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Was Dr Crippen wrongly executed for his wife's murder?

Dr Crippen's Waxwork
Image: Waxwork of Dr Crippen at Madam Tussauds in London

On Wednesday, 23rd November 1910, Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen was hanged at Pentonville Prison after being convicted for the murder of his wife, Cora. 13 years earlier the couple had left New York to begin a new life in the UK and they eventually settled in London’s Holloway, after being squeezed out of their fashionable Bloomsbury address due to financial constraints.

Crippen, a homoeopathic physician, wasn’t sufficiently qualified to practice in the UK, so he took a lower-paid position in an office selling patented remedies. He was slight, at 5ft 4in tall, and, by accounts, a quiet, gentle man who was polite and kind. This was a stark contrast to his vivacious wife, 11 years his junior and variously described as a bully and a drunk.

With ambitions that outweighed her talent, Cora, or Belle Elmore as she was known on stage, had failed to find success as an opera singer and was making similarly slow progress on the salubrious Vaudeville circuit. While Crippen reluctantly managed her career and paid for her singing lessons, Cora embarked on a succession of extramarital affairs, most notably a long-term liaison with a fellow performer, Bruce Miller.

In 1906, Dr Crippen, now working for even less money running a quack practice after being fired from his previous post for spending too much time managing his wife, became romantically involved with a typist, Ethel Le Neve. The Crippens were leading separate lives while living under the same roof with the occasional lodger helping to pay the rent.

The years passed until one evening, Monday, 31st January 1910, Cora’s friends, Paul and Clara Martinetti, dined with the Crippens and left in the small hours the following morning. It was an unremarkable evening, except for Cora loudly berating her husband for failing to show Paul the way to the toilet. However, it was particularly notable because Cora was never heard of again.

A few months after Cora disappeared, Ethel moved into the house in Holloway. Of course, friends were keen to know what had become of Cora, before growing increasingly suspicious of foul play. Crippen told the concerned parties that Cora had left him and returned to America, but after one of Cora’s friends spotted Ethel wearing Cora’s jewellery, the matter was brought to the attention of the police. This time Crippen told the investigating officer, one Chief Inspector Walter Dew - who had been involved in the case of Jack the Ripper a couple of decades earlier - that Cora had left him for another man, but he had lied to protect the reputation of those involved.

Dew was satisfied with Crippen’s explanation but asked for his permission to search the house in Holloway. The doctor readily agreed and nothing suspicious was found. But then Ethel and Crippen disappeared.

For the authorities, this was a clear indication that something was seriously amiss. The house was searched for a second, third and fourth time. This led to the police making a discovery that was as unusual as it was harrowing. Located under the cellar floor they discovered human remains contained within Crippen’s pyjamas. But the body was in a very unusual state. No more than a pile of flesh, as the bones, head and sexual organs were missing, yet there was no indication that the body had been dismembered on the premises.

Identification of the deceased was provided by pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury who confirmed it was Cora via a small scar on the lower abdomen, believed to be the result of surgery some years earlier. But despite the obscene deconstruction of the body, the cause of death was confirmed as hyoscine poisoning.

In the meantime, a warrant was issued for the immediate arrest of Crippen and Ethel, now in disguise as a father and son bound for Canada on the SS Montrose. The story was all over the press and the hunt for the pair became a transatlantic concern. When the captain of the ship became suspicious of the behaviour of a particular pair of passengers, he alerted Scotland Yard. Crippen and Ethel were subsequently arrested and returned to the UK to face the music. It took the jury less than half an hour to convict Crippen. In a separate trial, Ethel was acquitted of any part in the death of Cora, but questions remain unanswered.

Firstly, poison was commonly used to imply death from natural causes and, while there are records of Crippen having ordered the hyoscine, why would he then mutilate a body in such a bizarre way? It’s also worth noting that hyoscine was used to carry out abortions, a fairly common side-hustle for many of London’s less celebrated medical practitioners. Secondly, the body wasn’t proven to be that of Cora. The so-called scar tissue contained sebaceous glands and hair follicles (i.e., it wasn’t scar tissue) and a more recent investigation conducted by forensic scientist, Dr David Foran, is even more alarming.

Foran, who examined the DNA from the remains and compared them with samples of Cora’s relatives, is convinced that the remains didn’t belong to Cora and weren’t even female.

In addition to the dodgy evidence, Crippen’s solicitor, Arthur Newton, had already served time for ‘conspiring to defeat the ends of justice’. Crippen had no money, so Newton offered to work for free as selling his story to the tabloids following the trial would have been sufficiently lucrative. But Newton did more than that. He sold a false confession to the press for 500 guineas before the trial had even begun. Newton was subsequently disbarred and jailed in the same institution where Crippen was hanged and, somewhat ironically, where the governor was convinced that Crippen was innocent.

Admittedly, none of this helps solve the mysterious disappearance of Cora or, for that matter, the identity of the body. We may well never know the answer to the latter question. Unidentified bodies were common 100 years ago, but we do know that Inspector Dew, who found the body with an unnamed assistant, was under a great deal of pressure to solve the case and he resigned shortly after Crippen’s appeal was refused.

Still, the question remains, if they were innocent, why did Crippen and Ethel flee in disguise? Having had no income for a few months, Crippen and Ethel were broke - it’s worth noting that Ethel paid her legal costs by posing in her little-boy disguise for the press - but in Canada, Crippen could work in his full capacity as a doctor away from all the press intrusion.

As for Cora, with a dwindling lack of financial resources, she could have simply upped-sticks and left. A decade after her disappearance it was noted that a woman called Belle Elmore, a singer, was living with Cora’s sister in New York after entering the US in 1910. So, assuming this woman was indeed Cora, why did she do nothing to prevent the death of her estranged husband, an innocent man? Well, perhaps she did.

The case had attracted an unprecedented amount of publicity on both sides of the Atlantic, so suddenly appearing alive and well wouldn’t have been a viable option for Cora. But she may have written letters to the then Home Secretary, a 35-year-old Winston Churchill, or even Crippen himself. Indeed, such letters are purported to exist but were dismissed at the time as a hoax.

In any respect, there are enough holes in the story to warrant a thorough re-examination of the Crippen case but, so far, the numerous requests to do so have been ignored. Arguably the Court of Appeal is reluctant to re-open a case that may have seen the execution of an innocent man, especially one whose execution was signed off by Churchill himself.

Today, Crippen remains one of the most visited waxworks in Madam Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors, though whether or not he was guilty of his wife’s murder is another story entirely.