“I could see him smiling as he approached [the gallows]”
The first murderer to be caught by wireless telegraphy, Hawley Harvey “Peter” Crippen was born in July 1862 in Coldwater, Michigan. After qualifying as a doctor at the Homeopathic Hospital in Cleveland he moved to New York where, on 2 December 1887, he married Charlotte Jane Bell, an Irish student nurse and had a son, Otto on 19 August 1889. On 24 January 1892 his wife, pregnant for the second time, suddenly and unexpectedly died, aged 33, of apoplexy at Salt Lake City, Utah. That same year he met and, on 1 September, married the 19-year-old, would-be music hall singer Cora Turner (real name Kunigunde Mackamotzki, stage name Belle Elmore who was born on 3 September 1873). Five years later the couple moved to London (he in April 1897 and her four months later) where Crippen opened an office selling patent medicines. The Crippens moved to Hilldrop Crescent on 21 September 1905. The marriage was stormy — Belle belittled her husband and brought home men for sex.
On 6 December 1906, Crippen began an affair with his secretary, Ethel Le Neve, more than 20 years his junior. Unable to stand Cora’s behaviour any longer, Crippen poisoned her with hyoscine after a dinner party, which finished at 1.30am on Tuesday 1 February 1910. This is the only time hyoscine or, more correctly, hydrobromide of hyoscine, has been used to commit murder. Crippen buried the body in the cellar here and told his wife’s friends that she had gone abroad. Later, he informed them she had died, on 23 March 1910, of pneumonia while travelling in California and had been cremated. Suspicious, the friends went to Inspector Walter Dew at Scotland Yard. At 10am on Friday 8 July 1910 Dew interviewed Crippen and his “housekeeper” Le Neve. Crippen said that his wife had left him for another man but he had been too embarrassed to admit this so he had said that she had died. Dew accepted the story but he did wonder why she had left much of her wardrobe behind and why Le Neve was wearing one of Mrs Crippen’s brooches.
Thinking the jig was up, Crippen and Le Neve decided to flee the country. On the Monday morning Dew returned to Hilldrop Crescent and found the house deserted. A thorough police search uncovered human remains in the cellar although, Mrs Crippen’s head and limbs were never recovered. It was the first important case of Dr Bernard Spilsbury who was to become a legendary Home Office pathologist whose word (on more occasions than he would ever admit, wrong) could send a person to the gallows. Dew immediately issued descriptions of Crippen and Le Neve. The pair had fled to Antwerp in Belgium, where on 20 July they boarded the steamship SS Montrose, bound for Canada. Crippen had shaved off his moustache, Ethel had cropped her hair and bought boys’ clothing, and they were posing as John Philo Robinson and his 16-year-old son, who was supposedly ill and travelling to Quebec for his health. Captain Henry Kendall, the 36-year-old skipper of the Montrose, recognized Crippen from a newspaper photograph and telegraphed the ship’s owners, who in turn contacted Scotland Yard. Captain Kendall befriended the Robinsons and noted that Mr Robinson was reading The Four Just Men, the thriller by Edgar Wallace. On 23 July Dew set sail for Quebec on a faster ship, the SS Laurentic. At 9am on 31 July Dew, dressed as a pilot, boarded the Montrose from the pilot’s launch and arrested Crippen and Le Neve, who fainted.
39 Hilldrop Crescent, Camden Road,London, England
1.30am, Tuesday 1 February 1910
Dr Crippen was tried at the Old Bailey on 18 October, and four days later the jury took 27 minutes to convict him and he was sentenced to death; his petition for a reprieve was rejected by Winston Churchill. On 25 October, Le Neve was tried before the same judge, Lord Chief Justice Lord Alverstone, and acquitted. The night before his execution Crippen attempted to cheat the gallows by committing suicide but was foiled by a vigilant warder, who discovered that Crippen had removed an arm from his glasses, intending to cut himself with it and bleed to death. His last request, which was granted, was to die with a photo of Le Neve and letters from her in his coffin. John Ellis, a village barber who was an executioner in his spare time, hanged him in Pentonville Prison at
9am on 23 November 1910. In his memoirs, Ellis recalled, “I could see him smiling as he approached, and the smile never left his face up to the moment when I threw the white cap over it and blotted out God’s light from his eyes forever.” On the same day Ethel Le Neve, under the alias Miss Allen, boarded a ship for America. The Crippen house was destroyed in a German air raid on 8 September 1940. Ethel Le Neve died at Dulwich Hospital, London on9 August 1967.