Dr Crippen: The Body in the Cellar

Hawley Harvey Crippen was born in Coldwater, Michigan, on 11 September 1862, to respectable middle-class parents who worked hard, obeyed the law, tended to their religious devotions, and expected their son to do the same. He didn’t disappoint, and the introverted young Hawley, who rarely played with the neighbourhood children and would later have few friends, instead studied long into the night until in 1884, aged 22, he graduated from University as a Doctor of Homeopathic Medicine.

Few could have guessed that this physically unimpressive, mild-mannered, courteous. and always polite young man who had never been in any trouble would die as one of the most notorious murderers in British Criminal History.

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On 1 September 1892, at the age of 30, he married Kunigunde Makhamotski who went by the name of Corinne “Cora” Turner, a boisterous, self- confident but poorly educated woman from New York who did not permit a lack of talent to intrude upon her ambitions.

They seemed ill-matched, the softly spoken, mild mannered doctor and the loud, brash Cora, who had her heart set on being an entertainer of sorts, and the marriage appears to have had its problems from the outset. Even so, he paid for Cora to have singing lessons so she could achieve her ambition to join an Opera Company.

In 1900, Crippen, who was working for a pharmaceutical company selling patent medicines, was sent to Britain where he and Cora settled in London but while he continued to work hard, Cora was enjoying the nightlife deciding that she wanted to be a Music Hall Star.

Crippen, whose medical qualifications did not permit him to practice as a doctor in England, and as a result his finances were constantly in a parlous state, would have preferred that she got a proper paid job. In any case, he considered Music Hall to be little more than whoring yourself in public and for a man who strove for respectability this was difficult to bear. Cora, however, was not going to be deflected from her chosen career path by her meek, mild-mannered husband and adopting the name of Belle Elmore she joined the Music Hall Entertainers Guild.

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Despite his objections to her chosen career he was nonetheless willing to manage it but he was to prove no impresario and the work was patchy and infrequent at best, not that Cora could have cared less as long as she could continue to drink and party with her theatrical friends.

Crippen, who could appear cold and distant, was in fact liked by those who knew him but in the presence of his wife he would change often bullied into sullen silence and utterly unable to restrain her in any way. She also had affairs which she did little or nothing to hide. Indeed, on one occasion Crippen returned home from work to find her in bed with the lodger. His humiliation was complete.

On 31 January 1910, the Crippen’s held a party at their home 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Holloway, to welcome in the New Year. Only Cora’s friends had been invited and it was later said by those present that Crippen, who had recently lost his job was sullen throughout. Cora didn’t seem to care less and was her usual gregarious self. But it was also to be the last time she was ever seen alive.

It wasn’t long before the always larger than life Cora was missed and when Crippen was asked by her friends where she was he replied that she had decided to return to the United States which struck them as odd for she had seemed very happy in London.

Questioned further Crippen elaborated – she had in fact been seriously ill and had returned to America to be with her family. She had since died in California and been cremated. He had not said anything about this because he did not want to upset anyone.

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In Cora’s absence a young woman by the name of Ethel le Neve moved into 39 Hilldrop Crescent. She had been working in the typing pool of Crippen’s previous employer and they had been having an affair for some time, though it was one that he had gone to great lengths to keep secret but she was soon seen in public wearing some of Cora’s clothes and even some of her jewellery. Noticing this, a friend of Cora’s, Kate Williams, who performed in Music Hall as Vulcana the Strong-woman, reported her missing to the Police.

The case was taken up by Inspector Walter Dew, and his investigation revealed that Cora was well known locally and that no one questioned believed for a moment that she would simply up sticks and leave without telling anyone. As a result he arranged for the house to be searched but nothing suspicious was found. Following an extensive interview with Crippen himself he decided that no further enquiries were necessary.

Whatever may have been said in the interview something must have spooked Crippen for the following day he fled with his new young lover Ethel to Brussels. This prompted Dew to order further searches of the house and it wasn’t until the fourth search that human remains were found in the basement but the body had no head or limbs and the bones and sexual organs had been removed.

The Police now requested the assistance of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the father of modern forensic science, who identified the remains to be those of Cora Crippen. His assessment was based on a 5 inch strip of skin that bore a scar she was known to have following the removal of her ovaries. He also found traces of the drug scapalomine, a relaxant that would have made her unconscious, or at least rendered her helpless.

On the basis of this evidence Inspector Dew issued a warrant for the arrest of Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen and Ethel le Neve. In the meantime, he and Ethel had boarded the Steamer SS Montose bound for Canada.

Aware the Police had made public the fact they were wanted for the murder they travelled First Class in the hope this would deflect any unwanted attention but just to make sure Ethel also disguised herself as a boy.

His belief that as First Class passengers their respectability would be taken for granted was a mistake for had they travelled Third Class their anonymity would almost certainly have been assured but the unnatural affection this man and seemingly young boy showed one another soon brought them to the attention of their fellow passengers who took their suspicions to the ship’s Captain, Henry Kendall, who thought he recognised them as the fugitives from justice, Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen and Ethel le Neve.

He sent a wireless telegram to Scotland Yard:

“Have strong suspicions that Crippen London cellar murderer and accomplice are among saloon passengers. Moustache taken off growing beard. Accomplice dressed as boy. Manner and build undoubtedly girl.”

It was the first time Marconi Radio had been used in such a case.

The receipt of the telegram seemed to confirm other information Inspector Dew had received that Crippen was intending to flee back to the United States. He immediately boarded a faster liner, the SS Laurentic that was due to dock in Quebec the day before the Montrose.

Dew contacted the Canadian Authorities who disguised him as a pilot so that he could board the Montrose unnoticed.

On 31 July 1910, Inspector Dew boarded the SS Montrose a little nervous that he may have a made mistake but when Captain Kendall pointed out Crippen, he knew he had his man.

He approached and introduced himself:

“Good morning, Dr Crippen. Do you remember me? I’m Inspector Dew of Scotland Yard.”

Crippen responded “Thank God, it’s over” and held out his wrists to be handcuffed.

Canada at the time was still part of the British Empire, had Crippen travelled directly to the United States and then been arrested in a similar fashion prolonged extradition proceedings would have followed that may have yielded different results.

Crippen and Ethel were to be returned to England on the SS Megantic to stand trial for the murder of his wife Cora.

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The trial began at the Old Bailey in November to a flurry of media activity – the case of the murderous cold-bloodied doctor and his lascivious lover – and it gripped the nation.

In Court the prosecution claimed that Crippen had poisoned his wife and then chopped up the body. Her limbs he burned in the kitchen stove, her internal organs he dissolved in acid. The head he had then put into one of her handbags and thrown into the sea. But he had fled before he could likewise dispose of the torso and so this he had tightly bound into one of his old pyjama tops and buried in the basement.

Crippen did little to defend himself in Court even though the evidence against him was flimsy and largely circumstantial based as it was on the relatively new science of forensics and the hearsay of Cora’s friends.

With his primary concern the protection of his lover he came across as callous and indifferent to suffering, a man who peering coldly through his horn rimmed glasses displayed no emotion and was incapable of remorse, the epitome of a murderer in the public imagination.

Ethel was no doubt implicated in the crime, if not in the deed itself then certainly in its aftermath. She had it was said been present when Cora’s head was tossed into the English Channel and she had counter-signed cheques in Cora’s name so that Crippen could access their joint bank account.

Making little attempt to plead his own innocence, Crippen had steadfastly refused to implicate Ethel and as a result, despite the evidence, she was acquitted of all charges.

In his last letter to Ethel he had written:

“We are two children in the great unkind world, who clung to one another and gave each other great courage.”

His devotion to Ethel belied the popular image of him as a cold-bloodied killer but even so the Jury took just 27 minutes to find him guilty of murder, and sentenced to death he was hanged at Pentonville Prison on 23 November, 1910.

Dr Crippen went to his death as he had lived his life quietly and with little fuss. Taciturn to the end there were no final words to report.

Not long after the trial Ethel sold her story to the London Daily Chronicle. She was described in the paper as:

“A pretty and attractive little creature, a typical cockney girl, gay and always laughing, though she was a bit of a hypochondriac, who thought the whole thing was a bit of a lark.”

She was to go onto to say that he was mad when he did it, and he was mad for me.

Though she rarely spoke about the case later in life she did in 1930 say that Crippen had murdered his wife because she had contracted syphilis. When she was asked in 1954, were Crippen to miraculously reappear would she still marry him? She answered emphatically – yes!

She died peacefully in her sleep in 1967, aged 84.

Recent DNA evidence taken from the strip of flesh analysed by Dr Spilsbury has failed to match the profile of any of Cora’s distant relatives casting doubt upon the conviction, or at least the identity of the body.

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