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Buried in the Basement: The Strange Case of Dr. Crippen

He's one of England's most infamous criminals ... but was he actually guilty?

It was the murder case that sent shockwaves across the Atlantic.

In 1894, Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen married his second wife, a woman by the name of Corinne “Cora” Turner. The pair met in New York, where Dr. Crippen practiced as a homeopath and worked for Munyon’s homeopathic pharmaceutical company.

Cora was a music hall singer who performed under the stage name Belle Elmore. Her lively persona stood in stark contrast to the gentle and bespectacled Dr. Crippen. Cora was also supposedly promiscuous, conducting several open affairs. In 1897, the pair moved to England, where Crippen continued his work with Munyon’s pharmaceuticals.

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  • Cora Crippen.

  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Not long after the move, however, Crippen lost his job—reportedly, for spending too much time managing his wife’s stage career. He found employment as the manager of Drouet’s Institute for the Deaf around 1903, but the pay was a far cry from his prior position. The couple took lodgers to supplement their income, and Cora struck up a romantic relationship with one of the houseguests.

Crippen, meanwhile, had met Ethel Le Neve. Ethel was a secretary at Drouet’s Institute for the Deaf. She soon became Crippen’s mistress, as well as his alleged co-conspirator in the murder of his wife.

Related: John Christie: The Whispering Killer of England

In 1910, after a party at their home, Cora disappeared. Crippen initially claimed that she had returned to the United States, where she subsequently died and was cremated. Meanwhile, Ethel Le Neve moved in with Crippen, and was seen wearing his late wife’s clothes and jewelry.

Crippen’s house was searched by the authorities, and Crippen himself was interviewed, during which time he admitted to Chief Inspector Walter Dew that he made up the story about Cora’s death. He claimed he was humiliated, as Cora had supposedly fled to America with one of her lovers. Authorities initially bought Crippen’s claims. Not long after the interview, however, Crippen and Le Neve boarded a ship called the Montrose bound for Canada. The couple’s hasty departure led the authorities to conduct another, more thorough search of Crippen’s house.

This time around, they found a human torso–missing its head, arms, and legs–entombed under the brick floor of the basement.

Related: Joan Robinson Hill: Was This Woman’s Mysterious Illness Actually Murder? 

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  • The Crippen home at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, where the body was found.

  • Photo Credit: Topical Press Agency / Getty Images

By now, news broke of the murder case. Crippen and Le Neve had boarded the Montrose under assumed identities—with Crippen as the father and Le Neve, disguised as a boy, pretending to be Crippen’s son. The charade failed to convince the ship’s captain, who recognized the fugitives and sent a message via wireless to the authorities. Inspector Dew boarded a faster ship, the SS Laurentic, and successfully beat the Montrose to Canada. He met Dr. Crippen on board as the Montrose entered the St. Lawrence River. When the inspector confronted him, Crippen replied, “Thank God it’s over. The suspense has been too great,” then held out his wrists to be cuffed.

It was the first time in history a suspect had been apprehended with the help of radio technology.

Related: Married to a Murderer: 5 People Who Unknowingly Married a Killer 

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  • Crippen and Le Neve being escorted off of the ship. 

  • Photo Credit: Bettman / Getty

During Crippen’s trial, the defense maintained his story that his wife had fled to America with another man. They pointed out that the prosecution couldn’t even positively identify the gender of the body in Crippen’s basement, let alone determine if it was Cora. One of the key pieces of evidence presented by pathologists on behalf of the prosecution was a piece of skin with what appeared to be abdominal scar tissue, which was consistent with Cora’s medical history. Furthermore, drugs like scopolamine and hyoscine were found in the remains, which Crippen had, in fact, purchased prior to the murder.

Related: A Perfect Murder: the Impossible Death of Isidor Fink

It took the jury only 27 minutes of deliberation to find Crippen guilty of the murder of his wife. He was hanged on November 23, 1910. At Crippen’s request, a photograph of Le Neve was placed in his coffin with him when he was buried.

For her part, Ethel Le Neve was charged only as an accessory after the fact; she moved the United States on the same day that her lover was executed.

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  • Crippen and Le Neve stand trial. 

  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The high profile and transatlantic nature of the crime made Crippen something of a household name. The case inspired stories and novels by the likes of Arthur Machen, Ernest Raymond, and Erik Larson, as well as several film and television adaptations. A waxwork figure of Dr. Crippen even found its way into the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s in London.

Related: The Truth is in the Blood: The Murder of Tabatha Bryant 

Still, there have long been doubts about Crippen’s actual guilt. Crime novelist Raymond Chandler famously commented that it seemed impossible to imagine that Crippen would be so successful at disposing of the head and limbs of his wife, and yet leave her torso under the floor of his own cellar. Furthermore, in 2007, a forensic scientist working at Michigan State University ran DNA tests against a slide containing a sample of flesh taken from the corpse found in Crippen’s cellar. The tests supposedly showed that the remains belonged to a male person, though the veracity of this conclusion has been questioned.

Several people have argued, in the light of this new evidence, that the case should be re-opened and Crippen posthumously pardoned. So far, little progress has been made, leaving the question of Cora’s fate and Crippen’s guilt a mystery.

Feature photo: Wikimedia Commons

Published on 19 Sep 2016

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