Who killed Cora Crippen?

How one forensic biologist found a doctor had been wrongly hanged for murder nearly 100 years ago

By | November 16, 2007

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 mail@the-scientist.com 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: Bernard Spilsbury http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Spilsbury David Foran http://criminaljustice.msu.edu/ G. Slack, "CSI: My cat," The Scientist, September 2007. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/53514/ B. Grant, "Sequencing the survivors," The Scientist, September 2007. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/53519/ D.R. Foran, "Relative degradation of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA: an experimental approach," Journal of Forensic Sciences, July 2006. http://www.the-scientist.com/pubmed/16882217 "CSI: East Lansing--science shows innocent man hanged in famous British murder case." http://special.newsroom.msu.edu/crippen/ 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. http://www.the-scientist.com/pubmed/14984214

Comments

Avatar of: Matt Hodgkinson

Matt Hodgkinson

Posts: 1

November 16, 2007

If any of Cora, Cora's sister, or Cora's niece were adopted, then you would not expect Cora's mitochondrial DNA to match that of her grand-niece and great-grand niece. Do we know that all of them were the biological daughters of their mothers?

November 16, 2007

You know that the DNA you amplified came from the slide, but you do not know that it was from the tissue. It could have been from someone that handled the tissue, the person that made the slide or someone that handled it later. If most of the victim's DNA had degraded, you might have missed that weak signal and only picked up the more abundant pathologists DNA.
Avatar of: Dale

Dale

Posts: 1

November 16, 2007

The misidentification was unfortunate and in hindsight (20/20) should not have been used in a trial. However, Cora was never found and it's still possible Hawley Crippen did, in fact, kill her. Perhaps he did a wonderful job getting rid of her body, but gets caught based on the remains of someone else.
Avatar of: Le Ann Watson

Le Ann Watson

Posts: 1

November 16, 2007

How great an article this was! \nI was convinced from past reading that Dr. Crippen had committed the murder! Now, I doubt my convictions.
Avatar of: David Bridges

David Bridges

Posts: 3

November 16, 2007

We have no idea how that slide had been handled over the past 97 years. Therefore, I do not believe Dr Crippen has been exonerated in any way. If she had been alive, would she have let an innocent man hang? Or perhaps she was scared because she knew he had killed and dismembered somebody else? All the contemporary evidence pointed to his guilt, and I believe justice was served.
Avatar of: Dr. David Foran

Dr. David Foran

Posts: 1

November 16, 2007

Hello Everyone ? thank you for your comments\n\nI would like to see what else comes in, then address everyone?s comments at once, so please give me a few days.\n\nI agree (and did consider) pretty much all of your concerns, so we can get to that.\n\nDale ? you are correct, hindsight is 20/20, and that type of identification would not work today. We are not so sure about Cora however (have you read the other articles out there? Please check them out.). \n\nLe Ann ? Thank you. You make this type of work worth it! \n
Avatar of: IONL

IONL

Posts: 6

November 19, 2007

The remains of a human being were found in the basement of the house. Who was it and how did they die? Steps had been taken to dispose of the body implying that the remains were unlikely to have been the result of anything other than a deliberate killing. Crippen moved his lover into his house very rapidly after his wife supposedly departed. Perhaps entirely confident she would not return. If the remains were not Cora and Crippen was not a killer then we have both victim and perpetrator to account for now. The finger of suspicion must remain firmly pointed at the residents of that house.\nThat aside I am wondering what possible interest can you have in exonerating Crippen now? Are there not more pressing cases or miscarriages of justice in the USA that you could expend your talents on? Crippen was either a killer or an accomplice. He was hanged. I suspect the only point of agreement we might find is that the hanging should never have taken place. Not ever. Fortunately people do not face the death sentence in England anymore where capital punishment has passed into history. Perhaps you could make a more worthwhile crusade out of ending the death penalty in the United States.
Avatar of: Srijit Mishra

Srijit Mishra

Posts: 1

November 19, 2007

This is certainly a case against capital punishment. \n
Avatar of: Ruth Davis

Ruth Davis

Posts: 1

November 20, 2007

Given the length of time before examination, and the possibility that it may even be Dr. Spilsbury's DNA on the cover slip (latex gloves were not so common, and the fear of DNA contamination not even thought of) my money's still on Dr. Splisbury's findings... \nHis biography, which covers this case extensively, has convinced me on the circumstantial evidence alone (remains, pj's in which the victim was found, flight... in disguise), but then there's also Dr. Spilsbury's examination of the scar itself. Case closed, for me anyway.\n
Avatar of: Kate

Kate

Posts: 1

November 23, 2007

I loved this article, I just think that it is so interesting; I think that there is some human obsession with stories like this. It stated in this article that there was a dinner party, maybe a friend had gone missing?
Avatar of: dross

dross

Posts: 1

November 29, 2007

relatively meek, hogwash!\nhere's the real story: crippen, tormented over his wife's vivacious & scandalous ways, in a fit of rage murdered one of her long line of young potent lovers, or one of her off-hours clients from her dancehall side business. he disposed of the head, carcass and extremities in the morgue incinerary, smart to get rid of the sex identifiers as well. the internal organs went sour too fast to drag through the streets for disposal, so he buried them in the basement. the good doctor's more proper paramour, who disdained the sinful wife, a sympathetic heart and loins for his unfortunate "situation" of having married beneath himself, suggested, that since the mrs. had run off with one of her lovers to America to escape the ignominy of being involved in triangles of lascivious deception and a rageful revenge killing, that she and the doctor best plan as escape as those offals were still in the cellar, and only the doctor was left toward whom fingers would point. emasculated time and time again by a beautiful vivacious wife and an error in marrying judgment ... yes! meek ... never!

Follow The Scientist

icon-facebook icon-linkedin icon-twitter icon-vimeo icon-youtube
Advertisement

Stay Connected with The Scientist

  • icon-facebook The Scientist Magazine
  • icon-facebook The Scientist Careers
  • icon-facebook Neuroscience Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Genetic Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Cell Culture Techniques
  • icon-facebook Microbiology and Immunology
  • icon-facebook Cancer Research and Technology
  • icon-facebook Stem Cell and Regenerative Science
Advertisement
Mettler Toledo
Mettler Toledo
Advertisement
PITTCON
PITTCON
Life Technologies