The Crippen Case

When Belle Elmore, a vivacious but unsuccessful music hall artiste, suddenly disappeared in 1910, her friends were puzzled. Her husband, an amiable Michigan-born homeopathic physician named Crippen, who had settled with her in London a few years earlier, assured police that Belle had needed to return to the U.S. to handle urgent family business. As Belle's concerned friends pressed for more information, he told them that he had been informed that his wife had died of pneumonia, and he placed an obituary in a theatrical newspaper. Belle's friends became suspicious when Crippen installed his secretary, Ethel Le Neve, in his household and she began wearing items of Belle's jewellery. Scotland Yard was informed and Crippen readily admitted to Chief Inspector Walter Dew that he had lied about his wife who, he now claimed, had simply deserted him, presumably to join her lover in the U.S.

The initial police inquiries made little headway until Crippen and Le Neve bolted to continental Europe. The Crippen home at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Camden Town, London, was searched thoroughly and human remains were found buried in the cellar. A large-scale hunt for Crippen and his lover ensued and they were found, disguised as a father and son named Robinson, by the captain of the Canadian-bound ship aboard which the couple hoped to make their escape. When the ship landed, Dew was waiting to arrest them.

Crippen's trial became the stuff of legend. Bernard Spilsbury, a pathologist previously unknown to the public, made his reputation by identifying the remains, thanks to a distinguishing scar, as tose of Belle Elmore, but the evidence of Dr. William Willcox, a Home Office scientific advisor, was at least as significant. Willcox explained that the deceased had bee poisoned with hydrobromide of hyoscin, an alkaloid found in plants such as henbane. Crippen had purchased the drug a few months before his wife's death but claimed to have bought it for his patients. He was a purveyor of quack remedies and said that his blood and nerve tonic for obstinate cases of nerve diseases and spasmodic ailments contained hyoscin. His calm and dignified manner in the witness box won him some sympathy, but the prosector's cross-examination was devastating. The jury took only twenty-seven minutes to find the meek little doctor guilty of Belle's murder. Crippen was hanged, but Ethel was acquitted; the consensus at the time was that she knew nothing of Belle's fate.