Friday, 5 May 2017


It was the first notorious killing of the twentieth century. July 1910 Britain was gripped by the progress of a huge manhunt. It was on a scale that hadn’t been seen since Jack the Ripper.

The fugitive was Doctor Hawley Harvey Crippen and he was wanted for the murder and mutilation of his wife Cora. Together with his mistress, Ethel le Neve, Doctor Crippen had fled from London. Handbills had been printed and pasted everywhere and distributed to police around the world. Everyone was talking about this case.

The Home Secretary, a certain Winston Churchill had organised a reward of £250, worth £20,000 in today’s money for their capture.

So where were Doctor Crippen and his lover Ethel le Neve? In fact, they had already left the country and were holed up in a hotel in Belgium. They had plans to leave for North America.

Henry Kendal was the captain of a steamship heading across the Atlantic to Canada. But two of his passengers had aroused his suspicions. The SS Montrose had only been at sea for one day when Captain Kendal noticed a father and son behaving strangely on deck. He thought it was very odd that they squeezed each other’s hands immoderately, as he put it, and that they would sometimes disappear behind the lifeboats. The two of them were travelling as Mr and Master Robinson.

What happened next was just like a detective novel, with the Captain playing the part of Sherlock Holmes. Captain Kendal decided to carry out an experiment to try and confirm his suspicions that he had Doctor Crippen on board. He took a newspaper photograph of Doctor Crippen and using chalk he whitened out the Doctor’s moustache and then blackened out the frames of his spectacles and it was a photo fit. Without his moustache and spectacles, the mysterious Mr Robinson was clearly Doctor Crippen.

Captain Kendal had access to a pioneering piece of technology that would speed up the process of twentieth-century crime investigation. It was the Marconi wireless, but the transmitter only had a range of 150 miles. When Captain Kendal made his breakthrough he was already 130 miles from the nearest receiver; he had 20 miles left to get the message out. Rushing along the lower deck to the wireless room he handed the wireless operator the message that would electrify the world.

It read:

“Have strong suspicions that Crippen the London cellar murderer and accomplice are amongst the passengers. Accomplice dressed as a boy but with voice manners and build undoubtedly a girl.”

But would the message get through in time?

So what exactly were the events that had led up to this extraordinary situation?

Doctor Crippen, an American, who dabbled in cheap patent medicines and dentistry had been living what seemed a pretty conventional life in a North London villa. His wife, Cora, was a would be music hall artiste. But the marriage was troubled and Crippen had begun an affair with his young secretary, Ethel le Neve. On the 19th January 1910, Crippen visited a chemist to purchase five grains of hydrobromide of hyoscine; an enormous dosage of a deadly poison. He signed the poison book like he was supposed to, with the words “for homoeopathic purposes.”

On the 31st January, the Crippens held a little party at home. Later, Crippen would claim that it had been followed by a terrible quarrel between him and his wife. Cora had said that she was leaving him the very next day. Whatever really happened that night the guests at that party were the last people to see Cora Crippen alive. To explain Cora’s absence Crippen claimed that she had gone back to America and then he later said that she had died out there. Very suspicious Cora’s friends now paid a visit to New Scotland Yard. The case was taken up by Detective Chief Inspector Walter Dew, a veteran of the Ripper murders. He was a member of the Yard’s newly formed “murder squad”. Its members prided themselves on their prowess and their skills in disguises – however unconvincing. Chief Inspector Dew searched Crippen’s house for evidence but found nothing. But he wasn’t quite satisfied. He went back three days later for another look and discovered that Crippen had disappeared. “My quarry has gone,” he said.

Crippen’s house, where a block of flats now stands held a strange attraction for Dew. “That sinister cellar,” he wrote, “draws me to it.” His sergeant began to work away at the brick floor, then to remove the earth beneath. There was a nauseating stench and Dew and his men had to rush out to the garden for fresh air. Fortifying themselves with brandy, they returned to the cellar and soon made a grim discovery. There, in a shallow grave, lay a limbless headless torso. What kind of person could have done this? Surely not gentle Doctor Crippen?

The story caused a frenzy of excitement, with lurid headlines in the popular press. Inspector Dew was now under enormous pressure to catch the killer.

And then, that sensational telegram arrived from the mid-Atlantic.

Chief Inspector Dew now hatched an ingenious plan – he had to take a faster ship to overtake the Montrose before it reached Canada and to arrest Crippen on board. And the press were hard on his heels. Word had leaked out about what was happening on the SS Montrose. Newspaper readers could follow Dew’s pursuit as he closed in on his suspects at the rate of three and a half miles an hour.

This story has it all. As well as a gruesome murder, there is an illicit romance and a chase across the Atlantic. And best of all, the suspects didn’t have a clue that the police were onto them, although every newspaper reader in Britain did. Doctor Crippen had become the most famous murderer in the world.

Dew attempted to evade the journalists by disguising himself as a harbour pilot in order to board the Montrose. But it was no good. Reporters were there to capture the moment when Dew finally greeted his suspect with the words; “Good morning Doctor Crippen.” Can you imagine an actor and director lingering over that line – the pace, the dramatic pause?

Press photographers caught everything that happened next. The crowds waiting at Liverpool docks. Dew escorting Crippen off the boat. The anticipation outside Bow Streets magistrate’s court for the committal of Crippen and Le Neve.

The press had made the couple into a highly marketable commodity. This was a very modern murder.

Bizarre offers now began to come in. If they were acquitted Crippen would get £1000 a week for a twenty week tour. le Neve would receive £200 a week for a performance including a musical sketch entitled “Caught by Wireless.”

On the 18th of October, the trial of Doctor Crippen began at the Old Bailey. This was going to be a huge spectacle. Four thousand people applied for tickets, the court had to issue special half day passes so that double the normal numbers could get in. In the words of the Daily Mail’s reporter;

“…the crowds begged, pleaded and argued for seats in the public gallery.”

Inside there was even more chaos. There was a rowdy atmosphere, like a music hall. People were shouting ‘blue tickets that way, red tickets up here.”

The trial ended on Saturday the 22nd of October. The jury only took twenty-seven minutes to find Crippen guilty of wilful murder. He was sentenced to death.
In his evidence on oath, Crippen said that his wife had often threatened to leave him and had picked a quarrel with him over his behaviour while they were having friends round for dinner. Recounting the last time he saw her, he said:

She abused me, and said some very strong things; she said that if I could not be a gentleman she had had enough of it and could not stand it any longer and she was going to leave. That was similar to her former threats, but she said besides something she had not said before; she said that after she had gone it would be necessary for me to cover up any scandal there might be by her leaving me, and I might do it in the very best way I could. I came back the next day at my usual time, which would be about half-past seven or eight o'clock, and found that the house was vacant.
The trial ended on Saturday the 22nd of October. The jury only took twenty seven minutes to find Crippen guilty of wilful murder. He was sentenced to death.
The jury took just 27 minutes to reject Crippen's explanations for his wife's disappearance and convict him of murder.
Crippen was executed on 23 November 1910, less than four months after his arrest. His last request was to have a photo of Ethel Le Neve in his top pocket when he was hanged. He was buried in the cemetery at Pentonville prison.

Ethel le Neve, at a separate trial, was acquitted and she lost no time in selling her side of the story. A publicity shot shows her in her infamous disguise as a boy. But her fame was short-lived. It was Crippen himself that would be immortalised. Even during his trial sculptors at Madame Tussaud's had been preparing a wax figure based on those snatched court photographs. Within days of the passing of Crippen’s death sentence, Taussaud’s unveiled their new addition to the chamber of horrors. Crippen was on display to the public before he’d even met the hangman.

And over one hundred years later he is still on show.

In the 1912 catalogue to the Chamber of Horrors he takes his place amongst the greats. His fellow doctor, William Palmer the poisoner. And opposite the 19th century murderess, Maria Manning. They have a description of their crimes in the catalogue. Doctor Crippen has none. Everyone knows who he is; what he did.

And a contemporary journalist described this place, the Chamber of Horrors as “the holiest of holies.” These were the people everyone wanted to see. What does that say about the Edwardians?

Indeed; what does it say about all of us? Public hangings are no more; but I bet people would go to see them if they were. I recall watching the Crime channel (I’m addicted to it. It’s my version of a seat in the public gallery at the Old Bailey) there were crowds outside the jail where they’d got Ted Bundy. They cheered when it was announced that his death sentence had been carried out.

It seems that a lurid fascination with murderers and death did not die with the Edwardians.

You can read statements taken by the police and transcripts from the trial here;

TV viewers of BBC 4 will recognise that I have plundered parts of “A Very British Murder” presented by Lucy Worsley. The rest of the post has been put together using sources from the web.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! This is a great murder story, and its true. I gotta see that BBC mini series.