Sue Young Histories

Hawley Harvey Crippen 1862 - 1910

March 06, 2008

Hawley Harvey Crippen 1862 –
1910 Hawley Harvey Crippen (1862-1910)

With thanks to the Guardian 17.10.07 - 100 years on, DNA casts doubt on Crippen case. [It is one of the most notorious cases in British legal history, the story of an apparently mild-mannered (homeopathic American) doctor (born Michigan

  1. who (was accused of) poisoning and dismembering his showgirl wife, then fleeing across the Atlantic with his young lover - only to be caught after a sharp-eyed captain recognised him from the newspapers](

From Dr Hawley Crippen was hanged in 1910, after an Old Bailey jury took just 27 minutes to find him guilty of murdering his wife, Cora, who had vanished earlier that year (however, there were doubts even at the time that he really was guilty). Nearly a century later, research appears to show that the evidence which sent Crippen to the gallows was mistaken: the human remains discovered under his London house could not be those of Cora.

Working from a sample kept at the museum of the Royal London Hospital Archives, a team of American forensic scientists compared mitochondrial DNA from the remains presented at the trial with samples taken from Cora Crippen’s surviving relatives.

The results were conclusive, said Dr David Foran, the head of forensic science programme at Michigan State University

"That body cannot be Cora Crippen, we're certain of that," he said.

Police found the mutilated remains with no head and no bones. Newspapers at the time described Crippen as

“one of the most dangerous and remarkable men who have lived this century.”

But according to John Trestrail, the toxicologist who led the new research, poisoners rarely inflict external damage on their victims.

“It is so unusual that a poisoner would dismember the victim, because a poisoner attempts to get away with murder without leaving any trace.

“In my database of 1,100 poisoning cases, this is the only one which involves dismemberment,” said Mr Trestrail, who heads the regional poison centre in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The discrepancy prompted him to re-examine the evidence in the Crippen case. Working with a genealogist, Beth Wills, he set about finding Mrs Crippen’s surviving family. After seven years, the team tracked down three distant relatives in California and Puerto Rico.

The challenge then was to find viable DNA from samples presented at the trial. At the archives of the Royal London Hospital, in Whitechapel, researchers found the microscope slide which helped hang Crippen.

In court, a pathologist, Bernard Spilsbury, identified it as an abdominal scar consistent with Cora’s medical history.

Mitochondrial DNA is passed down in the egg from mother to daughter and remains relatively unchanged through generations, but the DNA in the sample was different from the known relatives of Mrs Crippen.

“We took a lot of precautions when doing this testing,” Dr Foran said. “We just didn’t stop. We went back and started from scratch and tested it again.”

The evidence offers no suggestion of who may have been buried in the coal cellar at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Holloway, north London.

But, according to Mr Trestrail, Crippen is innocent of the crime for which he was hanged.

“Two weeks before he was hanged he wrote ‘I am innocent and some day evidence will be found to prove it’. When I read that the hairs stood up on my arms. I think he was right.”

The team concede that they may never discover what happened to Mrs Crippen, but several intriguing clues emerged during the research.

Cora sang on the British stage under the name of Belle Elmore. Ten years after the trial, a singer with a similar name was registered as living with Cora’s sister in New York.

Records show that the same woman entered the US through Ellis Island from Bermuda in 1910 shortly after Mrs Crippen disappeared.

“Are Belle Rose and Cora Crippen one and the same?” asked Mr Trestrail. “We can’t prove any of that - that is another investigation.”

Mr Trestrail believes Crippen should be given a posthumous pardon.

Last night J Patrick Crippen, his closest living relative, told the Guardian:

“Those of us in the family who have ever taken the time to explore the circumstances surrounding the trial, conviction and hanging of Dr Crippen have never been convinced that this was the finest example of English justice.”

In October 2007, Michigan State University forensic scientist David Foran claimed that mitochondrial DNA evidence conclusively showed that the body found beneath the cellar floor in Crippen’s home was not actually Cora Crippen.

This research was based on genealogical identification of three matrilineal relatives of Cora Crippen (great-nieces), whose mtDNA haplotype was compared with DNA extracted from a slide taken from the torso in Crippen’s cellar.

This has raised new questions about Crippen’s guilt and the actual identity of the body found in the cellar.

John Trestrail is a medical man with a vast library of historic true crime books about poisoners. He wrote the FBI’s manual on Criminal Poisoning: Investigational Guide for Law Enforcement, Toxicologists, Forensic Scientists, and Attorneys.