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Crippen, Hawley Harveyfree

  • Martin Fido

Hawley Harvey Crippen (1862–1910)

by unknown photographer, c. 1890

Crippen, Hawley Harvey (1862–1910), murderer, was born in Coldwater, Michigan, the only child of storekeeper Myron Augustus Crippen (1827–1910) and his wife, Andresse Skinner (d. 1909). After studying in Michigan, London, and the Homoeopathic Hospital College, Cleveland, Ohio, he qualified as a homoeopathic doctor in 1884. In 1887 he married a nurse, Charlotte Jane Bell (d. 1892). Their son Otto was born in 1889, but Charlotte died three years later. Crippen placed Otto with Myron and Andresse and entered general practice in New York. There he married on 1 September 1892 Kunigunde (1873–1910), daughter of Joe Mackamotzki, a Pole who had kept a fruit stand in Brooklyn. She was at this time someone else's mistress and was known as Cora Turner.

In 1894 Crippen's practice failed and he took employment with Munyon's Homoeopathic Remedies. They sent him to establish a branch in London in 1897, but fired him in 1899 for managing his wife's indifferent career as a music-hall singer. He was London manager of the disreputable Drouet's Institute for the Deaf from 1901 until its bankruptcy in 1908. From 1908 Crippen was partner in a dental practice called the Yale Tooth Specialists at Albion House, 61 New Oxford Street.

At Drouet's, Crippen employed as a typist Ethel Clara Le Neve (1883–1967) and about 1903 they fell in love. In 1905 the Crippens moved from a flat near Oxford Street to 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Holloway, and took in lodgers. In December 1906 Crippen found Cora (who now called herself Belle Elmore) in bed with a lodger. She had cuckolded Hawley for several years, but this incident provoked him to consummate his hitherto blameless love for Ethel. Belle maintained her shaky connection with the stage by serving the charitable Music Hall Ladies' Guild, whose office was also in Albion House. This led to occasional confrontations between Belle and Ethel.

Overtly the Crippens' marriage was happy. In reality Belle Elmore was a tipsy, plump, and unfaithful shrew with inordinate vanity and a miserly streak; her docile and submissive husband chafed at her dominion. On Monday 31 January 1910 two friends of Belle's dined with the Crippens before leaving Hilldrop Crescent at 1.30 a.m. Belle Elmore was never seen again. Crippen said she had gone to America for a few months. In February Ethel was seen wearing a piece of Belle's jewellery. In March Crippen moved her into Hilldrop Crescent and gave out that Belle had died in California. He proved evasive about details, and the Music Hall Ladies' Guild suspected foul play. They established that no Belle Elmore or Cora Crippen had crossed the Atlantic or died in California.

Crippen took two short holidays in Dieppe with Le Neve, and brought back a French maid for her. But his lies led vaudevillians John and Lil Nash to Scotland Yard, and Detective-Inspector Walter Dew was sent to interview Crippen on 8 July. Crippen told a plausible tale of being deserted by Belle, and lying because he felt humiliated. But panicked by Dew's visit, he fled the following day. The police searched the house, but found nothing until Dew took up the flooring of the kitchen coal cellar. Underneath was a woman's headless, limbless, desexed, and boneless flesh, wrapped in a man's pyjama jacket. It contained hyoscine, a poison Crippen had bought shortly before Belle's disappearance. A two-week international hunt for Crippen and Le Neve followed.

They had bought boy's clothes for Le Neve and gone to Brussels. On 20 July they sailed from Antwerp to Montreal on the Montrose, with Crippen posing as John Philo Robinson, taking his sixteen-year-old son. The ship's captain, Henry Kendall, mistrusted the Robinsons' loving hand-holding and decided that they were Crippen and his paramour. When he informed his owners by Marconigram they contacted Scotland Yard, and passed all Kendall's subsequent descriptions of the runaways to the press, which followed Dew's pursuit of them in the faster liner Laurentic to reach Montreal three days ahead of the Montrose. Dew arrested the pair before they could disembark.

Crippen's lackadaisical defence at his trial (18–22 October 1910) was that the remains must have been in the cellar when he bought the house. The prosecution, however, proved that the pyjamas were made after he came to Hilldrop Crescent. Pathologist Bernard Spilsbury, in his first widely publicized case, demonstrated that the flesh bore an abdominal scar matching Belle's ovariectomy. Crippen, who was imperturbable but unconvincing under cross-examination, and showed a brand of heroism in his determination to protect Le Neve, was sentenced to death. But he had achieved his purpose of minimizing the damage to Le Neve, who was acquitted in a separate trial on 25 October of a charge of being an accessory after the fact.

From prison Crippen exchanged love letters with Ethel until his execution at Pentonville prison on 23 November 1910. He was buried within the prison precincts. His posthumous reputation as one of the most frightful murderers of his generation was unjustified. Everyone who knew him was astonished by this polite little man's crime. He was deeply in love with Ethel and not the calculating seducer portrayed at her trial. He refused to mount any serious defence, as that might have compromised her, and he was the first murderer caught by ship's radio-telegraph. Crippen was a commonplace, bespectacled little man, with a sandy moustache and domed forehead, who abstained from tobacco, wine, and spirits. He was courteous and considerate socially, though his professional life as a quack dealing in patent medicines must sometimes have been calculating and predatory. He proved a bungling murderer, who covered his victim's remains in slaked lime, which preserves human flesh, rather than quick lime, which destroys them. His essentially sordid crime passionnel, committed in a humdrum backwater of London suburbia, excited an intense and enduring notoriety.


  • T. Cullen, Crippen: the mild murderer (1977)
  • F. Young, The trial of Hawley Harvey Crippen (1920)
  • W. Dew, I caught Crippen (1938)


  • Madame Tussaud's Ltd, London, letters


  • BFINA, documentary footage


  • BL NSA, ‘Dr Crippen’, 1993, 1GA 0024466D253BD1


Wealth at Death

£268 6s. 9d.: probate, 8 Feb 1911, CGPLA Eng. & Wales


Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]