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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A century later, was Dr Crippen innocent?

It's exactly 100 years today since the execution of Dr Crippen.

Here's my piece on the famous murder case, from the Daily Express.

A HUNDRED years ago this week Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen, one of the 20th century’s most notorious convicted murderers, was led to the gallows at Pentonville Prison in London. He smiled as a black hood was put over his head. And then he was hanged.

Crippen’s was the first murder case to get global attention. The case contained all the elements of a classic Agatha Christie novel: an overpowering, promiscuous wife who had bullied and nagged her mild, self-effacing husband, apparently disappearing into thin air; the badly mutilated remains of a body found in the cellar; the flight of the wife’s husband, with his mistress disguised as a boy, on a transatlantic liner; the fugitives’ dramatic arrest in Canada.

It took the jury just 27 minutes to find Dr Crippen guilty of murdering his wife Cora at their North London home. But 100 years on from Crippen’s execution, the controversy surrounding the case refuses to go away.

Crippen always protested his innocence, maintaining that his wife had deserted him after a fierce row. But while there was much sympathy for the doctor, for whom no one had a bad word, very few thought he was telling the truth.

However, new scientific evidence appears to indicate that the body in the cellar was not Cora Crippen after all. So could it be that Dr Crippen really was innocent?

Dr Crippen was an American homeopath who moved to Britain with his wife in 1900. He was an attentive husband but Cora, an unsuccessful music hall artiste, repaid him by having affairs and showing him up in public. Eventually Crippen took a lover of his own, his typist, a young woman named Ethel Le Neve.

Things came to a head in the early hours of February 1, 1910. The Crippens had held a dinner party for friends who bade them farewell at around 1am. It was the last time Cora was ever seen alive.

At first, Dr Crippen’s story was that urgent business had led his wife to leave suddenly for America. He then told family friends that he had received a letter from her saying that she had become ill. Then he said that he had been notified of her death in California.

What prompted one of Cora’s friends to go to the police was seeing Ethel Le Neve wearing Mrs Crippen’s jewels at a party she and Crippen attended less than a month after his wife’s disappearance. Crippen was questioned by detectives and he admitted that his version of events had been a lie. He claimed that his wife him left after a row and to cover up the scandal he had invented the tale of her dying in America. Crippen’s house was searched but nothing incriminating was found.

Then Crippen made his biggest mistake. Although still in the clear, he decided to flee Britain with Le Neve. To disguise himself he shaved off his moustache while Le Neve cut her hair and dressed as a boy. They travelled to Antwerp where, under the names of “Mr and Master Robinson”, they set sail for Quebec on the SS Montrose.

When Inspector Dew of Scotland Yard heard that Crippen had fled, he made a more thorough examination of his house. Under the cellar floor were found badly mutilated human remains. Arrest warrants for Crippen and Le Neve were issued. The mild-mannered doctor was now Britain’s most wanted man. Crippen could probably still have evaded capture had he and Le Neve travelled third-class and out of sight of the ship’s master. But the eagle-eyed Captain Kendall, who had read the “Wanted” notices before his ship set sail, became suspicious after seeing the pair behaving more like lovers than father and son.

A new technological invention also proved Crippen’s undoing. After two days at sea, Kendall sent a Marconi telegraph to London informing Scotland Yard of his discovery. “Have strong suspicions that Crippen – London cellar murderer and accomplice are among Saloon passengers,” it read.

It was the first time wireless telegraphy had been used in criminal detection and, unluckily for Crippen, the Montrose was one of the first liners to be fitted with a Marconi radio.

When the Montrose arrived in Quebec Inspector Dew, who had travelled to Canada on a faster ship, was there to greet the fugitives. “I am not sorry; the anxiety has been too much,” said Crippen after his capture.

The trial of Dr Crippen was the most eagerly awaited event of 1910. The prosecution set out to prove that the body in the cellar was that of Cora Crippen. Forensic evidence revealed there to be a scar on a small piece of skin and Cora was known to have had a scar. Examination of the body’s internal organs revealed the presence of a quantity of hyoscin, a powerful narcotic poison. Damningly for Crippen, it was revealed that he had purchased five grains of the drug on January 17, two weeks before his wife’s disappearance, claiming it was to be used as medicine for his patients.

I n his summing up, the Lord Chief Justice asked why, if Crippen’s account was true, Cora Crippen went off leaving her jewellery behind as well as her expensive furs. And he also queried why Crippen had taken no steps to trace his wife, knowing that her discovery would prove his innocence.

Crippen was sentenced to hang. His last request, that he be buried with a photograph of Ethel Le Neve and letters he had received from her, was granted.

But Crippen’s death did not put an end to the theorising about what had really happened. The leading barrister Sir Edward Marshall Hall maintained that Crippen had killed his wife by accident. He pointed out that hyoscin could be used as a sexual depressant and claimed Crippen had administered the drug to his wife to reduce her sex drive.

The crime writer Jonathan Goodman believed that Ethel Le Neve may have been the instigator of the crime and that Crippen had shielded her. It was never revealed at the trial but, prior to Cora Crippen’s disappearance, Le Neve had spent weeks in the library at the Royal College of Surgeons studying books on toxicology.

But the most sensational developments in the case came just three years ago. New examinations of the scarred skin of the corpse, carried out by a team of scientists in America led by Professor David Foran, revealed it to have different mitochondrial DNA from grand-nieces of Cora Crippen. Not only that, a “Y” chromosome was discovered on the nuclear DNA, indicating the body was that of a man. “We tested and tested and tested. The body is not Cora Crippen’s,” said Foran.

The defenders of Crippen, who have campaigned to have the case reopened, received a blow late last year when the Criminal Cases Review Commission declined to refer it to the Court of Appeal. Now they are asking Justice Secretary Ken Clarke to look into the case with a view to pardoning Crippen.

But there are many unanswered questions: if he was innocent then whose was the body in the cellar? And if he didn’t kill his wife then what happened to her? The case that fascinated the world a century ago looks set to provoke debate for a long time to come.


Roland Hulme said...

Terrific stuff, Neil. You're one heck of a writer when you lay off the politics.

Neil Clark said...

Cheers, Roland. Many thanks.
re the politics- hope that some day I'll be able to convince you of the merits of a planned economy and public ownership!
hope all's well with you.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Roland, this looks like bread'n'butter stuff for Neil. For me his political writings are his best - sophisticated yet clear and accessible for the lay reader who knows nothing about philosophy, political theory and so on. Come to think of it, perfect for someone like you, really.

- questionnaire