Dr Crippen

By Tim Lambert

Dr Crippen was the first murderer to be caught by radio. Dr Crippen was born in Michigan, USA in 1862. He married twice. His first wife died in 1890 but in 1892 he married a woman who called herself Cora Turner. The Crippens moved to England in 1900 and in September 1905 they moved to 39 Hilldrop Crescent in Holloway, London, England. Mrs Crippen worked as a music hall entertainer using the name Belle Elmore. However, the marriage was not happy. Cora had affairs while Dr Crippen started an affair with a typist named Ethel le Neve.

On 19 January 1910 Dr Crippen obtained 5 grains of hyoscine from a shop. Hyoscine is a drug that occurs naturally in several plants. In small doses, it had medical uses but in a large dose, it could kill.

On 31 January 1910, some friends visited the Crippens. They left at about 1.30 am on 1 February. Cora was never seen again. Then on 3 February 1910, Mrs Martinetti Secretary of the Music Hall Ladies Guild received letters saying that Cora Crippen had to go to the USA because a relative was seriously ill there. The letters were signed Cora Crippen but they were not in her handwriting.

Then on 24 March Mrs Martinetti received a telegram from Dr Crippen stating that Cora had died of an illness in the USA. However, a Mr Nash, who knew Cora visited the USA and could find no record of her death. He was suspicious so he went to the police. Subsequently, on 8 July 1910 Inspector Walter Dew went to see Crippen. Dr Crippen admitted he lied about his wife’s death. Instead, he now said Cora left him for another man. Crippen claimed he lied to prevent a scandal.

The policeman left but on 11 July he returned to clarify a few points. However, Crippen and Ethel le Neve had fled, making their guilt obvious. The police thoroughly searched 39 Hilldrop Crescent and they found part of a torso wrapped in part of a pair of pyjamas buried under the cellar. The torso had a scar from abdominal surgery (Cora was known to have had such surgery) and it contained hyoscine.

The police raised the alarm and photos and descriptions of Crippen and le Neve were published in the newspapers. Meanwhile, the pair had fled to the continent. On 20 July Crippen and Ethel le Neve sailed to Canada in a ship called the Montrose. Crippen had shaved off his moustache and removed his glasses but it was not a very convincing disguise. Ethel le Neve was dressed as a boy but her clothes did not fit and her shape was obviously feminine. Crippen gave his name as John Robinson and claimed le Neve was his son.

However, the captain suspected the ‘boy’ was a woman and the pair was Crippen and Ethel le Neve. The captain kept a close watch on them until he was convinced he was right. On 22 July he sent a radio message to Britain outlining his suspicions.

After receiving the message Inspector Walter Dew boarded a fast ship called the Laurentic, which arrived in Canada before the Montrose. Dew arrested Crippen and Ethel le Neve when they arrived on 31 July and they were brought back to Britain to stand trial.

It was decided that Ethel le Neve should be tried separately from Crippen. His trial began on 18 October 1910 and lasted 5 days. Crippen denied all knowledge of human remains buried under his cellar. However, a Dr Pepper testified that the torso had been buried 4 to 8 months before it was found. When asked if it could have been buried before September 1905 (i.e. before Crippen moved into the house) he replied that was ‘absolutely impossible’. He also testified that the torso had an abdominal scar, indicating it was Cora Crippen who was known to have undergone abdominal surgery. Dr Bernard Spilsbury also testified that it was a scar.

Finally, a piece of some pajamas found with the torso bore the label Jones Bros. A representative of the firm testified that the material could not have been purchased before the end of 1908. (Therefore the pajamas and the torso must have been buried in the cellar after Crippen moved in and only he could have buried them). There was also the fact that Crippen had purchased a large amount of hyoscine shortly before Cora disappeared and the poison was found in the torso.

Not surprisingly the jury did not believe Crippen’s tale that he did not know anything about the torso buried in his cellar and they took only 27 minutes to find him guilty. Dr Crippen was hanged in Pentonville Prison in London on 23 November 1910. However, Ethel le Neve was found not guilty. She married in 1915 and she died in 1967 aged 84.