The history of the Crippen case

LaurenticA long, long time ago, more than a hundred years ago now, on a cold winter’s morning on Wednesday 23 November 1910, and just over a year before the Titanic plunged to the bottom of the freezing North Atlantic, an American homeopathist by the name of Hawley Henry Crippen was escorted to the grim gallows within London’s Pentonville Prison, and hanged.  History remembers him as ‘Doctor Crippen’, whereas in fact his American homeopathic qualifications had not entitled him to practice in England.

Just 30 days earlier, after the most sensational criminal trial in English history, he had been convicted of the murder of his American wife Cora. Despite the valiant defence advanced by Mr A.A. Tobin, KC** (later a judge), the trial judge Lord Alverston, the Chief Justice of England, had no alternative but to don the black cap and pronounce Crippen’s doom.  Before, during and after the trial Crippen repeatedly insisted that he was innocent: but all was now lost.  There was no appeal, that being a relatively novel concept at the time; and the case made the Crown’s star witness – the pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury – a household name, and the cornerstone of many future convictions in England in the 20s and 30s.

Part of the reason why the case was so sensational was that Crippen had fled England for Canada on board the Montrose, in the company of his lover Ethel Neave: but the keen eyed ship’s captain Henry Kendall had spotted them, and famously sent a telegram to Scotland Yard which read:

“Have strong suspicions that Crippen London cellar murderer and accomplice are among saloon passengers. Mustache taken off. Growing beard. Accomplice dressed as boy. Manner and build undoubtedly a girl.”

Chief Inspector Walter Dew of the Yard was promptly sent in hot pursuit on board the White Star line’s prize SS Laurentic* – a faster ship than the Montrose; and for days the newspapers kept the public on tenterhooks as the Laurentic, mile by nautical mile across the ocean,steadily closed in on the fugitives.

When both ships finally made their way into the St Lawrence River at Quebec, Chief Inspector Dew went aboard the Montrose in disguise.  He walked up to Crippen, and said:

“Good morning, Dr Crippen. Do you know me? I’m Chief Inspector Dew from Scotland Yard.”

To which, after a brief pause, Crippen famously replied:

“Thank God it’s over. The suspense has been too great. I couldn’t stand it any longer.”  He then held out his wrists for the handcuffs, …and the rest is history.

Surely these were the words and actings of a guilty man?

And yet there are a number of things about the Crippen case which pose problems.

In contrast to her bespectacled little husband, Cora Crippen was a larger than life character who dressed extravagantly: she was a musical hall performer, first in America and then England, and went by the stage name Belle Elmore.  They had a difficult marriage and rumour was, among Cora’s many friends at the Music Hall Ladies Guild, that Cora was not very happy.  Then suddenly she disappeared, without a word.

Nothing happened until Crippen, 48, was spotted by Cora’s friends socialising with his 27 year old secretary Ethel.  Worse, Ethel was seen wearing items of Cora’s clothing and jewellery.  Rumour grew, and Scotland Yard were tipped off.

When questioned, Crippen admitted that he had been evasive about Cora’s whereabouts because the truth was that she had left him for another man and he had wanted to avoid any scandal.  The police listened politely, then released him without any charge; and it was only then, a few days later, that Crippen and Ethel made their futile bid for escape. A reward of £250 was offered for their capture: the equivalent of about £100,000 in today’s money.

But why did he flee if he was innocent?

Well, the simple and perhaps obvious conclusion is of course that he had indeed killed his wife: but the single most important piece of evidence relied on in the case may also point to his innocence.

This crucial evidence came in the form of a small quantity of human remains found in the soil, under a flagstone, in the basement of the Crippens’ terraced house in Camden Town, London.  It was skin, and in rather a poor state of decomposition: but on one part there appeared to have been a kind of crease, or fold of some sort.  Bernard Spilsbury – at that time still a fairly junior doctor – had a good look at it; and concluded that it was undoubtedly a surgical scar.  Now, it was known from Cora’s medical records that she had undergone an appendectomy in America; and with that, the Crown case seemed as safe as the Bank of England.  Case closed, I hear you say.

But Mr Tobin was of course not so easily daunted. An experienced defence pathologist was instructed, and rather interestingly gave the opinion that a hair follicle was clearly visible along the skin ‘fold’, something that is not normally found on scars.  He concluded that the fold was not a scar, but in fact just a result of the way the skin had been crumpled during decomposition in the ground.

The scene was set for a dramatic showdown and as the barristers assembled in wig and gown before a packed Court Number 1 at the Old Bailey, all eyes were on Spilsbury: how would he stand up against the withering cross examination of the brilliant Mr Tobin, King’s Counsel?

For two days Spilsbury stood up to everything that was hurled at him, and famously brought in his microscope on the second day to peer at the skin once again.  But Spilsbury wouldn’t be shifted; and as Tobin finally retired from battle the young doctor, in charcoal pinstripes and sporting a carnation in his buttonhole, stepped from the court to the front page adulation of the press.  The verdict was inevitable, and his future was made.

But there is a twist in this tale.

In October 2010 David James Smith, author of ‘Supper With the Crippens’, brought the Crippen case back to Court 1.  Before the solemn audience, he opened his lecture as follows:

“The Crippen case held the entire Western world in its thrall for many months in 1910, and it has intrigued and fascinated lawyers, police officers and criminologists ever since. Until recently, Crippen’s guilt was rarely questioned but now, some people believe that he may have been wrongly convicted. This lecture, for which Court Number One is the ideal location, represents the perfect opportunity to review the evidence.”

Why?

Three things (why are there always three?)

Firstly, the famous piece of skin was preserved in the Museum Archives of the Royal London Hospital.  In 2007 working from a sample of that skin, a team of American forensic scientists from Michigan State University compared mitochondrial DNA from it with samples taken from Cora Crippen’s known surviving relatives.

The results were conclusive, said Dr David Foran, the head of the forensic science programme. “That body cannot be Cora Crippen, we’re certain of that,” he said.

Well,… perhaps Cora could have been adopted?  Unfortunately, however, the DNA sampling revealed that the material contained Y chromosomes, conclusively indicating that the skin was male.

There is always the possibility, however, that the sample had been mislabelled or mixed up in some way over the course of time – except the label seems clear enough:

The second thing is the suggestion – never verified, insofar as I can tell – that a witness statement was taken from a passer-by outside the Crippens’ home, from someone who described a woman very like Cora the day after she disappeared.  This witness apparently described her as standing on the pavement, with much luggage, about to get into a Hackney Cab.  What is known, however, is that there is a statement from a witness who described a woman bearing Cora’s description, who had tried to withdraw savings and arrange for the removal of large quantities of furniture and belongings from the house before her disappearance.

It is also now known that a woman with Cora’s stage name of Bella Elmore was living with Cora’s sister in New York many years later; and that when that woman’s history was traced, she was found to have entered the United States via Ellis Island in 1910, shortly after Cora disappeared.

There are a number of other issues and problems too numerous to go into here, but the third thing is this: if Crippen was innocent, why did he flee?

Well, the answer to that question may provide the key to the case.  Because of the fact that Crippen, despite his medical training, could not practice legally as a doctor in England, it is possible that he could have found other ways to earn a living.  A very obvious one, for the time, was as an abortionist.  This could explain the human remains in the basement, and could explain his decision to flee once he realised the police were taking an interest in him; after all, a conviction as an abortionist would, in 1910, have resulted in a significant prison sentence.  Furthermore, traces of the drug Scopolamine (also known as hyoscine) were found in the skin sample examined by Spilsbury, and it was the Crown case that this was the poison which Crippen had used on Cora; however Scopolamine had another use at the time, in the conduct of abortions.***

One problem with this theory, however, is that at the trial Crippen’s defence ran the line that the remains could have been in the house from before the Crippens moved there in 1905 – but if Crippen were truly an abortionist, one can see that it would perhaps not have helped his defence to bring that out, to put it mildly.

In the final analysis, therefore, it seems impossible now to say where the truth lies: but the case is of course now very firmly closed and really only a matter of interest to students of legal history…  and the famous waxwork of Doctor Crippen at Madam Tussauds’ in old London town, seems likely to remain very firmly in place.

*Just over six years later on 25 January 1917, the SS Laurentic sailed from the Royal Navy’s base in Lough Swilly, County Donegal, Ireland, having been commissioned during the First World War.  At the mouth of the lough the great liner, which had successfully pursued Crippen across the Atlantic with Chief Inspector Dew on board, disastrously struck mines which had been laid off Fanad Head.  The mines had been laid by a German U-80 submarine a few days before.  The great ship sank within an hour, taking with her 354 men out of a crew of almost 470,… and 43 tons of gold bullion.

** Crippen’s solicitor Arthur Newton had originally wished to brief the greatest advocate of his age, F.E. Smith QC (later ennobled as Lord Birkenhead) – but ‘Effey’ declined, preferring to defend Ethel le Neve in the separate proceedings brought against her.

*** The presence of scopolamine fitted the Crown case that Crippen was known to have ordered, and then on 19 January 1910 collected from Lewis & Burrows’ pharmacy on New Oxford Street, five grains of hyoscin hydrobromide… a quantity so large it had to be ordered from the wholesalers…

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