The North London Cellar Murder: The Man Who Should Not Have Run

Nov 29, 2010 - by Mark Pulham

Hawley Harvey Crippen

Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen

Dr. Hawley Crippen was small, balding, and meek, with large watery eyes that peered from behind gold-rimmed spectacles.  When he fled England for Quebec in the summer of 1910 with his mistress aboard the S.S. Montrose, he was wanted for the murder of his wife. Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Walter Dew was in pursuit aboard the speedier steamer, Laurentic. 

by Mark Pulham

One hundred years ago, in the summer of 1910, the world became enthralled by a transatlantic chase between two steamers. One was the White Star liner Laurentic, the other, the Canadian Pacific S.S. Montrose. Both were heading for Quebec. The world waited with excitement as each day the newspapers reported the progress of the two ships. The public’s interest was not about the ships themselves, but about who was aboard. On the Laurentic was Scotland Yards Chief Inspector Walter Dew. On the Montrose, fleeing with his lover Ethel Le Neve, was suspected wife murderer Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen.

The famous barrister Frederick Edwin Smith would later describe Crippen as “one of the most dangerous and remarkable men who have lived in this century…A compelling and masterful personality who feared neither God nor man.”

Was Crippen a monster, a master criminal, a murderer of epic proportions? Not quite. Those who knew him called him gentle and kindly. Even those who were witnesses for the prosecution liked him. Ethel Le Neve's landlady, Emily Jackson, described Crippen as “one of the nicest men I ever met.” And Music Hall star Gertie Gitana, friend of Crippen’s murdered wife, Belle Elmore, said he was “A kindly, gentle man ... most people felt sorry for him being married to Belle Elmore”.

Crippen was born in Coldwater, Michigan, on September 11, 1862, to a prominent family. The family had buildings named after them, and Crippen Street still exists. Growing up in a house at 66 North Monroe, Crippen was a small, myopic child, and although bullied by other kids, remained gentle and kind.

In 1883, Crippen enrolled in the University of Michigan School of Homeopathy, but left the next year without graduating. He moved to London, England and joined the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem, which was the first institution that specialised in the treatment of the mentally ill, and from which we get the word “bedlam.” It was here that Crippen came across Hydro bromide of hyoscine or scopolamine. A dangerous drug, usually given in doses of less than 1/100 of a grain, a quarter grain would most likely kill the patient.

On returning to the United States, Crippen enrolled at the Cleveland Homeopathic Hospital Medical School and graduated at the end of March, 1884. After a short while in a homeopathic practice in Detroit, he moved to New York and studied ocular medicine at the New York Ophthalmic Hospital. Graduating in 1887, he joined the Hahnemann Hospital as an intern and there met student nurse, Charlotte Jane Bell. Just before Christmas 1887, they married.

Crippen and Charlotte moved to San Diego where Crippen opened a practice. It was here, on August 19, 1889, that Charlotte gave birth to their son, Otto. The family moved once again, this time to Salt Lake City.

Happily married, with one child and, by this time, another on the way, life should have been good. But tragedy struck. A short time before she was due to give birth, in January 1892, Charlotte suddenly died, most likely from apoplexy or stroke. Crippen, heartbroken, was unable to cope and sent Otto to live in California, where Crippen’s parents now lived. Crippen moved to New York to join the practice of a Dr. Jeffrey, and there had a fateful meeting.

Cora Turner was a young woman of 17 whose dream was to become an opera diva. This was no shy young girl. With the physical build and manner of a woman much older, she was living alone in an apartment paid for by a married stove maker named C. C. Lincoln. Lincoln paid for clothing, food, and voice lessons, and in return, he had his way with Cora. The aspiring diva soon became pregnant.

In July 1892, she visited the offices of Dr. Jeffrey for, as it was delicately put, a “female” complaint. There, she met Crippen. “I believe she had had a miscarriage,” said Crippen, “or something like that.” Not seeing the 13-year-age gap as a problem, Crippen fell for Cora. They could not have been more different. She was a voluptuous, experienced, and forceful woman, and he was small, balding, and meek, with large watery eyes that peered from behind gold-rimmed spectacles. Despite his physical shortcomings, as a doctor he was attractive prospect for someone like Cora.

Less than two months later, on September 1, 1892, the two married in Jersey City. Shortly after that, Cora told him her real name, Kunigunde Mackamotzki. The name change was understandable; her’s was not the sort of name that would be emblazoned in opera concert lights.

After a short stay in St. Louis, the couple moved back to New York. Most likely, this was Cora’s idea. St. Louis did not hold much interest for a woman destined to grace the operatic stage.

In New York, her female complaint worsened, and resulted in an operation to remove her ovaries, leaving a scar that Cora seemed quite proud of, showing it off to family members and even friends.

Depression hit the United States in May of 1893, and suddenly, there was no demand for Crippen’s services. For as long as he could, he kept paying for Cora’s signing lessons, but eventually, they had to stop. They moved repeatedly, with each move resulting in cheaper lodgings. Finally, they hit the bottom, and moved in with Cora’s stepfather, Fritz Mersinger. This was the limit for Cora. She pushed Crippen to find work that would improve their standard of living. The tension between the Crippens was growing.

Despite the “Panic of ’93”, one growing industry was that of patent medicine, due to people unable to afford a doctor. Crippen applied for a job with the Munyon Homeopathic Home Remedy Company. Munyon was impressed with the 31-year old Crippen, describing him as “one of the most intelligent men I ever knew.” Munyon also described him as “docile as a kitten.” His descriptions of Cora were not so kind. “A giddy woman who worried her husband a great deal,” he said. Duke, Munyon’s son, said, “She liked men other than her husband, which worried the doctor greatly.”

After a while, Crippen was transferred to Philadelphia. After about a year, he was transferred again, to Toronto, then back to Philadelphia. Crippen’s career took off, but Cora was less than happy. Her dreams of being an opera star were foundering. She insisted on returning to New York to renew her studies. Crippen, as usual, indulged her, paying for her singing lessons, and paying for an apartment. However, he was worried. Living alone, how could he keep her from associating with other men? In fact, it was this that may have been as important a reason for her decision as much as the pursuit of her dream.

In 1897, Crippen was given the management of the company’s offices in London, at a salary of $10,000 a year, almost $250,000 by today’s standard. Cora was not as excited by the news as Crippen expected. She could not give up her lessons right now, he would have to go alone and she would join him later. In April, 1897, he sailed for England. Alone.

While Crippen was in London, Cora pursued her operatic career, but she was becoming disillusioned. She realized, as everyone else had long before, her voice would never be good enough. Now, she stated in a letter to Crippen, she would pursue a career in Vaudeville. Crippen was horrified, Vaudeville was gaudy and cheap. He urged her to come to London. At least Music Hall in England was a little more respectful a pursuit; it was known that the Prince of Wales liked the music hall and artists such as Sarah Bernhardt and Vesta Tilley who appeared on their stages.

Cora agreed, and joined him in August. But Cora had changed. “She had cultivated a most ungovernable temper, and seemed to think I was not good enough for her,” said Crippen. She also “boasted of the men of good position travelling on the boat who had made a fuss of her.” Some of these men would later visit her at their home in South Crescent, Bloomsbury.

Belle Elmore
Belle Elmore

Cora, under the name Macà Motzki, made her music hall debut at the Old Marylebone Music Hall in a show called The Unknown Quantity, which she had written, with some help from a friend, Adeline Harrison. Crippen paid all the production costs. The show lasted one week, thanks to Cora’s complete lack of talent. One critic labelled her “the Brooklyn Matzos Ball.” Cora responded to this humiliation in typical fashion, she bought herself more expensive clothing, and blamed her husband for her failure. She told all of her friends that Crippen had sabotaged her career.

In November 1899, Crippen was called to Philadelphia, and when he returned to London the following June, he was an unemployed man. What had happened is not known, though it is suspected that Munyon discovered Crippen’s involvement in the music hall, and felt that this was too close to the Wild West snake oil salesman reputation for a patent medicine company.

Cora had also made some changes. She had started singing once more, and had taken on the name Belle Elmore. She had also become more ill tempered. “She was always finding fault with me,” Crippen complained, “and every night she took some opportunity of quarrelling with me.” In addition, she told Crippen that she had met an ex-prizefighter from Chicago named Bruce Miller and was “fond of him.”

Belle Elmore
Belle Elmore

Belle, as she now preferred to be called, made it clear she no longer cared for Crippen, and constantly made threats about leaving him for Miller. They made a deal. Whenever they had to go out together socially, he would always appear to be the affectionate husband. Crippen still indulged her wild spending, paying for her evenings with her friends, and even paying for her nights out with Miller. “If she asked me for money, she always had it,” said Crippen.

Belle made another attempt at stardom on the stage, this time trying her luck outside of London. Once again, she failed, even in the least discriminating venues. By now, however, she was firmly in with the theatrical crowd, and spent a lot of time with a group of more talented theatrical players, including the famous Marie Lloyd. Later, out of these gatherings, the Music Hall Ladies’ Guild would form, a charity similar to the Grand Order of the Water Rats. Belle would be the treasurer.

At the end of 1901, Crippen joined the Drouet Institute for the Deaf, a grand sounding name for what was just another patent medicine purveyor, though the most famous and wealthiest. This was to change Crippen’s life drastically.

Ethel Le Neve
Ethel Le Neve

Ethel Clara Le Neve was 17 when she joined Drouet’s in 1901 as a stenographer and typist. Her sister, Nina, was Crippen’s private secretary, and he and the two women would have afternoon tea together.

In July 1903, Nina left to get married, and Ethel became Crippen’s private secretary. Inevitably, working this close together, Ethel fell in love with Crippen, who was more than twice her age. When Drouet’s closed, and Crippen moved to the Aural Remedies Company, he brought Ethel with him.

In the spring of 1904, Belle’s already awful temper became worse. Bruce Miller told Belle that he intended to reunite with his wife, and he left for Chicago on April 21. Belle had also become aware of Ethel’s existence. She had asked Crippen to get rid of her, but Crippen told her that the typist was “indispensible” to the company. He had defied her.

Aural Remedies also failed about six months later, and Crippen returned to work at Munyon’s, though this time as an agent working on commission. Once again, he brought Ethel along with him. With their financial situation deteriorating, Crippen needed to find another place to live. To make it worse, it not only had to be cheaper, it also had to be larger, to give him and Belle room to avoid each other. The search would take him outside the London area.

Islington was north of London. Here, Crippen found 39 Hilldrop Crescent, which seemed ideal. The whole area, once considered middle class, had come down over the years. Three things contributed to this. One was the Metropolitan Cattle market, where 4 million animals passed each year, the noises from the doomed animals travelling for several blocks. The other two were prisons, Holloway, which had been a women’s prison since 1902, and Pentonville Prison where a bell would be rung 15 times each time a prisoner was hanged, a frequent occurrence since the prison had become the centre for executions in 1902.

However, the houses were large and affordable, and on September 21, 1905, Crippen signed a three-year lease with the owner, Frederick Lown. The price was £52/10 shillings a year.

Hilldrop Crescent

Hilldrop Crescent

Like all the others in the Crescent, number 39 was a four-story duplex, or what in Britain is known as a semi-detached. With five bedrooms, several sittings rooms, dining room, and a kitchen and breakfast room on the basement level, there was plenty of room for Crippen and Belle.

Although Belle paid attention to how she looked, favouring pink for just about everything, including the house décor, she was slovenly in her approach to housework. “There was no regular house cleaning. It was done in spasms,” wrote her friend Adeline Harrison. “They practically lived in the kitchen, which was generally in a state of dirt and disorder.”

Belle had become a lonely woman, and so filled the house with pets. There were two cats, seven canaries, and later, a bull terrier. It was not enough. Not long after moving in, she placed an advertisement in the Daily Telegraph for lodgers. Within a short while, the house had more inhabitants, four young German men, one of whom found his way into Belle’s bed.

The four lodgers created more work for Crippen. Every day Crippen “had to rise at six o’clock in the morning to clean the boarders boots, shovel up the coal, lay the breakfast, and help generally,” according to Adeline Harrison, “and quite unnecessary exertion for both, as Crippen was earning well, and gave his wife an ample supply of money.” Belle spent the income from the lodgers on more clothes and jewellery for herself.

Less than a year later, the German’s were evicted, supposedly because the work had become too much, though it may also have been the growing fear about German spies.

Crippen’s nature made him easy to dominate, and Belle took full advantage. She had insisted that he convert to Roman Catholicism, she determined how he should dress, going as far as telling the tailor what to do while Crippen stood placidly to one side. For several years, she even made him use the name “Peter,” as his real first name Hawley she thought ludicrous. She still threatened to leave if Crippen dared to disobey her, and to make sure that there was a constant reminder of this, she kept photographs of Bruce Miller displayed in prominent positions in the house.

Emily and Robert Jackson owned a house just south of Hampstead Heath, and there, in September 1908, Ethel took up lodgings. Unknown to the Jackson’s, Ethel was four months pregnant. They became aware of this fact when, just a couple of weeks later, Ethel miscarried. Crippen came to see her, but stayed only a short while. He returned a week later, again only staying for a short time. Despite the shortness of the visits, he had made an impression on Mrs. Jackson. “I thought him quite the nicest man I had ever met,” said she. Ethel returned to work two weeks later.

Crippen now began a new business, the Yale Tooth Specialists, along with a dentist named Gilbert Rylance. This new venture would operate out of an office in Albion House on New Oxford Street, where Munyon’s also had their offices. Albion House also housed the Music Hall Ladies’ Guild.

Ethel and Crippen’s relationship had changed with the miscarriage. Before, it had been happy and light-hearted, and somewhat daring given the closeness of the Ladies’ Guild to Crippen and Ethel’s workplace. Now, their loss had changed that, it had deepened the love each felt for the other. Ethel was particularly sad, as she watched the love of her life return each night to his wife, while she went back to an empty room in Hampstead.

Crippen must have felt it too. Belle increased the frequency of her threats to leave, telling him there were many men who would have her. But that threat was no longer as potent as it once was. Although at the time there were very few grounds for divorce in British law, desertion was one of them. Crippen was in love with Ethel. If Belle carried out her threat to leave, he would be free.

Maybe Belle had realized she had lost power, because she made plans to make good her threat. On Wednesday, December 15 1909, Belle went to the bank with the intention of withdrawing £600, which was all the money in the account. But she was in for a shock. Due to the high interest, which was 7%, the bank required advance notice of withdrawal of one full year.

Crippen was used to being humiliated in public, he was used to the verbal and mental abuse at home, his patience was, seemingly, inexhaustible. But everyone has a breaking point, and it may be that Belle had found his. Around the same time that Belle had decided to leave Crippen, along with as much of his worldly goods that she could get, she also decided to ruin the reputation of Ethel Le Neve. Belle started to spread stories about the young typist, telling the ladies of the Guild that Ethel had had an abortion because she could not work out which of the several men she had been sleeping with was the actual father of her child. To her certain knowledge, Belle told her listeners, Ethel had wrecked several marriages. To Crippen, Belle had crossed the line.

Not far from Crippen’s office, on New Oxford Street, was the chemist shop of Lewis and Burrows. On Saturday, January 15, 1910, he went into the shop and placed an order with the clerk, Charles Hetherington. Crippen was well known to the clerk, he had been placing orders with them for over a year. The order was for five grains of hyoscine hydrobromide, the drug he was introduced to when he was at the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem almost 30 years before.

But hyoscine was rarely used, and they did not have any in stock. Hetherington would have to order it in. Crippen picked up the order the following Wednesday, January 19. Usually, Crippen was never asked to sign the poisons book because “we knew him and knew him to be a medical man.” said Harold Kirby, an assistant at the shop.

However, given the dangerous nature of the drug and the unusual nature of the order, this time they did ask. Crippen signed without making “the slightest objection.” Kirby handed Crippen a small container. Inside, weighing only one hundredth of an ounce, were enough tiny crystals to kill 20 people.

On Monday, January 31, Crippen walked to the flat of Paul and Clara Martinetti, close friends, to invite them for dinner that night. This was not an unusual event, the Crippen’s often entertained with a casual dinner, followed by games of cards. The Martinetti’s were regular visitors to Hilldrop Crescent.

Clara declined the invite. Paul was at his doctors and she knew that when he returned, he would be feeling unwell, and would not want to go. “Oh make him,” said Crippen, “we’ll cheer him up, and after dinner, we’ll have a game of whist.” He left, but returned later, after Paul had returned from the doctor. He repeated the invitation, this time to Paul. Crippen seemed strangely insistent. Though he was tired and not well, Paul agreed.

Later, after supper, and while they were playing cards, Paul excused himself. He left the room, heading for the bathroom. “Mr. Martinetti wanted to go upstairs,” Crippen would later say, “and, as I thought he knew the house perfectly well, having been there many times during 18 months, I thought it was quite all right that he should go up by himself.”

When Paul returned, he looked much worse, and the Martinetti’s decided to call it a night. Crippen was sent out to fetch a cab. He was out a long time, and when he returned without one, an irritated Belle sent him out again. He returned shortly, this time with more success. The Martinettis left, and Crippen and Belle were “certainly on affectionate terms,” according to Clara.

By the time they got inside, whatever affectionate terms they displayed outside had evaporated, according to Crippen. “Immediately after they had left my wife got into a very great rage with me, and blamed me for not going upstairs with Mr. Martinetti,” he said. “This is the finish of it I won’t stand it any longer.” Crippen quoted Belle shouting, “I shall leave you tomorrow, and you will never hear of me again.”

None of this was new, but this time, she added something fresh. Belle gave him an order. “I was to arrange to cover up any scandal with our mutual friends and the Guild the best way I could,” he said.

The next day, Crippen called on the Martinettis to check on Paul, and was relieved to find he had not worsened during the night. And when Clara asked him how Belle was, he replied, “Oh, she is all right.”

At 7:30 that evening, when Crippen returned home, Belle was gone.

On Wednesday, February 2, Ethel found a package on her desk, along with a note from Crippen. “B.E. has gone to America.” The package was to be delivered to the Ladies’ Guild. When Crippen got to the office late that afternoon, he surprised Ethel with a handful of jewellery that Belle did not take with her. Ethel said she would have one or two, and asked him to pick out something she would like. Crippen picked out several rings and a brooch. The brooch had, at its centre, a diamond, with pearls in a zigzag pattern radiating out from it. It resembled a rising sun. Ethel suggested he pawn the other jewellery, which he did over the next couple of days for £195. That Wednesday night, Ethel did not return to Hampstead. She spent the night at Hilldrop Crescent.

The package that Ethel delivered to the Guild contained their ledger and checkbook, and a note for the secretary, Melinda May, from Belle. Dear Miss May,” the note read, “Illness of a near relative has called me to America on only a few hours notice, so I must ask you to bring my resignation as treasurer before the meeting today, so that a new treasurer can be elected at once.” A notation said that the letter had been prepared by Crippen at Belle’s request. Though stunned at the news, not one of the Guild thought to ask Crippen for an explanation.

The following week, Monday February 7, Crippen dropped by the Martinettis. When Clara asked why she was not contacted by Crippen or Belle to tell her Belle was leaving for America, he told her they were too busy packing. “I suppose she will write from New York,” said Clara. Crippen quickly replied, “Oh, she does not stop in New York, she goes straight on to California.” Crippen must have wished he had not answered so swiftly. Belle has no relatives in California, only he did.

A week after this visit, he told Clara that he had received a telegram from Belle. The news was worrying. Belle was ill.

Clara, when Crippen had visited on February 7, mentioned the Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund Charity Ball, set to take place on Sunday February 20. Crippen felt obliged to buy two tickets. He should have thrown them away, but instead he attended the ball. With Ethel Le Neve on his arm.

It was a huge mistake. On her dress, she had pinned the rising sun brooch. The members of the Ladies’ Guild recognized it immediately. The atmosphere grew quietly hostile. Asked for Belle’s address by Mrs. Louise Smythson, Crippen replied, “She is away up the mountains in the wilds of California.” He offered to forward anything to Belle.

On Sunday, March 20, Crippen sent a letter to Paul and Clara Martinetti with some disturbing news.


Dear Clara and Paul,

Please forgive me for not running in during the week, but I have really been so upset by very bad news from Belle that I did not feel equal to talking about anything, and now I have had a cable saying she is so dangerously ill with double pleuropneumonia that I am considering if I had better not go over at once. I don't want to worry you with my troubles, but I felt that I must explain why I had not been to see you. I will try and run in during the week and have a chat. Hope both of you are well, with love and good wishes.

Yours very sincerely,


Four days later, they received a telegram from him:” Belle died yesterday at 6 o’clock.”

The ladies of the guild were getting suspicious, and Lottie Albert, the new treasurer, had already asked a friend named Michael Bernstein to ask some questions. Crippen had said Belle sailed aboard a ship whose name he could not recall, but it was something like La Touee or Touvee or La Tourenne, that sailed out of Le Havre. Bernstein searched the passenger lists of all the French ships and found nothing.

Clara and Louise Smythson dropped into Crippen’s office on March 30 and started asking questions. Who had nursed Belle? Crippen did not know. Where did Belle become ill, and how? Crippen’s answer was “It was on the boat. Belle never could take full care of herself, and finally, when she got to her destination, she became worse, until I got the sad news that she was dead.” Where is she buried? Crippen told them she was cremated, and her ashes would arrive soon. When asked where she had died, Crippen gave them his son’s address.

They left, but they were now even more suspicious. Clara immediately wrote to Crippen’s son, Otto. It would be a month before he replied. He had been too wrapped up in his own grief over the death of his own son.

The death of my stepmother was as great a surprise to me as to anyone. She died at San Francisco and the first I heard of it was through my father, who wrote to me immediately afterwards. He asked me to forward all letters to him and he would make the necessary explanations. He said he had through a mistake given out my name and address as my stepmother’s death-place. I would be very glad if you find out any particulars of her death if you would let me know of them as I know as a fact that she died at San Francisco.”

The suspicions they had were not alleviated. They kept a watchful eye on Crippen and Ethel. One fact had been cleared up: The ship that Crippen mentioned was the La Touraine, the only French liner due to sail to America on the day that Crippen said Belle left. However, on the day in question, it was still returning from New York and did not reach Le Havre until February 4. It needed repair to some damage and so immediately went into dry dock. It was March 12 before it sailed to New York again.

On June 28, John Nash and Lili Hawthorne, both friends of Belle, came to Crippen’s office. Crippen told Nash that Belle had died in Los Angeles, but then corrected his mistake and said it was “some little town” near San Francisco. Pressed, Crippen said he could not remember the name of the town. Nash began to feel that something was not right.

On June 30, Nash and Hawthorne decided to visit a friend and relate their fears to him. The friend was Frank C. Froest, and he was the head of Scotland Yards Murder Squad. Superintendant Froest listened to what they had to say then sent for one of his detectives. The detective, a tall man with a large moustache, came in. This was Chief Inspector Walter Dew. He was no stranger to violent death, he was one of the first detectives to discover the mutilated remains of Mary Kelly, Jack the Ripper’s final victim. He sat and listened as Nash repeated his story.

Dew and Detective Sergeant Arthur Mitchell visited the Music Hall Ladies’ Guild and for the next six days conducted interviews, careful that Crippen should not discover that they were there. On July 6, in Dew’s report to Froest, he expressed doubts that anything criminal would turn up, but there were some contradictions that he thought were “most extraordinary.” He recommended that Dr. Crippen should be paid a visit.

At 10 o’clock on Friday morning, July 8, Dew and Mitchell arrived at 39 Hilldrop Crescent. The door was opened by a young French girl, Valentine Lecocq, whom Ethel had hired shortly before. “Is Dr. Crippen at home?” Dew asked. She invited the men inside. Ethel appeared moments later. Dew asked again, and Ethel said he was not; he was at work at Albion House in New Oxford Street.

“Who are you?” asked Dew.

“I am the housekeeper.”

“You are Miss Le Neve, are you not?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

Dew told Ethel they needed to see Crippen urgently, and asked if she would take them to his office. Ethel got her coat. With her taking them, she had no opportunity to telephone and warn Crippen that they were coming.

At the office, Dew and Mitchell waited while Ethel fetched Crippen. They introduced themselves and Crippen shook their hands. Dew told him of his wife’s friends concern for the missing woman. Crippen’s reply was, “I suppose I had better tell the truth.”

“Yes,” said Dew, “I think that would be best.”

“The stories I have told about her death are untrue.” said Crippen, “As far as I know she is still alive.”

Crippen showed the two police officers into his office to continue the interview, but as it was now about noon, the detectives decided to break for lunch. They invited Crippen to go with them. The three went to a nearby Italian restaurant where Crippen ordered steak and “and ate it with the relish of a man who hadn’t a care in the world,” according to Dew.

Back in the office, the interview continued. Crippen said that Belle had gone to Chicago to live with her lover, ex-prizefighter Bruce Miller, and told how he made up the story of the sick relative to avoid the scandal her absence would cause. “I afterward realized that this would not be a sufficient explanation for her not coming back, and later on I told people that she was ill with bronchitis and pneumonia, and afterward I told them she was dead from this ailment.”

After Crippen had signed the statement, the detectives questioned Ethel. Dew told her what Crippen had related to them and asked some questions. “There was nothing in Miss Le Neve’s manner which gave rise to anything in the nature of suspicions.” Dew wrote. Ethel was stunned at what she heard.

Dew asked Crippen for permission to search his house, not that he thought there would be anything to find. Crippen gave his assent, and they all went back to 39 Hilldrop Crescent. The search covered the whole house, including the cramped coal cellar in the basement, and nothing was found. Satisfied, Dew was ready to leave. He turned to Crippen and said, “Of course I shall have to find Mrs. Crippen to clear this matter up.” Crippen, helpful as always, asked, “Would an advertisement be any good?” Dew thought this a good idea, and helped Crippen draft an advertisement for the American papers.

“MACKAMOTZKI. Will Belle Elmore communicate with H.H.C. or authorities at once. Serious trouble through your absence. Twenty-five dollars reward to anyone communicating her whereabouts to Box No. --.”

Dew and Mitchell left. He felt that the case was closed. Dew found that he liked Crippen and felt sorry for him. From what he had heard, Belle Elmore was a nasty woman. Even her friends had said that when she was drunk, which was a frequent occurrence, she could be a vicious woman with a poisonous tongue, and her preferred victim was her husband.

Had Crippen kept his nerve, the chances were that the case would have ended there. But Crippen decided that there was only one thing to do. Run.

The next day, Crippen went to the office as usual, and around 10 o’clock, asked his assistant, William Long, to do some shopping. He gave Long a list of clothing that he needed, including a boy’s suit, collars, shirts, a tie and a hat. In the meantime, Ethel visited her sister, Nina to say goodbye. Nina was startled and confused. Where was she going. Ethel said she did not know.

Back at Albion House, Ethel dressed in the clothes that Long had purchased. Crippen told her to leave by the stairs and meet him at the Chancery Lane tube station. When Crippen turned up, he had shaved off his moustache. The two travelled by tube to Liverpool Street Station. They had missed the train to Harwich, and had to wait for the next one, three hours later. They caught the night boat from Harwich to Holland at 9 o’clock, which arrived at 5 on Sunday morning. After a breakfast, they caught the 7 o’clock train to Rotterdam, then another train to Brussels. Finally, that afternoon, they booked into the Hotel des Ardennes. Crippen signed the register as “John Robinson,” with Ethel as “John Robinson Jr.”

That same Sunday, Dew was going over Crippen’s statement. He thought, just to be thorough, he would meet with the little doctor one last time. Dew and Mitchell went to Albion House the next afternoon, Monday July 11, to be told by Long that Crippen had left on Saturday with a suitcase. The two detectives rushed to Hilldrop Crescent. The French maid let them in and they looked around. This search was more thorough, but they still did not find anything to show where Belle Elmore was. The only thing found was a fully loaded five-chambered revolver.

Later that evening, Dew composed descriptions of Crippen and Ethel and had flyers sent to police at ports in England and abroad.

Dew and Mitchell searched the house again the next day, and again turned up nothing. But that night, his thoughts kept returning to the house. In particular, his mind fixated on the coal cellar. Although nothing had been found so far, Dew was convinced that there was something in the house that would shed light on Belle’s disappearance, something that had caused Crippen to run.

The next day, Wednesday July 13, Dew and Mitchell paid another visit to Crippen’s office and talked to Long., This time, Long revealed something he had not mentioned before, the purchase of the clothing on Saturday. Back at Scotland Yard, Dew sent out a new flyer that said Ethel might be dressed as a boy. He and Mitchell then returned to Hilldrop Crescent for a fourth search.

In the cellar, they examined the floor carefully. Dew used a poker to tap the brickwork and prod the gaps in between. In one gap, the poker had little resistance. Dew pulled up the loose bricks while Mitchell went into the garden. He came back with a spade.

Dew broke the flat surface of clay with the spade, then pushed in deeper. Dew and Mitchell reeled back as the stench of a rotting body reached their nostrils. They rushed to the garden for fresh air.

They went back in. The air in the cellar was now saturated with the smell of putrefaction. They would dig as long as they could stand it, then leave, then come back again. Eventually, what had once been a human being was uncovered.

The garden at Hilldrop Crescent, Dew is on the extreme right

The garden at Hilldrop Crescent, Dew is on the extreme right

Dew called Froest, who in turn called Sir Melville Macnaghten, the assistant commissioner in charge of the Criminal Investigation Department. Both men headed over to Hilldrop Crescent, as did Dr. Thomas Marshall, divisional surgeon for the area.

Dew could not help compare the remains in front of him to those of Mary Kelly, the Ripper’s final victim. Dew thought that this was worse. The head, hands, and feet were missing. So were all the bones. It was just one long connected mass of organs, and the skin had been removed and lay piled like shed clothing. Proving that this was a human was simple; proving it was Belle Elmore would be difficult.

Dew was stunned. Crippen was only five feet four and of a slight build. Everyone who Dew had talked to said that he was a kind and affection man, gentle by nature. How could he have done this and seemed so calm the next day. It seemed impossible. But three things indicated otherwise: Belle was missing; Crippen and Ethel were on the run; and a human body was in the cellar.

The victims remains in the cellar
The victims remains in the cellar

Back at Scotland Yard, Dew prepared another flyer, this one entitled “MURDER AND MUTILATION.” That afternoon, Francis Barclay and Thomas Arle, two detectives from the Thames Division, went to Millwall docks to alert ships crews to be on the lookout for the fugitives, including the Canadian Pacific Railways steamer S.S. Montrosethat was not picking up passengers in England.

The Home Office pathologist, 61-year old Augustus J. Pepper, was called in. He arrived with his assistants, Arthur Pearson Luff, who was the senior analyst for the Home Office, and William Willcox. A fourth member of the team was unknown to the journalists who had swarmed to Hilldrop Crescent. This was the young Dr. Bernard Henry Spilsbury.

Among the remains, several items were discovered. A curler with some hair still attached, a man’s handkerchief, two pieces of a woman undervest, and two pieces of what appeared to be a pajama jacket, white cotton with broad green stripes. On one of the pieces was the label: “Shirtmakers, Jones Brothers, Holloway, Limited.” Some of the skin caught Pepper’s attention. One piece, measuring six by seven inches, was greyish-yellow in colour that deepened in places to blackish grey. It also had an odd mark on its surface.

Dew returned to Hilldrop Crescent. He and Mitchell concentrated on the clothing. They turned up pajamas, brand new, that matched the fragments found with the body, plus a matching pair of pajama bottoms that were worn. No matching jacket could be found. In the meantime, the hair found in the curler was found to be bleached. Belle’s friends at the ladies’ guild had told Dew that Belle bleached her hair blonde.

Back in Brussels Ethel was getting restless, and they decided to move on. Rejecting Paris, they settled on America. On Friday July 15, Crippen booked tickets for a steamship leaving Antwerp on the following Wednesday, heading for Quebec, Canada.

Dew knew hope of catching them was fading. By now, they could be anywhere in the world. There had been one bit of forward motion with the case. On July 18, after the close of the first inquest, Dew happened to be standing by a group of women, one of whom was Clara Martinetti. His ears pricked up when he overheard her mention Belle’s operation. He asked if he heard correctly.

“Oh yes,” said Clara, “Belle had an operation years ago in America. She had quite a big scar on the lower part of her body. I have seen it.” Dew sent the information to Dr. Pepper. If evidence of that operation was found in the remains from the cellar, that would go a long way to prove that this was Belle Elmore.

Dew was not the only one concerned with the lack of progress. The Daily Mail asked why Crippen had not been under surveillance by Scotland Yard, and William Thorne, member of Parliament for West Ham asked Winston Churchill, home secretary, if he would state, for the record, “who is responsible for allowing Dr. Crippen to get out of their hands.” Churchill did not answer.

Wednesday morning, at 8:30, passengers started boarding the ship for passage to Quebec, two hundred and sixty six according to the manifest. Among them were the Robinson’s, the elder Mr. Robinson, and his young son. Three hours into the trip, as the ship made its way down the River Scheldt to the North Sea, Captain George Henry Kendall noticed the Robinsons. They were holding hands. Kendall thought the manner in which they held each other suggested a deeper intimacy than that of father and son.

Kendall knew all about the hunt for Crippen and Le Neve. Only the week before, when the ship, the S.S. Montrose had been in London, detectives had visited and warned them to be on the lookout for the pair. Kendall thought this may be them, but decided to wait until he was more sure. He did order the stewards to gather up all the newspapers on board as a precaution.

Kendall made friends with the Robinsons, all the while observing the two of them. Photographs of the fugitives had been published in the continental edition of the Daily Mail. Kendall took some chalk and used it to cover up the spectacle rims and the moustache on the photograph. The face that stared back closely resembled that of Mr. Robinson. Kendall had noticed marks on the man’s nose, where his glasses would have rested. He was fairly convinced the Robinsons were the fugitives wanted for what the newspapers had dubbed “The North London Cellar Murder.”

The gender of John Robinson Jr. was certainly confirmed when an incident occurred on deck. A Belgian woman named Mrs. Nepher was playing with her small son. The boy slipped and certainly would have fallen through the railing into the sea. But Robinson Jr. caught him, saving his life. However, as she did so, Ethel let out a shrill scream, removing any doubt that Robinson Jr. was a woman.

Kendall's telegram
Kendall's telegram

On Friday morning, July 22, the Montrose passed the giant Marconi station at Poldhu in Cornwall. By late evening, they would pass beyond the range of the wireless. Kendall made a decision. At 3:30 p.m., Kendall had his wireless operator, Llewellyn Jones, send a message. “Have strong suspicions that Crippen London Cellar Murderer and accomplice are amongst saloon passengers. Moustache taken off growing beard. Accomplice dressed as boy; voice manner and build undoubtedly a girl. Both traveling as Mr. and Master Robinson. Kendall.”

The message eventually reached Walter Dew that evening at 8 p.m. Dew, tired and worn with the strain of work, was immediately alert. Consulting a shipping schedule, he made some phone calls, the last to Sir Melville Macnaghten. He read the telegram to him. Macnaghten called him to his home.

“What do you think?” asked Macnaghten.

“I feel confident it’s them.”

“So do I. What do you suggest?”

“I want to go after them in a fast steamer.” he replied.

The Laurentic, a White Star liner, was set to depart Liverpool the next day for Quebec.

Macnaghten wrote something at his desk. “Here is your authorization Dew,” he said, “and I wish you all the luck in the world.”

Dew caught the 1:40 train to Liverpool the next afternoon, in time to board the Laurentic for its 6.30 p.m. sailing. The Montrose could cross the ocean in eleven days, the Laurentic in only seven. However, the Montrose had a three-day start. It would be close.

Dew had boarded the Laurentic under the false name of Dewhurst to keep the mission a secret, but by Sunday, the newspapers had found out, and Scotland Yard released a statement. Before long, the newspapers were filled with the transatlantic chase, with accompanying maps to show the ships relative positions.

In the meantime, the forensic pathologists were trying to determine what had killed the cellar victim. Poison was one possibility, and Willcox was running tests for that. But there were other possibilities. A gunshot to the head or clubbed to death could also have been the cause of death, and with no head, either could have been likely.

The cliffhanger chase was settled at midnight on Wednesday, July 27. The Laurentic passed the Montrose. Dew contacted the Montrose directly and told Kendall that he will board at Father Point. The Laurentic reached Father Point at around 3 o’clock on Friday, and Dew was pleased to see they had beaten the Montrose by a day and a half.

On Sunday morning, Dew, dressed in a pilot’s uniform and cap climbed on to the deck of the Montrose, along with two detectives from Quebec. They went to the bridge where Dew introduced himself to Captain Kendall. Dew and the detectives were taken by Kendall to his cabin, where he sent for Mr. Robinson to join them.

A few moments passed, and then Robinson appeared. He looked happy and unworried. Kendall offered to introduce them. Robinson held out his hand. Dew took it in his, and with the other hand took off the cap.

Dew quietly said, “Good morning, Dr Crippen.”

Crippen’s expressions rapidly ran through shock, bewilderment, and finally recognition. “Good morning, Mr. Dew.” he calmly replied.

Crippen in cuffs being led from the ship by Dew

Crippen in cuffs being led from the ship by Dew

Dew told Crippen he was under arrest for the murder of his wife, and the two Canadian detectives handcuffed him. Kendall then led Dew to the Robinson’s cabin, number five. Dew knocked lightly, and then entered. Ethel was reading a book. She looked up at her visitor. “I am Chief Inspector Dew,” he said. He need not have bothered, she recognized him immediately. Ethel gave a cry, stood, and then fainted. Dew caught her.

A couple of days later, Crippen’s purchase of the hyoscine became known. Later, Willcox confirmed hyoscine in the remains. There was still the question of identifying the body. Everything that pointed to it being Belle, or even a woman, was entirely circumstancial. Then Pepper remembered Dew’s message about the abdominal operation. The fragment of skin with the odd mark that had interested him was re-examined. Could that be a scar? The piece was given to the youngest member of the team, Spilsbury. He was an expert on scars, having just two years previously conducted a special study of scars and scar tissue formation.

The trial of Hawley Harvey Crippen began on October 18, drawing crowds to the Old Bailey. Among the spectators were W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. From the beginning, Crippen was portrayed as a sympathetic character. Witnesses, even the women from the Music Hall Ladies’ Guild, could find nothing bad to say about him. He was kind, and generous. He was gentle. Not the depiction of a ruthless killer.

Crippen and Le Neve in the dock

Crippen and Le Neve in the dock

Crippen’s choice of solicitor was unfortunate. Arthur John Edward Newton was a publicity seeker, who regarded Crippen as a tool to further his own ambitions. Some years before, Newton was involved in the Cleveland Street Scandal and was jailed for six weeks after he “conspired to defeat the ends of justice.”

Newton’s conduct in the Crippen case was equally corrupt. Newton managed to trick two eminent pathologists into giving evidence for the defense. He met Dr. Gilbert Turnbull at a party, and persuaded him to give an opinion as to the piece of skin. Turnbull had a fleeting look and agreed that it may have come from a thigh and that the scar was just a fold. Stupidly, he signed a report saying the same. Newton pulled the same trick on Dr. Reginald Wall.

The scar found on the victim's skin
The scar found on the victim's skin

On the stand, Spilsbury confirmed that the mark found on the fragment of skin was a scar. The piece of skin itself was passed among the jurors in a soup plate. Spilsbury was attacked by the defense, which produced the two horrified pathologists Turnbull and Wall, to contradict his findings, both of whom had since examined the skin more closely and had come to the same conclusion Spilsbury had. Spilsbury did not back down. The Crippen case launched Spilsbury’s career as one of the greatest pathologist in the history of forensic medicine. The cross examination of Turnbull and Wall was devastating, their reputations badly damaged.

Crippen had one chance of avoiding the hangman: If he pleaded guilty, cited mitigating circumstances, and threw himself on the mercy of the court, they may well have convicted him of manslaughter. But Crippen was not going to do that. If he did, the whole story would have to come out, and Ethel would have to be called as a witness. The story of her affair with Crippen, the miscarriage, all would be revealed. Crippen would not subject her to that. In not doing so, he guaranteed a guilty verdict.

On Saturday, October 22, Crippen was found guilty after 27minutes of deliberation. He was sentenced to death.

Newton did not come out unscathed. His mismanagement of the Crippen case was so disgraceful that he was suspended from practice for 12 months in an action brought against him by the Law Society in the King's Bench Division of the High Court of Justice. Mr Justice Darling said that they were lenient. “Crippen was not defended as he should have been,” Mr. Justice Darling said, the case “was conducted very largely for the purpose of making copy for the newspapers. Even the greatest criminal is entitled to have his case conducted from first to last with the sole view to his interest.”

Ethel’s trial took place the following Tuesday. She was found not guilty.

Crippen was transferred to Pentonville Prison, not far from the scene of the crime. Crippen appealed, but this was rejected, which led to a bizarre incident two days later. An elderly soldier walked into a court in Cambridge and asked that he take Crippen’s place on the gallows, stating that a medical man was more use than he was. His generous offer was declined.

On November 23, 1910, at 9 a.m., Crippen, 48, was hanged. His final request was to have Ethel’s letters and her photograph buried with him. The governor, Major Mytton-Davies, who had become friends with Crippen, granted his wish.

On the day of Crippen’s execution, a 27-year old woman calling herself Miss Allen boarded the White Star liner Majestic travelling to New York. From there, she travelled to Toronto, and chose the name Ethel Nelson, where she became a typist. Six years later, she returned to London, where she met a man named Stanley Smith. She and Stanley married and moved to Croyden, where they lived happily with their two children, a boy and a girl. Eventually, they would become grandparents. Stanley, who it is believed bore a strong resemblance to Crippen, suddenly died from a heart attack. He never knew the true identity of his wife.

Ethel’s secret remained intact until 1954, when a woman novelist, Ursula Bloom, discovered the truth. She had written a novel, a fictional version of the case, called The Girl Who Loved Crippen. She soon received a complaint about her portrayal of Ethel from Ethel’s brother Sidney. Ursula and Ethel began a correspondence, and finally met in June of that year. Ursula never revealed where Ethel lived, and they remained friends until Ethel’s death in 1967.

Chief Inspector Walter Dew retired after the Crippen case and in 1938 published his memoir I Caught Crippen. Dew died on December 16, 1947.

During World War II, a Luftwaffe bomb destroyed 39 Hilldrop Crescent. A block of flats called Margaret Bondfield House now stands in its place.

In October 2007, the case made the headlines again, this time suggesting that Crippen was innocent and the remains found in the basement were not Belle Elmore at all, but actually a man. Two forensic scientists, David Foran and John Trestrail compared DNA from a slide with the victim’s flesh to that of three great nieces of Belle’s.

Mitochondrial DNA is passed from the mother to the daughter in the egg, and through generations remains relatively unchanged. The claims are that the DNA was different. However, this is all in dispute. There could be several reasons why the DNA does not match. The relatives may not be direct descendants; the DNA may have been tainted or corrupted in some way.

Crippen's waxwork at Madame Tussauds
Crippen's waxwork at Madame Tussauds

The scar has also come under attack. They claim it is not a scar, because it has hair follicles, and scars do not. Pepper and Spilsbury both found hair follicles to either side of the scar, but not in the scar itself. Everything that Spilsbury found was consistent with this being a scar, and if there were any doubt, both Turnbull and Wall, would have brought it up in cross- examination. They were traditional enemies of the St. Mary’s team, which is why Newton tricked them into testifying in the first place. Instead, the two came to the same conclusion as Spilsbury.

As for who the victim was, there are a couple of theories. One, that it is a man of unknown identity. Two, that Crippen carried out illegal abortions and this one went wrong and the patient died, which contradicts the theory that the body is that of a man, or police planted the evidence to frame Crippen. There is no evidence for any of these theories.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission reviewed the case in December 2009 and declared that the court of appeal will not hear the case to pardon Crippen posthumously.

Far from the depiction of a master criminal, Crippen was more of a blunderer than anything else. He purchased a poison that was sure to be remembered, when any other poison would have worked just as well. He buried the body, but instead of using quicklime, which would have destroyed it, he used slaked lime that did the opposite and preserved it. In addition, he ran when there was no need; Dew would probably never have got a warrant to search the house, and in any case believed that Belle had run away.

The Crippen case had everything needed for a romantic thriller. Star-crossed lovers, the evil victim, a dogged detective, an amateur detective, and a thrilling chase. And of course, he chose death to save the one he loved. You cannot help but feel sorry for the little doctor. As the crime novelist Raymond Chandler said about Crippen, “You can’t help liking this guy somehow. He was one murderer who died like a gentleman.”


(My thanks to John Crippen for allowing me to use photographs from his website:

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