Will the Devil’s advocate get a pardon for Crippen?
The notorious Dr Hawley Crippin
After a DNA investigation, the last surviving relative of Holloway murderer Dr Hawley Crippen is fighting to clear his name, writes Laura Mitchison
THE lawyer nicknamed “the Devil’s advocate” has been enlisted to win a pardon for one of the world’s most infamous murderers, Doctor Hawley Crippen, and, extraordinarily, the coming year may see the century-old case back in the UK courts.
Raucous music halls, a crime of passion, disguise and suspense: Crippen’s story has all the hallmarks of an Edwardian thriller. The Holloway doctor sent to the gallows in 1910 for poisoning and dismembering his wife captured the Gothic imagination of generations to come.
But, following genetic research released in the autumn, a controversial Italian lawyer has called upon the Home Office to pardon him.
“It won’t do Dr Crippen any good, but it’s important that justice not only be done, it must be seen to be done,” says Giovanni di Stefano, who filed the pardon application as a favour to Patrick Crippen, the doctor’s last surviving relative.
As legend has it, Crippen longed to dispose of his shrewish showgirl wife, Cora, after falling in love with his secretary Ethel de Neve. Emboldened by Cora’s threats to elope with a former prize-fighter, taking half his life-savings with her, Crippen laced one of her many evening tipples with hyoscine – a dangerous sedative.
Crippen dropped his wife’s severed head into the Thames inside one of her sequined handbags, the story goes, then dissolved her limbs and organs in acid. The police found only a mutilated torso under the basement steps of his home at 39 Hilldrop Crescent.
Nearly a century later, an American research team has applied pioneering forensic analysis to those remains.
“We don’t know who that body was or how it got there, but it does not belong to Cora Crippen. We are certain of that,” says David Foran, director of the forensic laboratory at Michigan State University.
Mr Foran’s research partner, toxicologist John Trestrail, has been fascinated by Crippen’s grisly legacy for more than 30 years. “It is so unusual for a poisoner to dismember the victim, because they hope no one recognises it as a murder,” he says. “They want to sneak away with a natural death certificate.”
The anomaly prompted him to re-examine the evidence.
“There is nothing like this in the 1,100-odd cases I’ve studied. It’s the only one where the victim was unrecognisable due to mutilation,” says Dr Trestrail.
Crippen himself was a Michigan man, born into an abstemious Protestant family in the industrial town of Coldwater. He travelled the US as a homeopathic practitioner before moving to Hilldrop Crescent, Holloway, with his wife Cora in 1905.
Doctor in name only (his qualifications did not allow him to practise in England), Crippen scraped a meagre living as a purveyor of quack medicines and toothache remedies. Meanwhile Cora, who once dreamed of gracing the Covent Garden stage as an opera singer, secured employment at the less illustrious music halls.
The Crippens’ strained relations were no secret. Geoffrey Howes, in his chronicle North London Murderers, relates how Cora snarled at the doctor in public, spent his money on frilly costumes, and reserved the marital bed for theatre luvvies and German lodgers. For his part, Crippen sought consolation in the arms of his mistress, de Neve.
In late January 1910 Cora disappeared. Unnerved by police enquiries, the adulterous couple fled England in flimsy disguises – Ethel dressed as an adolescent boy and Crippen denuded of his sandy moustache.
As they boarded a steamer bound for Canada under the assumed names of Mr Robinson and son, a bag of skin and bone was discovered in the basement of the house.
The ship’s captain was not convinced by busty Master Robinson, whom Crippen could not refrain from fondling above deck, and duly alerted the British police by telegram that the murderer and his accomplice were aboard.
Crippen has the dubious honour of being the first suspect apprehended with the help of Marconi’s newly invented wireless telegram.
Scotland Yard made arrangements to travel to Quebec by a faster ship, intercepting the fugitives before they reached dry land.
At Crippen’s trial, the victim was identified by a piece of skin with an abdominal scar consistent with Cora’s medical history. (The court pathologist Bernard Spilsbury allegedly produced this damning evidence in a soup bowl.) After just 27 minutes’ deliberation by the jurors, the accused was convicted and sentenced to death.
Patrick Crippen, Hawley’s distant cousin, always distrusted the jury’s verdict.
“The publicity hype was so intense that finding an unbiased juror was almost impossible, and the trial itself was a circus,” he says.
Now Patrick has firm scientific grounds for scepticism. Working from samples housed at the Royal London Hospital archives, the Michigan team compared mitochondrial DNA from the remains presented at the trial with samples taken from Cora’s descendents, painstakingly traced by genealogist Beth Wills over a seven-year period.
“Unlike regular DNA, mitochondrial DNA remains almost unchanged across generations and is easier to retrieve,” says Dr Foran.
“We found that the three grandnieces of Cora Crippen shared a certain mitochondrial DNA type as expected. But the DNA from the Royal London hospital slides was definitely different. We know that the remains Spilsbury worked on were not Cora’s.”
Tests were repeated several times to ensure the researchers’ own DNA did not interfere with results.
However, the identity of the basement body remains a mystery, prompting speculation from Dr Trestrail that Crippen may have moonlighted as a backstreet abortionist. Dr Trestrail is also on the lookout for a genealogist to discover Cora Crippen’s fate, after Beth Wills unearthed intriguing clues in the 1920 US census.
Meanwhile, Patrick Crippen is still awaiting Home Office permission for Hawley’s remains to be returned to the family burial plot, after Giovanni di Stefano filed his exhumation request.
Di Stefano the lawyer is famed for his defence of notorious villains, including former Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, Jeremy Bamber, Kenneth Noye and Nicholas van Hoogstraten.
But Patrick has other supporters.
Dr Trestrail says: “I think he should be granted a pardon. There is also the matter of his waxwork image which should be removed from the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds.”