Born in Michigan in 1862, Hawley Crippen gained international fame in 1910 when he fled England with his lover after murdering his wife, Cora. Authorities apprehended him after learning by telegram he was on a boat to Canada, making him the first criminal to be caught with the aid of wireless communication. He was later hanged in London.
Hawley Harvey Crippen was born in 1862, to Myron Augustus Crippen and Andresse Skinner Crippen, in the town of Coldwater in Michigan. The family were prosperous, owning a dry goods store that enabled them to live a comfortable life, but Crippen was nevertheless raised with a strict Protestant work ethic.
Pursuing a childhood interest in medicine, Crippen graduated from the University of Michigan, before pursuing an M.D. degree at Cleveland's Homeopathic Hospital. On completing his studies, he moved to New York, where he met and wed an Irish nurse named Charlotte Bell. They had one son together, named Otto, but Charlotte died suddenly of apoplexy in January 1892, leaving Crippen a widower, with a young child. Unable to cope, he persuaded his parents, now living in California, to take care of Otto, and he remained working in New York, where he met Cora Turner, who became his second wife in September 1892.
Cora was of Baltic descent and, when she was born in Brooklyn in 1873, her immigrant parents had named her Kunigunde Mackamotzki, a name she later changed to Cora Turner. She left home at 16, and parlayed her considerable sexual charms into acting and vocal lessons to advance her theatrical career. When Crippen met her, she was 19 years old, and an aspiring performer and opera singer. Her stage name was Belle Elmore, and she was an unlikely pairing for the Protestant, mild-mannered Crippen. He was dazzled by her larger-than-life show business persona; she, by his title of M.D., and the suggested wealth that the it promised.
Shortly after their wedding, America's fascination with the fashionable practice of homeopathy waned considerably, and Belle found herself with a living standard below that which she had expected. Most importantly, money for dramatic lessons dried up, and a nationwide economic depression closed many theatres, taking Belle's dreams of stardom with them.
Crippen was forced to take a job as a consultant for a homeopathic mail order business, Munyon's Homeopathic Remedies, which proved a shrewd decision: mail order businesses were booming, and Crippen's intelligence and work ethic impressed his employers. By 1895 he was the Philadelphia area general manager for the company and, in 1897, he was charged with opening the company's first overseas offices, in London.
Belle remained in Philadelphia initially, pursuing her acting lessons and a string of amorous affairs, courtesy of Crippen's newfound prosperity. When she finally arrived in London, she pursued her stage career there with equal vigor, although her talents were scant, by all accounts. She lived the theatre life, at Crippen's expense, but her career was sporadic, at best, and the couple grew ever further apart. Crippen made an effort to take an interest in Belle's career, but this resulted in his being fired from his Munyon's job in 1899. His employers felt that his concern with his wife's career had jeopardized his interest in their business.
Always industrious, Crippen tried a number of other mail-order and homeopathic ventures, but the failure of a succession of these forced the couple to cut their living costs, moving from fashionable Piccadilly to down-market Bloomsbury, causing even further tension, as Belle could no longer support her 'stage star' lifestyle.
Trouble at Home
In 1901, Crippen met the 18-year old Ethel Le Neve, who was employed as a secretary at the same homeopathic clinic where Crippen was then employed. She was the antithesis of the brash Cora: a demure, intelligent English rose. Crippen was smitten. She, in turn, was taken with his mild, industrious manner and, by early 1903, they had become inseparable, although Crippen's Protestant convictions prevented him from progressing the relationship to physical intimacy.
While this romance was blossoming, Crippen's more regular income enabled the Crippens to move again in 1905, this time to 39 Hilldrop Crescent, in Holloway, where Belle felt better able to conduct her entertaining. Belle became involved with the Music Hall Ladies' Guild, who were taken in by her American ways and outrageous affairs, and her forthright manner made her an excellent fundraiser for the Guild. By now both Crippen and Belle lived almost entirely separate lives: Crippen consumed with his unrequited passion for Ethel, and Belle with her lovers and theater friends.
Belle insisted that they take in lodgers at Hilldrop Crescent, to provide her with additional income to fund her lifestyle. Crippen was not aware that she had an ulterior motive until December 1906, when he came home early one evening to find Belle in bed with one of the student lodgers.
Although aware of Belle's philandering, Crippen had never been subjected to it directly. Rushing off to seek solace from Ethel, they finally consummated their affair when she offered to console him. The break in Crippen's marriage was now complete, although he and Belle continued to live under the same roof. Crippen and Ethel continued their passionate affair, practically under Belle's nose. She remained unsure of the identity of her husband's lover, until he left the homeopathic business to pursue a career in dentistry, taking his secretary Ethel with him. Belle's cronies at the Ladies' Guild took pleasure in informing Belle that Crippen and Ethel had been seen out, dining intimately together.
Now aware of Ethel's existence, Belle received a shock when she found out, via her friends, that Ethel was pregnant. Crippen was delighted, but before he could broach the subject of divorce with Belle, Ethel had a miscarriage. Belle recognized that her days as a married woman were numbered and, despite her own numerous affairs, decided to play the role of the virtuous wife, cruelly deceived, most probably to try to save face in front of her Ladies' Guild friends. The Guild social circle was paramount to Belle, where she now held the post of Guild treasurer.
By the latter part of 1909, life at Hilldrop Crescent had become intolerable, with daily arguments between Crippen and Belle, as she threatened to ruin Crippen's professional reputation by spreading gossip about his affair. Sometime over the festive season of 1909, Crippen decided to take matters into his own hands. Setting the scene for Belle's exit, he told a close colleague, Dr. John Burroughs, that he had concerns about her health.
On January 17, 1910, Crippen ordered five grains of the poison hydro-bromide of hyoscine, from a chemist who supplied medications for his dentistry practice. Hyoscine was a drug known for its sedative properties and, at the time, was used in extremely small dosages by doctors to subdue mental patients. It had no obvious dental applications
Since Crippen denied the murder of Belle, the exact chain of events were never conclusively proven, but medical experts summoned at his trial surmised that Crippen's intention was to fatally sedate Belle, and then summon his friend Dr. Burroughs, who had been previously primed with an illness story, when he 'found' her dead in their bed. Perhaps Crippen over-medicated whatever medium he used to administer the drug, but Belle became hyperactive, rather than sedated, and created a tremendous amount of noise. Crippen, in desperation, shot her with his revolver, and neighbors heard the sound, although they didn't recognize it as a gun shot at the time.
With Crippen's neat execution plan now seriously awry, he decided that Belle's body would have to be secreted in the cellar of the house. As the cellar was very small, and Belle a large woman, he dissected her corpse in the bath, removing her long bones and ribs, which he took down to the kitchen and burned in the open hearth there. He may also have used acid to dissolve her internal organs in the bath. He lifted the stone floor of the cellar, and buried her filleted torso there, before disposing of her head, and other remaining organs, in a weighted sack, in a canal near Hilldrop Crescent.
Investigation and Arrest
The next day he attended to patients at his dental practice as though nothing was amiss. He told Ethel that Belle had left him, and made her a gift of some of her jewelry, pawning the rest of her jewelry later that day. He also asked Ethel to deliver a note to the Ladies' Guild, in which 'Belle' resigned her post as treasurer, advising her friends that she had to travel to America to tend to a sick relative. The members of the Ladies' Guild were suspicious from the outset, Belle having never mentioned any ailing relative to them. However, it wasn't until February 20, when Crippen attended a Guild Ball accompanied by Ethel, who was wearing Belle's jewelry, that they voiced their concerns openly.
Inundated almost daily by inquiries about Belle from various Guild matrons, Crippen tried to staunch the gossip by informing them that Belle had fallen seriously ill in California. He then sent a telegram to the Martinettis, the couple with whom he and Belle had shared their final meal, on March 24, 1910, saying that Belle had died. Crippen also disappeared for a short break to France with Ethel, which seemed unduly hasty, given the recent death of his wife.
The Ladies' Guild pressed Crippen for details of Belle's funeral on his return; he claimed she was being cremated in the United States. As a Catholic, Belle would not have countenanced cremation so, armed with all the evidence they had amassed over the previous two months, they approached Chief Inspector Walter Dew at Scotland Yard, laying out their suspicions. He claimed that there was too little evidence with which to proceed.
Undaunted, they continued their investigations, discovering that no boat had sailed to the United States on the day Belle was supposed to have left, and no one named Crippen had died in California on the day claimed in the telegram. Dew was forced to respond to the allegation, and he visited Crippen at home on July 8, 1910, questioning him about the death of his wife. Crippen admitted candidly that he had invented the story of her death: Belle, he claimed, had left him for another man, and he was merely trying to avoid the scandal and humiliation. Dew decided that he believed the story, and left.
Crippen, unaware of the good impression he had made on Dew, panicked. He told Ethel of Dew's visit, and persuaded her that they would need to leave the country for a year, until the scandal surrounding Belle's desertion had died down. They traveled to Antwerp the following day, to catch a boat bound for Quebec, in Canada.
On a routine follow-up visit to Crippen's dental practice, on July 11, Dew discovered that Crippen and Ethel had disappeared. He returned immediately to Hilldrop Crescent, to find that the maid had been dismissed, and was in the process of preparing the house for an extended absence. Dew organized an extremely thorough search of the premises, conducted over two full days, which finally unearthed the rotting remains concealed beneath the floor of the cellar. A medical examination of the remains of the torso found an operation scar, which enabled them to identify the remains as Belle Crippen. They also discovered the presence of hyoscine. On July 16, an arrest warrant was issued for Hawley Crippen and Ethel Le Neve.
The case made huge headlines in England, and the story, with pictures of the fugitives, was carried in European newspapers as well. Crippen decided that they would be best traveling incognito, and he boarded the SS Montrose in Antwerp,bound for Canada, on July 20, 1910, traveling as Mr. Robinson, with Ethel disguised,rather poorly, as his young son. Unfortunately for them, the Captain of the Montrose, named Kendall, took a local newspaper with him, on the day of departure,containing pictures of the fugitives. Ethel's poor disguise drew attention;looking more closely, Captain Kendall recognized the similarity between the odd couple and the fugitives and, on July 22, sent a wireless telegram to the White Star Line in Liverpool, claiming that Crippen and Ethel were on board.It was the first time that this new means of communications was used in the apprehension of a criminal. The information was passed immediately to Inspector Dew at Scotland Yard,
Fortunately for Dew, another White Star liner, the SS Laurentic, was due to leave Liverpool for Quebec the following morning; a faster ship, she would actually arrive at her destination before the SS Montrose. The thrill of the transatlantic chase gripped the media, and newspapers were full of stories about the love triangle, covering the lives of Belle, Ethel and Crippen, and plotting the progress of each ship, as the Laurentic steadily made ground on the Montrose.
The Laurentic reached Quebec the day before the Montrose, as scheduled. When the Montrose reached Father Point, on July 31, 1910, and prepared to take pilots on board to guide the ship into dock, Dew boarded the vessel, disguised as a pilot, and arrested Hawley Crippen and Ethel le Neve. He was able to do thisin his capacity as a Scotland Yard detective, carrying out his duty within British territorial waters. Had Crippen decided to sail straight to the United States instead of Canada, Dew would have had no jurisdiction over Crippen, a US citizen, within United States territory.
Trial and Aftermath
Crippen and Ethel were tried separately, in October 1910, in London.
Crippen's trial for murder commenced on October 18, 1910, and he hampered any hope of building a decent defense, by refusing to allow Ethel to stand as a defense witness. His only concern seemed to be the protection of her reputation. He might have avoided execution had he chosen to plead guilty, introducing testimony of Belle's serial adultery, but he pleaded not guilty, and was mercilessly bullied by the prosecutor, who emphasized the lies told to the Ladies' Guild and the police, and the concealment of the crime.
On October 22, 1910 the jury returned a verdict of guilty, after only 27 minutes of consideration. The presiding judge, Lord Alverstone, sentenced Crippen to death by hanging.
On October 26, the trial of Ethel Le Neve began at the Old Bailey, on charges of being an accessory to murder, after the fact, and a fugitive from justice. Lasting only one day, her defense successfully painted a picture of an innocent young woman merely following the instructions of her lover, and she was found not guilty, after only 12 minutes of deliberation by the jury.
An appeal of Crippen's sentence was refused, and his execution was set for November 23. Ethel visited Crippen in prison every day, and followed each visit up with a letter.
When he was executed at Pentonville Prison in London, on November 23, 1910, he requested that the letters, and a photograph of Ethel, be buried with him. He also bequeathed his estate to her.
On the day that he was executed, Ethel left the country by ship, bound for New York; from there she traveled to Toronto, where she worked as a secretary for 5 years, before returning to the UK, where she married and settled in Croydon. She died in 1967 at 84.
Given the publicity surrounding 39 Hilldrop Crescent, it is unsurprising that the house remained empty for most of the next 30 years. It was destroyed in a German air raid during World War II.
Captain Kendall of the SS Montrose narrowly escaped death himself when his ship, the SS Empress of Ireland, was wrecked in 1914, with the loss of more than 1,000 lives, at Father Point in Quebec, the exact spot where Crippen had been arrested four years earlier. Kendall was one of the few to survive the disaster.
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