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Dr Crippen And The Murder Of Cora Crippen

On January 31st, 1910, Cora Crippen disappeared from her London home, sparking one of the most puzzling and notorious murder cases in British legal history – and one that's outcome is questioned by some even today.

Cora's husband, Hawley was born in Michigan and was a qualified homeopath practicing in New York City. When the pair got together in 1894, Corrine "Cora" Turner (born Kunigunde Mackamotski), was a music hall singer who performed under the stage name Belle Elmore

That same year, Crippen started working for prominent homeopath James M. Munyon, moving to London with his wife in 1897 to manage Munyon's branch office there.

Crippen's medical qualifications from the United States were not sufficient to allow him to practice as a doctor in the UK. He initially continued working as a distributor of patent medicines, while Cora embarked on an ultimately failed stage career and socialised with a number of variety players of the time.

Corrine Crippen / Bella Elmore

After Crippen was sacked by Munyon in 1899 he worked for other patent medicine companies, ultimately being hired as the manager for the Drouet Institute for the Deaf. There he hired Ethel Le Neve, a young typist, in 1900. By 1905, the two were having an affair. After living at various addresses around London, Crippen and his wife finally moved No. 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Camden Road, Holloway, where they took in lodgers to augment Crippen's meagre income. Cora had an affair with one of these lodgers, and in turn, Crippen took Le Neve as his mistress in 1908.

On the evening of 31 January 1910, Cora disappeared following a party at the Crippen residence at Hilldrop Crescent. Her husband said she had gone back to the United States for a few months. In March Ethel moved into the Hilldrop Crescent house with Crippen, who now gave out that Cora had died in America. Cora’s friends grew suspicious, Scotland Yard was alerted and Detective Inspector Walter Dew talked to Crippen in July. Crippen took fright and fled to Brussels with Ethel, who was dressed as a boy. The police searched the Hilldrop Crescent house and found the gruesome remains of a body beneath the coal cellar. Wrapped in a male pyjama jacket, which was later identified as Crippen’s, it had no head, no limbs, no bones and no genitals, but there were traces of a poison that Crippen was discovered to have bought not long before Cora’s disappearance. A hue and cry began, followed excitedly by the press. Ports and stations were watched and police forces abroad were alerted.

On July 20th Crippen and Ethel sailed from Antwerp for Canada on the liner Montrose. He called himself Robinson and Ethel posed as his teenage son, but they behaved too lovingly and the captain grew suspicious and informed the ship’s owners by telegraph. They passed the word to Scotland Yard and Dew pursued the fugitives across the Atlantic in a faster liner, the Laurentic, which reached Father Point in the Gulf of St Lawrence ahead of the Montrose. Dew was waiting, went aboard with the pilot vessel and arrested Crippen and Ethel. He afterwards said that he had never in his life felt such a sense of triumph and achievement. The Montrose took all of them on to Quebec, accompanied by reporters who had swarmed on board. Dew regarded the latter as an infernal nuisance, but the dramatic story that George Orwell said no novelist would have dared to make up created a frenzy of excitement in the press.

Crippen after his arrest

So did the trial at the Old Bailey in October, which made the name of the pathologist Bernard Spilsbury, who had examined a piece of flesh and confirmed that a scar on it corresponded to an operation that Cora Crippen was known to have had for the removal of her ovaries. This has since been challenged, but it helped to demolish Crippen’s claim that the corpse must have been there all along, unknown to him and Cora. However, he did succeed in his effort to persuade everyone of Ethel’s innocence. Tried as Crippen’s accomplice, she was acquitted. 

Hawley Harvey Crippen was 48 years old when he was hanged in London’s Pentonville prison at 9am on November 23rd, 1910. He had spent the previous hour with the Roman Catholic prison chaplain and two warders. His plan to commit suicide with broken glass from his spectacles had been forestalled and now, though unable to finish his breakfast, he seemed perfectly calm. The hangman, a Yorkshire barber named John Ellis, who had spent time with him the day before, recalled that ‘Crippen came across to me as a most pleasant fellow.’ He was smiling as the cap was put over his head on the scaffold. The drop broke all the bones in his neck and he must have died instantly. The body was buried in the prison graveyard.

In October 2007, Michigan State University forensic scientist David Foran claimed that mitochondrial DNA evidence showed the remains found in Crippen's cellar were not those of his wife. Researchers used genealogy to identify three living relatives of Cora Crippen (great-nieces). By providing mitochondrial DNA haplotype, researchers were able to compare their DNA with that extracted from a microscope slide containing flesh taken from the torso in Crippen's cellar. The original remains were also tested using a highly sensitive assay of the Y chromosome that found the flesh sample on the slide was male.

The same research team also argued that a scar found on the torso's abdomen, which the original trial's prosecution argued was the same one Mrs. Crippen was known to have, was incorrectly identified. The scientists found hair follicles in the tissue which should not be present in scars, a medical fact which Crippen's defence used at his trial. Their research was published in the August 2010 issue of the Journal of Forensic Sciences.

John Trestrail, the toxicologist who led the new research, said: "Hawley Crippen was tried solely on the evidence that he killed Cora. The body wasn't hers, so he was convicted and hanged in error."

However, the new scientific evidence for Crippen's innocence has been disputed. In The Times, journalist David Aaronovitch wrote: "As to the body being male, well the American team was using a 'special technique' that is 'very new' and 'done only by this team' and working on a single, century-old slide, described by the team leader as a 'less than optimal sample'". Foran responded by saying "tests showed unequivocally that the remains were male".

Traces of the blonde hair found in curlers at the scene are now preserved in the Metropolitan Police's Crime Museum. Another researcher said they asked to be provided with samples from them for DNA testing, but the request has been denied several times. 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." Researchers hypothesised that the police planted the body parts and particularly the fragment of the pyjama top at the scene to incriminate Crippen. Scotland Yard was under tremendous public pressure to find and bring to trial a suspect for this heinous crime. An independent observer points out that the case did not become public until after the remains were found.

In December 2009, the UK's Criminal Cases Review Commission, having reviewed the case, declared that the Court of Appeal will not hear the case to pardon Crippen posthumously.

James Patrick Crippen, the doctor’s closest living relative, made a formal request for Hawley Crippen to be pardoned and his bones returned to America. But the Criminal Cases Review Commission refused to refer the case to the Appeal Court.

It said it could not do so because Mr Crippen was too distantly related. In law, the person bringing such an appeal had to be a close relative. It is understood the Commission did not examine the grounds for the appeal.

Before he was executed, Crippen wrote in a letter to Le Neve: “Face to face with God, I believe that facts will be forthcoming to prove my innocence.” John Trestrail said: “When I read that the hairs stood up on my arms. I think he was right."


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