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Dr Crippen who poisoned his wife, caught by telegraph!

Updated on July 10, 2012
Dr Hawley Crippen
Dr Hawley Crippen | Source

Dr Hawley Crippen was the first murderer to be caught using the then, novel technology of wireless telegraphy.

Crippen was born in 1862 in Coldwater, Michigan, USA. He qualified as a doctor in the Homeopathic Hospital in Cleveland and subsequently moved to New York where he met and married a student nurse of Irish extract, Jane Bell. The couple had their first child in 1889 but tragedy struck in January 1892 when Jane, who was pregnant, was suddenly taken ill and died of a stroke at the age of 33.

Later in the same year, Crippen met and married a music hall “wannabee”, 19 year old Cora Turner who performed under the stage name of Belle Elmore. In April 1897 Crippen moved to London, followed some five months later by Cora. On his arrival in London he started a business selling patent homeopathic medicines as his American qualifications were not recognised as sufficient to practise in the United Kingdom. The young couple moved home several times as their income increased and in 1905 they moved to their rented home at Hilldrop Crescent. The marriage was believed to be stormy; and there were suggestions that Cora brought home her admirers, especially when Dr Crippen was called back to the United States on business.

Belle Elmore , Crippen;s wife in a theatrical pose
Belle Elmore , Crippen;s wife in a theatrical pose | Source

In 1906 Crippen started an affair with his secretary Ethel Le Neve who was some twenty years younger than him. Crippen poisoned his wife with hyoscine after a dinner party, the only time a murder has been recorded using this drug. Cora’s body was buried in the cellar of their home at Hilldrop Crescent and Crippen told Cora’s many friends and admirers that she had gone abroad. He then told them that she had died on 23rd March 1910 in California and had been cremated. Cora’s friends were suspicious, especially as she had not told them she was going away; and became even more suspicious when Ethel Le Neve moved into Crippens home and started to openly wear Cora’s clothes and jewellery. A Mr Nash visited the police, stating why he found Cora’s disappearance so strange, and the case was handed to Inspector Walter Dew at Scotland Yard. Dew interviewed Crippen and Le Neve on 8th July 1910. Crippen told the Inspector that he had made a story up because his wife had left him for another man and he was too embarrassed to tell others about this. Dew seemed to accept this account but had niggling doubts as to why Cora Crippen had travelled so lightly, leaving the majority of her clothes behind and why the secretary was wearing one of Cora’s broaches.

The digging team outside Hilldrop Crescent. Inspector Dew is the man in the bowler hat
The digging team outside Hilldrop Crescent. Inspector Dew is the man in the bowler hat | Source

Crippen and Le Neve decided to leave the country and two days later when the police returned to Hilldrop Crescent they found the house to be deserted. A human torso was found buried in the cellar without head or limbs, but with scar tissue identical to an operation scar that Cora Crippen was said to have.

Inspector Dew immediately sent out word and descriptions of Crippen and Le Neve, in order to apprehend them. The couple who had fled the England via Belgium, boarded the SS Montrose and were making passage to Canada. The couple had attempted to disguise themselves. Crippen had shaved off his moustache and Le Neve had taken the identity of a 16 year old boy and thus they travelled as John Philo Robinson and son who was supposedly ill and travelling to Quebec to benefit his health.

The captain of the SS Montrose, Henry Kendall, recognised Crippen from his photograph in a newspaper and telegraphed the ship’s owners who telephoned Scotland Yard. The SS Montrose was the first ship to be fitted with the new wireless technology. Three days after the embarkation of the SS Montrose, Inspector Dew set sail on a much faster ship the SS Laurentic and on the last day of July he boarded the SS Montrose in disguise as harbour pilot and arrested both Crippen and Le Neve. As Canada was still a British Dominion it was possible for Dew to arrest Crippen and transport him back to London without an international warrant, which would have been needed had Crippen arrived in America.

SS Montrose, subsequently sank in 1914
SS Montrose, subsequently sank in 1914 | Source

The trial of Dr Crippen started on 18th October 2010 at the Old Bailey London. He was indicted on one count of wilful murder of Cora Crippen otherwise Belle Ellmore. At his trial it was clear that he could neither produce his wife nor prove that he had taken any steps, such as contacting relatives to find her. At his trial Crippen was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Ethel Le Neve was the subject of a second trial and was found “not guilty” of being an accessory after the fact. She left England dressed in mourning on November 23rd 1910, the day that Crippen was hung. She returned to England, married and had a family, to whom she never mentioned that her former lover had been a murderer.


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