On 23 November 1910, Dr Hawley Crippen was executed for the murder of his wife at Pentonville prison, within a mile of the house they had shared in Holloway, north London, where her remains were said to have been found. Crippen achieved notoriety as one of the UK’s most infamous murderers, yet the perplexing nature of the crime remains. What drove a seemingly innocuous man like Crippen to commit such a monstrous crime?
Crippen was born in 1862, in Coldwater, Michigan. After qualifying in medicine he worked as an intern at a Manhattan hospital, where he met and married an Irish student nurse, Charlotte Bell. His work took him to San Diego, where Charlotte bore him a son, and then Salt Lake City. Charlotte died just before the end of a second pregnancy.
Crippen returned to New York, where he married Kunigunde Mackamotzki. Eleven years younger than Crippen, she was born to Polish-German parents in Brooklyn and had changed her name to Cora Turner. They moved to London, where Crippen ran the London office of a company selling homeopathic remedies.
They were hopelessly mismatched. Nor could they start a family. Cora had had an ovariectomy, which meant she could never have children. The operation had left a visible scar. She dreamed instead of success on the stage, under the name Belle Elmore. A failed light-opera singer, she also tried her hand, unsuccessfully, at vaudeville.
Cora’s friends were performers or involved in the theatre – unlike her husband. Apart from sharing a home, she appeared completely estranged from him. From August 1897, she had a long affair with Bruce Miller, a vaudeville performer from Chicago, and she may well have had other affairs.
For his part, Crippen began a liaison with a young colleague, Ethel Le Neve. After a two-year courtship, they began the relationship on 6th December 1906 – though the affair, conducted mainly in cheap hotels around King’s Cross, remained secret.
On 1st February 1910, Cora Crippen disappeared. Over the following weeks, her friends became anxious and Crippen began telling a series of lies to explain her absence. She had moved back to the States, he explained, and had died in California. Cora’s friends disbelieved him, and went to Scotland Yard.
Crippen was interrogated by Chief Inspector Walter Dew, as was Ethel Le Neve, who had moved into the house in Holloway just before Easter. With Crippen’s permission, Dew had the house searched. Nothing was found – but then Crippen and Le Neve fled.
There were fresh police searches of the house and garden. Dew claimed that, under coal in the passage between the kitchen and the back garden, he found human remains, from a body that had been dismembered and even filleted. The head, bones and sexual organs had been removed. Surely only someone with medical training could have done that?
There was an immediate hue and cry, with posters proclaiming that Crippen was wanted for ‘Murder and Mutilation’.
The fugitives had first gone to Belgium, where Le Neve, trying to pass herself off as Crippen’s son, had her hair cut short. They then embarked on the SS Montrose, bound for Canada.
Their flight triggered a whole series of firsts: the first truly sensational crime story for the new popular press, the first transatlantic manhunt, and the first time telegraph signals were sent to ships. The captain identified the couple – their intimacy gave the game away that they weren’t father and son – and wired the police. By taking a faster boat, Dew was able to arrest them before the ship docked. They were brought back to England and were put on trial, separately, at the Old Bailey.
By now Crippen was internationally notorious. Press interest had been at fever pitch from the moment of the grisly discovery in the house, followed by Crippen and Le Neve’s disappearance and the subsequent pursuit across the Atlantic.
Before the trial started, there was an inquest, at which the coroner recorded a verdict of wilful murder against Crippen. Cora’s funeral took place in October – after which the police, and indeed the whole country, concluded that she was dead. But there was no evidence that she was.
Crippen was easy prey for legal frauds and charlatans. His solicitor had already served twelve months in prison for ‘conspiring to defeat the ends of justice’, though he had not been struck off by the Law Society. Only after Crippen’s trial was he finally disbarred, when a judge said that his main objective in conducting the defence had been ‘to make copy for the newspapers’. He was later jailed for fraud, becoming the librarian at Parkhurst prison. Crippen was further handicapped by his name. Could Hawley Crippen not be guilty?
In another first, a photograph was taken of Crippen in the dock – prompting Parliament to prohibit the taking of pictures in the courtroom, a law that remains in force to this day.
The Crown’s pathologist, Bernard Spilsbury, then at the start of an illustrious career, detected on the piece of flesh the ovariectomy scar which the Crown offered as proof that it was indeed Cora’s body. ‘As regards the scar’, Spilsbury told the court, ‘I have absolutely no doubt.’ Traces of a poison, hyoscine, were found in the remains; the theory was that Crippen, using his professional knowledge, had murdered Cora by poisoning her.
The Crown could show no motive. Cora had been unfaithful to Crippen for at least thirteen years, but he had been with Ethel for more than three. But the Crown did not need to show motive to prove murder.
The jury returned after less than half-an-hour with a verdict of guilty. Crippen conducted himself chivalrously throughout – his primary concern being to ensure Ethel’s safety. At her subsequent trial, it took the jury even less time to acquit her of being his accomplice.
The way in which Crippen was hounded to death has obscured many aspects of the case. What about the testimony of those who said, like his employer, that he was ‘as docile as a kitten, quite incapable of murdering his wife’; or Ethel’s landlady who, in giving evidence, described him as ‘one of the nicest men I ever met’. A petition containing 16,000 signatures, asking for the execution not to go ahead, was handed in to the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill. Among those who believed in Crippen’s innocence was the governor of Pentonville prison.
But public confidence in the English justice system was remarkably high and, in the years after Crippen’s execution, little disquiet was expressed about the case.
For the rest of her life, Le Neve lived quietly and privately in south London, and died in 1967. In 1994 Crippen’s last letters were made public. In the Edwardian era, a condemned man was expected to confess his sins and make his peace with God, or else face eternal damnation; but the letters showed that, right to the end, Crippen steadfastly asserted his innocence.
The case continued to resonate, largely because of four unanswered questions. Firstly, there was no evidence that Crippen was ever violent to his wife. He was posthumously dubbed the mild murderer. How had someone so kind-hearted and undemonstrative suddenly turned into a savage murderer?
Another troubling aspect was raised by Raymond Chandler: if Crippen had dismembered and filleted the body, why hadn’t he got rid of it all? Police thoroughly searched the locality, but nothing was found. If Crippen had safely discarded the difficult bits – the head, and so on – why leave behind a section that it would have been easy to dispose of?
Thirdly, how had Crippen dismembered the body, leaving no blood and mess behind? There was no evidence that a body had been cut up in the house.
Finally, there was the point raised by the US forensic toxicologist John Trestrail. A poisoner would have left the cadaver intact; there was always a good chance, when forensic science was in its infancy, that the death would be treated as natural – which was why poisoning was a popular means of murder.
In 2007 Andrew Rose, a former barrister who is now a judge, published Lethal Witness, which re-evaluated the work of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, who made his name with the Crippen trial.
Spilsbury established the cult of forensic pathology. For decades, his word was gospel in the courtroom. In fact he embellished wherever necessary, and gave opinions outside his professional expertise. He always worked alone, so there was never any corroboration for his work. In his utter commitment to the prosecution case, he had, said Rose, ‘a tendency to play games with the truth’.
Trestrail, together with American relatives of Crippen, successfully applied to have material from the carcass, which was still preserved in London, forensically tested by DNA at the University of Michigan.
The tests showed that there was no familial link between the material and surviving relatives of Cora Crippen. This wasn’t conclusive; there was uncertainty about the family lineage. They also showed that the carcass in the passage was that of a male. That was conclusive.
A radical reinterpretation of the Crippen story is clearly needed.
The simplest explanation of what happened is that the sensational myth obscured the mundane reality: there was no murder and, indeed, no crime; Cora, exasperated by her unexciting husband and her unfulfilled life in England, returned to the United States, no doubt with Bruce Miller or someone else.
Crippen said that he came home on 1st February to find her gone. ‘She had threatened often enough, and said, “I shall leave you and you will never hear of me again”.’ There seems no reason to doubt his account, but he made up stories to cover up her sudden absence and his embarrassment at being cuckolded and dumped, and got himself into difficulties as a result.
Crippen readily gave his permission for Dew to search the house. Had he murdered Cora, Crippen was unlikely to have been so helpful. But if he was innocent, what was he afraid of? Why did he and Ethel flee the country?
The flight was disastrous, yet it must have seemed the only way out. He had lied about Cora’s whereabouts. Scotland Yard was still interested. There was a major public scandal brewing. In the United States, he and Ethel could build new lives for themselves.
That should have been the end of the matter, but in practice police officers’ suspicions do not evaporate, they intensify. The suspect has not only committed the crime, but has carried it off so deviously that there is not a shred of evidence against him; the less evidence there is, the more evil he is perceived to be.
In 1910, it was impossible to bring a case for murder without some trace of a body. Not until 1970, with the murder of Muriel Mackay (the wife of the deputy chairman of News International) would there be a successful prosecution for murder without a body.
The authorities needed a body, or part of a body. Where did the human remains under the coal in the passage come from? A woman had disappeared, presumed murdered. Her husband was brazenly living with his mistress, yet there was no evidence against Crippen.
Maybe a commanding officer at Scotland Yard told Dew that he had to ‘find’ something. Senior officers were under political pressure; the case was causing serious embarrassment for the government, with questions being asked in Parliament about why Crippen had evaded the authorities so easily.
It would not have been difficult for Dew to acquire a body. Fished out of the Thames or the gutters of central London, there were unidentified corpses that would never be missed.
The body must have been male, which explains why they needed to remove the bones and sexual organs. (It was this aspect of the case that made Crippen seem not just a murderer but a savage, so igniting public revulsion against him.)
The evidence bears all the hallmarks of having been planted. The house had already been searched and nothing found, yet under the coal should have been one of the first places to look. The remains were ‘surprisingly’ well-preserved, bearing in mind that Cora had vanished five months earlier – though less surprising if they had just been put there. Only Dew and his assistant were present when the ‘discovery’ was made. And if the remains had been planted, that would explain the complete absence of evidence of dismemberment in the house.
One fact has always been overlooked. On the day that Crippen’s appeal was turned down – and his execution became inevitable – Dew resigned from the police, as if he was saying to his superiors that he could not condone what they had made him do.
Why did Cora herself not reveal herself and prevent the execution of her innocent husband? No doubt she initially believed that it would all come to nothing – how could Crippen be convicted of her murder when she was still alive and well? But when he was sentenced to death, she needed to act fast. She would have been afraid to go public – with the case making headlines on both sides of the Atlantic, she would be vilified for not having come forward sooner – but she wrote to Winston Churchill. At the time of Crippen’s execution, he had letters in his overcoat pocket from her, or at least someone claiming to be her. The likelihood is that his officials assumed them to be forgeries, written for the express purpose of getting Crippen an undeserved reprieve.
The Court of Appeal has stated that in cases where the appellant had been executed, an appeal should be heard only where there are ‘issues of exceptional notoriety and therefore public interest’. Crippen’s case is more than qualified to be heard again.