Dr Crippen and wireless telegraphy
On July 22 1910, a telegraph was sent alerting the police to the location of Dr Crippen, marking the first use of wireless telegraphy in the arrest of criminals.
The case of Hawley Harvey Crippen, born in 1862 in Coldwater, Michigan, is one of the best known in British criminal history.
‘Mention the name Dr Crippen, even after 108 years, and one conjures up an image of murder most foul. Strange in some ways that the case still exerts a macabre fascination because he had killed only one person, his wife, and many men have done that without being remembered a century later.
‘Perhaps it was because of the unique circumstances of his arrest – as the result of a radio message from the liner on which he was fleeing to Canada with his heavily disguised mistress. Perhaps it was because he was a doctor (albeit one not qualified to practise in England) but took a life. Maybe it was because he was portrayed as a monster (“Wanted for Murder and Mutilation”) but was a mild, meek man. Or could it be because of the romance of his ill-fated affair?, John Vincent yorkshirepost.co.uk
The story so far
On June 30, 1910, Scotland Yard detectives were told of the mysterious disappearance of Cora, the wife of ‘Doctor’ Hawley Harvey Crippen of North London.
Crippen’s typist, Miss Ethel Le Neve, had since been seen wearing one of Cora’s brooches. Crippen told police that Cora had run off with another man, but the next day he and Ethel disappeared. Police searched his Camden Town house and found Cora’s remains buried under the floor.
‘Overtly the Crippens’ marriage was happy. In reality Belle Elmore was a tipsy, plump, and unfaithful shrew with inordinate vanity and a miserly streak; her docile and submissive husband chafed at her dominion.
‘On Monday 31 January 1910 two friends of Belle’s dined with the Crippens before leaving Hilldrop Crescent at 1.30 a.m. Belle Elmore was never seen again. Crippen said she had gone to America for a few months. In February Ethel was seen wearing a piece of Belle’s jewellery. In March Crippen moved her into Hilldrop Crescent and gave out that Belle had died in California. He proved evasive about details, and the Music Hall Ladies’ Guild suspected foul play. They established that no Belle Elmore or Cora Crippen had crossed the Atlantic or died in California.’ Martin Fido
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
The runaway lovers bought boy’s clothes for Ethel and journied on to Brussels. On 20 July they sailed from Antwerp to Montreal on the Montrose, with Crippen and Ethel posing as John Philo Robinson, and his sixteen-year-old son.
Henry George Kendall is not a household name today, but there was a time when, as Master of the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company’s SS Montrose, he was instrumental in capturing the pair.
It was shortly after the Montrose left the Belgian port of Antwerp that Henry Kendall noticed that two of his passengers, a father and son, were behaving oddly. The pair walked the deck affectionately hand in hand, and as Kendall observed them further, he became convinced that the boy was in fact a woman and that the father was a wanted man whose photograph he had seen in the newspaper.
The SS Montrose is noted in Lloyd’s register as being equipped with wireless, a marvelous bit of technology Guglielmo Marconi had introduced to the world around 13 years earlier. This machine was capable of transmitting Morse code messages over radio waves and this proved crucial. Kendall instructed the ship’s Marconi telegraph operator to send the following message to Mr Piers, the Canadian Pacific’s Managing Director at Liverpool:
3 PM GMT Friday 130 miles West Lizard
have strong suspicions that Crippen London cellar murderer and accomplice are amongst saloon passengers moustache taken off growing beard accomplice dressed as boy voice manner and build undoubtedly a girl both travelling as Mr and master Robinson……………..Kendall
The Canadian Pacific passed this information on to the police and the press.
In the meantime, though, there was still a week left of the SS Montrose’s transatlantic journey. Captain Kendall was eager not to betray his knowledge of the murder suspects to them, or the other passengers. But he had no qualms about sharing the gossip with the media.
He began using the wireless telegraph to send messages to the Montreal Star newspaper, which printed them for the public to read. The details of the wireless missives ranged from the suspense-inducing (“Dr. Crippen has no suspicion that his identity is suspected”) to the mundane (“Miss Le Neve refrains from talking. The pair have no baggage.”) Ella Morton
Chief Inspector Walter Dew
A faster ship, the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company’s Laurentic, was soon due to leave from Liverpool and was scheduled to overtake the Montrose and reach Canada first. Chief Inspector Walter Dew of Scotland Yard boarded the Laurentic and began the voyage across the Atlantic.
The public avidly followed the chase via newspaper headlines as the Chief Inspector crossed the Atlantic and overtook the Montrose about mid way.
After docking at Quebec on a sweltering summer’s day, he waited for Dr Crippen and Ethel to arrive.
Near Father Point, Quebec on 31 July, disguised as a pilot, Dew boarded the Montrose with Canadian police and arrested Crippen and Ethel. The Chief Inspector later commented that:
‘Old Crippen took it quite well. He always was a bit of a philosopher, though he could not have helped being astounded to see me on board the boat. He was quite a likeable chap in his way.’
After three weeks in Canada sorting out the extradition papers, Dew returned to England with his quarry aboard the Megantic.
‘As it happened, Crippen and his companion, Miss Ethel Le Neve, showed no desire to postpone our departure and waived their extradition rights.’
The newspapers said he had “effected the most sensational criminal capture of the century”.
Dew retired from active duty three weeks before Crippen was executed. Many believe he built up a friendly rapport with Dr Crippen and quit out of sympathy to the prisoner, swearing again he never wanted to play a role in such a human tragedy. Argus
He retired to Worthing and lived at the Wee Hoose, 10 Beaumont Road, until his death in 1947 and was buried in Durrington Cemetery.
This marked a water shed moment in the history of policing and crime fighting. The first time a criminal was apprehended as a direct result of wireless telegraphy.
Bizarrely new evidence may exonerate Crippen
‘Modern CSI methods have been used to prove Dr Hawley Crippen – who gained a reputation as one of the most notorious murderers in British history – did not kill his wife.’
Patrick Crippen, his closest living relative, said last year: ‘It is a celebrated horror case but the prosecution was entirely wrong.
‘The DNA evidence and a longer, more sober look at the facts reveals this is a gross miscarriage of justice.’
On June 7, 2009, The Observer reported that,
‘The case of one of the most notorious murderers in British history, Hawley Crippen, is to be referred to the Court of Appeal, where the infamous doctor may secure a posthumous pardon 99 years after he was hanged.”
An examination of tissue from the body found in Crippen’s cellar has been compared with the DNA of Belle Elmore’s relatives. The samples don’t match.
Further, tests carried out by Professor David Foran, director of forensic science at Michigan State University show the corpse to be that of a man.’ Rupert taylor
The conviction of Dr. Crippen: new forensic findings in a century-old murder.
Foran DR1, Wills BE, Kiley BM, Jackson CB, Trestrail JH 3rd.
‘ Dr. Hawley Crippen was accused and convicted of murdering his wife in London in 1910. Key to the conviction was microscopic analysis of remains found in the Crippen’s coal cellar, which were identified as Cora Crippen based on a scar she was said to have. Based on the genealogical and mitochondrial DNA research, the tissue on the pathology slide used to convict Dr. Crippen was not that of Cora Crippen. Moreover, that tissue was male in origin.’
Note: These findings along with the science are contested.
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. In it, he said,
“Face to face with God, I believe that facts will be forthcoming to prove my innocence.”
Caught and convicted by old technology, he may be exonerated by the new.
John Vincent, yorkshirepost.co.uk
Martin Fido, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Henry Kendall’s Extra Master’s Certificate and the capture of Dr Crippen, Royal Museums GreenwichThe
Ella Morton, Modern Manhunt Began With An Arrest by Wireless Telegraph