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Thursday, October 20, 2011

This Week in Legal History -- October 22, 1910.

During the first half of the 20th century Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen was one of the most notorious murderers on both sides of the Atlantic, and it was on October 22, 1910 that he was convicted of murdering his wife.

Dr. H.H. Crippen was an American homeopathic physician living in London. He was married to Corrine “Cora” Turner, a frustrated music-hall singer who performed under the stage name “Bella Elmore.” By all accounts theirs was not a happy marriage, and one that gives lie to the expression “opposites attract.” Crippen was quiet and hard working; the very picture of an Edwardian-era nerd. Cora was loud, brash, hard-drinking, and bragged about her many affairs. Put off by his wife, Crippen himself began an affair with his secretary, Ethel Neave.

On January 31, 1910 after a dinner party at the Crippen home, Cora disappeared. Friends began to call for her and Crippen told them that she had moved back to the United States. Cora’s friends continued to ask about her and Crippen then asserted that she had died. The friends then contacted the police. The police came to Crippen’s home, performed a cursory searched, and interviewed Crippen. Although the police had found nothing and Crippen had made a positive impression he panicked, and with his mistress in tow, fled London to the Continent and eventually boarding a ship sailing from Antwerp to Canada. A routine follow-up revealed Crippen’s escape and a trans-Atlantic chase ensued, with the world following closely by virtue of the newly invented wireless radio.

Crippen was caught just before he landed in Canada and he and Ms. Neave were transported back to England for trial. When Crippen’s home was searched again human remains were found (but did not include a head, limbs, bones, or reproductive organs), and it appeared impossible to tell for certain that they were the remains of Cora. The new science of forensics came to the rescue. The noted pathologist Bernard Spilsbury was able to identify the remains as belonging to Cora due to a piece of skin which appeared to be a scar which matched a surgical scar that Cora had had. In addition, large amounts of the toxic compound hyoscine were found in the remains. Crippen had recently purchased a large amount of this substance. After a five day trial, and a jury deliberation of just 27 minutes, Crippen was convicted of Cora’s murder. He was sentenced to death. Ethel Neave was acquitted.

Crippen protested his innocence to the end, and new evidence may support his claim. In 2007 forensic scientists from Michigan State University tested some of the tissue samples originally taken by Spilsbury from the remains found in Crippen’s cellar. The testing revealed that not only did the DNA found in the cellar have nothing in common with the DNA from three of Cora’s still living maternal relatives, but the remains were not even of a female! The forensic experts suggest that Crippen was framed by detectives who were feeling pressure to solve the case. While the DNA evidence is intriguing there are still unanswered questions that must prevent anyone from presenting Crippen with a posthumous pardon. Crippen’s defense asserted that Cora had fled to America with another man; if that was the case how come she never came forward? Given Cora’s personality the trial would have given her the 15 minutes of fame she so desired.

Eric Larson’s book Thunderstruck deals with the Crippen murder and the man-hunt across the ocean that followed. Larson tells a two stories; Crippen’s and the story of Marconi’s invention of the wireless radio and the intersection of the invention and the felon. The murder of Cora Crippen was one of the first murders to be followed so closely by so many people; it was the O.J. Simpson Ford Bronco chase of its time.

Besides the aforementioned Thunderstruck , other notable books on the Crippen murder case include The Mild Murderer: the true story of the Dr. Crippen case by Tom A. Cullen and The Trial of Hawley Harvey Crippen from the Notable British Trials series. The latter reproduces verbatim the testimony given during the trial.

The perfect description of this case is provided in the prefatory note in The Trial of Hawley Harvey Crippen , “If the trial is less interesting from a legal point of view than some others, this defect is atoned for by the extraordinary human and dramatic interest with which the story is packed, and which has placed Dr. Crippen in the front rank, so to speak, of convicted murderers.”

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