My mother loved the study of true crime, especially accounts of notorious murders and the resulting courtroom dramas. She evidently passed this enthusiasm on to me. It is a constant source of surprise how often the cases we discussed, which seemed so permanently rooted in the past, had a protagonist who lived into my lifetime. In fact I only just missed, by three years, centenarian Constance Kent who as long ago as 1865 may, or possibly may not, have committed child murder. Remember this when we reach the story of Miss Ethel le Neve.
Is it ever permissible to feel sorry for a murderer? Well it is surely difficult not to empathise with the mild mannered Harvey Hawley Crippen. He may have gone down in history as ‘Dr Crippen’ but despite my sympathy I’m reluctant to award a title of which I am rather proud to an American homeopath who sold patent medicines. Be that as it may in 1910 Crippen was convicted of the murder of his second wife Cora, who used the stage name Belle Elmore, and he was subsequently hanged. He was notable as the first criminal whose arrest was facilitated by the new Marconi wireless apparatus.
By all accounts, for fifteen years Cora had led Crippen a dog’s life. After they moved to London he was forced to sponsor her entertaining, and her significantly unremarkable career as a music hall performer, by selling nostrums. She almost certainly had at least one affair during her marriage to him. Eventually Crippen met the love of his own life, a young typist called Miss Ethel le Neve or Neave, who was quiet and affectionate. In January 1910, predictably perhaps, Cora Crippen vanished from the marital home at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, London and was, as they say, never seen again.
Some students of the case remain unconvinced of Crippen’s guilt, but if he was indeed innocent of murder he surely made every incriminating blunder imaginable. At first he told his wife’s friends that she had hurriedly returned to the US and then unexpectedly died there. When it became obvious that there was no evidence whatever for her demise he subsequently changed the story to an elopement accompanied by her lover. Within weeks Ethel had moved into Hilldrop Crescent and was provocatively seen in Cora’s own furs and jewels. This act persuaded Cora’s associates to contact the police with their suspicians. It was soon determined that Crippen had bought large quantities of the poisonous alkaloid hyoscine from a local pharmacist, a substance for which, as a homeopath, he would seem to have had little legitimate use. Finally, after an interview with Inspector Walter Dew of Scotland Yard, both suspect and mistress fled across the Atlantic aboard the steamship SS Montrose. Their flight enabled the police to search the house and there the police noted that water splashed on the cellar floor soon drained away under one flagstone.
After the stone was lifted every possible attempt was made to locate the missing couple. Crippen and Le Neve, who had been posing as father and son, were arrested on their arrival at Quebec by Dew, who had caught a faster trans-Atlantic liner. If the only Crippen’s ship had reached a US port, rather than a Canadian one, their removal back to the UK would have been far more troublesome for the authorities. Possibly his chosen destination was was Crippen’s final mistake.
Admittedly there were some puzzles. Under that cellar floor in Crippen’s house were found portions of a human torso wrapped in cloth, but with no bones present. If he had really dismembered his wife’s body, and found some undetectable means of disposing of the head, bones and organs, why would he leave some skin undestroyed? At the trial the great forensic scientist Sir Bernard Spilsbury demonstrated that there was hyoscine in the residual material, and that it bore a scar that resembled one known to have been possessed by Cora. This case was the start of Sir Bernard’s unparalleled career as an expert witness, a career that may have been noticed by at least one distinguished writer of detective fiction.
In 2007 it was claimed that the torso skin was not in fact Cora’s. A sample taken from a surviving microscope slide was compared to the mitochondrial DNA of her descendants. Not only did the body not seem to be Cora’s but it was apparently male. Inevitably this new evidence has been itself criticised and we may say the jury is out on the issue! But without the torso could Crippen ever have been found guilty? Undeniably proving that murder had occurred without a body was a doubtful process under UK law until the mid-20th century. The finding of the skin and fabric was so very convenient for the prosecution that there are those who claim it was planted by the police to secure the conviction of a man whom they already ‘knew’ was guilty.
Another puzzle was provided by Miss Ethel. She had known Crippen for ten years; could she really have been so unaware of his intentions? Certainly their mutual love was real enough and both during and after his trial Crippen did everything possible to protect her reputation. After his death Ethel le Neve briefly went abroad but returned home to marry in 1915. For the next 52 years she lived quietly in Croydon, south London, and was still very much alive when my mother and I discussed her extraordinary case. As far as I know she never again spoke of these events from half a lifetime before. The truth almost certainly died with her.
R. Austin Freeman (1862-1942) was one of the finest ever English detective story writers. His hero is the very credible barrister and forensic scientist, Dr John Thorndyke. Freeman is not famous for the complexity of his human characters; his plots contain little romance, no politics, and nothing approximating to sex. Thorndyke’s own preferences in this area are, like those of Sherlock Holmes, highly ambiguous. But for complicated puzzles based on geology, chemistry, physics and biology Thorndyke stories have few equals.
Like me Freeman once studied medicine at the Middlesex Hospital. He qualified as a doctor but in 1891 he was invalided home from west Africa suffering from malaria. Freeman decided, like so many other physicians, to turn his attentions to literature. The first Thorndyke tale appeared in 1907 and the pattern of the stories never really changed although Freeman continued writing into his seventies. Thorndyke has a private laboratory, a faithful manservant Poulton, and companions with whom he walks through foggy, gas-lit, London streets. The great man lives in bachelor apartments at 5A King’s Bench Walk and drinks port with solicitors in the evening before a blazing fire, or smokes cheroots with his friends. Freemans’s creations were still doing this when in the real world London was being visited by the Luftwaffe. The stories’ disconnection with reality is part of their fascination. I am, as you can probably tell, totally enchanted.
One of the Thorndyke cases is entitled Pandora’s Box, published with others in a collection of 1927. It is very unusual for Freeman to base his plots on a true crime, but this is an exception. A woman disappears mysteriously. Dismembered remains of the front of a body turn up in a bundle under a cellar floor. The story’s fictional Inspector Miller uses the same trick with a bucketful of water to spot disturbance of the cellar floor slabs as did the real Inspector Dew. In the suspect’s house a bottle of hyoscine tablets is found and the same substance is later detected in the remains. The fictional forensic evidence turns on a tattoo rather than a scar, but it is significant perhaps that Dr Thorndyke determines that this evidence is faked, not by the police but by an adulterous lover of the accused’s wife. This wife concerned is described as being ‘well built….popular with her own friends’ and leading her husband ‘the devil’s own life’. This sounds awfully like Cora Crippen.
Could Austin Freeman have known something of the Crippen case, or did he simply read the newspapers and keep a scrap book? Since the plot of his story hangs on the incorrect identification of a piece of dismembered body I’m inclined to think he knew, or guessed, the fragility of one of the pieces of evidence against Crippen. He naturally appreciated that torsos hidden under cellar flagstones have to be explained, although implementing the police was not something that Freeman would ever have contemplated. Sadly in the world outside fiction the mild, moustachioed, patent medicine salesman was not defended by Dr John Thorndyke. In this world Crippen had only the rope and Madame Tussauds wax-work exhibition to look forward too.