Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen is, by reputation, one of the guiltiest men in British legal history.
His guilt has become so well known as to be the overwhelming and indelible ‘fact’ whenever his case is discussed or even his name is mentioned.
So when George Orwell outlined his ideal of the “perfect murder” in 1946, he also defined Dr Crippen as the perfect example of a murderer.
“The (perfect)murderer should be a little man of the professional class…living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs…he should go astray through cherishing a guilty passion for his secretary or the wife of a rival professional man…the means chosen should, of course, be poison.”
That sounds very much like the popularist view of Dr Crippen doesn’t it?
Even his name, ‘Crippen’ sounds like death.
His name is synonymous with and will forever be linked with indisputable guilt.
So is it even worth considering his own words, written in his prison cell and just two weeks before he was hanged for the murder of his wife?
“I am innocent and some day evidence will be found to prove it”.
During his trial, the evidence did indeed seem to support the general feeling that Crippen had in fact killed his wife.
Toxicological analysis of the remains revealed a lethal dose of hyoscine hydrobromide (scopolamine), a drug that Dr. Crippen had been known to use in his homeopathic medicines.
Identification of the remains however, was complicated by the fact that the most useful tissues were absent. However, this was overshadowed by the testimony of pathologist Bernard Spilsbury which stated ‘a scar found on the remains which was consistent with an abdominal surgery scar that Cora was said to have’.
The final, and some say most damning ‘evidence’ presented to the Court, was a date on the label of a Pyjama top found with the remains which suggested that the garment was buried after the Crippens had moved into the home.
The trial lasted only five days, the jury deliberated for only 27 minutes before returning a unanimous verdict of guilty on October 22nd 1910.
On November 23rd Hawley Crippen was hanged.
Hardly a mention was given to the detective in charge of the case who was Chief Inspector Walter Dew, an original member of the police squad tasked with capturing Jack the Ripper, who had murdered a number of prostitutes in 1888.
It was always rumoured that Dew was so determined not to let another high profile killer get away that he may have even planted Crippen’s pyjama top with the body parts discovered in the coal cellar.
Other previously classified documents since found at the National Archive – and not made public at Crippen’s trial – indicate that two weeks before his wife disappeared, a woman matching her description was seen removing trunks from the couple’s home.
Cora also tried to withdraw the couple’s life savings around the same time.
So is there a slim chance that the police who investigated the crime had suppressed this evidence because it made their only suspect look much less guilty?
After all, they could not let a man who’s very name was tailor made for the lurid press headlines to just walk away could they?
Even now, more than a century later and even following recent forensic DNA analysis of the histological slides of tissue found in the cellar, which showed that the remains were not those of Cora Crippen – her husband’s name is associated with absolute guilt.
Even after testing was performed to determine that the gender of the remains were in fact male!
According to Dr David Foran, the head of forensic science programme at Michigan State University. ‘That body cannot be Cora (Belle) Crippen, we’re certain of that.’
Even when all of the above is considered, which would put a great deal more than a reasonable doubt in the minds of any jury, if this case came to trial today, the deeply ingrained guilt of Dr Crippen is still adhered to.
“I’ll eat my Hat if Dr Crippen was innocent-OK?”
Wrote David Aaranovich in the Times on July 1st, 2008, which only reinforced my suspicions given Aaranovich’s reputation as an establishment mouthpiece..
There are experts, as well as open-minded thinkers who believe that Dr Hawley Crippen may well have been framed by the police, who were under intense pressure to secure a high-profile conviction after the embarrassment of their failure to apprehend Jack the Ripper two decades earlier!
Reading through the available documents and the hurried manner of the trial and conviction, which was played out in full view of the general public who were growing ever more critical of the authorities, I have reached the same conclusion..
Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen should never have been convicted of the murder of his wife, let alone be executed in order to allow the establishment to redeem themselves for an earlier failure.