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The Crippen Murder

A Page from the scrapbook of Scotland Yard Detective Charles Belcher, who worked on the Dr Crippen case. Pictures show Dr Crippen and his wife Belle Elmore

Hawley Harvey Crippen was a meek little man with a big problem.  His wife was a cheating, gold digging narcissist.  To complicate matters, he was in love with another woman.  How did he get into this predicament?

Crippen was born to a prosperous family in Coldwater, Michigan in 1862.  Despite the fact the family was comfortable, they instilled in young Hawley a strict work ethic.  Crippen completed a degree an M.D. from Cleveland Homeopathic Hospital after graduating from the University of Michigan.  He set up practice in Brooklyn, NY and married a nurse named Charlotte Bell and the two had a son.  Bell died suddenly, and Crippen sent their son Otto to be raised by his parents in California.  In September 1892, his life changed when seventeen year old Cora Turner appeared in the Brooklyn office.  Cora appeared as a much older woman with a voluptuous figure, a mature attitude and flexible morals.   However, Cora was not was not what she seemed.  Cora was born Kunigunde Mackamotzki in Brooklyn, NY in 1873.  She left home at 16, and changed her name to the more Anglicized Cora Turner.   She was an aspiring actress and singer, and parlayed her charm into monetary success.  In fact, at the time she met Crippen she was living in an apartment paid for by a married man.  In exchange for what can euphemistically be called companionship, she received room, board, clothes and voice lessons.  Why she was seeing was deemed “female problems”, but would be more accurately described as a pregnancy.  Crippen’s notes say she had a miscarriage or “something”, however, that may have been code for an abortion.

Dr. Crippen was immediately smitten, and began courting the young woman even though he was thirteen years her senior.  Although Dr. Crippen was not physically handsome, she was interested in his M.D. and the possibility of wealth it brought with it.  Cora used Dr. Crippen as a ticket out of her situation with the married man, and worked her considerable wiles on him.  When Cora told Crippen her married paramour had asked her to runaway with him, he claimed he couldn’t stand it.  The two were married on September 1, 1892. Cora was still having problems with her “female complaint” and was in pain.  A doctor suggested she have an ovariectomy, an operation to remove her ovaries.  This was a serious step as surgery was in its infancy and not always safe.  Despite misgivings, Cora went through with the operation.  Later, she liked showing off her scar to friends and family.  Since she was no longer able to have children, Cora threw herself into her singing career.  Unfortunately, with the panic of 1893 and the waning demand for homeopathy, Cora was forced to give up her voice lessons and the couple had to move in with Cora’s step father.  Cracks began to appear in the Crippen marriage as what once seemed vivacious and charming, now seemed volatile and wearing.  

The couple moved to Philadelphia, where Crippen got a job with a homeopathic mail order business named Munyon’s Homeopathic Remedies.  He impressed his managers with his intelligence and work ethic and he rose to general manager in 1895.  Cora resumed her voice lessons.  Although they were thriving in Philadelphia, both J.M. Munyon and his son Duke noted was caused much worry by his wife’s behavior.  She took notice of men other than her husband and seemed to take joy in their attentions, and this was visibly upsetting to the Crippen, whom the Munyon’s described as being a “gentle” soul.  Rumors flew that she was having affairs.  

Despite his family troubles, Munyon promoted Crippen to open the company’s first overseas office in London.  Originally, Cora stayed behind to pursue her career in New York.  She wrote to Crippen she was giving up her dreams of opera and moving to vaudeville.  This upset Crippen, who worried it was too tawdry.  He urged her to come to London, where variety as it was called, enjoyed a bit more upmarket reputation.  Even the Prince of Wales partook of variety on occasion.  Cora reluctantly agreed and once in London, pursued her theatre career with vigor.  However, Cora was less pliable and friendly.  She cast up men she had met in New York as well as on the trip over to Crippen.  Her moods swung to all of the extremes and her temper was nasty, and only improved when Crippen agreed to fund a variety act starring Cora.  The critics hated it and called her the “Brooklyn matzoball”.

Some career moves later and the loss of money from Cora’s variety show sent the Crippens to a more down market home.  Cora would not give up though and attended to stick at variety and had started singing again.  To rid herself of her former failure, she went by a new stage name-  Belle Elmore.  The marriage continued to degrade and Belle was active in an affair with a man named Bruce Miller.  He tended to visit Belle at least two times a week and escorted her to restaurants.  Crippen was past being jealous and later said he was simply grief stricken. On the career side, Belle became involved with the Music Hall Ladies’ Guild, and they were charmed by the same things that Crippen had been charmed by.  However, they didn’t have to live with her.

In 1901, Crippen hired a new secretary- 18 year old Ethel Le Neve.  Ethel was quiet and intelligent.  She treated Crippen with respect, which was something he was not used to anymore.  The two became close, and soon Crippen was head over heals with Ethel.  However, he was still married to Belle.  At this point the two were living separate lives- Belle carrying on with her lovers and theater friends, and Crippen carrying a torch for his secretary.  The two of them were inseparable, but Crippen didn’t pull the trigger on an affair because of his strict religious upbringing.  What pushed him over the edge was finding Belle in bed with one of their borders.  The marriage for all intents and purposes was over.  However, Belle took on the role of a jealous wife with zeal and enlisted her friends in the Music Hall Ladies’ Guild to spy on her husband.  They reported back of intimate dinners between Crippen and Ethel.  Soon there were reports Ethel was pregnant.  This struck Belle to the heart as she was unable to have children, plus a woman of her dramatic temperament and no fear of playing the hypocrite could not resist the opportunity to play the injured party.  It became clear she had to go.

On January 17, 1910, Crippen ordered five grains of the poison hydrobromide of hyoscine, from a chemist who supplied medications for his dentistry practice.  This was a drug used as a sedative and used in small quantities to subdue mental patients.  The theory goes that Crippen tried to sedate Belle, and then invited over his friend Dr. John Burroughs to “find” her body.  He had already laid the false trail that Belle was in ill health with Burroughs.  Instead of being sedated, Belle had become hyperactive and Crippen was forced to shoot her with a revolver.  Crippen then cut the body into pieces and hidden it under the floor in stone cellar.  Then began an elaborate ruse that Belle had returned to America to tend to a sick relative.

Except that they were terrible planners, Crippen tried to lay another false trail to America where he then had Belle conveniently die.  However, he let Ethel wear Belle’s jewelry.  She wore a particularly beloved piece of Belle’s jewelry to a Guild Ball.  The ladies knew venal Belle would never have left these pieces and began inundating Crippen with inquiries as to where Belle was, where she was buried etc.  They called in Scotland Yard and Chief Inspector Walter Dew began to investigate.  Again, Crippen got hasty.  During his interview with Inspector Dew, he told him Belle had left him for another man and he made up the story out of embarrassment.  Dew believed him and was about to let the matter drop when Crippen and Ethel ran.  Once it was known they had disappeared, Dew searched the house and found the body under the cellar floor.  It was identified by the ovariectomy from so long ago.

The press went wild as the gruesome murder was reminiscent of the Ripper murders twenty years earlier.  Immense pressure was put on Scotland Yard to solve the case by the public, the press and even a young Winston Churchill, as the Home Secretary.  Crippen and Ethel tried to escape to Canada aboard the steamer SS Montrose.  Ethel was dressed as a boy and was posing as Crippen’s son.  However, this ruse was seen through by the captain of the Montrose, who had received word of the fugitives via the new wireless radio.  Again, another mistake because if Crippen had sailed to the US, Dew would have no jurisdiction over him since he was a US citizen.

The two were arrested by Inspector Dew when the SS Montrose docked in Canada with thousands of readers following along in the newspapers.  They were taken aboard another ocean liner to return back to England to stand trial.  Crippen and Ethel were not allowed to see each other but once on the voyage home.  Crippen begged Inspector Dew to allow him to see Ethel as if he was convicted they would never meet again and she had been “his only comfort”.  Inspector Dew allowed Crippen to stand at the door of his cabin, while Ethel stood at the door of hers thirty feet away.  Dew described the meeting as profoundly sad, and the two never spoke just exchanged a small hand gesture.  They never spoke again.

Ethel and Crippen were tried separately in London.  Crippen for murder and Ethel as an accessory after the fact.  Crippen was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.  Ethel was acquitted.  Crippen was executed at Pentonville Prison in London on November 23,1910.  He asked to be buried with his letters to Ethel and a photograph of her. On the same day Ethel left England and worked in Canada for five years before returning.  After five years, she returned and married.  She died at the age of 84 in 1967.

Theories abound as to whether Crippen actually did the murder.  Erich Larsen believes that Crippen just snapped after years of abuse.  Forensic toxicologist, John Trestail, is revisiting the case with DNA expert David Foran.  They have found the 100 year old tissue claimed to be Belle Elmore’s did not match DNA from living relatives.  However, this has been controversial as Jonathan Meges, a genealogist from San Diego, believes the people thought to be relatives of Belle Elmore were not, so there was no wonder the DNA didn’t match.  Foran’s investigation also found that many of the body parts were not even female.  Based on these findings, James Patrick Crippen, a living relative of Hawley Crippen, is formally requesting the British government pardon Hawley Crippen.