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7. Edith Thompson Transcript

Here’s a full transcript of the seventh episode of Shedunnit.

Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.

Caroline: On the morning of 9 January 1923, a brutal and horrifying execution took place at Holloway Prison in London. The condemned young woman screamed and cried, but no last minute reprieve arrived. Just before nine am her gaolers injected her with a sedative, and then offered her brandy as well to calm her nerves. It still took four people to drag her out to the brick shed where her end awaited.

She was strapped into a bosun’s chair. A white hood was put over her head and a noose around her neck. She was barely conscious when, at the stroke of nine, the trapdoor opened and she fell to her death. At the exact same time in a different prison a mile away, the man she loved fell also. She was buried in the prison grounds, and for decades her family begged in vain to be told where her grave was located.

Hers had been a life of passion and fantasy, a whirlwind of imagination she created to escape a humdrum suburban existence. Her lover always maintained that the murder they were hanged for was his idea alone, but she was convicted by a jury immersed in the strict moral code of a bygone era that saw her frankness, love of romance and enjoyment of sex as proof of guilt enough. Long after she was dead, her story would inspire authors like James Joyce, EM Delafield, Dorothy L Sayers and Sarah Waters, and you can find traces of it in many detective novels published in the decades since.

This is the story of Edith Thompson.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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It’s not hard to see why the life and death of Edith Thompson proved so captivating for crime writers and the general public alike. It reads like a ready-made morality tale, or an inverted fairy story, in which the heroine finds her prince only for her happily ever after to turn into a nightmare that ends in the hangman’s noose. It caused a sensation while it was happening in 1922, and it has continued to fascinate people ever since. The events themselves — what we would call the plot, if this was a novel rather than a horrifyingly true story — are shocking enough, but it is really the characters and backgrounds of the people involved that makes this tale so compelling. And to really understand that, we need to go right back to the beginning.

Edith Graydon was born on Christmas Day in 1893 in east London. She was the eldest of five children of prosperous lower middle class parents — her father William was a clerk and her mother Ethel a housewife whose father was a policeman. William also had a part time job as a dancing teacher, and his daughter grew up to love performing. She left school at the age of 15 in 1909 and worked in the fashion industry, doing well at a London millinery firm. She was promoted several times until she became their chief buyer, and travelled twice to Paris for work. Before the idea of the “flapper” had really taken hold in the British psyche, Edith exhibited lots of the traits associated with that 1920s stereotype: she was a hard working career woman, she loved to have fun, she put off having children, she had bobbed hair, she spoke French — the list goes on.

In 1909, Edith also met Percy Thompson, a shipping clerk three years her senior. They were engaged for six years, eventually getting married in 1916 when Edith was 21. She kept working, and the pair initially lived in Southend before buying a house in the outer east London borough of Ilford. The Thompsons lived what appeared to be a happy, comfortable married life, but judging by what happened next, it would seem that Edith was bored or even depressed at her newly suburban, grown up existence.

The fateful meeting that would set Edith on the course to that bosun’s chair happened in 1920, when she reconnected with a young man she had first met nine years before, when he took dancing lessons from her father. Frederick Bywaters was now an 18 year old ship’s laundry steward who was handsome and full of stories about all his travels at sea. He was already friendly with Edith’s younger sister Avis, and it seems that Percy liked him at first too, because all four of them went on holiday together that summer to the Isle of Wight. Afterwards, Percy suggested that Frederick lodge with the Thompsons in Ilford on the rare occasions that he got leave from his ship, and Bywaters accepted.

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What happened next feels inevitable now, looking back at this story with the advantage of hindsight, but I’m sure as Edith was living it, she felt like every glance from Frederick held a new and fascinating potential to save her from her humdrum existence. Not long after returning from the summer holiday, she and Frederick began an affair, conducted under her husband’s nose at the house in Ilford. Of course, Percy found out. In the ensuing argument, Frederick demanded that her husband allow Edith a divorce so the lovers could be together, but Percy just raged and banished him from the house. Afterwards, Edith said later, Percy became violent — hitting her several times and throwing her across the room. Frederick went to sea again for his job in September 1921 and remained away for a whole year. It’s not hard to imagine the despair that Edith faced while he was away, her boring suburban life rendered even worse by the deteriorating state of her marriage.

The really remarkable part of this story, and ironically the thing that probably influenced the jury at Edith’s trial most, is what she did during the year that Frederick was away at sea. She wrote and sent him more than 60 long love letters — that’s at least one a week for a year — that were informed by her love of literary and romantic fiction. There was over 50,000 words altogether, including details about Edith’s life, her feelings, her memories and her reading habits.

In September 1922, Frederick returned to London on leave, and he and Edith reconnected. On 3 October, Edith and her husband were walking home from Ilford station late at night after going to the theatre in central London when a man jumped out from behind some bushes by the road and attacked Percy with a knife. The attacker ran away and her husband died before help arrived. Later, neighbours reported hearing a woman screaming “no, don’t!” repeatedly at the time of the attack.

When the police arrived, Edith identified the attacker as Frederick Bywaters and explained his connection to herself and her husband. I can only assume that she was confident at this point that she was considered to be just a witness to the crime, otherwise it seems like a strangely helpful way for a murder suspect to behave. It was only after detectives investigated Bywaters and found all of Edith’s letters that he had kept that she was drawn into the investigation.

The letters, you see, contained references to certain thrillers that Edith had read, including one called Bella Donna by Robert Hichens, in which a wife poisons her husband. As well as declaring her passionate love for Frederick, these missives also hinted at her desire that he should replace Percy as her husband, possibly using violent means if necessary. At one point, she claimed to Frederick that she had tried murdering Percy by putting ground up glass in his mashed potato. She also made reference to a young woman who had lost three husbands, while she, Edith, “can’t even lose one”. This was enough, apparently, for the police to invoke the law of “common purpose”, under which all those who plan a murder share criminal liability for it, even if only one physically carried out the attack. The letters, with their inclusion of husband-murder tropes, hinted at Edith’s complicity in the attack, the police felt. Both Frederick and Edith were arrested and charged with Percy’s murder.

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Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters were tried together at the Old Bailey in London. The proceedings opened on 6 December 1922. They both had famous lawyers defending them — Edith’s barrister Henry Curtis-Bennett had earlier that year appeared for the arsenic poisoner Herbert Rowse Armstrong and Bywaters’ lawyer Cecil Whiteley had in 1915 defended the ‘brides in the bath’ murderer George Joseph Smith. There was a media frenzy surrounding the case already, with papers all over the country running breathless stories about “The Ilford Murder” and the attractive young lovers in the dock.

The trial only lasted a few days, because Frederick made it all quite straightforward. He had cooperated fully with the police, even showing them where the knife he had used to stab Percy was hidden. He insisted throughout that he had acted completely alone and without Edith’s knowledge, and that she was completely innocent of the crime. He said that his own intention had not been to murder Percy, but to confront him and frighten him into agreeing to release Edith from their marriage. Frederick explained that he had lost his temper when Percy had seemed to find the idea funny, and that’s when things turned violent.

The case against Edith looked like it would easily collapse. There being no material evidence linking her to the planning of the crime beyond the vague suggestions in her letters to Frederick, and her lawyer felt sure that he could argue those represented merely an infatuated woman’s fantasies rather than any concrete intention to act or cause harm. Percy’s body was exhumed and Home Office pathologists (including Bernard Spillsbury, who we met in episode two during the trial of Dr Crippen) could find no evidence that he had been fed glass or poison as the letters suggested. This gave weight to the idea that what she had written in the letters was really just the result of Edith’s imagination running wild, and could therefore be discounted in court.

So how did it go so wrong for Edith Thompson? Afterwards, her lawyer put her conviction down to the fact that she had insisted on giving evidence in her own defence. Her biographer, Rene Weis, writes that she was convinced that if she spoke, she could convince the jury that her relationship with Frederick was no sordid suburban affair but rather a grand romantic passion. She had been mortified by hearing her love letters read out tonelessly in court and seen her parents humiliated and in tears, Weis writes. She felt that she could “set the record straight” and as well as securing her own release, she thought she might be able to convince the judge not to sentence Frederick to death.

Unfortunately, her appearance seems to have had the opposite effect. She contradicted herself on the witness stand and appeared alternately melodramatic and self pitying. When asked about what she had been thinking when she wrote some specific passages in the letters, she said she couldn’t remember. The judge, Sir Montague Shearman, particularly seemed inclined against her, since he began the part of his summing up that referred to her without even using her name. “As for the woman,” he declared, disapprovingly, before going on to remind the jury of their duty to deliver a verdict only based on the evidence presented in the case.

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The guilty verdict was delivered on 11 December. Both Edith and Frederick were sentenced to death by hanging. To the salacious delight of the newspaper reporters in the press gallery, Edith collapsed in hysterics at the news, while Frederick shouted loudly about her innocence. Since he was nine years younger than her, commentators enjoyed portraying him as an innocent youth led astray by a manipulative older woman. He was a mere “romantic, chivalrous boy”, one wrote.

Of course, this could have been what happened. If Edith Thompson was indeed manipulative enough to have pushed Frederick Bywaters’ buttons until he stabbed her husband to death, it is possible that she could also have put on her extraordinary, contradictory courtroom performance because she thought it would muddy the waters and get him a lighter sentence. It seems less likely, though, than the theory that Rene Weis and others have put forward — Edith was just a sentimental, flighty young woman who completely lost her head when her romantic lover took things too far.

A big part of her miscalculation was in how the public, and crucially the jury, would respond to her letters. It’s possible, of course, that Edith thought Frederick would destroy them so they could never be read by anyone anyway. There was a heavy vein of sexism in the way the case against her was built, because the prosecution argued that her love of romantic, fanciful books led her to indulge in lethal fantasies that eventually led to action.

There were still ideas around in the 1920s about the harmful effect of romantic or sentimental fiction on women — it lingered for a long time, because it’s the same trope that Jane Austen was making fun of when she wrote Northanger Abbey in 1803. Frederick did say during the trial that Edith liked to “read a book and imagine herself as the character in the book”, not thinking that the jury would take that as an indication that she actually wanted to act out the role of murderess in the thrillers that she had enjoyed reading.

Edith’s biographer Rene Weis has also hinted at a theme I discussed in the first episode of this podcast as an explanation for why she was convicted without any substantial evidence against her. In 1922, Britain was still gripped by the idea, compounded by the figures released for the 1921 census, that the country contained over a million more women than men after all of the male casualties in the first world war. As I showed in that episode, this isn’t strictly correct in demographic terms, but this idea of the “surplus women” as disposable and unwanted was a powerful force regardless. To social conservatives at the time, Edith Thompson was not a “womanly woman” — she worked, she danced, she had been married for six years without having a child so presumably used contraception, and she wrote in her letters to Bywaters about enjoying sex and having an abortion.

If guilty, she had also brought about the needless deaths of two men. Seen in this light, it’s no wonder she was sentenced to death. Her lawyers did appeal, but unsuccessfully. There was even a public petition to stop the execution of Edith and Frederick with over a million signatures, but that was rejected too. Less than a month over her conviction, Edith Thompson was dragged into that shed at Holloway Prison and hanged. As well as being almost unconscious when it happened, she bled a lot — eyewitnesses says it looked like her “insides fell out”. Subsequent commentators, including Weis, have interpreted this as a miscarriage, suggesting that it was possible that Edith was pregnant. If so, she should never have been hanged — the law forbade it. Even if not, it was rare for a woman to be hanged at all — Edith was the first in 16 years.

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The influence of the case on the crime writers of the day was profound and long lived — the real events were so dramatic and improbable that the could not help but capture the imaginations of those who made this stuff up for a living. Martin Edwards documents many of their reactions in his book The Golden Age of Murder, so I recommend seeking that out if you’re interested in learning more. The first novel to appear based on the so-called “Ilford Murder” came out just a year after Thompson’s execution: Messalina of the Suburbs by E.M. Delafield. You might know her as the author of the semi-autobiographical The Diary of a Provincial Lady, but she was also a novelist and close friend of the Golden Age detective writer Anthony Berkeley. He also dwelt on the idea of a wife inciting a lover to murder her husband a few times in different books, most overtly in 1939’s As for the Woman. In 1937 the authors who made up the famous Detection Club (which we’ll be learning more about in a future episode, by the way) published a book of true crime essays titled The Anatomy of Murder, in which Berkeley wrote about Edith Thompson. Unhappily married and prone to outside passions himself, he felt strongly that she was “executed for adultery” rather than for an actual crime.

One of the most interesting novels to be influenced by the case was The Documents in the Case, a 1930 collaboration between Dorothy L. Sayers and the scientist Robert Eustace. The whole story is told through letters and documents relevant to the case, so the reader feels as if they are playing the role of detective themselves. It too features a young wife (“a sort of suburban vamp”, they call her) who starts an affair with the lodger and is therefore ambiguously implicated in her lover’s later actions. It’s perhaps not as pacy as a Lord Peter Wimsey novel, and it is a bit too wrapped up in the ingenious technicalities of the murder method rather than having properly compelling characters, but it’s an interesting take on the relationship dynamics nonetheless.

The actor Frank Vosper, who would go on to star in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and die in suspicious circumstances in 1937, wrote a play about Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters called People Like Us. It opened in London in 1929, but was swiftly banned by the Lord Chamberlain because of its supposedly racy content, and then remained unperformed until 1948. This play is in turn referenced in Agatha Christie‘s 1949 novel Crooked House, when an actress says suggests that a murder in the family is the ideal time to put on the “Edith Thompson play”, and that “there’s quite a lot of comedy to be got out of Edith Thompson – I don’t think the author realised that”. Exactly what Agatha Christie thought might be funny about this case is sadly not recorded.

Alfred Hitchcock was actually closely connected to the case, since he had been a pupil at Edith’s father’s dancing school and remained friends with her younger sister Avis. He apparently considered making a film about Edith’s demise a number of times, but never actually did. However, there are traces of the case in his 1950 film Stage Fright, and in the 1941 film Suspicion, which stars Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine, ground glass is used as a murder weapon. Incidentally, this film is actually based on Anthony Berkeley’s 1932 novel Before the Fact.

Novelists and film makers are still finding inspiration in the case and the works it spawned today. As well as the 2001 film Another Life, the writer Sarah Waters has written about how it was Fryn Tennyson Jesse’s 1934 novel about Edith Thompson A Pin to See the Peepshow that first gave her the idea for the setting of her 2014 bestseller The Paying Guests. All of the Thompson-inspired novels give “a vision of a suburbia filled with seedy clerks and sulky housewives”, she has said, which seemed to her still an idea setting for a thrilling story of murder.

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In November 2018, Edith Thompson’s body was lifted out the mass grave in Brookwood Cemetery where it had been buried when Holloway Prison was rebuilt in 1971. After the Ministry of Justice finally allowed an exhumation, an ambulance took it to the City of London cemetery where it was laid in the same grave as her mother and father, just as her parents had always wanted.

She might be at rest at last, but the story of Edith Thompson lives on. It’s too extraordinary to be forgotten.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books and articles that I’ve mentioned in the show notes for this episode at shedunnitshow.com/ediththompson. There, you can also read a full transcript.

I wish all my listeners a very happy new year, and thank you very much for sticking with the podcast into 2019. A few of you have been in touch to say that you discovered the show via Instagram, so I’m trying to be better at posting pictures related to the episodes there. Do come and take a look at instagram.com/shedunnitshow.

If you’d like to show your appreciation for the podcast, do tell your friends and family about it, or leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts because it helps the show be more visible to new listeners.

I’ll be back on 23 January with a new episode.

Next time on Shedunnit: Dining with death.

7. Edith Thompson

On the morning of 9 January 1923, a brutal and horrifying execution took place at Holloway Prison in London. The condemned young woman screamed and cried, but no last minute reprieve arrived. Long after she was dead, her story would inspire authors like James Joyce, E.M. Delafield, Dorothy L. Sayers and Sarah Waters, and you can find traces of it in many detective novels published in the decades since.

This is the story of Edith Thompson.

Find more information about this episode and links to the books discussed at shedunnitshow.com/ediththompson. The podcast is on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram as @ShedunnitShow, and you can find it in all major podcast apps. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss the next episode. Click here to do that now in your app of choice.

Books mentioned in order of appearance:
Bella Donna by Robert Hichens
Criminal Justice: The True Story of Edith Thompson by Rene Weis
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards
Messalina of the Suburbs by E.M. Delafield
The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield
As for the Woman by Francis Iles (aka Anthony Berkeley)
The Anatomy of Murder by the Detection Club
The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace
Crooked House by Agatha Christie
Before the Fact by Francis Iles (aka Anthony Berkeley)
A Pin to See the Peepshow by Fryn Tennyson Jesse
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Find a full transcript of this episode at shedunnitshow.com/ediththompsontranscript

2. Crippen Transcript

Here’s a full transcript of the second episode of Shedunnit. Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.

Caroline: A classic murder mystery is a closed circle. It’s why settings like trains, islands and country houses are so popular in the detective stories of the 1920s and 30s. They naturally limit and contain the potential suspects.

In these stories, murder is often a family affair. Whereas the penny dreadfuls of the 19th century gloried in the seemingly-random attacks of killers like Jack the Ripper, early 20th century whodunnits keep their crimes close to home. Spouses, siblings, children, servants, friends, neighbours are all suspects, and the murderer frequently turns out to be someone the victim knew well.

There’s a good reason for this. The detective writers of this period weren’t working a vacuum. They took a keen interest in the crimes of their time, often weaving elements from actual murder cases into their plots or even referencing them directly. And there was one case, a murder both infamous and domestic, that interested the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Anthony Berkeley more than any other.

This real life murder mystery has everything: a body hidden in the cellar, adultery, a transatlantic steamship pursuit, cross dressing, and a pleasingly ambiguous ending. It captivated the detective writers of the golden age, and did a great deal to shape the genre as we know it today.

This is the story of Dr Crippen.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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It all started simply enough. On 30 June 1910, a detective named Walter Dew was called to his boss’s office to consult on a possible case. Superintendent Froest was meeting with two of his own acquaintances, the theatre manager John Nash and his wife Lil Hawthorne, an American music hall singer. They had come in to Scotland Yard to voice their concerns about a friend of theirs named Cora Crippen, who like Hawthorne was a member of the Music Hall Ladies’ Guild. Mrs Crippen, who had also been a music hall performer under the name ‘Belle Elmore’, had apparently left England for America suddenly on 2 February and died there on 23 March.

Yet her friends were confused about what had really happened: several bank cheques bearing her signature had been cashed in London after her departure, and her husband, an American homeopath and dentist called Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen, had been vague on the details of how or where she had died. Nash and Hawthorne had made some enquiries of their own, and had not been able to find Mrs Crippen on the passenger list of any recent ship sailing for America. They were baffled and a bit frightened. At this point, Dew didn’t doubt for a second that there was a mundane explanation for Mrs Crippen’s disappearance, but he agreed that “the whole circumstances were mysterious” and said he would look into the matter for them.

By the time this case came along, Walter Dew was a seasoned detective of 47. He had already had one brush with a notorious killer, when he was stationed in Whitechapel, east London, in the 1880s during the infamous Jack the Ripper murders. Dew later wrote in his autobiography that it was his ‘dream as a young detective one day to stand in the witness box and give evidence against Jack the Ripper’, but he never did. To this day, those murders remain unsolved. Perhaps that’s why he put so much energy into investigating Cora Crippen’s disappearance, even though it appeared at first to be just a run-of-the-mill missing persons case. He said later that “his experience had taught him it was better to be sure than sorry”.

Over the next few days, Dew spoke to Cora’s friends and fellow Guild members. He quickly uncovered contradictions between what they had been told about her departure from England and subsequent death. For instance: Doctor Crippen had told people that his wife had travelled to America to visit his family and take care of some legal business for him. However, when Dew got in touch with Crippen’s son Otto, the product of a previous marriage, in Los Angeles, he told Dew via telegram that he had known nothing about Cora’s visit or her death. It wasn’t until his father wrote to him to say he had ‘accidentally’ told people his new wife had died in LA, that he had heard about it at all. There was also no record of her death with US authorities.

By 8 July, Dew was convinced that he needed to interview Doctor Crippen. Accompanied by a sergeant, he went to the Crippens’ house in Camden Town, north London. There he met a woman named Ethel Le Neve, who he subsequently learned was Crippen’s secretary and mistress. She took the detectives to Crippen’s office on New Oxford Street, where he worked at “Yale Tooth Specialists”.

Upon Dew’s arrival, Crippen immediately confessed that he had lied about his wife’s death, saying that ‘as far I know she is still alive’. Over the next six hours, in between tooth pulling appointments, he gave a lengthy statement to the police officers in which he claimed that Cora had left him for a music hall performer called Bruce Miller, and had probably gone to Chicago to be with him.

Dew wasn’t completely satisfied with this statement, which still contained troubling inconsistencies, but he saw no need to arrest Crippen yet. With the doctor’s cooperation, they returned to his house in Camden and conducted a full search, finding nothing of interest. The detectives left, saying they would still need to track down Mrs Crippen in order to consider the matter resolved. Her description was circulated over the next few days to no avail, and on 11 July Dew searched Crippen’s house again. This time, he found a loaded revolver, and also received the news that Crippen and Le Neve had left home the day after their first interview and had not been seen since. This, Dew felt, changed everything. “The manner of his going pointed to guilt,” he later wrote.

Two days later, Dew went back to the Camden house again with the intention to investigate the cellar more thoroughly. He couldn’t say why, just that a “sixth sense” told him it was important. And so it proved: after prodding the floor with a poker for a while, he and his sergeant lifted up the bricks, dug through the clay underneath and found the remains of a human torso. The head, hands and feet of the body were missing. It was partially decomposed. After a few days of medical examination and gathering further evidence, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Hawley Harvey Crippen and Ethel Le Neve on suspicion of the wilful murder and mutilation of Cora Crippen.

The case was already causing a press sensation. There was public outrage that Doctor Crippen had been free — the then home secretary Winston Churchill was asked in parliament whether the police were to blame for his escape. Scotland Yard pointed out that until the remains had been discovered, the case of Cora Crippen had been a completely ordinary missing persons matter, but this didn’t stop the newspapers filling column inches with speculation and criticism. There were false Crippen sightings all over the country, even though the man himself, minus his distinctive moustache, was already out of the country by the time his Camden cellar had been dug up.

Even as the police were combing Britain for him, Crippen signed the register at a hotel in Brussels as ‘John Robinson’, a merchant from Canada. Le Neve wore boys clothes and pretended to be his sick son. They boarded a steamer called the Montrose at Antwerp on 20 July and set sail for Canada.

The ship’s captain Henry Kendall had been given a briefing about the fugitives before leaving London, but did not recognise them as they boarded. However, during the stop in the Netherlands, he had bought a copy of the Daily Mail newspaper which contained photographs of both Crippen and Le Neve. Over the next couple of days, various conversations that Kendall had with the “Robinsons” convinced him that they were not who they claimed to be.

This is where the story takes an electrifying twist. Kendall took a very unusual decision for the time to use the Marconi wireless telegraph device on board to send word of his suspicions back to Britain. The Liverpool police alerted Walter Dew, who rushed to grab a berth on a faster steamer in the hope that he could overtake Crippen mid-Atlantic. Once he was on board, there was nothing to do but wait and hope that Crippen didn’t realise there was any danger. The newspapers were full of this slow motion chase at sea, a whole nation waiting with baited breath for the dramatic reveal.

Thanks to the telegraph, Dew made it to Canada first and was able to board Crippen’s steamer before made port, accompanied by the local police. They arrested Crippen and Le Neve on board, the first such capture to be made because of wireless telegraphy. Without that technology, the suspects would have reached Canada safely and presumably vanished into new identities in north America. To avoid the media furore that had erupted all around them, Dew and his handcuffed companions had to board a return steamer under false names. During the voyage, Crippen was reportedly calm and did not mention his wife at all.

On 18 October, he went on trial for the murder of his wife at the Old Bailey in London. Reportedly, his first words to his defence lawyer were “My first anxiety is for Miss Le Neve. . . I would sacrifice myself to save her.” Apart from a brief glimpse on the train from Liverpool to London, the pair had not seen or spoken to each other since their arrest. Le Neve was charged with being an accessory to murder after the fact and tried separately to Crippen.

A huge crowd gathered outside the court, and a record 4,000 people applied for tickets to sit in the public gallery for the trial. The media frenzy continued unabated: Crippen was offered huge sums for his life story, and a fee of £1,000 a week for a live tour if he was acquitted, while Ethel Le Neve was promised £200 a week to perform in a music hall sketch titled “Caught By Wireless”. The waxwork museum Madame Tussauds had already completed a likeness of Crippen before the trial even began, which was a star exhibit of their “chamber of horrors” for much of the twentieth century.

Both Crippen and Le Neve pleaded not guilty. The trial was sensational for a number of reasons, chief among them the focus on medical evidence. Crippen was shown a fragment of his wife’s skin on a soup plate, and asked whether a mark on it was the same as a scar on his wife’s abdomen. He apparently showed no alarm at this, and peered at the specimen with interest. A pathologist called Bernard Spillsbury gave evidence as an expert witness for the prosecution and made the case that the scar positively identified the body as that of Cora Crippen. This was disputed by the defence, but Spillsbury made a big impression on the jury and the public. He went on to have a career as a proto forensics expert, and informed similar medical characters in detective stories like that of the chemical analyst James Lubbock in a number of Dorothy L Sayers novels.

Throughout it all, Crippen remained calm. He never referred to Cora by name during the trial, calling her just ‘the woman’. His defence rested on the lack of direct evidence that he had actually murdered her — purchasing a lot of the drug hyoscine before her death and then travelling to Canada under a false name did not actually prove that he had done the deed, his lawyers said. And what was his motive? If he had wanted to leave his wife to live with Ethel Le Neve, he could easily have done so. But after just 27 minutes of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of “guilty”.

Crippen continued to maintain his innocence, and mounted an unsuccessful appeal on the grounds that the identity of the body in the cellar had not been established beyond doubt. He kept up his facade right until the end, when he was hanged in Pentonville prison at 9am on 23 November. He made no final confession, wanting only to know at the end that Le Neve’s innocence had been established and that she was well. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the prison grounds.

Crippen the man was gone, but his legend remained alive. This diminutive, mild-mannered, middle aged murderer fascinated the world. The self-contained, domestic nature of his crime thrilled people — if he was indeed guilty, he had gone on living in that house in Camden with his mistress for months, in the full knowledge that his wife’s torso was decomposing beneath the cellar floor. If Walter Dew hadn’t come knocking, how long would he have remained there? His was a private, near-invisible crime that took place behind closed doors. Who knew what else was happening in similar homes up and down the land?

In 1946, George Orwell published an essay titled “The Decline of English Murder”, in which he named the Crippen case as one of a handful of murders that represent “Our great period in murder, our Elizabethan period”, which he puts as between 1850 and 1925. Most of the incidents he names are domestic or even marital killings, and many of them are poisonings. There seems to be something essentially English and captivating about such a crime, he suggests. It’s decorous, private and even overtly sexual — in keeping with Britain’s contradictory obsession with keeping up appearances in person while devouring the details of each other’s private lives in the newspapers.

The influence of this case on the crime fiction of the time was huge. Just dropping in the name “Crippen” became enough to evoke the idea of a seemingly tender-hearted husband with hidden depths of depravity. It appears in Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel Three Act Tragedy during a discussion of male inferiority complexes, and in Anthony Berkeley’s 1926 story The Wychford Poisoning Case as a shorthand for marital discord. “I’ve always felt sorry for Crippen,” says Berkeley’s detective Roger Sheringham. “If ever a woman deserved murdering, it was Cora Crippen.” Think about how common husband-wife murder is in books of this time, and how often the idea of secretly burying a body beneath the floor comes up. For both the writers and readers of the time, this would have been a clear reference to the infamous real life case that had all of these aspects.

Its influence was long lasting, too. Christie specifically drew on the case in her 1952 novel Mrs McGinty’s Dead, in which there is a subplot involving Eva Kane, a woman who had been an “Ethel Le Neve” — that is the lover of a man who murdered his wife and buried her in the cellar so they could be together. Berkeley’s 1931 novel Malice Aforethought also brings in elements of the Crippen story, when an apparently respectable doctor poisons his wife so he can marry a younger woman. Interestingly, this book is actually an inversion of the usual detective story structure, because you find out who the murderer at the very beginning, meaning that the rest of story is about getting into the mind of the killer as he unfolds the tale. It’s more of a “howdunnit” than a “whodunnit”.

This choice to emphasise Crippen’s side of the story reflected Berkeley’s own interest in the original case. In The Golden Age of Murder, a book about the writers of this time, Martin Edwards suggests that different writers had different sympathies in the Crippen story, and wrote their own versions accordingly. Berkeley, unhappily married himself, saw something of himself in Crippen, the husband who snapped. He returned several times to domestic poisoning plots with marital unhappiness in the background. Sayers, meanwhile, was drawn to Ethel Le Neve’s capacity for self-delusion and deception — after all, Sayers herself spent much of her life pretending that her son John Anthony, the product of an affair with a married man, was actually her nephew. Christie, meanwhile, who had had her own experiences of adultery and being discarded for “the other woman”, was convinced that Le Neve was in on it all along, and only acquitted thanks to her stellar courtroom performance. “I’ve always wondered if Ethel Le Neve was in it with him or not,” the character of Miss Letheran muses in the Poirot short story “The Lernean Hydra”.

Everybody had their own take on the Crippen case. For J.J. Connington (the pseudonym of the chemist Alfred Walter Stewart), the prosecution’s heavy reliance on medical evidence was the part that inspired him. Although less well known today, he was a favourite detective author of both TS Eliot and Dorothy L Sayers. His 1928 novel The Case with Nine Solutions borrows the theory that Crippen had used the hyoscine as a kind of “date rape” drug to sedate his wife while he spent the evening with Ethel Le Neve, got the dosage wrong and then dismembered her body afterwards to try and conceal his error. Cecil Mercer had been a junior barrister during the trial, and was caught by the fact that the body found in Crippen’s cellar had been partially coated lime, presumably as an attempt to speed up decomposition, which it would have done if it was dry. Because it was wet, the lime solidified like concrete, helping to preserve the remains and thereby aid the prosecution. Mercer borrowed this fact for his 1945 novel The House That Berry Built, one of many he published under the pseudonym Dornford Yates.

The real life sleuth Walter Dew retired from Scotland Yard at the of 1910 — Crippen was his last big arrest. He had become a household name thanks to the notoriety of the case and his chase across the Atlantic, so it would probably have been difficult for him to continue as a plain clothes officer. He was renowned for the rest of his life as “the man who caught Crippen”, and carved out a profitable career as a media pundit on crime. In 1926, when Agatha Christie disappeared for 11 days and there was a nationwide search for her, the Daily Express newspaper consulted Dew in case his famous “sixth sense” give him clues about where she was. Unfortunately, he had no idea.

There have been numerous direct fictional retellings of the case, too, from Catherine Meadows’ 1934 Henbane to Martin Edwards’ 2008 Dancing for the Hangman. One of the many reasons the case has always held such attraction for writers is the slight ambiguity of its conclusion — after all, Crippen never confessed, and there were no witnesses to him actually committing the murder. There have always been those who have maintained that he was innocent, including his own American relatives. The case still lives on in people’s minds, more than a hundred years later. James Patrick Crippen of Ohio, the second cousin three times removed of the original Doctor Crippen, said to the BBC in 2010 that “Every time I have come through customs to England, someone has made a comment on my name, linking me to a murderer”. He believes that his relative was wrongfully convicted and executed back in 1910, and has campaigned to have his remains repatriated for burial in the United States.

In 2007, this belief in Crippen’s innocence received a useful boost in the form of alleged new DNA results from a forensic scientist at Michigan State University, which seemed to show that the remains found in the cellar were not those of Cora Crippen. The mitochondrial DNA did not correspond with that of her living relatives, and a further test suggested the body was that of a man. These findings have been fiercely debated, and are not considered conclusive. But on the back of them, in 2009 James Crippen applied to the UK’s Criminal Cases Review Commission for a fresh appeal so that Doctor Crippen could be granted a posthumous pardon. He was turned down on the grounds that, as a cousin with no financial interest in clearing his relative’s name, he wasn’t a “properly interested person” under the law. And that’s where the case stands today — there are still those who fervently believe that Doctor Crippen was wronged, while in the detective stories of the time and subsequent popular culture his name is still a byword for a vicious wife-murderer who hides in plain sight.

It’s unlikely a definitive answer will ever be found now, so long after the fact. But it’s still worth knowing what happened in that topsy turvey summer of 1910, when the world was gripped by this thrilling tale. What with all its bizarre twists and turns, the story of Doctor Crippen is so much stranger than anything a detective novelist ever dreamed up.

[Music]

This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. For more information about the story of Doctor Rippen and links to all the books mentioned, visit shedunnitshow.com/crippen, where you can also find a full transcript. Thank you very much to everyone who told friends about the show and left reviews on Apple Podcasts after the last episode — I really appreciate it. I’ve started a Facebook page for the show, where I’ll be posting articles and photographs relevant to this episode, so do come and say hello at facebook.com/shedunnitshow. I’ll be back in two weeks with another episode, so make sure you’re subscribed.

Next time on Shedunnit: Queer Clues.

Moira: It seemed to me that was something special in the crime story way of looking at this, that the crime stories were using the secrecy of gay or queer life of that time and incorporating it into crime novels.

2. Crippen

The detective writers of the 1920s and 1930s weren’t working a vacuum. They took a keen interest in the crimes of their time, often weaving elements from actual murder cases into their plots or referencing them directly. And there was one case, a murder both infamous and domestic, that interested the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Anthony Berkeley more than any other.

This real life murder mystery has everything: a body hidden in the cellar, adultery, a transatlantic steamship pursuit, cross dressing, and a pleasingly ambiguous ending. It was referenced in novels more than any other by the detective writers of the golden age, and did a great deal to shape the genre as we know it today.

This is the story of Dr Crippen.

Find more information about this episode and links to the books discussed at shedunnitshow.com/crippen. The podcast is on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram as @ShedunnitShow, and you can find it in all major podcast apps. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss the next episode. Click here to do that in your app of choice.

Books referenced in order of appearance:
Walter Dew: The Man Who Caught Crippen by Nicholas Connell
Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie
The Wychford Poisoning Case by Anthony Berkeley
Mrs McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie
Malice Aforethought by Frances Iles (aka Anthony Berkeley)
The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards
“The Lernean Hydra” in The Labours of Hercules by Agatha Christie
The Case with Nine Solutions by J. J. Connington
The House That Berry Built by Dornford Yates
Henbane by Catherine Meadows
Dancing for the Hangman by Martin Edwards

You can find a full transcript of this episode at shedunnitshow.com/crippentranscript.

0. Whodunnit? Transcript

Here’s a full transcript of this mini first episode of Shedunnit. Listen to it now in your app of choice.

Caroline: For a couple of decades between the first and second world wars, something mysterious happened. Many things, actually — there were murders in country houses, on golf courses, in Oxford colleges, on trains, in vicarages, in far flung parts of the globe and quaint English villages. Pistols, daggers, blunt instruments and exotic poisons abounded.

No fictional character was safe.

Because these events were all fictional — the plots of novels that flooded the market in the 1920s and 30s. People couldn’t get enough of all the inventive ways that writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley, Gladys Mitchell, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey and more could think of for people to die. This period came to be known as the golden age of detective fiction, and for good reason.

If this all sounds very familiar to you, then you’re in the right place. Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

This golden age coincided with the aftermath of the first world war, when more women were starting to achieve the right to vote and the economic freedom to earn their own living. One of them, Agatha Christie, is one of the biggest selling authors ever, with billions of copies bought all over the world. The work of Sayers, Allingham and co is also still very much in print and finding new readers every day. The huge popularity of detective stories enabled these women to work as professional writers in a way that hadn’t really existed in a widespread way before. They weren’t struggling to prove that their work was worthy of being deemed “great literature”, but instead delivering gripping, thrilling entertainment to millions.

And their work is still reaching people — there are so many ardent fans of golden age detective stories all around the world. The books are translated and adapted everywhere, with new TV and film versions appearing all the time.

There are so many different aspects of these books that speak to people, too. During my research for this podcast, I’ve been a few fans to share their reasons for loving these books with me, and I got such a variety of answers. For Maxine, it’s the thrill of the chase.

Maxine: I like golden age detective fiction because I love a good puzzle. Novels such as these always have a fabulous puzzle. you have the clues laid out before you, and I guess if you’re bright enough you can actually work it out ahead of time. Often, I find I just like to get caught up in the story.

Caroline: For Lina, it’s all about what she can learn about the era these books were written in.

Lina: The stories transport you to another age that heralded that heralded the modernity of our today.

Caroline: But then for Sonija, it’s about the contrast with how crime stories are told now.

Sonija: I enjoy the deductions of the detectives, both professional and amateur, without forensics, mobile phones and other modern methods.

Caroline: Kirsty found her love of Miss Marple through a TV adaptation, and learned early on about ageism and how women are too often underestimated.

Kirsty: I grew up watching Joan Hickson on the BBC and I absolutely loved the fact that she was so amazingly intellectual, and yet she was a little old lady, and that was such a marvellous thing for me.

Caroline: For Helen, these stories help her feel connected to people from her past.

Helen: I think really what I enjoy is the recreation of a world. I’m not even sure it’s a world that was a good one, or a safe one, or a fair one, but that’s what attracts me because it puts me back in contact with people who died a long time ago, you know, my older relatives.

Caroline: For Skye, they’re a way of connecting the generations.

Skye: I started reading them because I found them on the shelves of my grandmother’s house in Finland. She was reading them to help her learn English but also because she loved murder mysteries and she imparted that love to me. I just recently read Murder on the Orient Express to my son and he enjoyed that, and now we’re just about to start reading another one so it’s come full circle.

Caroline: The work of these authors — many of whom, like Christie, Sayers and Allingham, were women shaping for themselves what it meant to be a professional writer in their time — was informed by their political and social context, by the real-life cases that they pored over, and by the voracious appetite of the public for yet more puzzles.

But the sheer popularity of these books has to an extent obscured the fascinating stories that lie behind the plots. We all know about Miss Marple’s nosy parker ways, but less about why her status as a spinster makes her so ideally suited to solving crimes. Dorothy L Sayers wasn’t just a mystery author: she was a Sherlock Holmes superfan who worked as an advertising copywriter and created something called “the mustard club”, which was a really early form of successful guerrilla marketing. Agatha Christie was a bestselling author, yes, but she was also an archaeologist and a pioneering surfer.  All of these women had complicated, startling lives that are worth bringing to the fore.

So that’s what I’m going to be doing in this podcast, telling the stories that lurk in the shadows of the famous detective novels. Along the way, we’ll learn all about things like the queer subtext of golden age detective stories, the intersection of feminism and stories of murder, the slow creep of technology into detection and much, much more.

If you’ve ever stayed up late reading under the covers to find out whodunnit, then this podcast is for you. Find us at shedunnitshow.com, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as ShedunnitShow, and in all major podcast apps. Subscribe now so you don’t miss the first episode.

0. Whodunnit?

For a couple of decades between the first and second world wars, something mysterious happened. A golden age of detective fiction dawned, and people around the world are still devouring books from this time by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley, Gladys Mitchell, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey and more. In this new podcast, Caroline Crampton will be unravelling the mysteries behind such classic detective stories, looking at the social, literary and political context in which these writers worked. If you’ve ever stayed up late reading under the covers to find out whodunnit, then this podcast is for you.

Find the show at shedunnitshow.com, on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram as @ShedunnitShow, and in all major podcast apps. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss the first episode. Click here to do that now in your app of choice.

You can find a full transcript of this mini episode at shedunnitshow.com/whodunnittranscript.