Posted: September 25th, 2008
Executed in Error
Hawley Crippen

A picture of Hawley CrippenThe quiet Dr. Crippen moved to the U.K., and worked as a homeopathic doctor in London. His flamboyant and flirtatious wife Cora – also known by her stage name Belle Elmore – was a struggling music hall singer. In January of 1910, Cora disappeared under mysterious circumstances following a dinner party at the couple’s home. Crippen told Cora’s friends that she had returned to the United States to visit relatives, and then soon after, that she had taken ill and died. He then invited scandal by asking his secretary and lover, Ethel Le Neve, to move in with him. Friends grew suspicious, and asked the police to investigate. Crippen told them that Cora had left him for another man, and that he had lied to her friends to save face. When the inspectors returned a few days later to ask more questions, they found that Crippen and Ethel had fled. A thorough search of the Crippen home resulted in the grisly discovery of body parts beneath the cellar.

According to the police report, the victim had been poisoned, and then filleted. The horrific murder, so reminiscent of Jack the Ripper’s attacks only two decades earlier, quickly became headline news. The media glare and close government scrutiny put Scotland Yard under intense pressure to catch Crippen and solve the crime. Even a young Winston Churchill, then Britain’s Home Secretary, was intimately tracking the investigation. Crippen and Le Neve tried fleeing to Canada, but were apprehended after the captain of their ship used a brand new technology—the Marconi wireless machine—to alert authorities of his whereabouts. The high-profile case that followed included incriminating pajamas, a rare poison that Crippen was known to have possessed, and a showy pathologist with a red carnation who convinced the jury that marks on the skin samples proved they were from Cora.

“The Crippen case was the O.J. Simpson case of 1910,” said forensic toxicologist John Trestrail, one of the key investigators revisiting the Crippen case. “I don’t think any murder in history had been covered that much in the newspapers. It was being read about all over the world.”

Trestrail, a poison expert, was troubled by its circumstantial evidence. He had never heard of a poisoning case where the perpetrator had dismembered his victim—poisoners usually did all they could to make death look like an accident. And even if Crippen had committed both acts, why would he have disposed of so much of the body, then left just a few incriminating pieces behind? His questions led to a careful analysis of the court records, and new forensic testing on the physical evidence that still remains from the crime scene. Trestrail traveled between the U.S. and England to piece together details of the infamous crime, working closely with DNA expert Foran and genealogist Wills each step of the way.

Dr. Foran’s team, working in his forensic biology lab at Michigan State University, compared the DNA from the 100-year-old tissue to modern DNA from relatives of Cora that Wills has managed to track down. Expecting to confirm that the body was Cora’s, the team instead found that the DNA doesn’t match, and even more startlingly, that the body parts were not even female—they were from a male victim.

With convincing evidence that the body did not belong to Cora, Trestrail began to dig deeper into the police and court archives, slowly unraveling a series of suppressed documents. Among the noted evidence is a letter to Crippen from Cora, in which she claims she is living in America and has no plans to save him from execution. The letter was deemed a hoax by investigators, but was never even shown to Crippen or his lawyers. Could the police have tampered with the evidence used in trial?

With all the new findings, James Patrick Crippen, the closest living male relative of Crippen, is now formally requesting that the British government pardon the doctor and return his bones to America.

Before he was executed, Crippen wrote an eerily prophetic letter to Ethel Le Neve. In it, he said, “Face to face with God, I believe that facts will be forthcoming to prove my innocence.” Modern forensic science has now fulfilled his prophecy.

  • Brigitte Garfield

    I may have missed part of the program, but I’m extremely curious to know what happened to Mr.Crippen’s mistress, Ethel Le Neve. Also, I thought I heard the narrator say that Crippen confessed? If so, this contradicts the last letter he wrote to his mistress in which he stated he believed that facts would be forthcoming to prove his innocence.

  • Karla Keffer

    This is a reprint of an article I read in “The People’s Almanac” by David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace. In brief, it appears that Miss Le Neve took the name Ethel Harvey (in memory of Crippen) and fled to Toronto, where she lived for decades in anonymity.

  • Roger Batchelder

    To see what happened to Ethel, Do a Goole search under Ethel Le Neve

  • carrie

    I am surprised that they did not extradite him back to the US ,so he could stand trial there.

  • Carey Baxter

    I thought that there was one major contradiction in the show and I was wondering if anyone had any input. According to the show, it was the finding of the body parts in the basement that brought the case to public attention. Later in the show it was suggested that the police might have planted the body parts in the basement to frame Dr. Crippen because they were under preasure to solve a high profile case. Those two statements contradict each other. The case wasn’t high profile until AFTER the body parts were found so there wasn’t a reason for the police to plant the body parts in the first place.

    Did I miss something in the show?

  • Mike

    I was born in Coldwater and I am in some way related by way of my mother’s family name; Lobdell. We have talked about this case for all my life, but now it has been made real. Thanks to PBS and the detective work of all involved.

  • Tom

    I would add this input to the question raised by Carey Baxter.
    You’ve got to remember that the cops, before they ever went to Hilldrop Crescent, had been told to suspect Crippen as a wife killer – Cora’s friends had reported her missing and didnt believe Crippen’s story.

    Chf Inspector Dew was a very senior cop – he was asked to investigate by the deputy head of the Metropolitan Police. Because of Cora’s celebrity connections this was always much more than a routine missing person inquiry. Otherwise they’d have just sent a constable, or ignored it altogether. In that sense the case was ‘high profile’, as far as the cops were concerned, right from the start.

    Scenario 1 – the cops dig in the cellar, find some body parts, [which could have been there for several years] but believe that Crippen must be a wife killer, just as they suspected. Still, they don’t have a cast iron case, so they plant the pyjamas. This is what the programme categorised as possible ‘noble cause corruption’.

    Scenario 2 – the cops don’t find anything, but they have their initial suspicions, and they also know now that Crippen has fled the scene, so they decide to plant some body parts that they had lying around the morgue, in order to nail him and enhance their own careers. The body parts were male, but in those days there was no way of telling so they thought they’d be safe. This is an unlikely scenario, and not one that the programme strongly suggested.

    It was only after the hunt for Crippen was publicised round the world that the case became high profile in a public sense, and when there would clearly have been a very strong motive on the part of the authorities to have him convicted, as there is in high profile cases to this day.

  • david crippen

    i am from des moines iowa, ihave been following this case for quite awhile . it does not surprise me that new evidence was found . even though mrs crippen couldnt sing at all. and god knows how long i could take a rotten voice. everyone that knew the mild mannered crippen said, they could not see him doing such a thing. dr crippen even rented a hall out for the wife, to let the rest of the world enjoy that beautiful voice.

  • John Forbes

    In a grand irony, the victim here is actually the killer. Even Agatha Christie never envisioned such a plot twist. When intelligent people are disappointed, they turn to introspection; when stupid people are disappointed, they turn to spite. Cora’s flit sent her husband to the gallows. She was too vain and selfish to come forward and save him. Unknowingly, the police aided Cora in her disappearance by being far too anxious to make a sensational arrest. It is possible that Cora lived until the 1940’s. Maybe some senior recalls a short, pudgy woman who boasted of having been on the London stage. Maybe searches of death notices can uncover some woman whose flimsy story points to being Cora. One thing is certain: Cora / Belle went SOMEWHERE, and it wasn’t into the basment of that house!

  • Daniel Crippen McElwain IV

    I have always been intrigued by this case because my middle name is Crippen. This article sheds new light to the case and to Crippen. I fully believe his innocence and it saves my name from such tyranny.

  • Faith

    After watching the PBS episode, my boyfriend and I discussed it for hours. Our hypothesis: Crippen, Cora, and Ethel were in it together. They conspired and killed some unknown guy. (Someone from Cora’s past? Someone who was a threat to them? Look for someone who’s disappearance is elaborately explained.)

    Perhaps Cora disagreed with the decision to kill him, but she would have been implicated as an accomplice. At any rate, she left the scene soon after the murder to protect herself (trying to withdraw the money, making plans to remove trunks or boxes). Naturally, she does not inform her circle of friends–simply high-tails it back home to safety. Crippen, then, told her friends a version of the truth when he said she went to the States. It never crosses his mind that he could be suspected of murdering *her*, so he doesn’t bother too much with elaborate explanations. (After all, his primary problem is a body to dispose of!)

    Ethel remains with Crippen because of their relationship, and to help him dispose of the body. Crippen does not mourn the loss of his wife because he assumes she is with her family in the States. Ethel feels free to assume a more apparent role as lover in Cora’s absence.

    When the body is found, Crippen and Ethel decide their best chance is to disappear just like Cora did. Confronted with the accusation that he killed Cora, Crippen can only protest that he never killed his wife. He cannot explain any further without incriminating both Cora and Ethel–and that would not get him off the hook for murder. He does not grieve or show regret during the trial: he has not killed anyone he cares for, and is primarily concerned with sheilding Ethel. Ethel remains silent, knowing that her speaking out will not help anyone. Cora’s tongue is tied, as well–speaking up would only incriminate herself and would not exhonerate Crippen.

  • Howie Kaplin

    a great book on this is Erik Larsen’s THUNDERSTRUCK.
    It weaves this story with Marconi developing the wireless…………..almost as good as Devil in the White City

  • Kathleen Adamson

    Intriguing case still. Lots of questions: did the police dig up every inch of the basement and garden or just central part of coal-cellar? If not, could be other bodies there. I know they looked in nearby drains to no avail. What efforts were made to locate Belle in the US or reports of her sightings there? If she were alive, could she have got the perfect revenge re Ethel, by planting deliberately ambiguous remains knowing her disappearance would occasion an investigation? Last question of many I have: Do we know for sure Belle was not adopted as a child? If she were, any DNA done via her living famly would necessarily indicate the body found was not related to them. It would be a good place to start, because if she were adopted, we are back to square one and the body could be hers after all. If not, and the body is indeed a man, why were all traces of gender removed? To make it look like Belle? The killer clearly wanted the body to be mistaken for Belle, hence the gender ambiguity but the leaving of dyed hair with hairpins like hers could easily be done by Belle herself, to make the ambiguous body look like hers. Looks like a frame-up? However Le Neve and Crippen ( particularly Le Neve from my reading) appear to have been pathological liars, particularly Le Neve, even to her own family up to her death in her 80’s. Both of them lied so often and so well at every turn, that it is difficult to get at the truth unless the forensics are re-done meticulously as much as time allows. We all need to get a life and stop worrying this case, but it is so fascinating for the psychology of it, the motives, the politics then and now at work, and the forensics/ policework. It needs re-investigating.

  • Ian

    The suggestion police planted the body parts doesn’t ring true. When they were called in it was a missing person case, albeit that there were strong suspicions. To plant body parts only for Cora to be found alive would leave the police with a lot of explaining, and so would be a ridiculous risk for them to take.

    If anyone doubts Crippen’s guilt I suggest they read the trial transcript (available on the Old Bailey History web site). Crippen’s own story simply isn’t credible. Think it through. He says he made up the story of Cora going to America and dieing, to cover up any scandal. But how could he be sure she’d never contact her friends in England again? By telling everyone she was dead didn’t he run the risk of looking like a liar and a cheat if she wrote to them? He didn’t stop there, he wrote to Cora’s sister in New York saying she’d died, how on earth could he be so sure Cora wouldn’t look up her friends and relatives in the US?

    Then, if he really was so sensitive about scandal, why did he move his secretary in with him the very day after his wife ‘left’, parade her around publicly in his wife’s jewels and furs, and take her off for a week’s holiday on the continent. Hardly the actions of someone concerned about appearances.

    Next is his flight. He’s unable to say he ran to avoid being accused of her murder, because, of course, his defence was that she was still alive. All he could say was he didn’t want to be held in custody for a long time waiting for her to be found. But, surely, if he knew she really had gone to America, he’d check with the shipping lines to find her on the passenger list, ask neighbours if they’d seen her leave, or check with friends and relatives in the US. He didn’t because he knew there was no point.

    The most damning piece of circumstantial evidence is Cora’s jewels. Crippen pawned these for about 195 pounds. It doesn’t sound much, but if you consider his salary the year before was 3 pounds a week, and he paid about 53 pounds a year rent for his house, the jewels were worth over a year’s salary or nearly four year’s rent. Are we seriously expected to believe that someone starting a new life would leave behind something so valuable?

    Cora has never been found alive. The existence of a mysterious letter is unconvincing, as there were numerous hoax letters. DNA analysis on such an old sample, handled by many people, is equally unconvincing. Unromantic as it may be, the simplest explanation of murder, dismemberment, deception and flight is far more credible than trying to believe other more outlandish suggestions.

  • Lexi

    The woman Cora as far as I have been able to research through Google searches was never found so it is doubtful that she ever sent it but what can not be ignored is that the remains found were that of a male according to foresnsic testing and that I think is worth further investigation.

  • Robert

    Forensic evidence was in it’s infancy when this case was tried. It’s altogether possible that the scientist made a mistake-it happens on a regular basis today. However, my experience as a former police officer leads me to believe that Dr. Crippen was guilty. Innocent people do not fabricate stories this fantastic. They also do not run while disguised in order to avoid scrutiny. To a man, every person I ever arrested was “innocent”, even if we had video taped evidence of the crime and a beautiful close up of the perp’s face.

  • Bette Cooper

    Michael L. cooper and David Mallamud wrote a musical on the life of Dr. Crippen in 2003 and 2004. It was very well received when done as a reading at the Theater Building of Chicago’s Stages Festival in 2005.

  • Andrew

    I agree with all the points made by Robert, but I suspect they are not in conflict with the notion that the police planted all the physical evidence. Think about it from their point of view. They have a missing wife. They confront the husband who is now living with his mistress. He admits to having lied but now claims she walked out, even though none of her close friends have heard form her in months. If she really left on her own, wouldn’t she at least send a post card to her friends? They leave on Friday and return on Monday and their suspect has taken it on the lam. Lying and lamming are two strong indicators of guilt. At this point, no cop in the world would believe Crippen innocent.

    But they have a serious problem. Cora has friends with influential connections so there is pressure to solve the case. Unfortunately, without physical evidence of a crime their suspect who is already running is going to escape. They don’t have much time to catch up with him, and after two days of searching they have nothing. So on day three they invent the evidence of a crime they are 99% sure he committed to enable them to arrest him before he gets out of reach. At least, that seems most likely to me.

    They probably invented all the evidence. At the least, they cooked every aspect of the forensic investigation. The claim that the tissue belonged to the victim was false, and the claim that the victim was poisoned in this very peculiar way may have been also. The investigation of poisonous agents used was not systematic. Investigators of poisoners in 1910 didn’t have the body of experience investigators have today but they were not stupid and poisoning is hardly a new way to kill. Why would the investigator virtually start his search with the most unlikely of poisons? The only way the investigator could have identified this particular poison was if he had been directed to look for it. And the poison used provides a convenient link to Crippen.

  • Paul Kingery

    The tissue could be male fetal tissue, if he was aborting or a back street abortionist.

  • Charlene

    I was wondering if the “body part” found could have been a boy fetus.Tying in the fact that the doctor performed abortions..Just a thought

  • Renee

    I postulate that he did murder his wife, the police believed that he had done so. With no tangible proof they felt the need to provide it themselves.

    Then again there have been plenty of people who have wanted to “disappear” and have succeeded, never again to be heard from, never giving a hint of their former lives. They have gone to their graves keeping their secret.

    Anyone who has ever uncovered a family secret from several generations back can understand the possibilities.

  • Jon

    How about another possibility? 1) Crippen was doing abortions, 2) He discovered his wife was having an affair and was pregnant, 3) Tissue found in cellar was a male fetus from his wife, and 4) He murdered his wife and disposed of her body elsewhere.

  • Isembard

    While I usually enjoy Secrets of the Dead, I found this particular episode to be extremely shoddy and unconvincing.

    As has been mentioned, it was erroneously implied that there was huge interest in the case before the body was found. Logically, one would have to ask why govt. officials or anyone outside Cora’s circle would be fascinated by a missing woman. Hardly an unusual thing. I find it rather reprehensible to slander the police with accusations of corruption based on this re-working of facts.

    They talk about Cora having discussed moving several weeks before her disappearance, but they don’t explain why, when she did “leave”, she conveniently left behind her belongings (clothes and jewels) which LeNeve immediately claimed. For a scheming, materialistic woman, it seems a bit unusual that she’d have just left everything.

    As for the remains, I can see someone slowly and efficiently getting rid of the identifying bones and deciding – as was alleged at the time – to slather the soft tissue in lime (would accelerates the decomp) and burying it beneath the cellar stones. Hawley apparently didn’t understand that wet lime – as opposed to dry – preserves tissue.

    Regarding the science involved, I’m suspicious of any test “specially developed” by one entity and not officially recognized as a successful, reliable measure. Additionally, I can’t have complete faith that 100 y.o. evidence was uncontaminated especially considering that scientists at the time would not have the same standards as we do in the age of DNA. If they’d dug up the remains, I might have some faith in those samples, but I cannot have 100% faith in miniscule amounts of sloppily-collected (for DNA purposes) evidence.

    Of course, the Crippen-was-innocent folks also can’t explain why Crippen and LeNeve freaked-out and fled, first to Belgum then toward Canada, as soon as the cops became interested. If Cora had simply run off, why would these two flee? The filmakers also mention how Cora had attempted to drain the bank account shortly before her disappearance. Somehow they offer this fact as indicative of Cora’s having fled (instead of being murdered). To my mind, this is what’s called MOTIVE.

    I actually watched this ep when it first aired a few years ago and was amazed at the shoddiness of the arguments and the lapses in logic. I watched it the second time just to see if I’d have the same reaction.

  • Earnán

    This “clearing of Crippen” is preposterous.

    Innocent people don’t disguise themselves and flee the country under bogus names.

    Loony exhibitionistic wannabe-celebrities like Cora Crippen don’t quietly disappear into silence and anonymity.

    Crippen was as guilty as they come, and he got the punishment he deserved.

  • Michael

    Even contaminated tissue sample would have some female DNA.
    Innocent people often flee out of fear

  • Renee

    As a genealogist my self, I was intrigued by what the genealogist they hired had to say. I never take things at face value so I decided to check out some of her claims myself. I looked at the 1920 census record that she mentioned and discovered that her claims were incorrect. The occupation for the Belle Rose that she found in Brooklyn is actually Designer, not Singer as she claimed. Also it lists her Industry or Business as Wholes. Millinery. Meaning she probably worked in a hat factory. Also, this Belle Rose is much too young. Cora Elmore Crippen was listed as being 37 in 1910, which would make her about 47 in 1920. Belle Rose is listed as being 29 years old in the 1920 census.
    I doubt very much that this can, in any way, be Cora Crippen given the evidence.

  • Rod

    You may be correct in your findings BUT if Cora was trying to hide her identity and changed her name for the census why would she be compelled to be truthfull about her age. Also she may very well have been working in a hat factory in 1920.

    What seems remarkable to me is that if she were alive and knew about her husbands situation she held so much hatred toward him that she refused to come forward.


    I believe Crippen was guilty. Perhaps even a serial killer. Were there other body parts found or even looked for. Cora never was heard from again. Although quite possibly she set up a new life for herself. It was far more easy to do so back then. The reason why I believe Crippen is guilty is because he acted guilty. Why would he flee? Disguised? Although the court system back then was awfully backward. I have less questions about his guilt than Bruno Hauptman. Now you want to accuse the judiciary system of a wrongful conviction that would be it.

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