Wireless Telegraph Helps Police Track Fugitives

(Reprinted from the November 1993 issue Old News,
published by Susquehanna Times & Magazine, Inc.)

In 1905 an American couple, Dr. and Mrs. Harvey Hawley Crippen, moved into a suburb of North London, England. They took a lease on a semi-detached house at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, in a quiet middle-class neighborhood.

Dr. Crippen was a meek-looking man in his middle forties. He was short, with a bald head, a large bushy mustache, and gold-rimmed spectacles. He made his living promoting patent medicines. The neighbors often saw him puttering about the yard in his shirt-sleeves, pruning the shrubs and mending the fence under the direction of his wife.

His wife, Cora Crippen, was a plump, vigorous lady of thirty, with a loud voice, dyed-blonde hair and a commanding manner. One of her friends, Mrs. Adeline Harrison, described Cora Crippen as "a brilliant, chattering bird of gorgeous plumage. She seemed to overflow the room with her personality. Her bright, dark eyes were twinkling with the joy of life. Her vivacious rounded face was radiant with smiles."
Mrs. Crippen aspired to be a vaudeville singer, but her voice was not quite good enough to meet professional standards. She maintained a connection with the theater by doing volunteer work on behalf of the Music Hall Ladies Guild, which raised money for widows and orphans. As treasurer of the London chapter of the Guild, she made friends with famous stars of the stage.

Even her best friends admitted that Cora Crippen nagged her husband unmercifully. She obliged him to do endless chores around the house, and she badgered him to supply her with a steady stream of new furs and diamonds. But no matter how many expensive gifts Dr. Crippen bought his wife, she never ceased insulting and criticizing him, although "she would babble to her diamonds and kiss them," Mrs. Harrison observed.
Cora Crippen decorated her house with pink wallpaper, pink lampshades, and pink velvet ribbons on the corners of the paintings that hung on the walls. She also selected the clothes that Dr. Crippen wore, which were rather flashy for a man in his profession. The doctor seemed to have no tastes of his own, according to Mrs. Harrison: "His wife would discuss the color of his trousers with the tailor, while he stood aside looking on, without venturing an opinion."

The last time that any of her friends saw Mrs. Crippen alive was on January 31, 1910. On that Monday evening Paul Martinetti, a professional mime, and his wife Clara, a member of the Music Hall Ladies Guild, visited the Crippens at 39 Hilldrop Crescent. The weather was cold that night. As the Martinettis were leaving the house, Cora Crippen began to escort them down the steps, but Clara Martinetti waved her back indoors.
"Don't come out, " Mrs Martinetti said. "You'll catch your death."

A few days later Dr. Crippen canceled his wife's subscriptions to two theatrical weeklies, The Stage and The Era. He explained that his wife had gone home to America and would not be returning for a few months.

On February 3, officers of the Music Hall Ladies Guild received letters from Cora Crippen, stating that she was going to California to visit a relative who was ill. Oddly, the letters were not in Cora Crippen's handwriting.

About a week later, a member of the Music Hall Ladies Guild passed Dr. Crippen on the street. The doctor was strolling with his slim, attractive, twenty-seven-year-old secretary, Miss Ethel Le Neve. The Guild member was shocked to see that Miss Le Neve was wearing a diamond necklace and a fur coat that belonged to Cora Crippen.

In mid-March Miss Le Neve moved into Dr. Crippen's house. At about the same time, Dr. Crippen sent out black edged cards stating that his wife had died suddenly of pneumonia in California.

The women of the Music Hall Ladies Guild, wishing to send flowers to Cora Crippen's grave, asked Dr. Crippen where in California his wife had been buried. He replied that she had been cremated, and her ashes were being shipped to his home at 39 Hilldrop Crescent. "Send the flowers to me," he suggested. The Guild ladies, who knew that Cora Crippen had been opposed to cremation for religious reasons, began to suspect that Dr. Crippen was lying.

On March 31, Mrs. Louise Smythson, a member of the Music Hall Ladies Guild, went to Scotland Yard to ask that the police investigate Dr. Crippen. Mrs. Smythson suspected that the doctor might have murdered his wife. Chief Inspector Walter Dew listened patiently to Mrs. Smythson, then pointed out to her that she had no evidence to support her suspicion that Mrs. Crippen had met with foul play. Inspector Dew said that the police could take no action.

Three months later, on June 30, 1910, Mrs. John Nash of the Music Hall Ladies Guild, accompanied by her husband, went to Scotland Yard to demand that the police investigate Dr. Crippen. Mrs. Nash recounted various conflicting stories that Dr. Crippen had told about the location and circumstances of his wife's death. Obviously, the doctor was lying, she said. Her husband nodded in agreement.

Inspector Dew remained doubtful, but he decided to investigate the complaint. On Friday, July 8, 1910, Inspector Dew and Detective-Sergeant Arthur Mitchell knocked on Dr. Crippen's door at 39 Hilldrop Crescent.

Ethel Le Neve answered the knock. She said that the doctor had gone to his office in Albion House, New Oxford Street, in the West End of London. Showing little sign of guilt or fear, she accompanied the two policemen to the doctor's office.

There Inspector Dew told Dr. Crippen, "We have called to have a word with you about the death of your wife."

Crippen looked abashed. He said, "I suppose I had better tell you the truth."
Dew said that this was the best course of action.

Crippen said, "The stories I have told about my wife's death are untrue. As far as I know she is still alive."

Crippen said that he had invented the story of his wife's death to cover up the shameful fact that he was a cuckold. To the best of his knowledge his wife had run off to Chicago with an American musician named Bruce Miller. Dr. Crippen described his wife's lover as a big, rugged-looking man, a former prizefighter from Chicago, who now earned his living on the vaudeville stage by simultaneously playing banjo, harmonica, and drums. "She told me that she had got very fond of him, and that she did not care for me any more," Dr. Crippen said.

Inspector Dew got the impression that Dr. Crippen was telling the truth. He felt sorry for the doctor. "There was something likable about the mild little fellow who squinted through thick-lensed spectacles and whose sandy mustache was out of all proportion to his build," the detective later recalled.

Crippen admitted that he was in love with Miss Le Neve. He confessed that, to persuade Miss Le Neve to move into his house, he had lied to her, pretending that his wife was dead. "I am not going to maintain that my conduct has been proper," Dr. Crippen said, "but I do feel entitled to some happiness in my life."

Inspector Dew nodded and said, "I think that is satisfactory. But I have to find Mrs. Crippen to clear up the matter."

Inspector Dew liked Dr. Crippen so well that he accompanied him to lunch. "We went to a small Italian restaurant," the detective recalled. "Crippen made a hearty meal. He ordered beefsteak and ate it with the relish of a man who hadn't a care in the world."
The two policemen then accompanied Dr. Crippen and Miss Le Neve to 39 Hilldrop Crescent, where Inspector Dew made a search of the house and yard. The inspector examined many drawers and cupboards, and looked through piles of Cora Crippen's clothing. He noticed that Cora had left behind many expensive furs and large hats with "enough ostrich feathers to start a millinery shop." He thought it odd that a woman would fail to pack her best clothes when abandoning her husband, but he saw nothing else that aroused his suspicions.

At the conclusion of his search on July 8, 1910, Inspector Dew felt confident that Dr. Crippen had told him the truth about his wife's disappearance. When the inspector returned to Scotland Yard that afternoon, he was ready to drop the investigation.
That weekend, however, Dew was nagged by the problem of Mrs. Crippen's furs and hats. On Monday morning, July 11, he decided to drop by Dr. Crippen's office to ask a few final questions.

He found that the doctor and his secretary had failed to come to work that morning. A handyman said that Crippen had visited the office Saturday morning, and had sent out to a store for a selection of boy's clothing.

Muttering a curse, Inspector Dew hurried to 39 Hilldrop Crescent. He found nobody at home.

Dew now suspected that Dr. Crippen had indeed murdered his wife. Apparently Crippen and his mistress, panicked by the police investigation, had gone into hiding. Inspector Dew guessed that Dr. Crippen would now flee to his native America, taking Miss Le Neve with him. Dew expected that Miss Le Neve would disguise herself in the boy's clothing that Dr. Crippen had purchased on Saturday.

To prove that Crippen had murdered his wife, Inspector Dew set about searching for her corpse. He found a spade and started digging up the vegetable garden in the back yard. With the help of Sergeant Mitchell he destroyed the whole garden, but found nothing.

The next day Inspector Dew and Sergeant Mitchell dug up the flower beds and the lawn, but found no corpse. They examined each of the nine rooms in the house, and ran their hands along the rafters in the attic. Inspector Dew discovered a six-shooter in Dr. Crippen's dresser, but he attached no importance to this find because Dr. Crippen was a Yankee.

"There was one place in the house which had a peculiar fascination for me," Dew wrote. "This was the coal cellar. Even in bed, what little I got of it in those hectic days, I couldn't keep my mind from going back to the cellar."

The cellar was an unlighted room measuring 6 by 9 feet. It contained nothing but a pile of coal and some kindling. The floor was brick.

On Wednesday, July 13, Dew returned to the cellar. Getting down on his hands and knees, he began probing its brick floor with a poker.

"Presently a thrill of excitement went through me," Dew wrote. "The sharp point of the poker had found its way between two of the bricks, and one of them showed signs of lifting…I toiled away hopefully, all sense of fatigue vanishing in the excitement of hope. The brick came out. Then another and another."



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