Posted: September 25th, 2008
Executed in Error
Watch the Full Episode

In 1910, an American doctor named Hawley Crippen was convicted in England of poisoning and dismembering his wife. The vicious murder—and execution that followed—made international headlines. It was a landmark case: The first trial by media, and the first to be dominated by forensic science. But did the prosecutors get it right? Almost one hundred years later, investigators have re-opened the files on a murder that became known as one of the crimes of the century.

  • toby

    sad….sad….

  • car

    how do u watch videos i need for hw

  • wondafrash

    i think the prosecuters got it right because look what a doctor did to his precious wife even if it is 1910. this is a time most things don’t work as they planned but this can’t be an execuse and i don’t now why investigators have re-opened the files after almost 100 years, this just a story we have to forget for good.

  • Virgil

    No story or history should ever be forgotten otherwise we will never have a better society or brighter future. Nor should an innocent man be condemned for a crime he did not commit, even if it takes a hundred years to prove his innocence.

  • Pam

    Being a descendant of his wife, I’m actually happy they proved the case. There are many books written about this particular case and am happy to have been a part of the process of discovery of finding out the truth.

  • Dan

    On the 1920 census record that was cited on the program, the occupation of Belle Rose was not singer, it was designer. And the occupation of Bertha Messenger or Mersenger was dressmaking. Mistakes can be made even today.

  • Roger Frain

    Right on Dan. It clearly says designer. Who’s checking these things out? Talk about mis-guiding everyone who watched….

  • Pam

    In 1920 Bertha (Mersinger) Smith was living in NYC with her husband William Smith and 3 children – 1 of them Louise Smith. Louise Smith was originally born to Bertha Mersinger (step sister of Cora) and Arthur Baum. I have not seen the show yet, it airs tonight here but will be interesting. We do believe the Bertha and Cora later lived together but do not have that proof yet.

  • Steve

    PBS used to be the last bastion of accurate information. It appears thay too, have gone over to the dark side. Its all about how much drama you can bring to a story irregardless of the accuracy.

  • Pam

    I do believe the accuracy is there for the most part. The DNA was taken from the descendents of Cora and believe that is the crucial piece of evidence. Cora was known for her “mean streak” so believe she was capable of setting up her husband. Research is always thought provoking and sometimes hard to prove. Am anxious to see the show.

  • Pam

    Great show. Thought it was well done and accurate except the statement on the 1920 census.

  • Richard

    I have just watched this program with great interest. I thank you for the in-depth information. I do not agree with others that say we should forget for good. England must admit thier faults and release Dr. Crippens body to be reburied in America. What is right will always be right. As a Crippen I say “It’s about time!”

  • valerie

    I have serious questions as to the validity of the findings of this genetic researcher. The price of the hair was too high and he accepted a “free” slide from a museum. He asserts from his testing that the tissue on the slide was not Cora’s and NOT female.
    As a researcher, I would immediately pay the price for the hair from Scotland yard if I discovered this discrepancy.
    The hair was actually a lock of hair, colored as Cora colored her hair, wrapped around one of her hair curlers. It was found in the “grave” with the remains of the torso from which the tissue sample purportedly comes.
    The torso in the “grave” was scarred from a surgery that women during that period underwent for the sake of fashion. It was a dangerous surgery, but Cora is known to have undergone the proceedure. The surgery to remove the lower ribs on each side was performed to allow for a smaller waste size. Men did not undergo this surgery.
    In a hundred years time, samples can be mixed. I am not questioning the researcher’s findings of the tissue being male. I am questioning the assertion that this tissue sample was part of the female, deboned torso found in Harvey Hawley Crippin’s basement, with scars from having the lower ribs removed.
    A scientist MUST remain objective or the science breaks down. Attention to detail is a must and a scientist must conduct his testing without pre-conceived notions in order to maintain objectivity.
    The chemistry of many poisons would have been well known to Harvey Crippen as he had long been a “snake oil” salesman in the States. He was not a real doctor, but one of the many quacks selling mostly alcohol to ladies as “tonics”.
    After the murder, Crippen hopped on a boat to the U.S. with his young, female lover. She dressed as a boy to avoid detection. Authorities were waiting for them on the other side, thanks to the new trans Atlantic communications. Crippen was the first fugitive caught in this way.
    I missed the program, unfortunately. I am reading through the site. I have been acquainted with the Crippen case for longer than this genetic researcher has been and I am also trained in genetics.
    While these old cases are fascinating and surely many people in the past have gone to the gallows wrongly convicted, I am hard pressed to imagine that Harvey Hawley Crippen was one of the innocents.
    If the tissue that this researcher tested is truly that of a male, then the hair from Cora’s hair curler also should be tested. It would seem strange to find that a man was murdered in Cora’s house having undergone a female surgery and wearing her curlers with his hair long and colored exactly her shade of hair-color, but I suppose stranger things have happened. The very fact idea that Crippen, such a quiet and unassuming man would have engaged in an affair, murdered is overbearing wife, and then fled across the Atlantic with his girlfriend dressed as a boy is pretty strange to begin with.
    That’s why the Crippen case has always fascinated so many people. He just didn’t seem like the type.

  • Arthur Parks III

    I think the case is worthy of reassessment, and therefore, the show has chosen a worthy topic. Forensic pathology was only a few steps beyond trephining to cure headaches in the early twentieth century, and the truth can only benefit from further analysis. I do agree that the Scotland Yard hair sample should be tested, but unless the Yard is hiding something, they should release the sample for free in the interest of justice. (are they interested in justice?)

    As for the accusations of hype, drama and poor fact checking, clearly those critics have too much free time, have never been in an editing room, nor ever produced anything worthy of public scrutiny. I challenge them to try, or at least learn about the process before condemning the effort. I am certain they will criticize me for saying so.

  • Elizabeth Camp

    Fabulous, fabulous. Dr. Crippen’s story has always fascinated me. As a child, I went on many school trips to Madame Tussaud’s and thus became acquainted with the case at an early age. I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Parks assertion (above) that the case should be re-opened. It has always troubled me that the part of the body that was easiest to dispose of was the part that was buried in the coal cellar. A head, legs, bones…those much more difficult to hide that skin and organs that are more easily or even dissolved in acid. Of course, some murderers have hidden heads rather well (Robert Durst).

  • Karen Yeoman

    Although I was intrigued by the show and do feel that there are huge descrepancies in the original case, I am irritated at the genealogist who worked on the case, as of late. She stated that in the New York 1920 census, that Bertha Messinger (supposedly sister to Cora) and Belle Rose may very well be Cora Crippin (with her stage name) and her sister, Bertha Messinger, since Belle’s occupation was “singer”…….but it is untrue. First, Bertha is listed as Belle Rose’ cousin and secondadly, but most emphatically, Belle’s occupation is NOT “singer”, but rather, “Designer”. I was wondering WHY a genealogist for the PBS would tell such a tale, or are her eyes that bad?
    I do feel however, that there are enough other circumstantial evidence questions, which point to the fact that the original investigation was not ample enough. Also, when doing female DNA testing, it must be of the two females for the samples to match. IF this sample was of a male, how on earth did it match to Cora’s great niece?
    Haunting questions need real answers.

  • Linda

    The 1910 census shows a Belle Rose, age 29, born in PA, single as a border with Samuel and Cora Bloom, at 415 E. 79th St, Manhattan. Her father born in Germany, mother PA. Occupation is milliner. This census was taken 15 Apr 1910.

    The 1920 census, also shows Belle Rose at the same age, born in PA, both parents born in Germany. Occupation is designer, as previously noted. She is probably a designer of hats.

    Given the above information and the fact that census takers sometimes made mistakes, I believe that these two persons are the same and that the Belle Rose living with Bertha Messinger is not Cora.

    Interestingly, there is a female Crippen, age and first name unknown, who travelled from England to Gibraltar in 1910. The Belle Rose who came to NY in 1910, came from Bermuda on the ship Bermudian. The Bermudian did not sail from England in 1910. So did Cora travel under the Crippen name to Gibraltar, then travel to Bermuda and then using the name Belle Rose sail onward to NY. The passenger list does not provide any details as to contacts on either end of the voyage.

  • Lee Rapp

    I LOVE this show, but also print some of it off so that I can read it at work on my break. Sometimes it is hard to do this with the way the site is set up. When are you going to archive some of the newer shows?

  • Rob Williams

    Fantastic episode. This show has been getting better and better.. loved the Roman Fire episode and the Zulu one.

  • Pat Smith

    Sorry, folks, the 1920 census says the women were cousins and born in 1891 and 1892. Cora was born in 1875. Since Cora NEVER contacted any of her friends, I believe Crippen really did do her in. But bury parts of a body in the house, no way. Someone else did that.

  • Angeline

    It was proved and stated by DNA that Crippon, an accused killer of his wife, Bella Rose, was found not guilty. They stated that the body inside the attic was a man. But what was the ethnicity of that man?

  • josh

    i really dont like these programs as they are scary :S

  • Candy Tutt

    Erik Larson’s book, ‘Thunderstruck,’ is based on the Crippen affair. It contains details that clear up many questions – plus it is a fascinating read!!

  • Syona

    hmm that was interesting.

  • punk_dogy

    ummmm im scared of england now.

  • K

    Wow. That looks interesting!

  • Martuska

    England has such a bloody history. They’re cold and ruthless people and capable of framing an innocent man like Crippen and so many countless others . They hide behind their royal (lol) and corrupt killer queen and have gotten away with so many murders, including Diana’s .

  • Frank Kalich

    Entertaining, but honestly, as pointed out by sometimes by comments, this show is not the type that PBS used to do, it is just entertainment, conjecture presented in a fashion to get the audience to buy into some sensational conclusions (which give entertainment value, thus ratings). I don’t believe anything from any of these series. I killed my TV 5 years ago, sometimes look at videos from other sources. PBS has really changed, they used to let the commercial networks churn out this kind of thing. I guess they want ratings like everybody else now.

  • Boris Betteroff

    I think it’s quite possible that Dr. Crippen somehow made mistake by not disposing of everything what was left over from his wife’s corpse. On other hand, maybe it was his wife, who made this false accusation case in the first place, but then again thinking that Crippen with his mistress ran away in such hurry and the fact that he was too eager to hide the truth to his wife’s friends makes him rather guilty. Plus, I think it was Crippen’s rich relative from nowadays America in the first place who sponsored all this investigation just to clear his rich family’s name, since he’s got money and time. (he is rich, retired and bored like all pensioners).

  • Brian H. Hesse

    Mr. Trestrail I am a student a Anne Arundel Community College taking Homeland Security and one of the
    classes I will be taking here shortly is forensics. Watching how your team worked was showed how it`s
    supposed to be done. Can you give me an tip`s on any book`s or lectures that would be of use to me.
    Thanks.

  • Alexander Yarborough

    I first would like to say that I have always been a huge fan of pbs and the breathtaking shows that they present because they mainly make you think not only outside of the box but also with your heart, soul,and mind.
    I am a sort of amature sleuth that has always been interested in history and unsolved cold cases. In the case of Dr. Crippen I have come to the conclusion that he was somewhat set up by Scotland yard just as in the case of O.J. Simpson the detective that was involved was also involved in another case that made him look bad (jack the Ripper) this case sort of made him save face and made him look like he was a competent lawman but after a 100 years it only makes him look like a lier and less competent.
    I do agree that with the Dr. leaving and having an affair, that did make him look guilty but I also belive that he was scared of the outcome. when his wife left him I belive that she had this set up from the door and inteded for him todie just not by her hand but by the hand of government. I belive that scotland yard and the powers that be owe him and his family a major appology

  • Chris L. Christensen

    How tragic that an obviously mild mannered and decent gentleman like Hawley Crippen put up with a a bitchy, self-centered, full-of-herself shrew like Belle Ellmore! Personally I think a lot of things don’t add up. The evidence, especially the scrap of clothing and the hair in a curler could have easily been planted by the police or by Belle herself. Because of the propriety and morals of 1910 a lot about the relationships of all involved was obviously not said. Obviously Crippen was an intelligent man, then why would someone of his intelligence botch a murder so blantantly! The DNA evidence is fascinating! Why wasn’t Crippen’s own hypothesis that the crime was committed before he moved in investigated further! Who lived in his rented house before he did and who were the owners? This case is full of glaring holes! The detective could have easily wanted to build his reputation for his botched attempt and battered reputation over the Jack-the-Ripper case and he indeed did benefit as well as the others in the prosecution. Juries are easily swayed, which is one of the reasons I don’t believe in jury trials. Belle Ellmore could have easily left without a trace and could well have not contacted her friends due to her own shame. Her showbiz connections obviously got this case much more publiciity than it ordinarily would have garnered. I hope this case is re-opened!!!

  • Pamela

    Great Britain has always been quick to execute without much concrete evidence

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    Thank you for making your article easy to read and grasp. I respect all the work you did here and I’m glad I read this.

  • Johnson

    The old clip of black and white film that starts at 02:23 and then ends at 02:31 is said to be of London.
    It is Liverpool, it shows Saint Georges hall and the corner of Lime street home of Liverpool’s main railway station
    Mistakes are easily made in every walk of life.

  • Hester

    This video is such b.s. and very poorly researched. Crippen was guilty as sin! I’ve read books about it- Try reading Thunderstruck by Erik Larson.

    Crippen purchased a very rare, easily detectable poison, hydrocosine which he signed the register at the pharmacy for, and was detected IN the body which was found in the basement along with the pyjamas belonging to him, AND the hair which belonged to his wife and was dyed the exact same way she wore her hair. And they didn’t even suspect him fully until he decideded to flee the country KNOWING FULL WELL THERE WAS A BODY IN HIS CELLAR. The police didn’t even check the cellar till he fled. Talk about giving yourself up through panic. And Belle Elmore (or Cora Crippen) would never, ever, ever, have left her favorite jewerlry and clothes behind. She was a vain woman, and her jewelery was worth about over $500,000 today. Tell yourself, if you were in her position and were leaving your husband, would you leave every possesion of material value for his mistress to just put on immediately afterward? Hell no. She was all about the bling. She filed paperwork 2 weeks earlier to try and withdraw money from their joint back account because she planned to divorce him- which was exactly when Crippen purchased the poison. GET YOUR FACTS STRAIGHT PBS. Crippen was a cold blooded murderer, and his relatives just can’t deal with the truth so they hired some researchers to find someone to pretend to be Cora’s “long lost relatives” and pretend the DNA doesn’t match. Jesus. This is a really bad conspiracy theory show and I expect more from you. BTW, as of 2011, the UK has denied all efforts to clear Crippen’s name or exhume his body, and rightly so. Man was guilty. Just because he was a “kindly murderer” and Cora was annoying, doesn’t justify the fact that he administered poison to his wife and then panicked when things didn’t go as planned.

    As for the DNA supposedly being “male..” well, I hate to break it to you, but there are ladies out there today who are born with both male and female parts. It’s rare, but it happens, and it happened back then. It was well known at the time that Belle (Cora) had had an operation in the area where her uterus would have been because something had gone majorly wrong. It’s possible she had undescended testicles like happens in, well, people with both types of sexual organs. She may have been passing as female her entire life. That’s what people like that had to do back in Victorian times- they couldn’t very well say, “I’m a he/she.” They went AS FEMALE and they got married. And that would also explain why Cora never bore a child. You don’t have the ovaries, you can’t have babies. Period. And your DNA shows up male even though you married Dr. Crippen.

  • Jack Griffin

    Perhaps the male remains found in Dr. Crippin’s coal cellar are the remains of his mistresse’s aborted fetus?

  • Dave

    It seems to me that Dr. Crippen could still have been the murderer… while the evidence found in the cellar could likely have been planted by the police or investigators after they did not find evidence in their initial searches, Dr. Crippen still had motives to kill his wife, and he did act very suspiciously before his capture. He had the means and knowledge to kill his wife, and could have disposed of the complete body in a way that was never discovered. Had the jury known that evidence was planted [if indeed that was the case], it likely would have led to Dr. Crippen’s acquittal, but that would not have proved his complete innocence. With his real motives for murder [the affair, the poor marriage, his wife trying to take the contents of their bank account and possessions, possible divorce and loss of money] and his access to the means of murder [poisons, knowledge of medicine, etc.] I could easily see a situation of Dr. Crippen’s guilt as well as police corruption in the planting of ‘evidence’ in order to seal a case they could not prove otherwise. It seems very odd that this scenario was not considered in the program… but then, it also seems the researcher for the program was more interested in proving his own theory instead of exploring all options and leaving scenarios that were possible but not provable. This oversight combined with the unconvincing theory of the wife’s later existence after Dr. Crippen’s execution creates significant suspicion of the researcher’s theory in the program. This approach perhaps creates interesting television, but indicates poor research methodology. I expect better from a PBS program.

  • Ben

    After the police began questioning him, Dr. Crippen fled England as fast as he could with his mistress dressed as a boy. His wife, Cora Crippen, disappeared suddenly, and his explanation that she got sick and died, makes him look even more guilty. I want the other remains that Scotland Yard to be tested as well, but, Dr. Crippen’s actions make me think he was guilty. I am not convinced he was innocent, because, he acted like a guilty person. Innocent people usally do not try and run away to another country in disguise, and his letters as to what happened to his wife prove that he would lie, if he thought he could get away with it. I like Hester’s explanation that Cora Crippen would Not have left her clothes and Jewelery behind, If she had left of her own free will.

  • Kat

    What kind of woman would leave her husband without taking her most-prized possessions, especially a vain woman like Cora Crippen??? It makes no sense. Also, given the importance today of chain of custody of evidence, I find the forensic analysis in this program completely suspect and unpersuasive. There is nothing here to make me question Crippen’s guilt. I am against the death penalty here in the United States, so I am always receptive to stories about wrongly convicted men who are executed despite their innocence. This is not such a case.

  • Ree

    Isn’t England the same place that even executed children for things such as theft up until the 19th century?

  • Miguel

    Certainly a spellbinding short film, masterfully composed, with numerous fascinating angles, and various unanswered questions. One proven fact is that the police withheld critical information from the defense. Also, the supposed discovery by the police of unidentifiable partial remains buried together with the pajama top of the accused almost surely indicates planted evidence — the body parts could have come from any corpse the police had in the morgue — resulting in a possible victimless murder conviction. Of course, the missing wife is a puzzle, but if she were intentionally hiding to allow her husband’s execution, she could never again come forward, and would have used pseudonyms to prevent being traced in census or passenger lists, and would have disguised her appearance when out in public. Let’s see if additional new evidence will be forthcoming now that the red flags are up. And why can’t Dr. Crippen be reinterred in the family cemetery plot in Michigan regardless of our conjecture about his guilt or innocence?

  • Manuel C

    To me it sounds more like Cora and her lover had gotten some of his [Cora's lovers] flesh from his stomach area or someone else [possibly from a dead body at the morgue] and planted the flesh in the house, because she hated her husband that much and wanted to have him killed.

    On the off chance that it may have been planted by the detectives then a look must be looked at the detectives to see what other cases they might have planted or tampered with evidence? Was evidence tampering common in England at the time? And if I was one of the Crippen family members that remain now, personally I would sue for the wrongful conviction and execution (if there was evidence tampering).

    On the questioned of a botched abortion, maybe it could have been the remains of an aborted fetus [male baby], but this I highly doubt.

    There are so many murderers that get off with a lot more evidence in these days. He should not have been convicted.

  • Cedric Rapaport

    It was so creepy and shocking. Goodness this makes me think if I’m going to buy a car not just twice but more than 10 times =( Or maybe those people just don’t know how to follow rules? But some of them are just plain accident. So we never really know. And by the way I stumble this good for share. Thanks ^_^

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