Hawley Harvey Crippen was born at Coldwater, Michigan in 1862. An only child, he was brought up in a harshly Protestant tradition but became rather spoiled by his parents. From childhood onwards he was determined to become a doctor, following the example of his Uncle Bradley. Crippin attended first the University of Michigan, then spent a year at the Bethlehem Asylum in London before graduating finally an M.D. from the Homeopathic hospital of Chicago in 1887.
His staunch Chapel upbringing had shrouded Crippen in an atmosphere of repression. In rebellion to this he sought to marry the most unsuitable partner imaginable, an Irish Catholic émigré named Charlotte Jane Bell. This did not prove to be a happy match however, the societal and religious differences unbearable. Nonetheless Charlotte successfully gave birth to their first child Otto Hawley Crippen within a year. The second was under a week of carrying to term when she died of a heart attack. Intensely dissatisfied more than grieved Crippen left their son to be cared for by his parents and moved to New York.
It was in July of 1892 that he met his second wife ‘Belle Elmore’, actually Kunigunde Mackamotzki. She was the nineteen year old child of a Polish immigrant and had pretensions of noble birth, supposedly claiming the title of a lost barony. They married in September that year, but they quickly lost any hope of a family after Belle was forced to undergo a partial hysterectomy. Her aspirations for a career in Opera were also to be dashed. Not only was her inherent talent far lacking, but the economic climate of America began to chill. There was suddenly no money to be made from patients of homeopathic medicine. Crippen could no more afford singing lessons for Belle than he could any other luxury. At Belle’s prompting in early 1894 he gave up medicine and turned to the immensely profitable world of quack patent medicines. Employed by a Dr. Munyon, owner of one of the largest firms in the business Crippin’s fortunes were changed. The following three years proved extremely successful. Crippen rose quickly to managerial level, working first for Munyon’s offices in Toronto and then in 1897 moving entirely to London.
Belle and Crippen’s marriage had already begun to decay however. Despite being now able to pay for lessons, her singing career was a failure before it began. Belle’s voice was impossibly weak for Opera and even the lesser world of Variety at which she now clutched furnished few audition successes. Also during the long periods Crippen spent in Canada his wife had begun the first of many affairs. Once in London she started to prove herself not only unfaithful but incredibly careless with money. Already having squandered much of Crippen’s new wage on clothes and social climbing, she convinced her husband to invest in a private production. Belle’s hopes for theatrical fame met with even less success in England than America. The inevitable failure of “The Vio And Motzki’s Bright Lights Company” proved more disastrous than any of her prior setbacks. When Munyon’s head office discovered their London executive was lending both his name and that of the company to such unsuitable ventures their response was immediate. Crippen was called back to New York and sacked. Belle consoled herself by spending what remained of their money on a new wardrobe and beginning what was to be her longest affair.
In November 1899 Crippen returned unemployed from America to discover himself a public cuckold to one Bruce Miller, a boxer from Chicago. Displaying what had become a character trait of mildness and long suffering he proceeded to ignore Belle’s infidelity, despite her now shrewish temperament and constant humiliation of him in front of their friends. He also continued to support his wife’s ever more expensive lifestyle. If she could not be a success on the stage Belle was determined to at least move amongst those who were. She forced herself into the circle of London’s Variety performers, forming many friendships from amongst its luminaries. Most notably she endeavoured to rise in their world by becoming a staunch patron of the “Music Hall Ladies’ Guild” from 1905, a charitable organisation for ex-performers.
The strains Belle placed on Crippen’s dwindling finances were only lessened slightly when he managed to secure employment at “Druet’s Institute For The Deaf”. This company was an even more fraudulent enterprise than Munyon’s, exploiting those who in reality had no possibility of ever hearing again with hopes of a cure. Five years later the institute was closed down and prosecuted for negligence as one of it patients died from a brain abscess. It was at Druet’s however that Crippen met a woman named Ethel LeNeve.
The seventeen year old Ethel Neave was the eldest of two daughters, but throughout her upbringing was treated harshly and bullied by the entire family. It became the child’s aim to attract affection from those around her, even if that required easy duplicity or caused her to become Hypochondriac. The only happy moments Ethel spent were with an elderly uncle who worked on the Great Eastern Railway and took her to see trains. It was a measure of Ethel’s hatred of her father that once free of his direct control she changed her name. Drawn by the ever-unwell aspect of her character to a medical post at Druet’s, Ethel was made secretary to Crippen in July 1903. Almost at once she became attracted to this older man in her uncle’s mould whose attitude towards her was ever kindly and caring, contrasting totally with that of her father. In a position of authority and power, Crippen soon realised he was the focus of Ethel’s adoration. Faced with Belle’s domineering behaviour and serial infidelity he began little by little to return his secretaries feelings. Each taking comfort in the other until both realised they were genuinely in love.