Sunday, August 06, 2006

[life and times] dr. hawley harvey crippen [part 2 of 2]

Part 1 is here.

That evening, Tuesday, he goes straight home, eats dinner. Grabbing the sack of body parts and some bricks, he walks the few blocks to the canal and drops the package into the water. Tired by this time, having had virtually no sleep for 48 hours, he retires early. "

According to his co-workers, Crippen seemed quite at ease when he showed up at work Tuesday, the morning after he killed Belle. In her memoirs, Ethel Le Neve reports, "He was his old calm self." On Wednesday morning, February 2, he drew her aside to inform her that Belle had left him. With that, the doctor surprised Ethel again by drawing from his pocket some women's jewelry. "She left these behind," he announced, "and I wish you would take one or two."

Ethel, catching her breath, replied. "Please pick one or two pieces for me, then, if you are sure it's all right. You know my taste."

Before he left, he handed Ethel a sealed envelope for the Ladies Guild. The letter read:

"Dear Friends,
Please forgive me a hasty letter but I have just had news of the illness of a near relative and I am obliged to go to America. I cannot return for several months and, therefore, ask you to accept this letter, resigning from the guild.
Belle Crippen"

From that instant, the good ladies of the Guild smelled a rat. First, the handwriting did not seem to be Belle's; in fact, it was quite masculine. Second, they found it strange that Belle would bother to write a note and send it through Hawley when she could have more easily called one of a number of women – that's what telephones were for!

But, whispers were only whispers until Crippen appeared at the Music Hall Ball, arm in arm with Ethel Le Neve. Ethel looked amazing in her lavender gown of silk and chiffon and as he held her tightly on the dance floor, the mouths at the tables gave one universal gasp. And then someone noticed that the brooch that Ethel wore had belonged to Belle. Like a telegraph wire, the scandal leaped across the room.

The outrage felt by the Ladies' Guild would grow over the coming months. Then, on March 24, he announced, "Belle died yesterday at six o'clock." By choosing that particular time for Belle's demise, Crippen was playing the romantic. Ethel had moved in with Crippen and a neighbor claimed that one evening she could see through an open window Ethel trying on one dress after another, handed to her by the doctor. There was also a new, young French maidservant named Valentina. Now they went on “honeymoon”.

After returning from his "honeymoon," Crippen had announced to Belle's inquisitive friends that she was being cremated in America. However, this didn't make sense; Belle was Catholic and Catholics did not accept cremation at that time.

In the meantime, the Guild found that the ship Belle was supposed to have sailed on, the La Touraine, had been under repair at the time and that no person named Belle Crippen or Belle Elmore (her stage name) had died in that part of America.

The Guild returned to Scotland Yard on June 30, meeting with both Dew and his superior. The detectives were impressed. Now intrigued with the situation, Dew agreed to speak with Crippen. A few days later, on Friday, July 8, he visited 39 Hilldrop Crescent at which time the doctor admitted that his wife had not died after all, but he had fabricated the tale to avoid the scandal. Dew reasoned it made sense. He drew up a statement, which the citizen signed, and then went back to his office.

But, the Ladies' Guild remained discontent. Dew agreed to try again and went to Crippen’s work. The firm's clerk told the two that Crippen had taken a rather sudden trip. When Dew asked to speak to Miss Le Neve, the clerk disclosed that she was away, too, accompanying, he believed, the good doctor on his voyage. Where they had gone the clerk did not know. Dew and another detective rushed to 39 Hilldrop Crescent.

The evening of July 8, after Inspector Dew first interviewed Crippen, he confessed to Ethel that he had lied to her about Belle's death. He did it to save face, he told her, but Ethel felt betrayed. "He had been untruthful to me for the first time in ten years. I had been faithful to him. I loved him although it hurt me frightfully. Tell me where Belle Elmore is. I have a right to know."

"I tell you truthfully, " he said, "that I don't know where she is. " He repeated this several times. He suggested that they go to Canada until the gossip wore thin, probably within a year. Ethel agreed. The following day, he and Ethel took the London Underground then the train to Harwich. From there, Crippen told Ethel, they would sail to Rotterdam, then Antwerp, then Canada.

The inspectors arrived at Crippen's to find only the maid at home. All she knew was that her employ had been terminated. Suspicion now thoroughly awakened, Dew made a further search of the house. On the 13th, he discovered a compact mass of animal remains. The smell was awful. Medical examination showed that they were of a thick female. Three days later, an arrest warrant was issued by the Metropolitan Police for the arrest of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen and Miss Ethel Le Neve.

The voyage

"Everyone aboard the S.S. Montrose considered them to be a most loving father and son who were travelling to start a new life in Canada. Mr. and Master Robinson – to use the names they gave to the purser – were never seen apart, and although they were polite and agreeable, they spoke to no one else unless they had to..."

So begins the chapter on the doctor's attempted escape across the North Atlantic on the White Star liner Montrose. "Mr. Robinson" is, of course, Crippen, and his "son" is Ethel Le Neve masquerading as a teenage boy. She thinks she is doing this to save her reputation – an unmarried woman didn't share a cabin with a man in 1910 – but Crippen has talked her into the guise because he knows that authorities would be looking for an attractive brunette of twenty-seven in the company of a fortyish male with spectacles and a mustache. He has shaved off his mustache.

The article continues: "During the day, they sat together on deck, chatting quietly about the sea and the weather. But as the voyage continued, Captain Kendall's suspicions were first aroused when he noticed Master Robinson's trousers were too large for his slender body and were held in place by means of a large safety-pin." Harry Kendall, the captain, had been watching the tall, slim boy and soon realized that his hips swayed unnaturally for a male and "his" hair was very soft and feminine despite the hat that covered most of it.

The captain had brought along with him a copy of the local newspaper; on its front page were photos of Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve. Studying the photographs, Kendall determined that Mr. Robinson closely resembled the dentist and that his companion, the boy with the pretty face, could very well be Ethel.

Captain Kendall made history when on July 22 he sent the first-ever wireless telegraph that resulted in the capture of a criminal. Sent from a point 120 miles west of Cornwall, England, to the White Star Company in Liverpool, it read:

"Have strong suspicion that Crippen and accomplice are among passengers. Moustache taken off growing beard. Accomplice dressed as boy. Undoubtedly a girl. Both travelling as Mr. and Master Robinson. Kendall. "

The cable was sent immediately to Scotland Yard, its recipient being Inspector Dew who was heading up the Crippen case. Dew contacted the White Star Line to book passage on its next transatlantic voyage to Canada. In the seats beside him were Sergeant Mitchell and two wardresses, Miss Foster and Miss Stone, who would take charge of Miss Le Neve upon arrest.

The British love a good mystery and, despite its gruesome nature, the Belle Crippen murder provided all the ingredients that promised a thrilling novel-like end. "It captured the imagination of the world," Would the couple whom Kendall 'strongly suspected' of being Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve in fact prove to be them?"

On the Montrose and unaware of the newspapers, star players Crippen and Le Neve had no idea the country they left considered them now to be the talk of the town. Sometimes there were jokes, limericks and in verse. One music hall comic announced, "What a face Belle has! Crippen is innocent!" A popular song was: "Oh Miss Le Neve, oh Miss Le Neve, is it true that you are sittin' on the lap of Dr. Crippen, in your boy's clothes, on the Montrose, Miss La Neve?"

Dew was ready. The Laurentic passed the Montrose at midnight, July 27, in mid-sea. Crippen and Ethel continued to be seen together in disguise, keeping virtually to themselves, usually reading novels; the doctor read a thriller called Four Just Men, while Ethel read a romance. One afternoon, a little Belgian boy slipped on the deck in front of where Ethel sat reading and, if it wasn’t for her quick reflexes, he would have slipped through the railing into the ocean. Ethel became a heroine. But her scream, when grabbing his little arms, was definitely that of a woman.

As the Montrose neared Quebec, Crippen became less cheerful. Ethel noticed it, and asked him what was bothering him. He told her, "I might have to leave you once we disembark."

"What do you mean, leave me?" she was flabbergasted.

He hemmed. "I'm sure you will find yourself a great job in Canada. I suggest you go to Toronto - I hear it's a wonderful place."

"And what about you?" she pressed, astonished at what she was hearing.

"Oh, nothing," he answered. "Thinking ahead, I guess."

She felt that there was more, but didn't want to push it at this moment. Ethel didn’t realize that their time together had just about ended.

As Hawley Harvey Crippen listened to the noise of the new Marconi telegraph, maybe he figured out the truth. Maybe he had seen the questions in the eyes of the crewmen. But, he didn't react with great surprise when, just outside Quebec, a tall gentleman stepped up to Ethel and him and said, with a courteous smile, "Good morning, Dr. Crippen."

Crippen knew the man immediately. "Good morning, Inspector Dew."

The trials

Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve were tried separately in October at the Old Bailey – he for the murder and she as a fugitive from justice. The woman's trial, merely a formality, was brief. After twenty minutes of deliberation, Ethel was found Not Guilty.

Crippen's trial, which lasted from October 18-22, had been just as nearly open-and-shut as Ethel's, but it spoke with an altogether different voice. What he had done to the victim was unforgivable, beyond human understanding. When cornered, he had lied time and again but most damaging of all, the day after he had been questioned by a Scotland Yard detective he’d absconded out of the country with his inamorata.

He pleaded not guilty, yet he knew the cards were stacked against him. He did nothing to help himself. Most legal experts are agreed that Crippen's only hope of escaping execution lay in entering a plea of guilty, then throwing himself upon the mercy of the court. But a guilty plea would have involved dragging Ethel in as a witness, and Crippen, of course, would not for a single moment hear of calling Ethel to his defense.

Taking the stand, the defendant stood his ground and denied having killed anyone. How Belle's body was buried beneath his home he could not say. He didn't tremble once. They all wondered: what could have driven this gentleman to do such a thing? Was it Jekyll and Hyde, a dual personality? Or was it something else?

He never gave any trouble and showed concern only for the woman he loved. We may consider Crippen a hateful man; but nobody who came in contact with him said so. Crippen murmured in court, "I still protest my innocence." It was no good. Lord Alverstone cleared his throat and spoke. "Harvey Hawley Crippen," he began, "I have now to pass upon you the sentence of the Court, which is that you be taken from hence to a place of execution, and that you be there hanged by the neck until you are dead...And may the Lord have mercy on your soul!"

His appeal failed. His execution would take place within the week, on Wednesday morning, November 23, 1910. Ethel visited her lover daily. They followed each visitation with a letter. "We shall meet again!" he vowed.

The night before her last visit to his cell, dreading their final moments together, he anguished, "How am I to endure to take my last look at your dear face; what agony must I go through when you disappear forever from my eyes. God help us to be brave."

He was granted, permission to take her photo and her letters to the grave with him. Both gave him consolation. And final dreams.


Number 39 Hilldrop Crescent remained virtually vacant for the next thirty years. The house met a sad end at the hands of the German Luftwaffe during World War II.

Montrose captain Harry Kendall nearly died four years after the Crippen incident, in 1914, when the ship he then commanded, the Empress of Ireland, sank at the very spot where Crippen and Ethel had been arrested. More than a thousand lives were lost, but the captain was saved and lived to be 91 years old. In the same year, the Montrose sailed to Britain and sank near the white cliffs of Dover.

Dew, at 47 years of age, retired three weeks before Dr. Crippen was hanged. It is believed his decision was due to the sympathy he felt for his prisoner.

Refusing to live in England, Ethel went to Toronto. She boarded the Majestic in 1911 the afternoon of her Hawley's death and couldn't bear to look back. She worked as a secretary in Canada for five years but in 1916, she sailed back to London.

Not long after her return to England, she changed her name to Nelson and married an accountant, who greatly resembled Hawley Crippen. The marriage was happy but her husband died young of a heart attack while at work, never knowing that Ethel Nelson had once been the famous Miss Le Neve. Ethel passed away in 1967, a content grandmother.

Ethel never forgot Hawley Crippen but refused to talk about it. One afternoon over tea, however, a writer asked the old lady, "If Crippen could come back today, would you marry him?"

"Yes, I would, " she said.

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