Published: November 29, 2016
Cora, the flirtatious wife of Dr Crippen, disappeared from her London home on this day, sparking one of the most puzzling and notorious murder cases in British legal history – and one that is still unresolved today.
Hawley Harvey Crippen, born in 1862, was an American homeopath. He practised in New York where, in 1894, he married Corrine "Cora" Turner, a struggling music hall singer who went under the stage name of Belle Elmore.
Later that year Crippen started working for a mail order pharmaceutical company and was appointed London manager when the business was extended to England in 1897.
Cora, however, proved to be the fly in the ointment. After affairs in America she continued to take lovers in London while becoming increasingly frustrated over her failure to succeed as a professional singer. Her demands meant that Crippen lost his job in 1899 because his boss thought he was spending too much time on Cora’s career.
On 31 January, 1910, after a dinner party at their home in Holloway, North London, Cora disappeared. Crippen told her friends that she had returned to the US to visit relatives. Later, he claimed that she had died after being taken ill.
That could have been the end of the matter, but Crippen made the fatal mistake of quickly asking his secretary and lover, Ethel Le Neve, to move in with him. Cora’s suspicious friends contacted the police.
Crippen told detectives that Cora had left him for another man, and that he had lied to her friends to save face. When the police returned a few days later to ask more questions, Crippen and Le Neve had vanished.
A search of the house revealed body parts beneath the cellar floor, the police suspecting straight away that the corpse was Cora’s. A nationwide hunt was immediately mounted for Crippen and Le Neve.
The two suspects had boarded a ship bound for Canada but unfortunately for them the captain became suspicious of them after reading newspaper reports of the case and alerted police using the newly invented wireless telegraph. His message read:
"Have strong suspicions that Crippen London cellar murderer and accomplice are among passengers. Mustache taken off. Growing beard. Accomplice dressed as boy. Manner and build undoubtedly a girl.”
They were arrested when the ship reached Canada and sent back to Britain to stand trial.
Though the court was told of a drug found in the body and that newly manufactured clothing at the scene ruled out claims the remains were years old, the most damning evidence against Crippen came from pathologist Bernard Spilsbury. He said that a piece of skin from the human remains carried an abdominal scar “consistent with Cora’s medical history.”
A jury took just 27 minutes to find Crippen guilty of murder, for which he was hanged. Le Neve was tried separately, accused of being an accessory after the fact.
She was acquitted and left Britain for the US on the morning of Crippen's execution. At his request, her photograph was placed in his coffin and buried with him.
However, nearly a century later, scientists in America looking into the case compared the DNA from the cellar tissue to DNA from Cora’s modern-day relatives. Not only was there no match – proving that the corpse was not Cora’s – but it was the wrong sex – the body remains in the cellar belonged to a man!
John Trestrail, the toxicologist who led the new research, said: "Hawley Crippen was tried solely on the evidence that he killed Cora. The body wasn't hers, so he was convicted and hanged in error."
Referring to the glass slide of tissue evidence used by Spilsbury to identify the body as Cora's, Mr Trestrail said: “This was the evidence on which Crippen was convicted. But the substance in the slide is not Cora Crippen. No question. I don't say Hawley Crippen is innocent, but he is no longer proven guilty."
The results were conclusive, said Dr David Foran, head of the forensic science programme at Michigan State University. "That body cannot be Cora Crippen, we're certain of that."
James Patrick Crippen, the doctor’s closest living relative, made a formal request for Hawley Crippen to be pardoned and his bones returned to America. But the Criminal Cases Review Commission refused to refer the case to the Appeal Court.
It said it could not do so because Mr Crippen was too distantly related. In law, the person bringing such an appeal had to be a close relative. It is understood the Commission did not examine the grounds for the appeal.
Before he was executed, Crippen wrote in a letter to Le Neve: “Face to face with God, I believe that facts will be forthcoming to prove my innocence.” John Trestrail said: “When I read that the hairs stood up on my arms. I think he was right."