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Who did Crippen kill?

Updated on August 20, 2012

Many people know the story of Dr Hawley Crippen. The first criminal to be caught through the use of wireless telegraphy, who was hanged for the murder of his wife in 1910.Now new DNA evidence has been produced that some people claim that Crippen was innocent. However it raises new questions of what may have happened in 1910 London.

Hawley Harvey Crippen was born in 1862 in Coldwater, Michigan the only child of Myron, a store keeper and his wife Andresse.

Crippen qualified as a homeopathic doctor in 1884, after studying in London, Michigan and Cleveland Ohio. He married in 1887 to a nurse Charlotte Jane Bell. Charlotte turned out to be a women racked with guilt who apparently attended confession immediately after any love making occurred. However they had a son in 1889.Otto. After Charlotte died in 1892, Crippen left his child with his parents and moved to New York and entered general practise.

Cora Crippen (Belle Ellmore)
Cora Crippen (Belle Ellmore)

Once settled in New York he met Kunigunde Mackamotzi, the daughter of a polish fruit seller in Brooklyn. Known as Cora Turner, she was rumoured to be the mistress of another man, she also had delusions of being a singer. Despite this they were married in September 1892. A very short time had elapsed between the death of the first Mrs Crippen and the arrival of the second.

After his practise failed in 1894 he was employed by a Homeopathic Remedy Company, and after three years they sent him to London to open and manage a branch there. In 1899 he was dismissed for apparently spending too much time promoting his wife’s less than successful music hall career. He then joined Druets, an institute for the deaf, a company with a discreditable reputation by all accounts, that went bankrupt in 1908. After Druets collapsed Crippen became a partner in a dental practise in New Oxford Street London. It was during his time at Druets that Crippen employed a young typist named Ethel Clara Le Neve.

Ethel Le Neve
Ethel Le Neve

Up until 1905 the Crippens, who had been living in a flat in Oxford Street, decided to move to a house in Hilldrop Crescent, number 39 and decided to take in lodgers.

On the surface the marriage of Hawley Crippen and Cora, who now was known as Belle Elmore, was a happy one. But behind closed doors Belle was a fat, unfaithful, domineering drunk. By this time Crippen had fallen in Love with Ethel Le Neve, although it is claimed it was purely platonic at that stage, and was beginning to despise Belle. Things came to a head in December 1906 when Crippen found Belle in bed with a lodger. This was just one of her many acts of infidelity: but was one too far for Hawley Crippen.

Belle Elmore, or Cora Crippen, was last seen on the evening of the 31st of January 1910, by two of her friends who had dined with her and her husband. Crippen explained her disappearance by telling people she had gone to America. In March of that year he moved Ethel Le Neve into Hilldrop Crescent and reported that Belle had died in California. But suspicions had already been aroused when Le Neve was seen wearing some of Belles jewellery soon after her disappearance.

Belle had tried to maintain her connections with the stage by working with the Music Hal Ladies Guild, whose offices just happened to be in the same building as Crippens dental practise, Albion House. It was the members of the Music Halls Ladies guild that began to suspect wrong doings. After finding no record of a Belle Elmore or Cora Crippen travelling to America or dying there, they alerted Scotland Yard

Detective inspector Walter Drew interviewed Crippen on July 8th. Crippen gave a plausible account of himself, claiming he only lied because he felt humiliated by his wife’s desertion: but the next day he absconded with Ethel Le Neve. A subsequent search of the house produced a body buried under the cellar floor

As the world now knows Crippen and Le Neve boarded the Montrose liner destined for Montreal. They posed as Father and son, but the captain suspected them due to their physical closeness, inappropriate for father and son. The captain telegraphed the ship’s owner, who alerted Scotland Yard. Inspector Drew was able to board a faster vessel and reached Canada before the Montrose. Crippen and Le Neve where arrested before they could disembark and were brought back to England to face trial.

Crippens trial lasted four days. His defence regarding the body under the floor was that it was there when he took possession of Hilldrop, but evidence regarding a pyjama jacket and some poison it contained went against him. The pathologist Dr Bernard Spilsbury identified the body as belonging to Belle even though it had been stripped of most of its flesh and was headless. Under cross examination Crippen was calm but unconvincing, an attitude that proved beneficial to Le Neve, who was acquitted of being an accessory at a later trial. Crippen was found guilty and sentenced to hang.

The execution took place on November 23rd 1910 at Pentonville prison and his body buried in the prison grounds. Ethel Le Neve disappeared from the public view. She married and lived in England until her death in 1967: and that is where the story should have ended.But almost a century after the events, new evidence was uncovered.

The Crippen Trial
The Crippen Trial

Researches at Michigan State University were able to study one of the slides of tissue taken from Mrs. Crippens body in 1910.Extensive research on the DNA, which included matches against three of Cora Crippens relatives proved negative. Further investigation revealed the remains to be male. The body found under the floor of 39 Hilldrop Crescent could not have been that of Crippens missing wife.

Members of the Crippen family and their supporters claim this evidence to be proof of Dr Crippens innocence, and are asking for a posthumous pardon for him. But this new evidence has raised a few more questions regarding the whole affair. It may be worth stepping back and taking a more rational look at the events of 1910.

The first thing to question is the behavior of both Crippen and Le Neve.When questioned at his trial regarding the body found hidden, Crippen denied all knowledge of it, claiming it must have been there before he moved in. If this was the truth what reason did he have for leaving hastily the day after Inspector Drew’s visit. What un-nerved him? and why the need for false identies and the disguising Le Neve as a boy?, These are hardly the actions of someone with nothing to hide.

Further questions must be asked of Ethel Le Neve. Did she not wonder why they had to leave so suddenly and question the need for her to pose as a young boy? Was she really as innocent as has been claimed? Remember this was a young woman who was having an affair with a married man, and happily moved into the marital home just weeks after her lover’s wife suddenly disappeared. Did she ever have any doubts or ask questions?

Another question to be asked before we assume Crippens innocence, is what did happen to Cora Crippen? Nothing has been seen or heard of her since that fateful night of January 31st 1910. By all accounts she was no shrinking violet, so had she lived there must have been some trace or memory of her somewhere.

If the body in the cellar was not that of Cora Crippen, whose body was it and who was responsible for its death?. Did Crippen himself have some knowledge of how the death occurred? Something caused him to panic and flee after that first police visit. If he knew Cora’s body was not buried in the cellar, did he know whose body it was and how it got there?

When Hawley Harvey Crippen went to his grave, did he take the secret of more than one death with him?


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    • FatBoyThin profile image

      Colin Garrow 

      3 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      I reckon Dr Crippen's behaviour points to his having been a bit of a naughty boy, but whether this involved murder is hard to say: certainly someone was responsible for the body the police found, but it seems doubtful now that it was Cora's body. It may be that Crippen killed Cora because she was going to leave him, taking most of their savings with her, but if he did kill her, what did he do with her body?

    • eHealer profile image


      6 years ago from Las Vegas

      I don't know how you found those photos but, well done! Crippen was such a creepy guy, and maybe he and his naughty lass killed the women together. I know, I'm a little morbid, but this stuff fascinates me. It's funny that his new woman went a long with him. If she believed he was a murderer, would she have left with him? And how did his first wife die? Great hub and very interesting. Thanks and voted up!


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