Who killed Cora Crippen?
How one forensic biologist found a doctor had been wrongly hanged for murder nearly 100 years ago
A number of years ago I was introduced to the case of Hawley Crippen, an American doctor who lived in London with his wife Cora and was hanged for her murder in the early 1900s. Although you have likely not heard of Crippen, if you grew up in the UK you have--his name is behind only Jack the Ripper in infamy.
The facts were damning. Cora Crippen, a London dancehall girl, was last seen by friends after a dinner at the Crippen's house in January of 1910. She was known to have brow-beaten and demoralized her husband in public, who by all accounts was a soft-spoken and relatively meek man, and practiced his homeopathic medicine in relative obscurity. When asked about Cora's whereabouts, Crippen's story was inconsistent, and his paramour, Ethel Le Neve, moved into the house just days after Cora's disappearance.
Crippen soon confided that, much to his embarrassment, Cora had gone to the US to be with her lover. One day, police made a gruesome discovery in Crippen's London house. There, buried in the coal bin in the cellar, were human remains--but no head, no limbs, no bones, and no sexual organs. The remains consisted of some hair wrapped in curlers, some torso skin and muscle, and the remaining viscera, removed with purported "surgical skill."
Crippen and the disguised Le Neve were escaping on a ship to Canada, but Scotland Yard boarded a faster ship and arrested the pair as they landed in Montreal. The resulting London trial was based on a single question--were the human remains those of Cora? Bernard Spilsbury
, who became one of England's most noted pathologists, identified the remains as Cora, based on a scar he stated could be seen on the skin that matched a scar Cora had from surgery. After 27 minutes of deliberation, the jury found Crippen guilty. His appeals were refused, and he was hanged on Nov. 28, 1910. His mistress was released.
The case of Crippen has always raised questions. First and foremost--were the remains Cora? Experts have since examined Spilsbury's slides and said they could not be certain they showed scar tissue. Further, if the remains were those of Cora, what happened to the rest of the body?
Today we can address these questions if we have two things: some of the tissue from the basement grave, and an extant relative of Cora's. But neither of these would be easy to come by. John Trestrail, who has studied the case for decades, asked genealogist Beth Wills to search for relatives of Cora Crippen, to see if my laboratory
could make a forensic identification
Of course, existing relatives
would be too many generations removed for normal DNA identification, which in forensic laboratories typically entails analysis of short tandem repeats. For the Crippen work, we needed to examine mitochondrial DNA. Wills spent five years checking birth, marriage, census, and immigration records. Cora Crippen had no children but her maternal half-sister did, and from there, she identified Cora's grand-nieces and great-grand-niece. Each sent a buccal swab to my laboratory, and testing them with graduate student Carrie Jackson, each shared identical mtDNA haplotypes.
Once I obtained one of the Spilsbury autopsy slides (following multiple discussions), I spent the next six months testing it, along with all my other professorial duties
. The slide was in excellent shape, with Spilsbury's handwriting still on it ("Crippen" and "Scar in skin" and the stains hematoxylin and eosin), but the glass coverslip, probably held on with the product of the time--pine resin--was not about to budge when treated with xylene. And so finally I was forced to chip tiny fragments of the coverslip away using a scalpel, while peering through a dissecting microscope. After uncovering a few millimeters of tissue, I scraped it into a tube and began the DNA isolation.
A year earlier one of my graduate students, Ann Chamberlain, had tested methods for obtaining DNA profiles from fixed tissue, and consistent with her results, one method was superior. As is standard in mtDNA analyses of poor quality tissues, I amplified the mtDNA control region in small overlapping segments, determining a haplotype for the remains. Further tests showed the DNA results were not from myself or lab members; they had to be from the slide.
In October we announced
that the evidence showed that female relatives of Cora Crippen were not related to the sample from Crippen's basement. So the remains were not Cora, and Crippen had been hanged in error. The British press had a field day, and my phone rang for weeks.
Of course, as is the nature of science, answering one question often elicits new ones. First and foremost, if the remains are not Cora, than who are they? They are human, and clothing with the remains bore a label that indicates it had to be buried after the Crippens moved into the London house. The Crippens socialized, yet did no visitor notice the odor of putrefying tissue? Did anyone go missing at the time to whom the remains might belong? And are they from a man or woman--we cannot even be assured of that (though genetic tests are underway).
Finally, what happened to Cora Crippen? She was never heard from. Did she run off with another man as Crippen claimed? Why did Crippen flee with his mistress? And why, I keep on wondering, do you successfully dispose of the difficult parts, the head, the limbs, and each and every bone, then bury the remainder under your own floor boards, regardless of what happened? These things we do not yet know. We do know however, that Crippen always said he did not murder Cora, and that some day he would be proven correct. It took us 97 years to do so.
David Foran is the director of the Forensic Science Program at Michigan State University and leads its Forensic Biology Laboratory. He has more than 25 years experience as a molecular biologist, and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.
Links within this article:
G. Slack, "CSI: My cat," The Scientist
, September 2007.
B. Grant, "Sequencing the survivors," The Scientist
, September 2007.
D.R. Foran, "Relative degradation of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA: an experimental approach," Journal of Forensic Sciences
, July 2006.
"CSI: East Lansing--science shows innocent man hanged in famous British murder case."
D.R. Foran, J.E. Starrs, "In search of the Boston Strangler: genetic evidence from the exhumation of Mary Sullivan," Medicine, Science, and the Law
, January 2004.