubtedly a gruesome one, involving a vicious poisoning and a headless, dismembered corpse. Yet it was a crime of passion, intended to free Crippen from his loveless marriage; to allow him to start a new life with his lover, Ethel le Neve; and, perhaps, to punish his unfortunate wife for her own infidelities. What made the case a cause celebre, more than anything else, was the manner in which Hawley Crippen was arrested, as well as, perhaps, his wife’s status as a minor music hall star on the Edwardian stage (under her stage name of Belle Elmore).
- Dr Crippen was not a full medical doctor, but rather a trained homoeopathist. He had learned his skills in America, the country of his birth, and had come to Britain under the auspices of an American homoeopathic company to sell patent remedies to the London public. Unsuccessful at this enterprise (possibly because he spent too much time managing his wife’s indifferent stage career), he had instead taken work at an institute for the deaf and, later, a dental practice. Contrary to popular opinion, none of these careers had made Crippen particularly expert in handling poisons. It is true that the poison with which he chose to kill Mrs Crippen – hyoscine – could kill silently if used in small doses, but the dose Crippen employed was so large as to be still easily detected even many months after death. Moreover, the fact that Crippen decided to mutilate his wife’s corpse and then to bury it in his coal cellar fatally undermined any possible defence of death by natural causes.
- Crippen spent the first months following the murder, which occurred sometime after a dinner party on 31 January 1910, pretending that his wife was absent on a visit to California. Later, he pretended that she had died there. He moved his lover, Miss le Neve, into the former marital home, in Islington, North London, and gave many of his wife’s clothes and items of jewellery to her to wear. This was obviously suspicious behaviour and Crippen compounded it by being a very poor liar. His wife’s friends quickly came to the conclusion that Cora had not met a good end. We can still experience some of the lies that Dr Crippen told today thanks to the large amount of documentary evidence about the case that has survived. For instance, this is a letter he wrote to one of Cora Turner’s relatives in New York, in early April 1910:
- Crippen did not end up moving to France, however. Instead, he and his lover boarded a transatlantic steamship bound for Canada, with Crippen shaving off his moustache and Ethel dressing up as a boy, to pose as his son while on board. By this stage the pair were wanted by the London police. In spite of their disguises, the ship’s captain recognised them almost immediately (apparently, Ethel’s bosom had been particularly poorly concealed) and sent a telegram to authorities on shore alerting them to the couple’s whereabouts. Crippen, thus, became the first murderer in history to be caught by international telegram. What followed was an unequal race between the doctor and Scotland Yard to get to Canada first: unequal because even in this Crippen had miscalculated. He found himself travelling on one of the slowest transatlantic steamers of the day, allowing the Metropolitan Police’s Inspector Dew to board a fast one and arrive in the St Lawrence river ahead of him. Crippen and Ethel were duly arrested in the full glare of international publicity. The world’s press travelled to Canada either with Dew or in parallel with him, and they were all gathered at the foot of the ship’s gangway to witness the infamous couple being led off the boat. Already, in the days running up to this, newspapers had been publishing stories about the couple’s behaviour on the ship, fed to them by members of the crew and even the captain himself. Once again the medium of communication was the new wireless technology.
- If Le Neve was too feminine to be a boy, Crippen was also too distinctive to evade capture for long, even without his whiskers. Many at the time commented on his wide, staring, somewhat ‘bug-like’, eyes, which they said were highly unusual. But even more noticeable was the doctor’s diminutive height. At just 5’ 3”, or 160 cm, he was extremely short, even by the standards of the day.
- Crippen was hanged on 23 November 1910 at Pentonville Prison, not very far from his former London house. His principal, if implausible, defence had been that the unidentified (because so mutilated) body in the cellar must have been there when he moved into the property. Le Neve, however, was acquitted of any part in the crime. The night before his death, Crippen attempted suicide by slashing his wrists using a piece of glass taken from his spectacles. He was unsuccessful, a fact that has been taken since as typical of his generally luckless nature. Many who encountered him around the case commented on what an unlikely murderer he seemed, though in retrospect there may have been more than a little misogyny at work against poor, murdered Cora.
- The Crippen case was to have a long-term beneficial impact on the careers of many people involved in it. Inspector Dew became world famous after his transatlantic dash and was able to give up police work and become a private detective instead. He published a memoir called I Caught Crippen in 1938. Meanwhile, Bernard Spilsbury (later Sir), the pioneering forensic pathologist, first rose to prominence over the case, when he was able to prove to the jury’s satisfaction that the corpse was in fact that of Mrs Crippen. And one member of the legal team, C. W. Mercer, who is better known as the novelist and memoirist Dornford Yates, was to dine out on his recollections for years afterwards, regaling both dinner guests and readers alike. He also apparently used some aspects of Crippen’s case in one of his fictional stories.
- Ethel le Neve famously remained devoted to Crippen right up to the day of his execution, though admittedly this took place not long after the trial. In the years following, however, she went on to have a normal, even mundane, existence and concealed entirely her connection with the famous case. Only in the 1980s, twenty years after her own death, did an author finally stumbled upon the true facts of Le Neve’s early life. This was because she had changed her name shortly after the case, and then married an apparently unsuspecting employee of a London furniture warehouse. As Ethel Smith she set up home in Croydon, South London, and never told either of her two children anything about her remarkable youth.
- Finally, it is worth noting that science has recently provided some tentative corroboration of Dr Crippen’s defence, at least in the eyes of certain people. In the late 2000s, researchers in Michigan – Crippen’s home state – challenged once more whether the body in his cellar really was that of his wife, or indeed even a woman. Their findings were based on DNA tests of surviving forensic material from the trial cross-referenced with blood samples taken from known descendants of Mrs Crippen. Could it be that Crippen was executed for a crime he didn’t commit? Most people still agree that it is unlikely.
SOURCES: The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; The Times; The Daily Telegraph; Julie English Early, ‘Technology, Modernity, and ‘the Little Man’: Crippen’s Capture by Wireless’, Victorian Studies, 1996; Dornford Yates, As Berry and I were saying, 1952.