Put simply I believe the case against Hawley Crippen was severely flawed. He was either an incredibly inept murderer or an extremely unlucky innocent man. He was convicted not as a result of precise testimony but rather because everyone rightly or wrongly thought he was to blame. His wife had gone missing, he had told a number of lies to cover it up and when all was considered he was the most likely suspect. The evidence presented of Crippen’s guilt was strong only in one sense, its completely circumstantial formation. Certainly a case can be made contrary to the court’s based on exactly as much genuine fact.
The most basic tenet of any enquiry was completely ignored, the fact Crippen had no genuine motive for murder. He and Ethel had continued their affair for over seven years with Belle living and healthy. There was no sudden need to alter the status quo. It is true Ethel had been attempting to convince him to finally divorce his wife. However there was no possibility of her delivering an ultimatum. Equally, Belle knew the details of her husband’s dalliance. Beyond damning his character still further in gossip to her friends of the Music Hall Ladies Guild she was in absolutely no position to pressure the matter. Crippen was suffering no real emotional pressure from either side that would have driven him to desperate action. There was simply no need. Even for a converted Catholic in Edwardian England it would have been the most straightforward pleading to gain a legal divorce. Had he wished it the situation could have been remedied within a matter of months in Crippen and Ethel’s undoubted favour. As for repressed rage on his part finding a sudden outlet or a final turning after years of downtrodden humility, I believe the chances are slim. Crippen had lived with his hectoring, unfaithful bully of a wife for almost twenty years. If he were going to snap it would in my opinion have happened long, long before. The very method of murder, poisoning is completely unsuited to a sudden burst of anger. It is the action of a long planned and deliberate killer.
Even the prosecution’s key and most supposedly damning evidence of the buried corpse falls short of final proof. Indeed this is the only reason to even suspect foul play and by modern standards the level of forensic examination applied to the remains was practically non-existent. The main thrust of argument was the body belonged to the vanished Belle, it had been found under the house and therefore Crippen must have murdered her. Even if we were to accept this line of reasoning at no point was irrefutable evidence of the mutilated cadaver’s identity proven. Sir Bernard Spillsbury’s clinching expert testimony rested entirely upon irrefutably linking a possible scar on a scrap of flesh near the corpse to one Belle possessed owing to her hysterectomy. Using the technology available in 1911, namely visual microscopy this was totally impossible. Yet the jury believed him and were swayed. A different possibility where the corpse did not belong to Belle is plausible. A great deal was made of Crippen’s bungling use of plasterer’s lime instead of quick lime to destroy the corpse. The same preservative effect that supposedly allowed his wife to point a finger of accusation beyond the grave could equally have maintained some other, earlier murderers victim in the cellar at Hilldrop Crescent. Even if he really had administered a fatal dose of Hyoscine there was no need to hide and mutilate the body. It could easily have been explained as a simple mistake on his wife’s part as she often took varied powders and concoctions for her delicate stomach. There were many open, unmarked packets of medicine about the house and at least the possibility of accidental death would have made conviction of murder impossible. The final story told Inspector Dew, which that policeman believed is totally reasonable; that Belle had finally eloped with her lover as she long threatened to do. It is a fact that a sighting of her was reported in Chicago barely a week before the execution’s appointed date.
Crippen’s very character is not that of a murder. He would simply never have been able to summon the mental energy and will to commit such a decisive act. His way of life was to follow the path of least resistance. Given this I especially do not believe he would simply have moved Ethel in to live on the grave of his murdered wife. Far from dwelling under a cloud of guilt they lived a perfectly normal and happy life for over three months, relieved and free of Belle Their behaviour was exactly what one would expect from the scenario Crippen finally told. It was only when the pressure from innuendo and gossip became unbearable that events deteriorated and Crippen’s actions became suspicious. It must be admitted from this point onwards he behaved in every possible way to make matters worse. In truth the only convincing evidence of Crippen’s blame is to be found in his behaviour during June and July of 1911. Why did he run? There was no need. So far as the police were concerned he was in the clear. Given his desire to escape why did Crippen chose a method so likely to fail? The disguise of Ethel as a boy was never going to succeed and no one who saw her believed the deception. It was fanciful beyond description and undoubtedly this act, given the incredible media frenzy it generated cost Crippen his life.
Indeed I believe this is the final truth. It was not the contested act of murder that sentenced him, rather his actions after being accused. In the murder of Belle Elmore as at many other points in his life, Dr. Crippen was the architect of his own fall. It came through either the exercise of righteous punishment, or an equal though far less just penalty for incredible foolishness.