On this date in 1910, American-born homeopathic physician and salesman Hawley Harvey Crippen (usually known simply as Dr. Crippen in crime annals) was hanged at Pentonville Prison in London for the murder of his wife, Cora. He has the dubious distinction of being the first criminal to be captured with the aid of wireless communication.
Having qualified as a homeopathic doctor, Crippen started to practice in New York, where in 1894 he married his second wife, Corrine "Cora" Turner, who used the stage name of “Belle Elmore.” She was a would-be music hall singer who openly had affairs with other men. Needless to say, their marriage was not a happy one.
In 1894 Crippen started working for Dr. Munyon's, a homeopathic pharmaceutical company and three years later, he and his wife moved to England. His American medical credentials were not sufficient to allow him to practice medicine in the UK (and today, wouldn’t have allowed him to practice here either) so Crippen went to work as a distributor of patent medicines. Cora went back to work too and began socializing with a number of famous variety players of the time, including Lil Hawthorne of "The Hawthorne Sisters" and Lil's husband/manager John Nash.
In 1899, Crippen lost his job with Munyon’s for spending too much time managing his wife's stage career. He became manager of Drouet's Institution for the Deaf, where he met Ethel Le Neve, a young typist, around 1903. No one knows when their affair began but it is known that she was his mistress by 1905. In that year, the Crippens moved into a house on Camden Road and began taking in lodgers to supplement Crippen’s income. After Cora started an affair with one of the lodgers, Crippen began sleeping with Ethel.
After a party at their home on January 31, 1910, Cora disappeared. Hawley Crippen claimed that she had returned to America, and then later added that she had died, and had been cremated, in California.
Meanwhile, his lover, Ethel moved into the house on Camden Road and began openly wearing Cora's clothes and jewelry. Police first heard of Cora's disappearance from her friend, sideshow strongwoman Kate Williams, better known as Vulcana, but began to take the matter more seriously when asked to investigate by personal friends of Scotland Yard Superintendent Frank Froest, John Nash and his entertainer wife, Lil Hawthorne.
The Crippen house was searched, but nothing was found. Crippen was interviewed by Chief Inspector Walter Dew and after the interview (and a quick search of the house), Dew was satisfied. However, Crippen and Le Neve didn’t know that police suspicions had been relieved 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. Sir Bernard Spilsbury found traces of the calming drug scopolamine in the remains. The corpse was identified by a piece of skin from its abdomen – however, the head, limbs, and skeleton were never recovered.
Meanwhile, Crippen and Le Neve were crossing the Atlantic on the Montrose, with Le Neve disguised as a boy. Captain Henry George Kendall recognized the fugitives and, just before steaming out of range of the land-based transmitters, had Telegraphist Lawrence Ernest Hughes send a wireless telegram to the British authorities: "Have strong suspicions that Crippen London cellar murderer and accomplice are among saloon passengers. Mustache taken off growing beard. Accomplice dressed as boy. Manner and build undoubtedly a girl." Had Crippen travelled 3rd class, he would have probably escaped Kendall's notice. Dew boarded a faster White Star liner, the SS Laurentic, arrived in Quebec, Canada, ahead of Crippen, and contacted the Canadian authorities.
As the Montrose entered the St. Lawrence River, Dew came aboard disguised as a pilot. Canada was then still a dominion within the British Empire. If Crippen, an American citizen, had sailed to the United States instead, even if he had been recognized, it would have taken extradition proceedings to bring him to trial.
Kendall invited Crippen to meet the pilots as they came aboard. Dew removed his pilot's cap and said, "Good morning, Dr. Crippen. Do you know me? I'm Chief Inspector Dew from Scotland Yard." After a pause, Crippen replied, "Thank God it's over. The suspense has been too great. I couldn't stand it any longer." He then held out his wrists for the handcuffs. Crippen and Le Neve were arrested on board the Montrose on July 31, 1910. Crippen was returned to England on board the SS Megantic.
Crippen and Ethel were tried separately in London. Ethel was tried as an accessory and was later acquitted, but Crippen would not be so lucky – no matter how strange the trial turned out to be.
The pathologists appearing for the prosecution, including Bernard 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 defense maintained that Cora had fled to America with another man named Bruce Miller. They also said that Cora and Crippen had only been living in the house since 1905, suggesting a previous owner of the house was responsible for the placement of the remains. The defense also asserted that the abdominal scar identified by pathologist Spilsbury was really just folded tissue, for it among other things had hair follicles growing from it, something scar tissue could not have.
Other evidence presented by the prosecution included a piece of a man's pajama top supposedly from a pair Cora had given Crippen a year earlier. The pajama 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; both were found with the remains.
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. He was hanged at 9:00 a.m. on November 23, 1910. At his request, a photograph of Ethel Le Neve was placed in his coffin with him.
Crippen was dead – but the story doesn’t end there.
Many doubts remain as to whether or not Crippen truly murdered his wife. 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.
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 matrilineal relatives of Cora Crippen (great-nieces, located by US 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, carefully preserved in a London hospital museum. This has raised new questions about the actual 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 Dr. Crippen's defense argued at the time).
These recent arguments for Crippen's innocence have been disputed by some commentators, although in no instance has it been disputed by actual scientists. It has been argued that the DNA sample could have been tainted or mislabeled, or alternatively that the alleged relatives were not actually blood relatives of Mrs. Crippen. However, the research has since been published in the January 2011 issue of the premiere Journal of Forensic Sciences, following careful peer-review by highly qualified forensic scientists.
Numerous requests have been made for samples of the blond hair found at the scene (and now preserved in New Scotland Yard's museum) to conduct DNA testing to see if they are Cora's. Obtaining a DNA sample from these sources would greatly lessen any questions of contamination. 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," making this an option which is still open if New Scotland Yard continues to extend the offer.
Some have suggested that the police planted the body parts and particularly the fragment of the pajama top at the scene to incriminate Crippen. Others suggested motive is that Scotland Yard was under tremendous public pressure to find and bring to trial a suspect for this heinous crime – but it should be noted that the case did not become public until after the remains were found.
Was Dr. Crippen guilty? It may not matter. 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.