'Face to face with God, I still maintain my innocence'

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The Independent Online
A CHILLING account of an apparent suicide bid by Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen, one of the 20th century's most notorious murderers, emerged yesterday in newly released Home Office papers.

Among files kept secret since 1910 is a report from a prison officer who foiled the doctor's attempt to kill himself only hours before going to the gallows.

The governor of Pentonville prison wrote to Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary, detailing how one of his officers, named as Mr Fellows, was ordered to watch the murderer.

In his report, Mr Fellows says Crippen began weeping in his cell at 10.30pm on 23 November 1910 and continued for 10 minutes until undressing for bed. The officer said he heard something break and was told by Crippen that a button had fallen off his trousers.

'He then put his glasses on the cupboard and was getting into bed when I saw that his glasses were broken,' the man says. 'I told him at once to give the other portion up to me and he then pulled the other part from under his pants. He had very little sleep.'

Crippen had unscrewed a metal arm from his spectacles apparently to cut himself, preferring a solitary death by bleeding to the indignity of hanging.

It was the sordid end of a truly sordid case which captured the imagination of a public divided over his guilt. He was convicted of murdering his wife, Cora Crippen, by poisoning her and burying the remains in the cellar of 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Camden Town, London.

Mrs Crippen, 37, was last seen alive on 31 January 1910. The doctor told friends she had returned suddenly to her native America to visit a sick relative. But, when some became suspicious and told Scotland Yard, Crippen, 48, fled with his typist, Ethel Le Neve, 27. They boarded the ship Montrose bound for Quebec, with Le Neve disguised as a boy. The papers released yesterday included urgent telegrams sent to British consulates in 16 countries.

Eventually, the captain of the Montrose became suspicious and reported his concerns by radio, enabling a Scotland Yard detective to board a faster ship and be waiting for the couple at the end of their journey. It was the first time radio was used to apprehend a criminal.

Yesterday's papers were not due for release until 2023 but were reviewed at the request of an unnamed member of the public under John Major's drive for more open government.

They chronicle Crippen's attempts to be reprieved, claiming that the remains in his cellar - part of a human organ, a flap of skin 6in by 7in, some human hair and the remains of some clothing - were never identified as his wife's.

The files show he was not alone in protesting his innocence. Among doz ens of letters of support is one addressed to Churchill from a chemist, Mr J McGlashan, which claims Crippen was the victim of a 'trap' by his wife and her former lover, a Bruce Miller. He says the presence of hyoscine, the poison, could have been planted by Mrs Crippen and argues that because of his training, the doctor would not have preserved the skin with chloride of lime.

Another letter purports to be from Mrs Crippen in Chicago. Its arrival two days before Crippen was due to hang caused a sensation - but handwriting comparisons proved it a cruel hoax.

Perhaps the most pathetic document is a copy of a letter by Crippen to Miss Le Neve, but addressed to the Daily Chronicle, in which he wrote: 'Face to face with God, in whose presence my soul will soon stand for final judgement, I still maintain my innocence.'

(Photograph omitted)