23 November 1910 – Hawley Harvey Crippen

Hawley Harvey Crippen

Hawley Harvey Crippen

OK, so the man to the left may look harmless enough. But in his case looks were truly deceptive. For today is reserved for Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen – a seemingly mild-mannered GP with a far from perfect bedside manner.

American-born, he hot-footed it across the Pond with his brash Vaudeville-aspiring second wife. Belle Elmore was her stage name, but she was called Cora off-stage.

Not content with the two monikers, her birth name was actually the far more exotic Kunigunde Matamotzski and considering their colourful lives, it was suprising they gravitated to the not-so-exotic Holloway in north London.

Fittingly though, they were sandwiched between Holloway and Pentonville prisons, the latter of which was to become a home away from home for the dastardly doctor, just five years later, albeit briefly.

Don’t be fooled by the myopic, quiet, unassuming exterior for it concealed a fiesty little goer by all accounts. He’d already been married twice by the time he emigrated to Blighty and it was here that he hooked up with a secretary by the name of Ethel le Neve and the two embarked on an affair.

By all accounts, Cora was at it too, and the marriage was fast disintegrating. But when his wife threatened to leg it with another man and half the money, things came to a head. Crippen bought five grains of hyocine hydrobromide. Doesn’t sound much, does it?

In small doses, it’s a ‘cerebral sedative and sexual depressant’ says Katherine D Watson in her book ‘Poisoned Lives’. But by small doses, Watson means tiny – hundredths of a grain.

So if miniscule amounts of a grain can deaden your brain and dampen your sex drive, just imagine what a whole five grains can do.

Fish food

Needless to say, Elmore keeled over and died. But while other poisoners have tried to pass off the death as natural causes, Crippen bucked the trend. He ditched that idea and decided to go the whole hog. His plan was to dispose of the body.

Watson then goes on to describe how he diced the victim’s body to dispose of the evidence, deboning her and chopping off her head.

Apparently most sources state that he lobbed his wife’s decapitated head into the Thames. But Watson conjectures that he probably chucked her head overboard on a consequent trip to France and burned limbs’ bones and innards.

Other sources reckon he set a precedent for acid-bath murderer John George Haigh who came some 40 years later, by dissolving Elmore’s kidneys and other organs in acid. Meanwhile the rest was deposited in the basement.

So with his wife dead, now it was time for the elaborate cover-up story. And that’s wne being an American came in handy. Crippen blagged that Elmore had gone back across the water to nurse a sick relative and that she’d consequently died.

So far so ghood, but then he blew it big time. For virtually as soon as his wife had allegedly shipped out so his mistress was shipped in. It was only a matter of time before Le Neve was parading around in the dead woman’s clothes, naturally sparking suspicion from the dead woman’s mates.

Grain of truth

They promptly shopped the callous couple to the cops and the cover-up unravelled.

What was left of Elmore’s bod was found pretty quickly and exhumed from it’s coal-heaped grave. Crucially the stomach was still intact and it yielded the grain of truth needed – and that grain was hyoscine hydrobromide.

Crippen was hauled in for questioning and despite professing his innocence, the jury took just 27 minutes minutes to find him guilty of the foul murder, according to a report by the Metropolitan Police.

He was hanged on this day at Pentonville aged 48.

And what of his bit of fluff, Le Neve? Well she was acquitted, but her story didn’t end there. According to Tom Cullen in ‘The Mild Murderer’ she left for Canada pretty sharpish only to return six years to look after her sister. Le Neve or Nelson as she was then-on named eventually died in 1967.

In a recent twist brought to light in 2007, there is a fight to clear Crippen’s name posthumously. Forensic evidence has emerged that seemingly proves the body was not Cora’s, according to the ‘Camden New Journal’.

And a court battle has been instigated by Crippen’s last remaining blood relative – Patrick Crippen.

But the questions still remain, if the body wasn’t Cora’s, who’s exactly was it? And why were remnants of the corpse buried in the bowels of Crippen’s own home at 39 Hilldrop Crescent…?

Also on this day

23 November 1867 – The Manchester Martyrs

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