Julian Burnside

In 1900, as the sun set on Empire and the world was adjusting to a new century, Hawley Harvey Crippen arrived in London with his wife, Cora. They were both American citizens: he a native of Michigan; she the daughter of Russian/Polish father and a German mother.

Cora Crippen had been christened Kunigunde Mackamotzki, but when Crippen met her in New York in 1893 she was going by the name Cora Turner. They married, and lived in various places in the United States according to the success of Crippen’s attempts to find work in his field of training, medicine. Cora had a pleasant, but light, voice and aspired to grand opera. These aspirations were nurtured with lessons and funded by Crippen, but met no success. Over the next ten years, she lowered her sights progressively, from grand opera, to operetta, to music halls. So modest was her talent that she eagerly took the opportunity to sing in a minor music hall during a strike of regular musicians: but even then, when the musical public were starved of their accustomed entertainment, the audience had no appetite for her and she was hissed off the stage. Her professional life consisted mainly of poorly paid appearances at smoking nights and minor music halls.

Despite the evidence of her own failure, Cora clung to dreams of talent and success, buoyed no doubt by a healthy self-opinion. She affected the stage-name Belle Elmore, frequented cafes and restaurants where musicians were to be met, became a valued member of the Music Hall Ladies Guild and amassed a collection of dazzling and flamboyant dresses which would have been more useful had her career been more successful. Her life was part fantasy, part pretense.

Crippen was a quiet, unassuming man. He worked as a representative of Munyons, selling homoeopathic cures, and had an interest in a business which sold a patent-remedy for ear complaints. By 1907, the Crippens were living a settled life at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, London, N. Their circle of friends bordered on the bohemian life of London’s musical world. The fires of romance had dwindled to smouldering ashes – neither warm enough for comfort, nor cold enough to dispose of. Belle Elmore was accustomed to receive presents from gentlemen friends, and claimed to have had an affair with an American music hall artist, Bruce Miller.

When Crippen met Ethel Le Neve in 1907, she was able to offer him the comfort and friendship which had long since deserted his life. Although his relationship with Le Neve became increasingly open, life at Hilldrop Crescent remained apparently tranquil. The Crippens had each, it seems, adjusted to changed circumstances.

On the evening of 31 January, 1910 the Crippens entertained their friends, Clara and Paul Martinetti, at dinner. Mrs Martinetti’s evidence later was that all seemed entirely normal: she saw no sign of agitation or hostility in her hosts. After that night, no person saw Belle Elmore again. On 2 February, Crippen sent a note to the Music Hall Ladies Guild offering Mrs Crippen’s resignation. He signed it on her behalf. The note explained that Belle Elmore had gone to America at short notice, in connection with a business in which Crippen had an interest.

On 2 February, Crippen pawned some of Belle Elmore’s jewellery for £ 80, and on 9 February, he pawned a brooch and some rings for £ 115. On 20 February, he attended the Benevolent Fund ball with Ethel Le Neve. When asked about his wife, he explained that she was still in America. Soon enough, Mrs Crippen’s continued absence called for further explanation. On 24 March, he sent a telegram to Mr and Mrs Martinetti, announcing that his wife had died in California of pulmonary pneumonia. On 26 March, an obituary notice was published in Era, a newspaper much read by those interested in music.

Belle Elmore’s friends had loved her, and they were distressed by the suddenness of her death. They had not been much surprised that Crippen took Ethel Le Neve to the Benevolent Fund ball; but they were incensed to recall that she had been wearing some of their friend’s jewellery. They wondered how Belle had disposed of her estate; they imagined that she might have left some of her dresses and jewellery to them; they speculated on whether Dr Crippen would honour his late wife’s wishes in this regard; they speculated more widely than this; and they went to Scotland Yard on 30 June, 1910.

Walter Dew, Chief Inspector of New Scotland Yard, went to speak to Crippen. Crippen quickly admitted that the story about his wife’s disappearance had been false. In fact, he explained, they had had a row after the Martinettis left dinner on 31 January, and Mrs Crippen had announced her intention to leave him. She had another man who wanted her. She had left the following day, and Crippen had not seen her again. She had asked him to cover up the scandal with their friends as best he could, and so he had invented the story of her trip to America, and her untimely demise.

Crippen showed Inspector Dew about the house, and together they composed an advertisement which asked Belle Elmore to contact Crippen or the police.

Inspector Dew was probably satisfied with this. Crippen’s demeanour was relaxed and helpful. However, when Dew tried to contact Crippen on 9 July, he found that Crippen had left in a hurry, and that he had sent a letter to his business partner saying that he was leaving “to avoid trouble”. More than any other fact, Crippen’s flight brought him undone.

Inspector Dew went to 39 Hilldrop Crescent on 12 July and searched it thoroughly. He found nothing; but Crippen’s sudden departure had excited his interest, so he returned on 13 July. That day, whilst searching the cellar, he noticed that several bricks in the floor were slightly loose. He removed the bricks and dug down a few inches before he discovered a mass of flesh. On later analysis, it emerged that he had uncovered a human torso from which all bones and sex organs had been removed. One portion of skin bore a scar which witnesses later identified as the same as a scar on Belle Elmore’s abdomen. In addition, fragments of cloth found with the remains were identified as coming from articles of clothing owned by Belle Elmore. Chemical analysis of the remains showed the presence of hydrobromide of hyoscine, an alkaloid which is now better known as scopolamine. It is used in minute quantities as an anti-spasmodic. The evidence showed that Crippen had bought 5 grains of hyoscine on 19 January, and he could not account for any of it.

In the mean time, Crippen and Ethel Le Neve had travelled to Antwerp, where they bought new clothing and boarded The Montrose bound for Quebec. Le Neve was dressed as a boy, and the two embarked as Mr and Master Robinson.

By this time, the hue and cry had been raised, and warrants had been issued for the arrest of Crippen and Le Neve. The captain of The Montrose had read the story, and became suspicious of the father and son who were travelling under the name of Robinson. He observed them carefully for several days, and was ultimately convinced that they were Crippen and Le Neve. Using the newly installed Marconi apparatus, Captain Kendall sent a wireless message by Morse code to the English authorities, detailing his observations and conclusions. Inspector Dew and Sergeant Mitchell boarded the SS Laurentic in Liverpool, and intercepted The Montrose off Pointe-au-Père in the St Lawrence River on 31 July.

It was the first time in history that criminal suspects had been apprehended by use of the Marconi system of wireless transmission.

Crippen and Le Neve were extradited to England. Crippen’s trial for murder began at the Old Bailey on 18 October 1910, before Lord Alverstone CJ. The prosecution was led by the formidable Mr Richard Muir, with Mr Travers Humphreys and Mr Ingleby Oddie; Crippen was defended by Mr A.A. Tobin KC with Mr Huntly Jenkins and Mr Roome.

Muir’s first four questions in cross-examination of Crippen were deadly:

On the early morning of the 1st February you were left alone in your house with your wife? — Yes

She was alive? — She was.

And well? — She was.

Do you know of any person in the world who has seen her alive since? — I do not

The evidence against Crippen was strong. Why he killed his wife remains a mystery – he always maintained his innocence, so we have no explanation either during or after the trial. The circumstances, notably his sudden disappearance in disguise, told heavily against him. The jury retired at 2.15 on 21 October. They returned 27 minutes later with a verdict of Guilty.

Ethel Le Neve was tried as an accessory after the fact of murder. Her trial was held on 25 October. She was defended by Mr F.E. Smith KC MP and Mr Barrington Ward. She was acquitted.

On 20 November 1910, a Statement by Dr Crippen was published in the Daily Mail. In it, Crippen tells eloquently and poignantly of his love for Ethel Le Neve. It is the dignified statement of one facing eternity, whose only thoughts are for his one true love.

The warders who attended Crippen’s final days and hours spoke of him as a kind and decent person. His crime stands in stark contrast with the rest of his life and personality.

Crippen was hanged at Pentonville gaol on 23 November, 1910.

Julian Burnside