Murder, with malice aforethought — Doctor Crippen

Most of us enjoy a good murder story, although I do find that fictional stories, no matter how well written, can leave the reader dissatisfied, because the fictional story is just the product of someone’s imagination, while real murder cases tend to be more intriguing, complicated, interesting and downright weirder than fiction.

The expression ‘with malice aforethought’ is the old fashioned term for ‘evil premeditation.’ I find it fascinating to consider what goes on in someone’s mind for them to decide to take the life of another human being, and to assume they are clever enough to get away with it.

Hawley Harvey Crippen was born in Michigan in 1862. After leaving school he acquired a medical diploma from the Homeopathic Hospital in Cleveland, and in 1885 acquired another as an eye and ear specialist in New York. These qualifications allowed him to, quite legally, call himself and practise as a doctor in the U.S., but later when he visited England he was unable to openly practise as a medical practitioner with his U.S. credentials.

Doctor Crippen was a slightly built man, five foot four inches tall, with a sandy moustache and rather prominent bulging eyes behind gold-rimmed glasses.

Image, Doctor Crippen was a small man with bulging eyes and a sandy moustache.
Doctor Crippen was a small man with bulging eyes and a sandy moustache.

In 1888 he married and had a son, but when the boy was three years old his wife died, and he was obliged to leave the child with his wife’s mother in California and move on. In the light of subsequent events questions were asked as to precisely how his first wife had died, but by then no one wished to stir up more sadness for the surviving family members.

Later, in New York, he met a young woman of 17 whom he knew as Cora Turner, but whose real name was Kunigunde Mackamotski, of Polish, German and Jewish parentage. Cora had ambitions as an opera singer, but her ambitions were always much greater than her abilities.

Around the turn of the century Doctor Crippen was working for the Munyon Patent Medicine Company and was eventually appointed as the manager of their U.K. branch, with an office in Shaftesbury Avenue, London. Crippen moved to London and Cora, who had been having singing lessons and voice training in New York, later joined her husband there, at times using her adopted stage name of Belle Elmore.

Over the next few years the doctor changed jobs and addresses a number of times, but eventually returned to work for Munyon’s in their new premises in Albion House, New Oxford Street. Around the same time Doctor and Mrs. Crippen moved into No. 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Camden Town, which would prove, in time, to be the last permanent address for both of them. It was not long after this move that their marriage and their lives began to unravel.

The Munyon Company recalled Doctor Crippen to New York for a time, and in his absence, Cora obtained some brief appearances on the Music Hall stage and mixed with the theatrical crowd, which she really thrived on. Whilst involved in the theatrical life she met and befriended an American performer called Bruce Miller and eventually they became lovers. While Crippen was in New York Cora sought solace in the arms of Miller, but according to Crippen’s later statement, he was one of many.

Cora’s friends described her as vivacious, fond of dressing-up with a strong American accent and dark hair which she died auburn, a fact that would assume great importance later. However others have described her as vulgar, overbearing and bad tempered with a love for the promiscuous theatrical life.

Image, Cora Crippen.
Cora Crippen, who was also known by her adopted stage name of Belle Elmore. Her friends described her as vivacious, but others called her vulgar and bad tempered.

When Crippen returned to England the Munyon Company was in decline, and so he took a partnership with another pseudo medical company “The Yale Tooth Specialists”, and there, was introduced to their typist, a young English woman, with the very French surname Ethel Le Neve.

While Cora Crippen, as Belle Elmore found occasional work on the Music Halls and took a number of lovers, her husband was having a secret love affair of his own.

Image, Ethel Le Neve, Doctor Crippen’s mistress.
Ethel Le Neve, Doctor Crippen’s mistress.

Ethel Le Neve had become the doctor’s mistress and they would meet secretly in cheap hotels to consummate their new found love, and by all accounts they had genuine feelings of love for one another. Inevitably Cora found out what was going on and threatened to leave her husband. Crippen would have been more than happy to see the back of Cora, except that she intended to take their £600 savings – of which she had control – something the little doctor could not, under any circumstance, allow.

Things came to a climax on the last day of January 1910, when the Crippens invited some of Cora’s theatrical friends, Mr. and Mrs. Martinetti, to Hilldrop Crescent. They had dinner together and then played cards until 1.30 in the morning, and according to the Martinetti’s later statement, the evening was a great success.

As the guests were leaving by the front door Mrs. Martinetti said something she probably came to regret for the rest of her life. As the night air was extremely cold, she said to Cora “Don’t come out Belle, you’ll catch your death of cold.”

Cora Crippen did catch her death that night, but it was not from cold, it was from the nerve sedative hyoscine hydrobromide. The actual time of her death was never established, but as no one set eyes on Cora after the Martinetti dinner party, she was assumed to have died sometime in the early hours of the first of February, 1910.

Doctor Crippen told Cora’s friends, who asked after her, that she had had to rush to America to be at the bedside of a sick relative, which was accepted by all at first. Then with unseemly haste Ethel Le Neve threw up her job and moved into No. 39 to live with the doctor, and hired a French maid.

Later, when Crippen let it be known that Cora too was ill and in a serious condition, in Los Angeles, again his version of events was accepted. Had Cora’s friends known that whilst assuring them of Cora’s situation in America, he was also selling her jewellery to finance his life with Ethel Le Neve, they may not have been so easily taken in.

On the 24th of March 1910 Crippen sent a telegram to Mrs. Martinetti stating ‘Belle died yesterday at 6 o’clock.’ He had sent the telegram from Victoria Railway station just before he and Ethel Le Neve left for a week’s holiday in Dieppe. Even this somewhat callous behaviour did not arouse suspicion of murder, even if it did raise eyebrows in some quarters. On his return from holiday the little doctor was able to talk his way out of any difficulties to everyone’s satisfaction, except that of a certain Mr. Nash.

Mr. Nash seems to have been a well-meaning busybody, who, while on a visit to the U.S. made enquiries regarding Cora’s demise, without, it has to be said, any success. When he returned to England he put some very awkward questions to Crippen who failed to ease his concerns. After mulling the matter over for a day or two, Mr. Nash took his suspicions to Scotland Yard, who agreed to look into the matter.

Detective Chief Inspector Dew of Scotland Yard spoke to Dr. Crippen at his place of work in Albion House a few days later. Immediately Crippen admitted to the policeman that Yes! He had been lying to everyone but only to save face. Cora he now admitted had left him and gone to Chicago with a man-friend of some years standing, Bruce Miller. He went on to say that the fabrication of the story of Cora’s death in America was to shield him from the scandal which would have cost him his job. This explanation seemed quite reasonable to D.C.I Dew, who, after looking through No. 39 Hilldrop Crescent without seeing any sign of foul-play, was prepared to leave things at that.

But Dr. Crippen had been badly shaken by a combination of Mr. Nash’s awkward questioning and the more formidable questions of a D.C.I from Scotland Yard. Had he stayed put, he may well have got away with his crime, but he and Ethel Le Neve disappeared from the scene. Unfortunately for them, the policeman needed to verify a date to finalise his report and called again at Hilldrop Crescent, two days later.

A hue and cry now went up for Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve and they were eventually spotted aboard the S.S. Montrose, a ship bound from Southampton via Antwerp to Canada. Crippen and his mistress were sharing a cabin and posing as father and son. However, because they were at sea, they were unaware of the publicity about them in the press. The captain of the Montrose, Captain Kendall, made use of a new innovation aboard his ship, the Marconi Wireless, to radio Scotland Yard for instructions. Meanwhile the details of the case were reported in every newspaper in Britain.

Immediately D.C.I Dew took chase in a faster ship and arrived at the river pilot station at Rimouski in the St. Lawrence River ahead of the Montrose. Dew and other police officers boarded the Montrose on its arrival disguised as river pilots and arrested Crippen and his mistress. Within the month they were returned to England to stand trial for murder.

Image, Crippen, accompanied by Chief Inspector Dew, is escorted from the SS Montrose at Rimouski.
Crippen, accompanied by Chief Inspector Dew, is escorted from the SS Montrose at Rimouski.

Needless to say, the unusual facts of the case, the use of radio for the very first time to catch fleeing suspects, the chase across the Atlantic, the disguise of the mistress as a boy, not to mention an unsavoury murder, gave this case a notoriety that it has never lost to this day.

With the villains behind bars, the hard work of building a case against them began in earnest, and it was by no means a simple task. The remains found in the coal cellar comprised the organs of the chest and abdomen in one mass, four pieces of skin and muscle, one of which, from the lower abdomen, contained an old operation scar. There was also some dark hair, dyed auburn in a curler, parts of a man’s pyjama jacket and an odd pair of pyjama trousers that did not match the jacket.

There was no head, no bones and no indication of the sex of the victim. Four prominent medical experts examined the remains, paying particular attention to the scar which mirrored exactly the scar Cora had for the same operation. Also the hair they found in a curler was dark but had been dyed auburn, as Cora’s had been. However what was not appreciated at the beginning was the importance of the remains of the pyjama jacket found buried with the human remains.

At the preliminary hearing Doctor Crippen and Ethel Le Neve stood together in the dock, both charged with the capital offence of murder, but for technical reasons it was decided to try them separately.

Image, Crippen and Ethel Le Neve in the dock at the Old Bailey.
Initially, both Crippen and Ethel Le Neve stood in the dock, at the Old Bailey, together.

At this time, 11th of October, the human remains unearthed at Hilldrop Crescent were reburied in Finchley Cemetery under the name of Cora Crippen. There was some disquiet about this because it seemed to infer that the authorities had prejudged the case, and the only possible defence Crippen could offer would be that the remains were not that of his wife. It seemed to the fair-minded British public that those in authority had made up their minds and were attempting to discredit the little doctor’s only hope of a fair trial.

When on the 18th of October 1910 Doctor Crippen stood in the dock of No. 1 Court of the Old Bailey before the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Alverstone, that was indeed his line of defence.

The defence barrister, Mr. A.A. Tobin K.C. argued that the few remains could not be proved to be Cora’s, not even that of a woman, and that anyway they had been in the ground under the cellar floor from before the Crippens took possession of the house in September 1905.

A young and at that time virtually unknown pathologist, Bernard (later Sir Bernard) Spilsbury was to painstakingly demonstrate that the remains were from the body of a woman, that the scar was identical to the one Cora had, and that the hair was identical in every way to Cora’s.

But at the very end of the trial, it was the evidence of the pyjama jacket that put the noose around Crippen’s neck. It was submitted that Crippen owned two complete sets of pyjamas and one pair of pyjama trousers, all made of the same material.

The prosecuting counsel managed to bring into court a representative from Jones Brothers of Holloway where the pyjamas had originated. This gentleman stated, on oath, that the material for the pyjamas had not been purchased until the end of 1908 and that three full sets had been delivered to 39 Hilldrop Crescent in January 1909, just one year before Cora disappeared.

In his final address to the jury the prosecuting barrister, Mr. Muir K.C., put things nicely into perspective with these words “Who alone during the following 12 months could have buried that jacket in that house, and who was missing who could be buried in it?”

Doctor Crippen was found guilty and sentenced to death. He did appeal but this was turned down on Guy Fawkes Day, the 5th of November 1910. In the meantime Ethel Le Neve stood trial only as an accessory after the fact, but was acquitted and quickly disappeared from public view, some said to Canada.

Doctor Crippen met his end on the 23rd of November 1910 and that was almost the end of the case, but with cases such as this, that gain special public notoriety, they never really go away.

In the following years the case was written about and discussed many times, and a theory developed that suggested that Doctor Crippen had accidentally killed his wife by administering hyoscine to suppress her quite considerable sexual demands, which was a practice in mental institutions at the time.

This idea took root, and in some accounts of the case these ideas have been put forward as medical facts, which of course they are not. For all of the ten years Doctor Crippen spent in England, he only ever made one purchase of hyoscine hydrobromide, from Lewis and Burrows in New Oxford Street. He ordered it on the 15th of January, but because it was a large order – 5 grains – it had to be re-ordered from the wholesaler and was collected by the doctor on the 19th. By the end of the month Cora was ‘missing.’

Another interesting little fact that only recently came to light was that after Ethel Le Neve was acquitted she did go to Canada, but within a short time returned to England under an assumed name, married, had children and lived a happy ordinary life, never divulging, even to her children, her very interesting, if somewhat shady, past.


When, some months after Crippen was hanged, there was a public competition to suggest a new name for Hilldrop Crescent in order to hide its unsavoury past, some wag suggested Filleted Place.



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