DNA Proves a Hanged Man Was Innocent
‘It is one of the most notorious cases in British legal history, the story of an apparently mild-mannered doctor who poisoned and dismembered his showgirl wife, then fled across the Atlantic with his young lover – only to be caught after a sharp-eyed captain recognized him from the newspaper,’ writes Martin Hodgson in The Guardian of 17th October 2007.
Hodgson tells the story thus:
Dr Hawley Crippen was hanged in 1910, after an Old Bailey jury took just 27 minutes to find him guilty of murdering his wife, Cora, who had vanished earlier that year.
Nearly a century later, research appears to show that the evidence which sent Crippen to the gallows was mistaken: the human remains discovered under his London house could not be those of Cora.
Working from a sample kept at the museum of the Royal London Hospital Archives, a team of American forensic scientists compared mitochondrial DNA from the remains presented at the trial with samples taken from Cora’s surviving relatives. The result was conclusive, said Dr David Foran, the head of forensic science programme at Michigan State University. “The body cannot be Cora Crippen, we’re certain of that,” he said.
Police found the mutilated remains with no head and no bones. Newspapers at the time described Crippen as “one of the most dangerous and remarkable men who have lived this century”.
But according to John Trestrail, the toxicologist who led the new research, poisoners rarely inflict external damage on their victims. “It is so unusual that a poisoner would dismember the victim, because a poisoner attempts to get away with murder without leaving any trace. In my database of 1,100 poisoning cases, this is the only one which involves dismemberment,” said Mr. Trestrail, who heads the regional poison centre in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The discrepancy prompted his to re-examine the evidence in the Crippen case. Working with a genealogist, Beth Wills, he set about finding Mrs. Crippen’s surviving family. After seven years, the team tracked down three distant relatives in California and Puerto Rico.
The challenge then was to find viable DNA from samples presented at the trial. At the archives of the Royal London Hospital, in Whitechapel, researchers found the microscope slide which helped hang Crippen. In court, a pathologist, Bernard Spilsbury, identified it as an abdominal scar consistent with Cora’s medical history.
Mitochondrial DNA is passed down in the egg from mother to daughter and remains relatively unchanged through generations, but the DNA in the sample was different from the known relatives of Mrs. Crippen.
According to Mr. Trestrail, Crippen is innocent of the crime for which he was hanged. “Two weeks before he was hanged he wrote ‘I am innocent and some day evidence will be found to prove it.’ When I read that the hairs stood up on my arms. I think he was right.”
The team conceded that they never discovered what happened to Mrs. Crippen, but several intriguing clues emerged during the research. Cora sang on the British stage under the name of Belle Elmore. Ten years after the trial, a singer with a familiar name was registered as living with Cora’s sister in New York. Records show that the same woman entered the US through Ellis Island from Bermuda in 1910 shortly after Mrs. Crippen disappeared.
“Are Belle Rose and Cora Crippen one and the same?” asked Mr. Trestrail. “We can’t prove any of that – that is another investigation.”
Mr. Trestrail believes Crippen should be given a posthumous pardon. Mr. Patrick Crippen, his closest living relative, was quoted as telling the Guardian: “ Those of us in the family who have ever taken the time to explore the circumstances surrounding the trial, conviction and hanging of Dr Crippen have never been convinced that this was the finest example of English Justices.”
Hawley Crippen was an American doctor who moved to England in 1990 with his wife, Cora Turner. When Cora disappeared in 1910, Crippen said she had returned to the US, and later said that she had died in California. After his lover, Ethel le Neve, moved into the couple’s home in Holloway, London, Cora’s friends alerted the police, but a search revealed nothing. Crippen and Le Neve fled to Belgium before embarking on the SS Montrose to Canada. They were disguised as father and son, but the ship’s captain became suspicious and alerted police using the newly invented wireless telegraph. Crippen was convicted and hanged at Pentonville Prison. He protested his innocence to the end.
Amena Asharia, Student Member