On 23 November 1910, Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen was hanged at Pentonville Prison in London. A small unimposing man qualified in homeopathic medicine, he was convicted of the murder and dismemberment of his wife, Cora Crippen, burying her body in the cellar at their London home in order to continue an affair with a work colleague. A famous British case of murder and execution that still today has people questioning whether firstly if that buried body was indeed Crippen’s wife and secondly, whether Dr. Crippen was guilty of her death. Did the Victorian criminal justice system hang an innocent man?
Hawley Crippen was born in Coldwater, Michigan and graduated from the Cleveland Homeopathic Medical College in 1884. Cora Crippen was not his first wife. He was married before to Charlotte Crippen who died of a stroke in 1882. The couple had a young son together before she died and after her death, their son went to live with his parents.
Crippen married Cora in 1884 when he was practicing medicine in New York and working for a large homeopathic pharmaceutical company which allowed them to come to the UK in 1887. They lived in a house at Hilldrop Crescent in Camden Road in Holloway, London, taking in lodgers to help pay the rent. Lodgers who the ever young and flamboyant Cora Crippen would frequently have sexual relationships with. Dr Crippen moved jobs into an Institution for the Deaf around 1903 where he met Ethel Le Neve, a typist at the Institute.
It is thought that Dr. Crippen began his relationship with Ethel in 1908, finally tiring of his wife’s repeated cheating. On 1 February 1910, Cora Crippen disappeared. With no one knowing where she had gone or why people turned to Dr. Crippen for answers as to where his wife was. She had gone back to America he told them, calming their concerns. Over time, however, with no word from Cora Crippen or sign of her return, and the fact that Ethel had now moved into the Crippen’s home living openly as his partner, friends of Cora once again began to ask questions. Dr. Crippen told anyone who asked that his wife had died while in America and therefore would not be returning to London. Suspicious, her friends reported their concerns to Scotland Yard prompting police to visit Dr. Crippen and start asking questions of their own.
Crippen told police the same tale that his wife had died suddenly while abroad. After they left his house, however, he collected Ethel and the pair fled the country, a decision which confirmed for many that he was lying. Police launched a search of Crippen’s house and made a gruesome discovery buried in the cellar. A dismembered body was found that had clearly been in this location some time. With the head and limbs removed, immediate identification was impossible but it did not take a giant leap for police officers to speculate this was the body of the missing Cora Crippen. A speculation soon picked up by the media and widely reported.
While forensic tests were carried out on the remains, within the limits of what Victorian crime scene forensics were capable of, the hunt was on to track down Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve.
The fugitives boarded the ocean liner The Montrose using fake names and Ethel dressed up as a boy pretending to be Dr. Crippen’s son. Their behaviour together was far from appropriate for a father and son and the Captain of the ship started paying closer attention to what was going on.
He recognized Dr. Crippen from the media reports and informed Scotland Yard that the man they were looking for was on board. The Captain used the newly available wireless telegraph to make contact and report his conclusions. A detective from Scotland Yard knowing the intended course of the Montrose, boarded The Laurentic cruise liner to arrive at Father Point in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Quebec before the arrival of The Montrose. He was waiting for the ship as it docked, climbing aboard and arresting both Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve on 13 July 1910.
On 18 October 1910, the trial of Dr. Crippen began at the Old Bailey back in London. Crippen pleaded not guilty to murder and claimed the body found at his house was not his wife and must have been in the cellar the entire time he lived there without his knowledge. Pathologist Bernard Spilsbury testified that he could positively identify the remains as belonging to Cora Crippen. A small scar visible on a piece of flesh he said, matched an operation scar Cora Crippen was known to have had. He also told the court that tests on the remains had discovered poison; suggesting Cora Crippen had been poisoned first by her husband, a doctor who would know how, before being dismembered and buried. The jury was convinced and after deliberating for just 27 minutes, they found Dr. Hawley Crippen guilty of murder and he was sentenced to the gallows to hang.
Ethel Le Neve was charged as an accomplice in the murder of Cora Crippen and her trial started on 25 October after the completion of Dr. Crippen’s trial. With no evidence to link her to the remains, she was found not guilty and acquitted of all charges.
“I am innocent and some day evidence will be found to prove it.” – Dr. Crippen
Dr. Crippen maintained he was innocent of murder and the body was not that of his wife right up until he was executed. In 2007, The Guardian reported new research which suggested that the body under the house was not Cora Crippen at all. In a long-term project, a team of American forensic scientists spent seven years tracking down any surviving relatives of Cora Crippen. They used a sample of tissue from the body which has been preserved at the museum of the Royal London Hospital to compare mitochondrial DNA from the sample with some of Cora Crippen’s surviving relatives.
Dr. David Foran, head of forensic science at Michigan State University, stated after tests were carried out, “That body cannot be Cora Crippen, we’re certain of that.” Further, to no match between the DNA profiles being found, the team said they discovered the presence of a Y chromosome in the sample, a discovery which suggests the remains were, in fact, male and not female.
Although these findings have raised doubts on the guilt of Dr. Crippen, Cora Crippen was never seen or heard from again and if she wasn’t the body under the house, where did she go and why didn’t she present herself when her husband was sent to trial for killing her?
John Trestrail, a toxicologist who worked on the project has highlighted how unusual he finds this case. Those who poison their victims, he said, never dismember the body afterward. “A poisoner wants the death to appear natural so he can get a death certificate. This is the only case I know of where the victim was dismembered. It doesn’t make sense.” he told BBC News Magazine in 2010.
The case for Dr. Hawley Crippen being innocent of the murder he was hanged for in 1910 has been referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission in an attempt to clear his name. A distant cousin of Dr. Crippen, James Patrick Crippen, submitted the application in 2009 based on the evidence uncovered about the case after a re-examination of the samples by the team of American scientists in 2007. “The evidence says the man should be pardoned,” he said. “But everyone thinks of him as a murderer.”
The Criminal Cases Review Commission, however, rejected the application and did not send it through to the Court of Appeal. The Lawmentor blog reports their reasoning was based on James Crippen not being a ‘properly interested person’ by being a distant relative and not a spouse, child, or sibling.
Dr. Hawley Crippen was executed 107 years ago today. His remains are currently buried in the grounds of Pentonville Prison in London. His cousin has argued for the case to be reopened and a royal pardon given to Dr. Crippen allowing his remains to be released to his family for a formal burial. While it is still possible such a Royal Pardon will someday be given, for now, Dr. Hawley Crippen is still widely considered as a man who cold-bloodedly murdered his wife and then went on the run with his mistress when the net was closing in. As one of the most notorious criminal cases in British history, there is no doubt the debate over his guilt will continue for years to come.