A Look Back: “Dr. Death” Executed For Murdering, Decapitating His Wife

Hawley Harven Crippen [Wikimedia Commons]

On November 23, 1910, the notorious wife-murdering American doctor Hawley Harvey Crippen was hanged at London’s Pentonville Prison.

Prosecutors stated that the homeopathic practitioner killed his unfaithful second wife, Cora, dissected her body, and buried what remained in the basement of their North London home.

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A stage leaflet of Cora Crippen [public domain]

A stage leaflet of Cora Crippen [public domain]

The gruesome murder and mutilation, and Crippen’s dramatic escape attempt, would earn him the nickname “Dr. Death” and a place in history — along with the Yorkshire Ripper, the Moors Murderers, and Rosemary and Fred West — as one of the most notorious killers in British memory.

After a party at their home on January 31, 1910, Cora disappeared.

Crippen claimed that she had returned to the United States and later added that she had died and had been cremated in California.

Meanwhile, his lover, Ethel “Le Neve” Neave, moved into 39 Hilldrop Crescent and began openly wearing Cora’s clothes and jewelry.

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With this suspicious behavior helping Scotland Yard to close in on Crippen and his lover, they fled to Canada on a ship. Ethel was disguised as his teenage son. But they were recognized by a man who used a wireless telegram transmitter to alert British authorities, and the couple was arrested as the shop docked in Quebec.

The trial took place the following month, and the jury found Crippen guilty in just 27 minutes. The case, which inspired countless newspaper articles, books, and movies, appeared to be closed.

A promotional photograph of Cora Crippen [Wikipedia]

A promotional photograph of Cora Crippen [Wikipedia]

But in 2007, the case took a shocking turn after criminal scientist and toxicologist John Trestrail announced new DNA findings that would challenge the authorities’ official version of the case.

Related: New DNA Testing Planned In JonBenét Ramsey Murder Investigation

Trestrail, who assisted the FBI in investigating poisonings, was troubled by the fact that the prosecution accused Crippen of slipping his wife a sedative before killing her. Trestrail stated that in his experience, those who poison do not mutilate victims. “Poisoners just don’t operate that way. They are secretive murderers who want the death to appear natural, so the use of sedatives just didn’t add up,” he said.

Since the body had been decapitated, Cora Crippen had been identified only by a scar on her torso. Trestrail deduced that many women in London would have had similar scars due to the prevalence of back-alley abortions.

Related: A House To Die For: A Look Back At “The Blackpool Poisoner”

Trestrail obtained samples of mitochondrial DNA, which passes unchanged down the female line of families, from Cora’s remains. Then he began looking for living descendants to compare the sample against.

Since Cora Crippen had no children, the process took seven years. Eventually Cora’s great-niece, Marie Hamel, agreed to provide a saliva swab.

Dr. Crippen & Ethel Leneve on trial, London [Wikipedia]

Dr. Crippen & Ethel Le Neve on trial, London [Wikipedia]

Scotland Yard agreed to do tests on two strands of hair — at a cost of £17,500. The DNA experiment was conducted by Dr. David Foran of Michigan State University, who concluded with “absolute certainty” that the remains were not those of Cora Crippen.

Related: Police Use DNA To Create “Snapshot” Of Angie Dodge’s Killer

The findings, however, remain controversial, and in 2009, the Criminal Cases Review Commission declared that the court of appeal would not hear the case to pardon Crippen posthumously.

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Main photo: Hawley Harven Crippen [Wikimedia Commons]


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