The British people had become obsessed with the detail of Crippen’s actions, following avidly the newspaper reports of his and Ethel's sensational flight and eventual capture by Scotland Yard upon the high-seas. By Tuesday October the 18th 1910 when the High Court was due to open prosecution of Crippen the public had been whipped into a frenzy of media-led anticipation. The demand for seats in Court No. 1 at the Old Bailey far outstripped availability. Eventually tickets were issued for the days of the trial. To see Crippen stood in the dock became a stylish day’s entertainment. Members from every level of society, foundry men to Architects, Actresses to socialites; they all packed the galleries to watch.
Sir Richard Muir presented the case for the prosecution. It was a difficult task as any firm, definitive proof of Crippen’s guilt was entirely lacking. The motive being even more simplistic; that Crippen and Ethel after seven years of elicit relationship had decided to remove the living obstacle to their happiness. Conversely the fact of Belle’s disappearance was in itself not criminal or even entirely suspicious. Crippen's unmarried cohabitation with Ethel was not prosecutable either, despite the mores of Edwardian middleclass society. The only legal room Muir had to manoeuvre in was the matter of Dr. Crippen’s suspicious, constantly evolving lies on the whereabouts of Belle coupled with his notorious escape attempt to Canada.
At first their friends had been told Belle was returned to America to nurse an ailing relative. She had supposedly died there of Pneumonia and been cremated. When the very sceptical members of the Musical Hall Ladies Guild asked to pay their last respects it was reported the ashes had already been scattered. From then on Crippen had been assaulted from every side by unbelieving acquaintances, all asking for further information. As time passed it transpired Belle had been staying with his own family in the hills around San Francisco. She had died in a hospital at Alameda, stricken by a vaguely described lung disease. Quizzed even more carefully by an actual resident of southern California Crippen was completely at a loss. Unable to fully explain as he supposedly did not himself know the full details Crippen referred everyone to write his long estranged son Otto with whom Belle had allegedly been staying. Behind the scenes Crippen himself contacted his son, informing the shocked youth of his step-mother’s demise in San Francisco. When eventually contacted by Melinda May of the Ladies Guild Otto expressed his own amazed incredulity on the matter. This only worked to heighten the level of suspicion, especially when the City Coroner in San Francisco refused any knowledge of Belle’s death or cremation. However outraged, shocked and generally entertained the court were by relation of this ongoing story; the train of guilt it instilled was effectively derailed when hearing of Crippen’s final admission to Inspector Dew. When at last approached by the police he had finally caved, admitting the previous mass of lies. Apparently Belle had left him at the end of January, abandoning most of her belongings as Crippen had bought her them. She had gone to Chicago to live again with the prize fighting Bruce Miller. Crippen had lied to protect his vanity as many others would under the circumstances. Inspector Dew completely believed this final version of events, even taking Crippen for lunch while they set out an official statement.
Rather more damning, if equally more brief was the testimony which everyone in England had heard or read, Captain Kendall’s account of Ethel and Crippen’s disguised passage aboard the SS Montrose. If Crippen was innocent, why had he run? This was the basic question and his reciprocal guilt by implication carried much weight.
Even now the only genuine evidence of murder and therefore a case to answer at all was the human remains found at Hilldrop Crescent This was still more difficult to use. Inspector Dew had unearthed a filleted human female body, missing not only bones but also hands and head. The science of Forensic examination was called upon for the first time in legal history. To the jury’s satisfaction it was proved by microscopic and chemical examination that the corpse was indeed Belle Elmore, poisoned by Hyoscine. The court and its baying mass of onlookers scented blood.
Nonetheless it would still have been possible for Crippen to escape execution with a different person to run his defence. Arthur Newton was well known as an incompetent solicitor who most often defended against libel actions, the sordid nature of the cases well suited to his personality and inclinations. It is a measure of Newton’s reliability that three years after Crippen had hung he was disbarred and himself sentenced to imprisonment for shady land dealings.
Had Crippen been able to employ the services of Marshall Hall, a solicitor extremely interested in the case he would almost certainly have escaped the Hangman’s noose. Unfortunately Hall was on holiday over the duration and returned too late. He had formulated a defence plan based around the nature of Hyoscine as a poison that would certainly have left Crippen convicted only of Manslaughter or even a free man. However, despite Hall’s optimism he would have been hard pressed to defend Crippen. By the time the forensic evidence was presented he had obviously decided his own hopes were closed. For the entirety of the hearing Crippen’s testimony had been always hedged to lay the least possible blame on Ethel. In the latter stages this became especially evident, coupled with his ever mild and diffident manner that did little to help convince a jury.
For Ethel’s part, her defence at trial was conducted by Hopwood and sons, solicitors of great competence. They employed the brilliant and flamboyant F.E. Smith to defend her. Portrayed as an innocent lead astray and free of any murderous guilt she was acquitted after only twenty minutes of the jury’s final deliberation.
The inevitable occurred on Saturday the 22nd of October, Crippen was sentenced to death. He had been convicted on very slim evidence, mainly the implied doubt of the attempted escape to Canada. Coupled to this and undoubtedly the most important factor was the public interest stirred by the papers. It is fair to say Crippen was not executed because of the weight of evidence against him, but rather because everyone thought he should be.