Crippen convicted at Old Bailey
The story of Dr Crippen has everything the aficionado of the classic English murder mystery could wish. The scandalous background. The grisly discovery. The chase. A famous trial. And the lingering doubts as to the verdict and even the identity of the body. Sink into your leather armchair dear reader and consider the facts.
Hawley Crippen was an American homeopathic doctor born in 1862 who came to England with his wife in 1900. His wife (Crippen’s second) was born Kunigunde Mackamotski, her father Russian her mother German, though she was known as Cora Turner when Crippen married her. An actress and opera singer of sorts, with the stage name Belle Elsmore, she dominated her husband, regularly cuckolding him without trying to hide the fact.
The couple struggled financially and were reduced to taking lodgers. They moved from one house to another in London until they came to 39 Hilldrop Crescent in Holloway . Cora was last seen there at a party on January 31 1910. Crippen claimed she had returned to nurse a sick relative in the USA, and had died and been cremated in California, but suspicions arose quickly when his mistress, Ethel le Neve, took up residence at the house, flaunting her new position by the wearing of Cora’s clothes and jewels.
The police were alerted by Kate Williams, aka Vulcana the Strongwoman, a friend of Cora Crippen. The house was searched, Crippen was interrogated by a senior officer, Chief Inspector Walter Dew, but no evidence was forthcoming and Crippen was released.
One of many ‘what ifs’ now arises: what if Crippen had held his nerve? For Dew was satisfied and did not intend to pursue the case. But Crippen and le Neve fled to Belgium and then took ship on the SS Montrose bound for Canada.
Their flight rang alarm bells, and 39 Hilldrop Crescent was repeatedly searched until human remains were found under the brick floor of the coal cellar. Only a little of the body remained, kept in good condition by the quicklime that should have destroyed it having changed to the preservative slaked like as water seeped into it. A pathologist identified it as Cora from a piece of scar tissue, and found traces of the poison hyoscine.
The captain of the Montrose used the newly invented wireless to keep up with the news as he sailed for Canada. Le Neve was sailing as Crippen’s son, but when the captain saw them he recognised the couple and wired his suspicions to England just before the Montrose sailed beyond radio contact, another ‘what if’. Chief Inspector Dew took the faster SS Laurentic, and arrived in Canada, an English possession, before Crippen. Yet another ‘what if’ – had Crippen sailed to the USA he might have evaded extradition.
Crippen’s trial at the Old Bailey saw him bullied by judge and prosecution. The jury took just 27 minutes to conclude he was guilty, and he was hanged at Pentonville Prison in November that year, protesting his innocence to the end. Le Neve was tried and acquitted separately.
As could be expected of such a sensational case, there are many doubts and theories attaching to it. Perhaps Cora died because Crippen was using the hyoscine as a way of suppressing her sexual appetite and gave her an excessive dose. Perhaps the poisoner was Le Neve – it is rare for poisoners to dismember their victims, so some think Crippen was hiding his lover’s crime. Le Neve is reported in later life to have said Crippen killed Cora because she had syphilis.
There is even doubt that the body was that of Cora Crippen, as DNA tests on a retained sample have been compared with relatives of Cora/Belle, and found not to match. Some suggest that the body was a woman who died while undergoing an abortion at Crippen’s hands. Records have shown that a singer with a similar stage-name lodged for a long time with Cora’s sister in New York after her supposed death, and that this woman arrived in the USA via Bermuda in 1910.
Happily the truth is unlikely ever to be truly certain, and the scandal and mystery will live on.
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