Was Dr. Crippen Innocent After All? New Forensic Evidence 100 Years After his Execution

PoisonThe past few decades have seen amazing advances in forensic science that are instrumental in analyzing DNA evidence to put perpetrators of crimes behind bars and exonerate people convicted of crimes that they did not commit. [Read William Dillon’s story of wrongful conviction].

Unfortunately for some people, these techniques were developed too late. One of those people was Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, who was accused and convicted of killing his wife Cora in 1910 using the forensic techniques available at the time. Until the very day of his execution, Dr. Crippen insisted that he was innocent, and now there is strong DNA evidence to support his claim. Recently, forensic scientists from Michigan State University analyzed DNA evidence in this case and published their results in the Journal of Forensic Science (1): The human remains that were so instrumental in Dr. Crippen’s conviction were not those of his wife.

The mild-mannered, hard-working Hawley Crippen married Cora (nee Turner) in 1892 in New Jersey and in 1900 moved to London, England, where he took a job at the Munyon Homeopathic Home Remedy Company. The flirtatious and often brash Cora was an aspiring theatrical performer and opera singer. There were many signs that the couple was not well matched and the marriage was not a happy one. Dr. Crippen had an ongoing affair with his office secretary, Ethel LeNeve, an intelligent, demure English woman. Cora was suspected of romantic relationships with several other men. So, when Cora Crippen was reported missing by her friends in February of 1910, her husband was a prime suspect. When questioned by investigators from the New Scotland Yard, Dr. Crippen explained his wife’s absence by relating an argument that he had with her on the night she was last seen alive and during which she said she was leaving him. Dr. Crippen believed that she had done just that: run off with another man.

However, Dr. Crippen’s behavior shortly after Cora’s disappearance might seem suspicious to some. He sold many of his wife’s possessions, and he and his mistress were regularly seen together in public, with Miss LeNeve often wearing Cora’s remaining jewelry and clothes. One day after the initial New Scotland Yard interrogation, the couple left London and traveled to Belgium with plans to go to Canada.

Soon thereafter, investigators discovered the Crippen’s home empty and searched the residence. Beneath some floor bricks in the coal cellar, they found an incomplete set of human remains, consisting mostly of internal organs but no head, limbs, bones or reproductive organs. Buried with the remains were some female clothing, a man’s pajama tops and bleached blond hair in curlers. Investigators assumed that the remains were those of Cora and issued a global alert to apprehend Dr. Crippen and his mistress.

The gruesome nature of the remains and the couple’s apparent attempt to flee made the story a media sensation, and the murderous tale and subsequent trial captivated audiences on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. With wireless communication, news of Cora’s disappearance and the discovery of human remains spread quickly. While in Belguim, Dr. Crippen learned of the alert and changed their travel plans to book an earlier steamship to Canada. However, the observant captain of the steamship recognized Dr. Crippen and his companion, even though LeNeve was disguised as a boy, and notified the lead investigator, who boarded a faster ship and arrived in Canada a day before the couple. Dr. Crippen and LeNeve were arrested for murder and returned to London for trial.

During the trial, the evidence seemed to support the hypothesis that Dr. Crippen had killed his wife. Toxicological analysis of the remains revealed a lethal dose of hyoscine hydrobromide (scopolamine), a drug that Dr. Crippen used in his homeopathic medicines. Identification of the remains was complicated by the fact that the most informative tissues were absent. However, pathologist Bernard Spilsbury testified that a scar found on the remains was consistent with an abdominal surgery scar that Cora was said to have. Finally, a date on the label of the pajama tops suggested that the garment was buried after the Crippens had moved into the home. The trial lasted only five days, and the jury deliberated for only 27 minutes before returning a verdict of guilty on October 22, 1910. On November 23, Hawley Crippen was hanged.

Now, a century later and armed with more advanced forensic technology, researchers at Michigan State University revisited the evidence in Dr. Crippen’s murder trial. They were able to procure one of Dr. Spilsbury’s histological slides of tissue found in the coal cellar, isolate DNA and perform DNA testing. Researchers analyzed mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is inherited through the maternal lineage only, of three of Cora’s maternal relatives. These three relatives had identical mtDNA haplotypes that differed from the Cambridge Reference Sequence at seven positions. The haplotype was unique in the FBI database, suggesting that the haplotype that Cora shared with these relatives is not a common one. Despite difficulties isolating and amplifying mtDNA from the remains, researchers were able to determine that mtDNA sequences of Cora and the remains differed at a minimum of five sites. Thus, the remains were not those of Cora Crippen.

Researchers also performed DNA testing to determine gender. When amplification of Amelogenin, the locus normally used for gender assignment, was unsuccessful, they turned to the Y-chromosome-specific DYZ1 locus. Surprisingly, researchers were able to amplify DYZ1, a result consistent with a male gender—further evidence that the remains were not those of Cora Crippen.

With this new evidence, it appears that Dr. Crippen did not murder his wife, and his statement before his execution that “some day evidence will be discovered to prove [my innocence]” was true. Unfortunately, the truth was revealed much too late.

Reference
1. Foran, D.R. et al. (2011). The conviction of Dr. Crippen: New forensic findings in a century-old murder. J. Forensic Sci. 56, 233–40. PMID: 20735704.

The following two tabs change content below.

Terri Sundquist

Terri has worked as a Scientific Communications Specialist at Promega Corporation for more than 13 years, and prior to that, spent more than 5 years solving problems and answering questions as a Promega Technical Services Scientist. She graduated with B.S. degrees in Chemistry and Biology at the University of Wisconsin—River Falls, then earned her M.S. in Molecular Biology from the Mayo Graduate School in Rochester Minnesota.

17 thoughts on “Was Dr. Crippen Innocent After All? New Forensic Evidence 100 Years After his Execution

  1. Terri,

    I read Eric Larson’s Thunderstruck, so this blog entry is fascinating in light of reading that story, which highlighted the use of the latest “wireless” technology to catch Crippen, now we highlight the use of the latest forensic technology to exonerate him of the murder of this wife, albeit too late.

    One question bothers me though: If those weren’t the remains of his wife, who were they the remains of? And, how did they get there?

    Michele

  2. Hi Terri,

    On the heels of Michele’s questions, I wonder what happened to Cora Crippen? Did she truly leave with a man as she told her husband or did something happen to her?

    Excellent and intriguing post,

    Sara

  3. The fact the remains in the cellar were not Cora in no way exonerates the Dr. He may well have mudered her and disposed of the body in some other (more effective) way. If Cora was alive, why didn’t she come forward during the well-publicized trial? Were the male remains in the cellar those of Cora’s lover?

  4. These are all good questions, and unfortunately, the new forensic evidence cannnot help answer most of them. However, if this new forensic evidence had been presented during Dr. Crippen’s trial, I suspect that the outcome (i.e., the guilty verdict) would have been quite different. If the police had known that the remains were not those of Cora, the next logical question was: Was Dr. Crippen guilty of murdering someone else and hiding the remains in the coal cellar? In hindsight, the evidence seems to support that scenario, but investigators never got the chance to pursue that possibility.
    As John points out, this new evidence does not rule out the possibility that Dr. Crippen killed his wife. It is suspicious that Cora never appeared during or after the trial; with all of the media attention, the trial would have been a perfect way for an aspiring performer to get her 15 minutes of fame.
    One thing is for certain: The evidence used to convict Dr. Crippen was not what it appeared.

  5. Although I agree that the body in the coal cellar may not have been Crippen’s wife, this does not mean he didn’t kill her. Rather it only means reasonable doubt exists inasmuch as the evidence which was brought to bear in the case didn’t prove it. My instinct tells me he probably had a prior victim. Certainly that’s as plausible as the police planting evidence. Moreover, his wife never came forward nor did anyone in her family have pangs of guilt about an innocent man going to the gallows. This is very improbable. Verdict: Crippen was most likely a serial killer. The “smile” which the hangmen refers to was probablly his wry amusement at the fact that he was being hung for the wrong crime. Crippen fled the scene. Why? Cora never revealed herself. Why? Another body was found in the basement? Thus begging the question of some of Crippen’s other extracurricular activities.

  6. Why did he flee the country immediately after the visit by the police – thats not a hanging offence but it looks very suspicious – His wife also seems to have vanished off the face of the earth if she had not been killed. – And finally, we are talking about a metropolitan Police investigation here, a highly competent and honest Police force of the highest integrity – as the recent Murdoch enquiry has revealed!!

  7. Colin
    With respect Terri but do you have anything new viz. the stuff published in 2007 re. the forensics behind claims of HHC innocence? There seems little or no difference to that which was in the public domain three/four years ago (forgive me if I’m wrong). A good case to focus on if like me you happen to believe that one of the strongest ANTI-death pen. arguments (though still one of the less often heard) is that ‘death juries’ may surely tend to ACQUIT where arguably negligible doubt exists (as in the recent Casey Anthony case in the US?) HHC guilty imho, but if I knew I might be sharing responsibility for his hanging? Mmm.

  8. To k.Ajay kumar, your comment isn’t showing up here for some reason, so I’ll paste it here and respond to it:

    “good evg sir. please can you tell me sir what is the eligebulity of ferensic study.”

    I recommend that you identify which forensic program you are interested in. Different programs often have different requirements for enrollment. More advanced programs may require some level of previous science education (e.g., a 2-year or 4-year degree in biology, genetics or a similar field). Due to increased interest in forensic studies, there are a lot of institutes that offer programs in forensic science. I recommend that you do an online search for accredited forensic education programs in your area or contact your local university or college; they might offer a program in forensic science or might be able to point you in the right direction.

  9. Just wanted to point out that Crippen received a letter that was signed by Cora while he was in prison. He was never given the letter. But in it, the writer says that Cora had gone to America to live with her lover (Bruce) and that she had no intention of coming forward to save him. Apparently, the letter is with the rest of the evidence at Scotland Yard.

  10. Very interesting point, Jeremy. The letter certainly would be strong evidence that Dr. Crippen did not kill his wife. It makes you wonder why this letter was never given into evidence or why the police never tried to contact Cora, especially if the letter was received while Dr. Crippen was still alive.

  11. I highly recommend watching this documentary as it explains it all in great detail including the letter: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/features/executed-in-error/hawley-crippen/199/

    Briefly from the above link:

    Dr. Foran’s team, working in his forensic biology lab at Michigan State University, compared the DNA from the 100-year-old tissue to modern DNA from relatives of Cora that Wills has managed to track down. Expecting to confirm that the body was Cora’s, the team instead found that the DNA doesn’t match, and even more startlingly, that the body parts were not even female—they were from a male victim.

    With convincing evidence that the body did not belong to Cora, Trestrail began to dig deeper into the police and court archives, slowly unraveling a series of suppressed documents. Among the noted evidence is a letter to Crippen from Cora, in which she claims she is living in America and has no plans to save him from execution. The letter was deemed a hoax by investigators, but was never even shown to Crippen or his lawyers. Could the police have tampered with the evidence used in trial?

    With all the new findings, James Patrick Crippen, the closest living male relative of Crippen, is now formally requesting that the British government pardon the doctor and return his bones to America.

    Before he was executed, Crippen wrote an eerily prophetic letter to Ethel Le Neve. In it, he said, “Face to face with God, I believe that facts will be forthcoming to prove my innocence.” Modern forensic science has now fulfilled his prophecy.

  12. so the body wasn’t Cora’s – BUT DO THAT RETRACT FROM THE FACT THAT HE STILL HAD A BODY IN HIS HOUSE!

  13. good points but it does not change the face thaT HE HAD A BODY OF SOME ONE IN HIS CELLLER ……… WE DONT NO AND WILL NOT KNOW TILL THIS DAY ..

  14. I used to think Crippen was a murderer, and not a very clever one; he made too many amateurish blunders such as not disposing all of the body. Now I’m not so sure.

Leave a Reply