Hawley Harvey Crippen

Dr. Crippen & Ethel LeNeve

Dr. Crippen & Ethel LeNeve

Hawley Harvey Crippen.  I enjoyed reading Crippen by John Boyne. On 18 October, 1910, almost 100 years ago, the murder trial of Dr Hawley Crippen started at the Old Bailey. It gripped the public, as had his flight with his mistress who was dressed as a boy and the police chase across the Atlantic. But US researchers suggested that DNA evidence showed that a body found under his house, was not that of his wife Cora.

In his book Crippen, John Boyne suggests Hawley Crippen was wrongly hanged for the murder of his showgirl wife Cora. American scientists say they have DNA evidence proving that the headless body found under the Crippens’ north London home was not actually Mrs Crippen. “Dr Crippen went to the gallows maintaining his innocence – it seems now he was telling the truth,” said Mr Boyne.

The researchers from Michigan State University tracked down three of Mrs Crippen’s grandnieces and compared their mitochondrial DNA with that of the body in the cellar kept on a microscope slide since the trial in 1910. This process was also used to find the heart of the Dauphin. That story and more about mitochondrial DNA can be found in my post “The Lost King of France.”

Mitochondrial DNA is passed down from mother to daughter. Unlike regular DNA, it remains more stable in old tissue and is easier to retrieve. David Foran, a forensic biologist and director of the university’s forensic science programme, said: “This can’t be Cora Crippen. We’re certain of that. The DNA in the sample is different from the known relatives of Cora Crippen.”

scar tissue/Crippen trial

In the pre-DNA days of the trial, pathologist Bernard Spilsbury’s identification evidence rested on a scar on the body’s abdomen that he claimed was consistent with Mrs Crippen’s medical history. But to trial observers, what sealed Crippen’s guilt was his suspicious flight with his mistress, Ethel le Neve, disguised as his son named Edmund. The pair boarded the SS Montrose to sail to Canada. But, they were recognised by the ship’s captain.

Even more unluckily for them was that the SS Montrose was the first ship to carry Marconi’s new telegram system so the ship’s captain could alert Scotland Yard. With newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic following every twist and turn of the chase, they were able to take a faster passage and meet the SS Montrose as she arrived in Quebec.

In his story, Mr Boyne invents another character who could have killed Mrs Crippen. But even if it wasn’t her, there was still a body under the Crippens’ house. “I don’t think the DNA evidence has cleared anything up,” he said. “There were suggestions Crippen could have been an abortionist and the body in the cellar was one which went wrong. He still dressed his mistress as his son and fled. He obviously had something to hide. Dr Crippen is one of those mysteries that will never be solved.”

Read the 2007 BBC article here.

In December 2009, the Criminal Cases Review Commission, having reviewed the case, declared that the court of appeal will not hear the case to pardon Crippen posthumously. The CCRC is an non-departmental public body. It aims to investigate possible miscarriages of justice in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Commission assesses whether convictions or sentences should be referred to a court of appeal. Another case the CCRC is still pondering is described in the post about Brian David Parsons, here on DCC.

Inspector Walter Dew (extreme right) searching the garden at 39, Hilldrop Crescent

To see what Dr. John H. Trestrail III discovered, to see the DNA process and to hear which people get a close eye on this case, see the PBS Series “Secrets of the Death.” The episode about Dr. Crippen, “Executed in Error” can be seen here.


  1. It was my project that worked on the mtDNA of the remains indicating it did not match Cora’s mtDNA. Also, the nuclear DNA analysis of the evidence used to convict Hawley Crippen, revealed that the remains were those of a male. There is now no valid evidence that Crippen murdered his wife Cora! Therefore he should be considered “not proven guilty”.

  2. Fantastic! Thank you so very much for responding.

    I find this case fascinating. I have not finished reading everything
    yet but…what did happen to Cora?

    Thank you for visiting DCC! Yours, Vidocq

  3. The questions you pose will remain unanswered for the moment. But the DNA evidence is bang on, and should result in the overturning of his conviction.

    Did he murder Cora? As of now there is no proof of that.

    Did he murder whom ever was in the coal celler? That would require a new trial, and I don’t think that is going to happen.

    The slide used for the DNA project was without question the one used in the trial. The “scar slide” which Spilsbury said, beyond a reasonable doubt, was the tissue of Cora Crippen, which was removed from 39 Hilldrop Crescent.

    The Crippen mystery continues!

  4. There is so much we do not know in this case.

    I will be following your work through your website. Should there be more
    activity from your side on the Crippen case, please let me know.

    Thank you again for sharing this information with the readers of DCC.
    I appreciate that very much.

    Sincerely, Vidocq

  5. Albert Borowitz says:

    @ John H. Trestrail III:

    If Cora remained alive, why did she not intervene in the world-famous case to save her husband (however detested) from hanging?

    Albert Borowitz

  6. Thank you, Albert for stopping by and for taking the time to comment.

    It is an excellent point and in fact, a missed opportunity for Cora to be in the spotlights! Cheers, V

  7. Albert,

    Dr. Trestrail just sent this in:


    1 – she was mentally ill
    2 – she was dead, either killed by someone else, or by Hawley (but there is now no evidence that he killed her!)
    3 – Cora was involved with the remains in the cellar, and let Hawley take the blame.

    Should Dr. Trestrail send in more information, I’ll post it here!

    Thank you all for keeping this case in the spotlights! V

  8. @ John H. Trestrail III:

    I have no doubt that Crippen was guilty, and that the body in the cellar was Cora’s. The poison that he purchased to kill her, hydrocosine, was identified in one of the organs. The main point that you have an issue with, the fact that the body was male- is the issue of contention, correct?

    Ah, but see, that’s not such a problem, i think you’re just thinking of it wrong. Think of everything we have heard of “Cora.” That she was a large woman, a loud woman, a bossy, domineering woman. That she had “female problems” requiring surgery, and extensive scarring that left her unable to have a child.

    What would have happened to an intersex or hermaphrodite male back in the 1880s? They would have breasts and look “female,” and pass for female, but have surgery to remove undescended testicles. Surgery that they would chalk up to “female problems.” Cora could easily have been a male hermaphrodite possessing sex characteristics of both genders. Intersex people occur nowdays; they occured back then; and now as of then, they tend to pass as female.

    In Crippen’s defense, I doubt he intended to murder her straight off. I think he gave her the hydrocosine as a sedative, gave her too much, and there may have been a struggle, he panicked, things got out of hand, she died, and that’s how she ended up in the cellar. But she was the body, and the body was pretty fresh, from all accounts- when they discovered it- it hadn’t decomposed enough to have been there longer than before when the Crippens moved in. Added to the fact that it was wearing Crippen’s pajamas and also had a piece of Belle/Cora’s hair attached… and well… it’s pretty open and shut case.

    But the whole fact that the sample tested male is pretty interesting. You should approach Scotland Yard about the possibility of Cora having been intersex/hermaphrodite. It fits very well with her reproductive issues/scarring and surgery background.

  9. Very interesting insight, will check that!

    Much obliged, V

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