The killing of Doctor Crippen

6 minute read

If anyone did not look like a brutal wife killer, it was Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen


If anyone did not look like a brutal wife killer, it was Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen.

Of small stature, he had bulging eyes behind thick pebble glasses, a slight build and conveyed the air of a bemused frog. Crippen had much to be bemused about. Although titled a doctor, he only had limited qualifications in fields like naturopathy and optometry.

But the major problem was his wife Cora. Of Polish origin, they had married in America. Cora Crippen was large, vulgar, prone to bluster and had expensive tastes. It was rumoured that she was sexually voracious but he tolerated her affairs. She regarded herself as a thespian but was, at best, an occasional feature in music hall acts.

Cora was more than a handful for any husband but behind the scenes it was a different story. He was having an affair with Ethel Le Neve, his young assistant.

The situation came to a head on 31 January 1910 when Crippen announced to Cora’s friends that she had suddenly moved back to her family in America. They were puzzled as it was quite unlike her to do something like this without telling everyone first. The situation took on a new light when Ethel moved into Crippen’s home and would wear her jewellery and clothes.

The concerned friends passed their concerns on to the police, who came to the house to interview Crippen. His mild manner reassured them that there were no grounds for further inquiry but the visit sent him into a panic. Three days later Crippen and Ethel disappeared. This time the police searched the house properly, finding the remains of a torso, without head, arms or legs, buried in the cellar. It was so badly mutilated there was no way of telling what sex it was.

The hunt for Crippen swung into action. The police soon discovered that he and Ethel, dressed in boy’s clothes to pass as his son, had boarded a ship for the US. In the first ever use of radio for criminal detection, the captain was advised to watch the couple, who were arrested when they got to Canada.

Crippen was sent for trial, to be followed by Ethel. He was poorly represented and more defensive than he needed to be so he could protect Ethel. By all rights, he should have been exonerated: to whom did the body belong and what sex was it? How could someone be found guilty of murder under these circumstances?

Enter Bernard Spilsbury, the father of British forensics and a man going places. Referring to himself as God’s locum, Spilsbury was a one-man band. He would do the investigation at the site of the killing, followed by the autopsy, give evidence in court and, in more than a few cases, perform the post-mortem on the hanged man. He was beautifully dressed, spoke to the jury, not at them and avoided jargon. Spilsbury was adored by judges, juries and the media. His hold over courts was little short of hypnotic. He seemed in absolute control of the facts, presenting irrefutable evidence. It was believed that no one could escape the noose once he came in on a case (with one exception – who got off and committed another murder later – he always represented the prosecution).

At the Crippen trial, Spilsbury played a limited hand to the hilt. He presented a single slide of an abdominal scar, claiming this was incontestable evidence of a hysterectomy which Cora had been known to have had. This, as it turns out, was untenable but the two defence pathologists were out of their depth and unable to deflate Spilsbury’s powerful hold over the jury.

Crippen, protesting his innocence to the end, went to the scaffold. Ethel, seen as a victim, was exonerated. She changed her name, married and left the country.

Crippen became a by-word for murderous horror, commemorated (if that is the right word) as a popular waxwork in Madame Tussauds. In the century that passed, arguments about the case continued. It was widely accepted that Spilsbury had been tendentiously wrong. On the other hand, Crippen had clear motive to kill his wife, displayed guilty behaviour and who else could the body belong to? Against this is the fact that Cora was a large and strong lady. It would have taken some strength to overcome her. Crippen had bought hyoscine, a poison, shortly before her disappearance and would have skills from his medical training to dissect the body. But if he had disposed of the limbs and skull, why leave the torso in the cellar where it could be discovered?

There the matter would have remained until 2012 when an American researcher got hold of Spilsbury’s original slide. He extracted the DNA and compared it with that of Cora’s relatives. The results were, to put it mildly, shocking. Not only was there no family connection, but the tissue came from a man. Technical flaws in the research are being fiercely argued but the case, for crime enthusiasts, just keeps on giving. The possibility that Crippen was unjustly hanged will never go away.

The trial made Spilsbury’s reputation and he went on to be the prosecution’s trump card in many trials. This could not last. In the years that followed, he was savaged from all quarters for his dogmatic refusal to accept that his findings could ever be incorrect. This, combined with his hypnotic sway over juries, is thought to have led to at least three unjust executions, with a number of other cases possibly included. By the time of his death – Spilsbury committed suicide in 1947 –  he was on the slide, scrounging around the coroner’s office to get some work. Spilsbury is regarded as a classic case of a charismatic doctor whose work, despite many innovations, led to disaster. We don’t need any more like him. As for Crippen, the doubts over his guilt are as good a case for the abolition of the death penalty we can have.

Robert M Kaplan, being of a shy, retiring nature, did pathology but was found to have a personality and asked to move on. He is writing about Crippen, Spilsbury and other charismatic doctors in his book The King Who Strangled his Psychiatrist and Other Dark Tales. Applications from interested publishers are welcomed.


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