By: Dave McDonald, BCHS – President
In a past article appearing on the front page of our local newspaper we read of the ongoing Crippen family struggle to vindicate Hawley Harvey Crippen of the murder and mutilation of his 2nd wife, Belle Elmore. A notorious murder mystery in the UK approaching the caliber of “Jack the Ripper”.
Born in Branch County to Coldwater residences, Myron A Crippen and wife, Andresse Skinner, in 1862, Hawley was an only child. He was raised in the Crippen home at the corner of Monroe and Grand Streets (insert), now the site of Century Bank & Trust’s auto bank and the Coldwater City Offices.
If you were to envision a character as a murderer capable of poisoning, filleting and burying their spouse, it would not include the likes of the quiet 5’3” Hawley Crippen. But that made for the fascination of the story. A cruel brutal crime coming from such a small demure person.
Completing his studies at the University of Michigan, he gained his medical degree at the Homoeopathic Hospital of Cleveland, Ohio before practicing his trade in New York. Marrying an Irish immigrant, Hawley was widowed in his early twenties. Then he met the gregarious Bell Elmore (Cora Turner).
Hawley courted and married the attractive and extraverted 19 year old want-to-be stage performer. Times were comfortable for a while, but Homoeopathic medicine came to an unceremonious ending and Crippen found himself in the patented medicine business. In 1897, Hawley was sent to London, England to open a new office. After several months of single life freedom, Belle finally followed Hawley to England. The stage was now set for one of the UK’s most infamous murder mysteries.
Enter the next key character, Hawley’s London office secretary, Ethel Le Neve. The exact opposite of Cora Turner, Ethel was a quiet young lady who asked no favors, and listened to his life events without judgment. Hawley had found his soul mate. Cora, in the meantime, was now secretary of the Ladies’ Music Hall Guild and a close friend to many of the male performers passing through the theaters.
On February 1, 1910 Cora held her last dinner with friends at their Hilldrop Crescent home. Never to be seen again, her lady friends went on a campaign to involve Scotland Yards in the search for their missing friend.
Scotland Yards Chief Inspector, William Dew, was assigned the case and contacted Cora’s friends. This led to an interview with her husband, Hawley Crippen. Hawley explained that he had not contacted anyone of her absence because of embarrassment over Cora running away with a boyfriend to the U.S. The Inspector was so taken with Hawley’s sad tale that they followed the interview with dinner.
When Chief Inspector Dew returned a few days later with more questions, he found that Hawley and Ethel had run. Immediate inspection of the house revealed human remains under the cellar floor, and the manhunt was on for Hawley Crippen.
For a getaway disguise Ethel cut her hair short and dressed as a boy. They boarded a ship leaving England for Canada. Unfortunately the ship’s captain recognized the couple and used a new tool, the Marconi wireless radio, to notify Scotland Yard. They were arrested before the ship docked. The first wireless radio crime-stopper!
Hawley denied the murder to his last moment. He created an alibi for Ethel as best he could. He lived to see her acquitted; going to the gallows knowing that she would not suffer the same fate.
Today, the forensic evidence that condemned Crippen to the gallows has provided the DNA material that is challenging the court’s conviction. MSU forensic expert, David Foram, has completed DNA studies and found the original Scotland Yard evidence to be that of a man. Led by John Trestrail, the team also tracked down females from Cora Turner’s family. This has provided further challenge to the court’s historic conclusions.
While the new technology may support his innocence, it is of little consequence to Hawley Crippen. His story and wax likeness are now merely entertainment in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors. He remains a very unique character in the archives of Branch County history.
For an interesting read on Hawley Crippen, see Tom Cullen’s book, ‘The Mild Murderer’.