Hawley Harvey Crippen

Dr. Crippen & Ethel LeNeve

Dr. Crippen & Ethel LeNeve

I enjoyed reading Crippen by John Boyne about of course, Hawley Harvey Crippen. On October 18, 1910, almost 100 years ago, the murder trial of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen started at the Old Bailey, UK. It gripped the public, as had his flight with his mistress who was dressed as a boy, and the police chase across the Atlantic. But US researchers now suggest DNA evidence showed that a body found under his house, was not that of Crippen’s wife Cora.

In his book, John Boyne suggests Hawley Harvey Crippen was wrongly hanged for the murder of his showgirl wife Cora. American scientists say they have DNA evidence proving that the headless body found under the Crippens’ north London home was not actually Mrs Crippen. “Dr Crippen went to the gallows maintaining his innocence – it seems now he was telling the truth,” said Mr Boyne.

The researchers from Michigan State University tracked down three of Mrs. Crippen’s grandnieces and compared their mitochondrial DNA with a piece of skin from the body in the cellar that was kept on a microscope slide since the trial in 1910. This process was also used to find the heart of the Dauphin. That story and more about mitochondrial DNA can be found in my post “The Lost King of France.”

Mitochondrial DNA is passed down from mother to daughter. Unlike regular DNA, it remains more stable in old tissue and is easier to retrieve. David Foran, a forensic biologist and director of the university’s forensic science programme, said: “This can’t be Cora Crippen. We’re certain of that. The DNA in the sample is different from the known relatives of Cora Crippen.”

scar tissue/Crippen trial

scar tissue/Crippen trial

In the pre-DNA days of the trial, pathologist Bernard Spilsbury’s identification evidence rested on a scar on the body’s abdomen that he claimed was consistent with Mrs. Crippen’s medical history. But to trial observers, what sealed Crippen’s guilt was his suspicious flight with his mistress, Ethel le Neve, disguised as his son named Edmund. The pair boarded the SS Montrose to sail to Canada. But, they were recognised by the ship’s captain.

Even more unluckily for them was that the SS Montrose was the first ship to carry Marconi’s new telegram system so the ship’s captain could alert Scotland Yard. With newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic following every twist and turn of the chase, they were able to take a faster passage and meet the SS Montrose as she arrived in Quebec.

In his story, Mr. Boyne invents another character who could have killed Mrs. Crippen. But even if it wasn’t her, there was still a body under the Crippens’ house. “I don’t think the DNA evidence has cleared anything up,” he said. “There were suggestions Crippen could have been an abortionist and the body in the cellar was one which went wrong. He still dressed his mistress as his son and fled. He obviously had something to hide. Dr. Crippen is one of those mysteries that will never be solved.” Read the 2007 BBC article here.

In December 2009, the Criminal Cases Review Commission, having reviewed the case, declared that the court of appeal will not hear the case to pardon Crippen posthumously. The CCRC is an non-departmental public body. It aims to investigate possible miscarriages of justice in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Commission assesses whether convictions or sentences should be referred to a court of appeal. Another case the CCRC is still pondering is described in the post about Brian David Parsons, here on DCC.

To see what Dr. John H. Trestrail III discovered, to see the DNA process and to hear which people get a close eye on this case, see the PBS Series “Secrets of the Death.” The episode about Dr. Crippen, “Executed in Error” can be seen here.