On this day in history : 31st January 1910 – Dr. Crippen poisons his wife, dismembers her body and buries her boneless torso in the cellar of their London home….

Hawley Harvey Crippen c.1910

Hawley Harvey Crippen was an American homeopath living in London, with his wife Cora….a ‘would-be’ music hall star with little talent…. Cora was flamboyant and openly unfaithful – flaunting a string of younger lovers…. Crippen retaliated by taking a mistress, Ethel Le Neve, a typist who worked for him….

Cora Crippen (stage name Belle Elmore) Public domain – Bain News Service, publisher

It was after a dinner party held at Crippen’s home on the 31st of January that Cora disappeared…. Crippen told friends and neighbours that she had returned to America – as time went on he elaborated on the story, adding that she was ill – and then that she had died….

Crippen moved his girlfriend in;  and it wasn’t long before Le Neve started wearing Cora’s clothes and jewellery…. this aroused the suspicions of neighbours – but it was Cora’s friend, Kate Williams – better known as ‘Vulcana’, a strong woman and fellow performer – who alerted the police…. Crippen was interviewed by Chief Inspector Walter Dew of Scotland Yard – and the house was searched…. Crippen told Dew that he had fabricated Cora’s illness and she had in fact run off with one of her young lovers, a Bruce Miller….

Chief Inspector Walter Dew c.1920

Dew was satisfied with Crippen’s story and nothing had been found untoward at the house…. That should have been that….but Crippen panicked and he and Le Neve fled to Brussels….

The disappearance of Crippen and his mistress led to a more detailed search of the house…. It was eventually on the fourth such search that the grisly discovery in the cellar was made…. Buried beneath the floor they found a headless and boneless torso, wrapped inside a pyjama jacket…. The head, skeleton, sexual organs and limbs were never found….

Crippen and Le Neve attempted to abscond to Canada onboard SS Montrose….they were disguised as father and son…. The ship’s captain, George Kendall, was aware of Scotland Yard’s manhunt and realised who the pair were…. On board his ship was a brand new, state of the art, Marconi wireless telegraph radio set…. Captain Kendall was able to alert the authorities….

“Have strong suspicion that Crippen London cellar murderer and accomplice are among saloon passengers. Moustache taken off growing beard. Accomplice dressed as boy. Manner and build undoubtedly a girl”….

Inspector Dew was able to get on a faster ship than that of SS Montrose and was waiting in Quebec with the Canadian police when Crippen and Le Neve arrived….

“Good morning, Dr. Crippen. Do you know me? I’m Chief Inspector Dew from Scotland Yard”…. To which, after a pause Crippen replied…. “Thank God it’s over. The suspense has been too great. I couldn’t stand it any more”….

A disguised Crippen after his arrest. Public domain

The trial was held at the Old Bailey and Crippen’s defence was led by Alfred Tobin…. Crippen still insisted Cora had gone to America with her lover…. He claimed the body parts found in the cellar must have been there since before they had moved into the house…. However, a label reading “Jones Bros”- found in the pyjama top within which the remains had been wrapped – meant the investigation team were able to confirm with the manufacturer that the fabric used was from a more recent time…. The odds were stacked against Crippen – as the matching pyjama trousers were found in his bedroom….

Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve on trial – image: United States Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division

A piece of intact skin from the torso bore a scar that matched one that Cora had received from an operation….the defence argued that it was a fold of skin and had hair follicles, which scar tissue would not have…. Traces of the drug hyoscine were found in the flesh of the torso – Crippen had purchased a quantity shortly before Cora’s disappearance….

Alledged scar tissue used in evidence at the trial, claimed to be that of Cora Crippen. Jack1956 at English Wikipedia. Public domain

The court case relied heavily on the new forensic science techniques available – and it did not take long for the jury to find him guilty….just 27 minutes of deliberation…. Crippen was sentenced to death…. He showed no remorse and little emotion throughout the trial – his main concern seeming to be the protection of Le Neve’s reputation….

Sketches from the trial of Dr. Crippen. ‘The Sketch’ magazine. Public domain

Crippen was hanged by John Ellis, assisted by William Willis, at 9am on the 23rd of November 1910 – in Pentonville Prison, London…. He was buried, at his request, with a photograph of Ethel Le Neve in his coffin….

Le Neve was charged with being an accessory – but acquitted…. On the morning of Crippen’s execution she emigrated to America….

In recent years there have been doubts raised as to whether Crippen really was guilty of the murder of his wife…. Controversial new evidence implies the remains in the cellar were not those of Cora….

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