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.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
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.
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.