The case of Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen is one of the most famous British criminal cases. This was the first major case that Bernard Spilsbury, the famous pathologist, was called in to investigate. The case also involved the major use of radio in tracking down the suspects.
CRIPPEN IN THE USA
After Crippen’s first visit to England he wandered about the USA, practising in a number of larger cities. In Utah, during 1890 or 1891, his wife died, and he sent is 3 year old son to live with her late wife’s Mother in California. During one of his stays in New York he married again. His second wife was a girl of 17 years old whom Crippen knew as Cora Turner. Her real name was Kunigunde Mackamotski, her Father being a Russian Pole and her Mother German. There were more wanderings: St. Louis, New York and Philadelphia, with a short visit across the border to Toronto. The Munyon Company, a patent medicine company, now employed Crippen. Mrs. Crippen, who was deluded by her modest singing talent, travelled to New York for opera training.
CRIPPEN ARRIVES IN THE UK
In 1900 Crippen was in England again, and except for one short interval, remained in England. He became the manager at Munyon’s offices in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue, and later in the year his wife joined him in rooms in South Crescent, off Tottenham Court Road, At one period, it is said, that he practising as a dentist and a women’s consultant. In 1902 Munyon’s recalled him for six months in Philadelphia. Mrs. Crippen had been seeking music-hall work, with slight success. During one of her music engagements, she met an American music-hall performer called Bruce Miller (who later testified at the trial).
When Crippen returned to London the Crippens lived at 34-37 Store Street, Bloomsbury. Crippen, who was small in height, left Munyon’s for a variety of jobs. Some of them failed, and presently he eventually returned to Munyon’s, who had relocated to Albion House, New Oxford Street. In Albion House, when Munyon’s business began to decline, Crippen was also in partnership with another firm: The Yale Tooth Specialists. While working here, Crippen employed as his typist Ethel le Neve. He had first met her when they had been working for one of Crippen’s business failures: The Drouet Institute. Although Crippen took over the Munyon’s office on a franchise basis, he failed to halt Munyon’s decline and Crippen ended his 16 year relationship with the Munyon firm on 31 January 1910.
THE MOVE TO 39 HILLDROP CRESCENT
During this period, the Crippens moved into a house in Camden Town: number 39 Hilldrop Crescent. It was a larger house than the couple needed, indicated by the annual rent of £58 10s. As Crippen’s salary, when he earned one, was £3 a week, it seemed strange that they should choose such a house, that Mrs. Crippen could afford to buy fox furs and jewellery and they could still put some money away. At the end of January 1910 Crippen was a few pounds overdrawn at the bank, but there was £600 on deposit, more than half of this sum was in his wife’s name. As a guide to these monetary sums, whisky was 3s 6d a bottle and furs could cost £34.
Mrs. Crippen, under her assumed name of Belle Elmore, continued with her career as a music hall entertainer.
Mrs. Crippen attained some success in provincial halls, but she became well known and popular in certain theatrical circles. For two years before her death, she was Honorary Treasurer of the Music Hall Ladies Guild, which hired a room in Albion House. She was described as vivacious and pleasant, fond of dress and display, with a New York accent and dark hair which she dyed auburn. A Roman Catholic, she converted her husband to that faith.
In contrast to his wife, Crippen was a small man. He appeared to be mildness itself, an almost insignificant figure, dapper in dress, with a high, bald forehead, a heavy, sandy moustache, and rather prominent eyes behind gold-rimmed spectacles. Witnesses at his forthcoming trial described him as kindly, gentle and well mannered.
The crisis, which ended with Crippen’s execution, came in December 1909. His wife was tired of him, and she knew that Ethel le Neve had been his mistress. She threatened to leave Crippen, which would have been excellent news for him, but she was also planning to take their joint savings with her. On 15 December 1909, Mrs. Crippen gave notice of withdrawal to their bank. A month later, in January 1910, Crippen ordered five grains of hyoscin hydrobromide at Lewis and Burrow’s shop in New Oxford Street. It was such a large order; they had to place a special order with the wholesalers. Crippen collected the order on 19 January 1910.
On the evening of 31 January 1910, there were two guests to dinner at 39 Hilldrop Crescent: a retired music-hall performer called Mr. Matinetti and his wife. After dinner, the Martinetti’s and Crippen’s played several games of whist. At 1.30am the following morning the Martinetti’s left.
The next day, 1 February 1910, Crippen pawned a diamond ring and some earrings for £80, and that night Ethel le Neve slept at 39 Hilldrop Crescent. On 3 February 1910, two letters signed “Belle Elmore” and dated 2 February 1910, were received by the Secretary of the Music Hall Ladies Guild. Mrs. Crippen had resigned from her position as Honorary Treasurer, as she had been summoned to the USA, as one of her relatives had been taken seriously ill. The letters were not in Mrs. Crippen’s handwriting. Mrs. Martinetti called on Crippen later that day, and rebuked him for not telling her directly about her friend’s sudden departure. Crippen told her that they had been busy packing. “Packing and crying” replied Mrs. Martinetti, Crippen relied that they had got over that.
Crippen then pawned more rings and a broach for £115. On 20 February 1910, Crippen took Ethel le Neve to the ball of the Music Hall Ladies Benevolent Fund. It was noticed that le Neve was clearly wearing a broach, which was known to belong to Mrs. Crippen. On 12 March 1910, Ethel le Neve moved permanently into 39 Hilldrop Crescent. Shortly after this event, Crippen have his landlord’s 3 months notice of his intention to vacate the house. Just before Easter 1910, Crippen told Mrs. Martinetti that Mrs. Crippen had been taken seriously ill in the USA, and that she was not expected to live. If she died, Crippen told Mrs. Matinetti that he would take a week’s holiday in France.
On 24 March 1910, the day before Good Friday 1910, a telegram arrived for Mrs. Martinetti: “Belle died yesterday at 6pm”. It had been sent from London’s Victoria Rail Station, before Crippen and le Neve set off for Dieppe.
During his absence in France, Mrs. Crippen’s friends had a great deal of discussions about their friends sudden trip to the USA, and her death. When he returned, Crippen made several attempts to prevent the sending of tokens of remembrance. Crippen stated that she had died in Los Angles, her ashes were returning to England and that gifts sent to the USA would arrive too late.
Everything was neatly explained, and the Crippen went around his normal business. Ethel le Neve was seen wearing more of Mrs. Crippen’s furs and jewellery, which was regarded as being in poor taste.
A friend of the late Mrs. Crippen, a Mr. Nash, made a short visit to the USA where he made some unsuccessful enquires about Mrs. Crippen. When he returned to London, he went and spoke to Crippen. Dissatisfied with his answers, he went to Scotland Yard and told them his story.
A week after Mr. Nash’s visit to Scotland Yard, Chief Inspector Dew called upon Mr. Crippen at his work place located in Albion House. He admitted that he had been lying about his wife’s death. He believed that she was still alive, and she had gone to Chicago so she could be with her friend of her early music-hall days, Bruce Miller. His lies were to shield her and himself from any scandal that would result from her elopement. Dew then obtained a search warrant and visited Hilldrop Crescent, accompanied by Mr. Crippen. He found nothing and was beginning to believe Crippen’s explanation regarding his wife disappearance.
CRIPPEN and LE NEVE FLEE
For some reason, Crippen panicked and left for Antwerp, accompanied by le Neve who was disguised as a boy. When Dew returned to the house, just to check a couple of dates with Crippen, he found the house empty. He then raised the alarm.
While Crippen and le Neve’s description was being widely circulated, Dew returned to Hilldrop Crescent and thoroughly searched the house. While in the coal cellar, Dew probed the brick floor and found the remains of Mrs. Crippen buried in lime.
During their voyage from Antwerp to Canada, Ethel le Neve disguised herself as a boy. The Montrose’s Captain became suspicious of the couple’s affectionate behaviour, and radioed his concerns back to London. Chief Inspector Drew boarded a faster ship, the SS Laurentic, and arrested the pair on 31 July 1910.
This was Spilsbury’s first murder case and the one that established the reputation of his name. In his notes he recounts the discovery in the cellar:
Human remains found 13 July . Medical organs of chest and abdomen removed in one mass. Four large pieces of skin and muscle, one from lower abdomen with old operation scar 4 inches long – broader at lower end. Impossible to identify sex. Hyoscine found 2.7 grains. Hair in Hinde’s curler – roots present. Hair 6 inches long. Man’s pyjama jacket label reads Jones Bros., Holloway, and odd pair of pyjama trousers.
There was no head, all the limbs were missing and no bones, except for what appeared to be part of a human thigh. One of the pieces of skin that was recovered had a scar, made as a result of an operation. The organs were analysed by Drs. Wilcox and Luff. The skin was analysed by Drs. Pepper assisted by Spilsbury.
The remains of Mrs. Crippen were eventually reburied in Finchley Cemetery, a week before the start of her husband trial.
It was decided that Crippen and le Neve would be tried separately.
THE TRIAL OF CRIPPEN
On 18 October 1910, Crippen’s trial opened before Lord Chief Justice Lord Alverstone, in the No. 1 Court of London’s Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey). The trial lasted five days. The prosecution’s evidence was the purchase of the poison by Crippen, and that no one had seen Mrs. Crippen since the Martinetti’s left the whist game early on the morning of 1 February 1910.
Crippen was defended by A.A. Tobin, KC (later a judge). Tobin was assisted by Mr Huntly Jenkins and Mr. Roome.
Prosecution witnesses on the 1st day included Mrs. Martinetti, other acquaintances of the Crippens, some of Mr. Crippen’s business associates. Bruce Miller and Mrs. Crippen’s sister travelled from the USA to provide evidence.
At the start of the 2nd day, Chief Inspector Dew gave evidence, including the reading of a long statement provided by Crippen. In the afternoon, Dr. Pepper took the stand. He stated that the mark on the piece of skin (produced in the court) was caused by an abdominal operation. Someone skilled in dissection, he stated, carried out the dismemberment of the body. The remains were those of an adult, young or middle-aged, but there was no certain anatomical indication of body’s sex. When the remains had been examined, they had been buried for around 4 to 8 months. The burial had taken place soon after death had occurred. When asked by the prosecution whether the burial could have occurred before 21 September 1905 (when Crippen took up residence), Dr. Pepper relied “Oh, no, absolutely impossible.” During cross-examination, Dr. Pepper was asked whether he had cut a piece of the skin sample across the area of the scar and handed it to Dr. Spilsbury. He confirmed that this was the case.
At the start of the 3rd day, 20 October 1910, Dr. Spilsbury was called to give evidence. He confirmed the analysis performed on the sample by Dr. Pepper, and that Dr. Pepper had provided him with a sample for microscopical analysis. Spilsbury stated that the provided sample was 1½ inches long, and almost ½ inch wide. It included a portion of the scar. At each end of this fragment he found glands, but there were none in the centre, proving that it was indeed a scar and not a skin fold. Spilsbury also stated that the presence and arrangement of certain muscles provided further proof that the specimen came from the lower abdomen.
The defence then asked Spilsbury how long he had been associated with Dr. Pepper, whether, before his own examination, he had heard that Mrs. Crippen had had an abdominal operation. Spilsbury replied that
The fact that I have acted with Mr. Pepper has absolutely no influence upon the opinion that I have expressed here. The fact that I had read in the papers that there had been an operation on Belle Elmore had no effect at all upon the opinion I have expressed. I have no doubt that this is a scar.
The evidence presented by Wilcox and Luff took up the majority of this day. This concerned their analysis of the organs and other material found: a small portion of liver, one kidney, a pair of combinations, hair in a curler and three fragments of a pyjama jacket. The day finished with the opening of the defence, and the examination of Crippen by Mr. Huntly Jenkins.
The 4th day mainly consisted of Crippen’s cross-examination by the prosecution. As the questioning continued, Crippen’s replies became more vague and evasive. When asked when he purchased the pyjamas, Crippen replied that he had purchased them in either 1905 or 1906. A buyer for the firm Jones Brother of Holloway was able to prove that this pyjama material was not acquired by his firm until the end of 1908, and that three suits of pyjamas, made from this material, were delivered to 39 Hilldrop Crescent in January 1909. As the prosecution stated in their summing up, who alone during the next 12 months could have buried the jacket in that house? And “Who was missing who could be buried in it?”
AFTERMATH OF CRIPPEN’S TRIAL
The jury took 27 minutes to find Crippen guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Ethel le Neve was tried 4 days later and found not guilty as an accessory after the fact.
On 23 November 1910, Crippen was hanged at Pentonville Prison in London. Before his execution, Crippen requested that a photograph of Ethel le Neve be buried with him.
Ethel le Neve sailed for New York, under the name of Miss Allen, on the morning of Crippen’s execution. After reaching her final destination of Toronto, she started calling herself Ethel Harvey. Sometime during the period 1914-18, she returned to London and married a clerk called Stanley Smith. The couple settled down in Croydon and had several children, eventually becoming grandparents. Ethel died in hospital in 1967, aged 84.
The once “most famous house in London” (as some newspapers called 39 Hilldrop Crescent at the time) was destroyed, together with the surrounding houses, by German air raids in World War Two.