The testament of Mrs Crippen: Rear Window: Buried bodies

Click to follow
The Independent Online
DOCTOR Hawley Crippen is chiefly remembered as the first fugitive murderer to have been captured by the use of wireless telegraphy. The captain of a transatlantic steerage ship, the Montrose, became suspicious of a man and boy among his passengers and conveyed his thoughts to England by 'Marconigram'. A detective boarded a faster ship which overhauled the Montrose as it reached Canada, and Crippen and his disguised lover, Ethel Le Neve, were captured.

The involvement of wireless ensured the case its place in history, but at the time - 1910 - the prosecution of Crippen was also noted as a high point for criminal pathology. Much of the trial was spent in discussion of scientific detail, with

expert witnesses exhaustively cross-examined. Crippen denied the murder, and more than anything it was the evidence extracted from his wife's clinically dismembered remains that convicted him.

Police had been alerted to the disappearance of Mrs Crippen, an unsuccessful actress who used the name Belle Elmore, by friends who doubted Crippen's story that she had gone suddenly to America and equally suddenly died there.

Chief Inspector Walter Dew of Scotland Yard interviewed Crippen at his home, 39 Hilldrop Crescent, north London, and his suspicions were not allayed. When Crippen and Le Neve fled, Dew returned there to look for the body.

After two days of digging in the garden, he turned his attention to the coal cellar, a small, brick-floored space beneath the front steps of the house. 'I went down on to my knees and probed about with a small poker which I had got out of the kitchen,' he told the trial.

'I found that the poker went in somewhat easily between the crevices of the bricks and I managed to get one or two up, and then several others came up pretty easily. I then produced a spade from the garden and dug the clay that was immediately underneath the bricks. After digging down to a depth of four spadefuls I came across what appeared to be human remains.'

These remains would prove impossible to identify conclusively, for they did not include the head or limbs, and all the bones had been removed. Even the sex of the body could not be established.

Buried with the remains, however, was a fragment of a man's pyjama jacket bearing the label 'Jones Brothers, Limited, Holloway, N'. This was important because it made it impossible for the defence to claim that the remains dated from before the Crippens lived at Hilldrop Crescent: Jones Brothers of Holloway Road only became a limited company in 1906, the year after they moved in.

In the human remains themselves, scientists found traces of a rare poison, hyoscin. Crippen had bought a quantity of hyoscin only days before his wife's disappearance. There was also some hair, which had been dyed as Belle Elmore was known to dye hers. And there was, on the skin, a mark.

In a scene of extraordinary grisliness at the Old Bailey, this piece of skin, preserved in formalin, was lifted with tweezers from a jar, placed in a soup plate and passed for inspection before a queasy jury. The prosecution argued that the mark was the scar from an abdominal operation which Mrs Crippen had had, while the defence produced experts to say it was merely a fold in the skin, which could be anybody's.

Bernard Spilsbury, whose name was to become synonymous with the science of criminal pathology in the decades that followed, made his court debut during this argument. In a typical coup de theatre intended to make the case for the scar, he had the jury step into an adjoining room to view the skin through a microscope.

Crippen was convicted and, on 23 November 1910, hanged at Pentonville prison. The house in Hilldrop Crescent stood vacant until it was destroyed by a bomb during the Second World War. Ethel Le Neve was tried as an accessory after the fact, and acquitted. She went to Canada, returned under a false name, married, had children, became a grandmother and died in Dulwich Hospital in 1967.

Comments