Convicted in the 1910 murder of his wife, American homeopath Hawley Crippen (1862–1910) was hanged in London, England, where the homicide occurred. His crime attracted international attention: After receiving a telegram from the captain of the SS Montrose stating that the murder suspect was on board, detectives chased him and his suspected accomplice across the Atlantic Ocean. Crippen was apprehended before the ocean liner docked and thus gained notoriety as the first fugitive brought into custody as a direct result of wireless telegraphy.
Due to the horrific nature of the crime and the melodrama surrounding the case, the murder committed by Hawley Crippen made headlines around the globe. When it was finally discovered, the body of Crippen's wife had been dismembered and was buried in the coal cellar of the couple's home. Meanwhile, Crippen had fled with his mistress, who was disguised as a teenage boy. Aided by the sensation-seeking press, the public demanded all the juicy and sometimes grisly details as they sought to understand how a quiet and affable fellow like Crippen could have done such a horrible thing. The crime retained so much interest that 100 years later, the spade Crippen used to bury his wife was put on display in an exhibition at the Crime Museum of London's Scotland Yard.
Crippen's stay in London was short-lived. He returned to the United States and enrolled at the Cleveland Homeopathic Hospital's medical school, graduating in 1884. Two years later, he moved to New York City to study ocular medicine at the New York Ophthalmic Hospital. After graduating in 1887, he worked as an intern at Hahnemann Hospital, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he met a nurse named Charlotte Jane Bell, who was a native of Dublin, Ireland. They married in 1887 and moved to San Diego, where their son Otto was born in 1889. In January of 1892, Charlotte died of an apparent stroke, shortly before she was set to give birth to their second child. Crippen sent Otto to Michigan to live with his parents and moved to the East Coast.
Crippen settled in New York City and joined a medical practice in Brooklyn, where he soon treated a patient named Cora Turner. She was 17; he was 30. Soon, they were courting over dinner, where Turner revealed that she aspired to be an opera singer. Crippen also learned that she was a “kept” woman; a married man paid for her apartment and her singing lessons, and, in turn, she provided him with sex and companionship. When Turner confided to Crippen that her lover wanted to leave his wife and run away with her, a smitten Crippen proposed marriage to ensure that she stayed put. The couple married in Jersey City, New Jersey, on September 1, 1892.
Even to the casual observer, the Crippens must have seemed an odd couple. She was young, voluptuous, and sexy, while her bespectacled husband was older, had a receding hairline, and stood only five feet, four inches tall. The Crippens also had very different personalities; he was quiet and demure, but she was not. As Crippen biographer Erik Larson noted in his book Thunderstruck, a journalist of the day described Turner as “robust and animal” and a woman whose “vitality was of that loud, aggressive, and physical kind that seems to exhaust the atmosphere round it, and is undoubtedly exhausting to live with.”
Soon after their wedding, Mrs. Crippen revealed that her real name was Kunigunde Mackamotzki; at the time of her death, she would be using the stage name Belle Elmore. Some historians have speculated that Turner/Elmore married Crippen because she calculated that a doctor's salary would be enough to support her lavish lifestyle.
In 1894, Crippen landed a job with Dr. James Munyon, a homeopath who had established a successful patent medicine business called the Munyon Homeopathic Home Remedy Co., which sold products like “Constipation Pellets” and “Cough Remedy.” His duties at the company included devising formulas for new treatments and mixing compounds for the remedies Munyon had already discovered and was marketing. According to Larson, while Munyon described Crippen as “as docile as a kitten,” Munyon's son later recalled sensing anxiety in Crippen's life. Belle Elmore “liked men other than her husband,” he commented, “which worried the doctor greatly.”
During the mid-1890s, Crippen moved between Munyon's Philadelphia and Toronto offices while his wife remained in New York City and pursued a stage career. In 1897, he moved to England to manage Munyon's London office. Although Elmore stayed behind, she had difficulty finding work as a singer and eventually arrived in London, requesting that Crippen financially produce a stage production in which she could star. In the show's printed program, she inflated her credentials, calling herself Macà Motzki (a throwback to her maiden name) and claiming as a former employer “Vio & Motzki's American Bright Lights Company, from the Principal American Theatres.” Elmore's show was such a flop it closed after one week. According to Larson, one critic lambasted the production, calling it the “Brooklyn Matzos Ball.”
From November 1899 to June 1900, Crippen returned to the United States to do work for Munyon. During this time, Belle stayed in London and carried on a romance with a prizefighter-turned-musician named Bruce Miller. When Crippen arrived back in England, he discovered love letters from Miller to his wife and realized that he was being cuckolded.
By 1901, Crippen was employed at the Drouet Institute for the Deaf, and it was here that he met Ethel Clara Le Neve, a stenographer who eventually became Crippen's personal secretary. As Le Neve later told authorities, during work hours, Belle Elmore frequently stormed into Crippen's office to rage about one thing or another. At first, Le Neve offered emotional support to her hectored boss, but the affair soon turned physical. In 1908, Le Neve became pregnant with Crippen's child but lost the baby.
By December of 1909, the relationship between Crippen and his wife had completely soured and Belle presented their bank with notice that she intended to withdraw all the funds in their joint account. On January 15, 1910, Crippen went to a local chemist's shop and ordered five grains of hyoscine hydrobromide. As a homeopath, he frequented this chemist's shop to purchase compounds such as morphine salts and cocaine to make medicines and anesthetics for his patients. Hyoscine was known for its tranquilizing effect and therefore his request seemed within reason. Crippen received his order on January 19. Within two weeks, Belle Elmore had vanished.
On February 2, 1910, Crippen sent a note to the Music Hall Ladies' Guild informing them that Belle, the guild's current treasurer, had left London. When he returned the guild's ledger and checkbook, which were in Belle's possession, guild members were left with questions about one of their more popular members. Crippen then told friends and acquaintances that his wife had hurriedly been called to California to care for an ailing relative. A few weeks later, he sadly announced to all involved that he had received word that Belle Elmore had fallen ill and died in California.
After Belle's friends went to the London police, known as Scotland Yard, Detective Walter Dew paid a visit to Dr. Harvey Crippen. During the interrogation, the balding homeopath admitted that he had made up the story about his wife's death. As he now told Dew, the truth was that Belle had left him. He was embarrassed and feared a scandal, and this was his reason for fabricating her trip to the United States. To deflect questions about the date of her return, he also made up the story about her death.
Dew left Crippen's home thinking that the man's story seemed plausible. The man had appeared calm and collected and even allowed the police to search his home. At this point, Dew did not believe a crime had occurred. As a professional singer known to flirt with the male boarders who occasionally rented rooms in her home, he likely assumed that she had run away from her mousy husband and was enjoying life elsewhere.
During the first week of July, 1910, Crippen and Le Neve disappeared from London and secretly made their way to Brussels, Belgium. When Dew returned to the Crippens' home on a follow-up visit and found that the doctor had vanished, he issued an alert. He also decided to search the home again, and this time he found decomposing human remains buried in the coal cellar. The body Dew discovered had been cut into pieces and its gender markers—reproductive organs and pelvic bones—removed. Likewise, the head and teeth were gone, suggesting an effort to slow identification of the victim.
On July 20, realizing that the police were on their trail, Crippen and Le Neve left Brussels on an ocean liner heading to Quebec, Canada. By now, the British newspapers were creating a media storm, scolding Dew and Scotland Yard for letting the killer get away. Why was Crippen not put under surveillance sooner?
Near the start of his ship's 11-day journey across the Atlantic Ocean, Montrose Captain Henry Kendall suspected that Crippen and Le Neve were on board. All ships had been notified to look for the fugitive couple, and he realized that the shy, adolescent male passenger who had booked passage with his elderly father was actually a young woman. The captain sent a telegram to alert Scotland Yard and Inspector Dew boarded another liner, hoping to intercept the SS Montrose before it docked in Quebec because extradition would take longer if Crippen made it to the United States. He beat Kendall's ship across the Atlantic and was waiting near the docks at the Father Point Lighthouse in Quebec when the Montrose set anchor.
Inspector Dew was not positive that the fugitives were on board the Montrose, as reports of their sighting had been trickling in from all over the globe and several innocent men had been detained and questioned as a result. Because of the press coverage, reporters were gathering at the Quebec dock, which presented a problem. Because he did not want the media following his every move or spooking Crippen and Le Neve, he disguised himself as a ship's pilot and boarded the Montrose before its passengers disembarked to vet the suspects. Once on board, he recognized Crippen and made the arrest.
Crippen's trial began on October 18, 1910, at the “Old Bailey” criminal court in London. More than 4,000 people applied for entry, so half-day passes were issued to allow more spectators. The evidence was overwhelming. Police reported that hyoscine had been found in the tissue of the decomposing body and the chemist's records confirmed that Crippen had purchased hyoscine before his wife disappeared. In addition, a forensic expert testified that a scar was found on the tissue—a scar identical to the one Rose Elmore had received during an operation years earlier and exhibited to her music-hall friends in London.
The jury deliberated 27 minutes before issuing a guilty verdict. Le Neve was tried as an accomplice but found not guilty. Crippen was sentenced to death and hanged at London's Pentonville Prison on November 23, 1910. By all reports, the doctor was calm and cordial right to the end. According to Richard Cavendish in History Today, hangman John Ellis later told the press that “Crippen came across to me as a most pleasant fellow.”
Like all good true-life murder tales, doubts about Crippen's guilt have emerged from time to time. Some wondered how the small-statured homeopath could have carried his amply endowed wife's corpse to the cellar without help. Other theorists suggested that Scotland Yard was eager for a conviction since failing to catch Jack the Ripper, and they planted evidence—like a small piece of Elmore's pajama top, which was supposedly found with the body. Still others questioned the work of the toxicologist who found the hyoscine. Some speculated that the body had been there for years, or that Crippen had perhaps performed abortions in his home and the corpse was that of a former patient.
Another twist came in 2007, when a Michigan State University forensic scientist tested the tissue found at the crime scene against tissue from three of Belle's surviving descendants and determined that they did not match. Positing that the cellar body belonged to someone other than Belle, the DNA expert asserted that further testing revealed the remains to be those of a male. The Michigan scientist's results were largely dismissed, some criminologists suggesting that the original, 97-year-old sample was probably compromised.
Whatever the truth, the Crippen case has continued to hold a fascination. Inspector Dew was convinced that no crime had occurred. If Crippen had not fled, no search would have been made of his home and no evidence of murder discovered. A more confident murderer would have remained free.
Larson, Erik, Thunderstruck, Broadway Books, 2006.
History Today, November 2010, Richard Cavendish, “The Execution of Dr. Crippen,” p. 8.
Irish Medical Times, June 4, 2010, Pierce Grace, “Homicide by Hypocine: The Case of Dr. Crippen,” p. 24.
Muskegon Chronicle, November 27, 2007, Terry Judd, “The Strand That Binds: A Fruitport-born Scientist Has Set London on Its Ear.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 1, 1910, Martin Green, “Great Crowd Sees Crippen Arraigned,” p. 1.□