Most people know the name. Most who know the name, know the story. ‘Doctor’ Hawley Harvey Crippen (actually a salesman of quack remedies) unwittingly became one of criminal history’s most infamous names. His wife Cora disappeared. Her remains were found beneath the coal cellar of their home, 39 Hilldrop Crescent. Crippen flees to Canada with his mistress, Ethel le Neve. The Transatlantic pursuit of Crippen and his paramour, secretly recognised by Captain Kendall of the SS Montrose, whose radio message made Crippen the first murderer caught by radio. Crippen and le Neve arrested after Scotland Yard’s Walter Dew caught a faster ship (the SS Laurentic) and surprised them.
Talk of an abusive, unfaithful, drunken, violent wife whose conduct might have driven him to breaking point. Crippen’s illicit liaisons with his secretary and the final chapter on November 23, 1910, when Crippen walked smiling to the gallows. Ethel, having been cleared of any wrongdoing, disappeared into obscurity for the rest of her life. Well, almost…
But was Crippen hanged for the wrong murder? Was he even guilty? New forensic evidence doesn’t conclusively exonerate him. But it certainly raises questions about the original verdict, particularly the forensic evidence that saw Crippen receive his death sentence. According to leading forensic toxicologist John Trestrail (writer of the FBI textbook on poisons and poisoners) and DNA expert David Foran, the remains found under the coal cellar are not Cora Crippen’s.
Foran’s testing of mitochondrial DNA (only present on the female side) was based on an original tissue sample tested for a match with three of her surviving descendants. The samples didn’t match. This doesn’t automatically exonerate Crippen. After all, if the remains weren’t his wife then whose were they? If he didn’t murder Cora then did he murder somebody else? Was he tried, convicted and condemned as a genuine murderer, but actually hanged for the wrong murder?
Trestrail, a world-renowned expert on poisons and poisoners, has stated that this is the only poisoning case he’s ever examined where the poisoner also dismembered their victim. He bases this idea on the premise that poisoners have recognised the real principle of the so-called ‘perfect murder.’ A ‘perfect murder’ isn’t one where a murderer isn’t caught, it’s the murder that goes entirely undetected. Use a poison that mimics some disease or other and, barring any suspicions, it’s far more likely the death will be attributed to natural causes.
Poisoners usually grasp that, at least in theory. They don’t need to dissect their victim. Doing so would be pointless if they’re hoping to pass off poisoning as a natural death. Crippen, despite being one of the world’s most notorious poisoners, doesn’t fit the typical profile of a poisoner. If he was a poisoner at all.
One other complication arises. While the samples were DNA-tested they were also tested to establish the gender of the remains. The test used is cutting-edge and only performed at Foran’s lab. According to the test results, the remains were male. If the tests are accurate, the remains weren’t Cora’s and the deceased wasn’t even female (ruling out the theory that Crippen performed illegal abortions and something went wrong). Essentially destroying the prosecution’s case and the forensic evidence on which it was largely based.
Hawley Crippen, star of the world’s first trial-by-media and still resident at Madame Tussaud’s ‘Chamber of Horrors’, could be innocent of the murder for which he was hanged. One body of opinion, debatable though it may be, has suggested that Cora did indeed leave her husband for America as Crippen initially claimed. That said, even if she did that doesn’t resolve the question the human remains found in Crippen’s basement. If they weren’t those of Cora Crippen, whose were they and how did they get there?
If Crippen was wrongly convicted and unjustly hanged, it doesn’t just destroy the case against him. It cripples the reputation of the prosecution forensic expert, the ‘Father of forensic science’ Sir Bernard Spilsbury. Spilsbury is still a colossus in forensic circles. His career was legendary. His case findings and working practices are still held up as examples.
Only relatively recently have Spilsbury’s skill, accuracy and reputation been questioned. Spilsbury mostly testified for the prosecution in murder cases, very seldom appearing for the defence. His evidence and stature meant that, merely by appearing, he could swing a jury’s verdict. Another defendant, Norman Thorne, went to the gallows in April 1925 having declared himself a ‘martyr to Spilsburyism.’ Author Richard Gordon described him thus:
‘His opinions were so impregnable, he could achieve single-handed all the legal consequences of a homicide – arrest, prosecution, conviction, and final post-mortem – requiring only the brief assistance of the hangman.’
If he could be so far wrong in the Crippen case, his first big case and his passport to scientific and criminal legend as helping convict over 250 murderers, then how many other defendants might have died at the end of a rope for crimes they didn’t commit?
Trestrail also questions the behaviour of the lead investigator, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Walter Dew. The dismembered body reminded many Londoners of Jack the Ripper. The resulting media storm created immense pressure to catch the murderer. Even Home Secretary Winston Churchill took a personal interest in the case. After Crippen’s arrest, Dew left Scotland Yard, becoming a private detective and writing the lucrative book ‘I Caught Crippen…’
Trestrail believes that another crucial piece of evidence (a pyjama top belonging to Crippen, found with the remains) was planted by Dew and his Detective Sergeant in an effort to close the case quickly. According to Trestrail, the press and public wanted a murderer hanged, so Dew (and possibly Willcox and Spilsbury) served them Crippen on a plate.
If Dew did frame Crippen, did he frame the right person for the wrong murder? Was he so convinced of Crippen’s genuine guilt that he planted evidence for the forensic team to find? Did he frame an actual murderer at all, or simply serve up the most plausible suspect, not on a plate, but a pathologist’s slab with his neck broken?
William Willcox, chief toxicologist for the prosecution, found hyoscine in the remains. He also found it with unusual (if not suspicious) speed. Hyoscine has never been used in a murder case before or since, yet Willcox found it very quickly despite that. Crippen had purchased hyoscine from a local chemist before the murder. But why and how did Willcox even know to test for it? Why look specifically for hyoscine when far more common poisons like arsenic or cyanide were more likely suspects?
Crippen possessed hyoscine. Scotland Yard knew he possessed hyoscine. Willcox, with possibly dubious ease, found hyoscine. This when it would have been a highly unlikely poisoner’s choice. Granted, Willcox found a drug police knew was in Crippen’s possession, a drug then used in obstetrics and possibly by illegal abortionists. Was it standard practice to test for every drug in a suspect’s possession, or did Dew suggest it?
Rightly or wrongly, Crippen went to the gallows at Pentonville Prison at 9am on November 23, 1910. 109 years ago today. According to executioner John Ellis, Crippen smiled as he saw the noose and quickened his pace as though he wanted it over quickly. He was buried, as was the custom, within the prison where he was hanged. Ethel changed her name and left England for Canada and then Australia, not returning for many years. ‘Ethel always feared exposure as ‘Doctor’ Crippen’s mistress.
Near the end of her life she finally came back and, not long before she died, she asked a friend to take her to London to visit two places from her past. One was Holloway Prison where London’s female criminals are held, where Ethel herself was held before trial as an accessory. The other was Pentonville, where her lover smiled as he approached the hangman’s noose.