Friday, October 19, 2007

“Thank God It’s Over.” Or Is It?

Over the 97 years since homeopathic physician Hawley Harvey Crippen reportedly murdered and then buried the partial remains of his domineering spouse beneath the brickwork floor of their London basement, a number of doubters have come forward to suggest that Crippen was not guilty of the crime for which he was hanged. Among those was none other than Raymond Chandler, who in 1948 wrote in a letter to a friend: “I cannot see why a man who would go to the enormous labor of deboning and de-sexing and de-heading an entire corpse would not take the rather slight extra labor of disposing of the flesh in the same way, rather than bury it at all.”

However, Crippen’s guilt may never have come under such serious challenge as it has recently by forensic scientists at Michigan State University (MSU), who contend that, based on their DNA analysis of Cora’s supposed remains, the body in Crippen’s basement “couldn’t have been his wife.”

“We’re certain of that,” says David Foran, a forensic biologist and director of MSU’s forensic science program.

The circumstances surrounding Dr. H.H. Crippen’s crime have been well spelled out before, most notably in Erik Larson’s fine 2006 non-fiction book, Thunderstruck. In 1900, the Michigan-born Crippen moved with his wife, the former Cora Turner (whom he’d married in 1892), to England. There, Crippen was to become manager of the British office of a Philadelphia patent medicine company, while Cora--a marginal music hall singer, performing under the name “Belle Elmore”--hoped finally to realize her extravagant dreams of becoming an opera star. But as Crippen’s financial situation declined, Cora’s irritation with him increased. He even suspected her of having an affair with the boarder they’d taken in to make ends meet.

In 1904, a lonely Crippen became romantically involved with an employee named Ethel Le Neve, more than two decades his junior. He found in her a woman as kind and undemanding as Cora was dismissive and dictatorial. Eventually wishing to be shed of Cora, it’s said that in July 1910 the doctor poisoned her, removed her bones and limbs (which he then burned in their kitchen stove), dissolved her inner organs in a bathtub full of acid, and disposed of her telltale head during a trip to the French town of Dieppe. Fearing that Scotland Yard suspected him of having done away with his wife--although he’d told her friends that Cora had traveled to California, and there perished--Crippen and Le Neve boarded the SS Montrose for a trans-Atlantic voyage to Canada, where they hoped to start a new life together. Crippen had shaved off his familiar mustache and was growing a beard, while the petite Ethel was dressed as a boy and portrayed herself as his teenage “son.” To their fellow passengers, they became John and Edmund Robinson.

Only once this pair had sailed did Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Walter Dew (who, intriguingly, had been the young constable who discovered Jack the Ripper’s fifth and last recognized victim 22 years before) dig up what he presumed were Cora’s remains from the Crippens’ basement. Shortly thereafter, Dew was alerted by a wireless telegram from the Montrose’s captain that his suspect was on board, and set off in pursuit across the ocean on a faster ship, the White Star Line’s SS Laurentic. Dew was waiting for the Montrose when it entered Canada’s St. Lawrence River. Boarding the vessel, the British policeman approached Crippen incognito, disguised as a river pilot. He then reportedly said, “Good morning, Dr. Crippen. Do you know me? I’m Chief Inspector Dew from Scotland Yard.” To which Crippen replied, “Thank God it’s over. The suspense has been too great. I couldn’t stand it any longer.”

Crippen and Le Neve were taken back to London and tried separately at the Old Bailey in October 1910, before crowds of spectators that included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and dramatist W.S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. It took only 27 minutes of deliberations for a jury to find Crippen guilty of killing his wife; he was hanged within the month. The 27-year-old Le Neve was acquitted, changed her name, married, and lived until 1967. Her husband died before her, without knowing of his spouse’s notorious past.

But was Crippen actually telling the truth when he proclaimed himself innocent of murdering his showgirl wife? Britain’s Guardian newspaper explains why the Michigan scientists he was:
... [A]ccording to John Trestrail, the toxicologist who led the new research, poisoners rarely inflict external damage on their victims. “It is so unusual that a poisoner would dismember the victim, because a poisoner attempts to get away with murder without leaving any trace. In my database of 1,100 poisoning cases, this is the only one which involves dismemberment,” said Mr. Trestrail, who heads the regional poison centre in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The discrepancy prompted him to re-examine the evidence in the Crippen case. Working with a genealogist, Beth Wills, he set about finding Mrs. Crippen’s surviving family. After seven years, the team tracked down three distant relatives in California and Puerto Rico.

The challenge then was to find viable DNA from samples presented at the trial. At the archives of the Royal London Hospital, in Whitechapel, researchers found the microscope slide which helped hang Crippen. In court, a pathologist, Bernard Spilsbury, identified it as an abdominal scar consistent with Cora’s medical history.

Mitochondrial DNA is passed down in the egg from mother to daughter and remains relatively unchanged through generations, but the DNA in the sample was different from the known relatives of Mrs. Crippen.

“We took a lot of precautions when doing this testing,” Dr Foran said. “We just didn’t stop. We went back and started from scratch and tested it again.”

The evidence offers no suggestion of who may have been buried in the coal cellar at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Holloway, north London. But, according to Mr. Trestrail, Crippen is innocent of the crime for which he was hanged. “Two weeks before he was hanged he wrote ‘I am innocent and some day evidence will be found to prove it’. When I read that the hairs stood up on my arms. I think he was right.”
So what did happen to Cora Crippen? The Guardian notes that “several intriguing clues emerged during the [Michigan team’s] research. Cora sang on the British stage under the name of Belle Elmore. Ten years after the trial, a singer with a similar name [Belle Rose] was registered as living with Cora’s sister in New York. Records show that the same woman entered the U.S. through Ellis Island from Bermuda in 1910 shortly after Mrs. Crippen disappeared.”

Dublin author John Boyne, whose engrossing 2004 novel, Crippen, suggested that the good doctor was innocent, now tells BBC News that he’s not surprised to have his suspicions apparently confirmed by DNA evidence. “Everybody at the time who knew Crippen was really shocked,” Boyne says. “He was too mild mannered, they said, too meek. I thought there must be something in that.”

Nonetheless, he adds, “I don’t think the DNA evidence has cleared anything up.” There’s still the matter of those body parts in Crippen’s cellar. If they didn’t belong to the flamboyant Cora, whose were they? Boyne concludes:
“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 MORE:U.S. Scientists: Dr. Crippen Was Innocent,” by Lucy Cockcroft (The Telegraph); “Notorious Dr. Crippen Wrongly Hanged, Scientists Say,” by Michael Kahn (Reuters); “Dr. Crippen May Have Been Innocent,” by Patrick Foster (London Times); “Crippen Innocent?” by Laura James (Clews); “Considering Crippen,” by E.J. Wagner (CLP Forum); “Was Dr. Crippen REALLY Innocent? We Examine the Startling New Evidence,” by David Jones (Daily Mail); “Crippen Again: Why Our Faith in the Verdict Remains Unshaken,” by Laura James (Clews).

(Hat tip to Sarah Weinman.)

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