Dr Hawley Crippen was executed at 9.00am on Wednesday the 23rd of November, 1910 for the murder of his wife Cora 'Belle Elmore'. The facts and story as established over the previous four months of high-court trial and appeal proceedings were straightforward.
The jury was told Crippen had killed Belle Elmore with poison early on the morning of February the 1st, mutilating her corpse to frustrate identification and then buried the remains in the coal cellar of 39 Hilldrop Crescent. A week later he moved his lover of seven years, Ethel LeNeve into the same home. For five months the pair attempted to live as perfectly calm a domestic life as any married couple.
At first Crippen had reported to their curious friends his wife was returned to America, called back to look after an ailing relative. However, suspicions began to grow as increasingly varied and often contradictory versions of the story were told. These doubts were made even more acute when the shocking news was passed she had died while staying either in Manhatten, Chicago or San Francisco depending on who had asked. Belle’s many acquaintances, mostly actresses and performers from the London variety circuit were especially unconvinced. The final straw came as Ethel and Crippen were seen to attend the ‘Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund’ ball together, one amongst a group of causes Belle had heavily been involved in. Under urging from Isabele Ginnet the president of Music Hall Ladies’ Guild, her friends John and Lil Nash used their influence to insist Scotland Yard take an interest in the growing mystery.
At the beginning of July therefore Crippen was questioned by an Inspector Dew. Upon this interview he finally admitted the weaving of a fabric of lies; owning up to the ‘truth’ his wife had eloped with her lover to Chicago. Satisfied, the police withdrew but Crippen was very badly shaken and his previously assured composure disintegrated completely. Apparently after weeks of pressure from the not-so-quiet whispers of Belle’s acquaintances and their constant innuendo his nerve broke. At once Crippen had packed his and Ethel’s belongings and fled with her from London, forcing Inspector Dew to look on the matter with a new eye. During the ensuing police search the remains in the cellar at Hilldrop Crescent were found.
A hunt was launched across the country for Crippen and his mistress. Reports arrived they had escaped to somewhere on the continent. Descriptions and pictures were circulated through the already intensely interested media. The public became inflamed with a fascination for a now fully fledged and sensational murder investigation, suffering a hungry mania for details of the case. Sightings came from Kent to Brussels, Blackpool to the Pyrenees.
Almost three weeks had passed before Inspector Dew received a telegram signalling the reliable whereabouts of Crippen and Ethel. Captain Kendall of the steerage liner SS Montrose had discovered the pair disguised amongst his passengers bound for Quebec. Crippen was attempting to pass as a Mr Robinson and Ethel was dressed as a boy, his sickly son.
Without alerting their suspicions Captain Kendall succeeded to maintain a constant watch and report on the pair, harassed by a Press frantic for details over the ship-to-shore radio. The police aboard a faster steamship the Laurentic had finally intercepted the Montrose at Soldiers Point off Canada’s east coast, boarding the liner and placing both suspects under arrest.
Despite the majority of genuine evidence being circumstantial there was little doubt as to Crippen’s eventual sentence. The new science of Forensic analysis under its luminary Sir Bernard Spillsbury proved the most influential factor, convincing the jury members and making its first real entry into criminal justice. Ethel however, portrayed as an innocent ensnared by an older man’s devious and lecherous manipulation was fully acquitted of any blame.