Who Was Dr Crippen and What Did He Do?

Who was Dr Crippen? That depends on who you ask. To most, Hawley Crippen is one of Britain’s most infamous murderers. Convicted of killing his wife, Cora, in 1910, his case is remembered not only for its gruesome nature, but for its forensic evidence and the method by which he was caught. And yet, there are those who insist that Crippen was totally innocent. That he was, in fact, the hapless victim of a terrible misscarriage of justice. A gentle man of medicine hanged for a crime he didn’t commit.

Mysteries Mysteries
6 May 2022

At 9am on 23 November 1910, Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen was hanged at Pentonviille Prison, London for the murder of his wife, Cora Crippen.

The evidence against him was damning. The missing wife. The mutilated body in his basement. His attempt to abscond with his mistress and the international manhunt that led to his arrest. So, if it was all so straightforward, where is the mystery? Why is there growing support to re-examine the case? Was Dr Crippen the culprit, or a victim of circumstance?

Please note that this article contains themes which some of our audience may find distressing.

Hawley Harvey Crippen

Vintage Homeopathic Medicine Bag With Pills (Photo: ehrlif via iStock)

Hawley Crippen was born in Coldwater, Michigan on 11 September 1862. Having gained qualifications in both homoeopathy and ocular medicine, Crippen was working in a hospital in Philadelphia when he met his first wife, Charlotte Jane Bell. The pair had a son, Otto.

In 1892, while pregnant with their second child, Charlotte died. Within two years, Crippen had left Otto in the care of his parents, moved to New York and was married once again.

Cora Crippen

Dr Crippen’s second wife had several aliases. Born to a Polish-Russian father and German mother, Cora Crippen was born Kunigunde Mackamotzki. When Crippen met her, she was going by Cora Turner. She did not reveal her real name to him until they were wed. Meanwhile, when she performed as a singer, she was known by the stage name, Belle Elmore.

The couple married in 1894 and moved to London in 1897. The union was not a happy one. Cora was said to be domineering, a heavy drinker and happy to flaunt her frequent infidelity. Eventually, Dr Crippen had also begun an affair.

The Dr Crippen Mystery: A Grim Discovery

Basement Murder (Photo: Svetlana Evgrafova via iStock)

The last time anyone saw Cora alive was on 31 January 1910, when the Crippens threw a dinner party. Once her absence began to be noticed, Dr Crippen’s oft-told story of her moving back to America raised suspicions. However, it wasn’t until July that police made a grim discovery in their marital home.

In the coal cellar lay a torso. It was so badly mutilated that not even its gender was identifiable. By now, Dr Crippen had fled with his mistress, the latter disguised as a boy. The pair were eventually apprehended when a suspicious ship captain sent authorities a wireless telegraph, the first time criminals were known to be caught using this technology.

Was Dr Crippen Innocent?

Guilty? Mallet of the judge, books, scales of justice (Photo: Michał Chodyra via iStock)

Following a five day trial brimming with salacious details and engulfed in a media frenzy, the jury convicted Crippen after just thirty minutes of deliberation. He was hanged at Pentonville Prison, London on 23 November 1910.

However, there has been growing support for the case to be reopened. Crippen’s family and some forensic experts have claimed that the body in the basement wasn’t even Cora, possibly not even female, providing DNA evidence to that effect. Some believe Crippen’s assertion that Cora left him for another man. That he didn’t even know the body was there, and that it was put there by a previous tenant.

A Glimmer of Doubt

Prison and noose (Photo: holwichaikawee via iStock)

Was the body in the basement Cora Crippen? Or had she run away with her lover, leaving her husband to hang for her murder? Is it possible that one of Britain’s most infamous murderers wasn’t a killer after all? Was Dr Crippen innocent? At the time of writing, all calls to reopen the case have been rejected. But to some, there will always be a glimmer of doubt over the guilt or innocence of the infamous Hawley Harvey Crippen.

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