23 July 2022

Why capital punishment is immoral - Dr Hawley Crippen (1910).

Crippen features on the front of the Mirror in 1910
The title Dr is in inverted commas.

Executing a criminal is murder, by hanging, gas chamber, injection or firing squad. Firstly the execut­ioner bec­omes a murd­erer himself, as destructive as the criminal he is killing. Secondly noone knows who was responsible for the crime with 100% certainty. Mistakes happen all the time.

Hawley Crippen (1862-1910) was born in Michigan US. He was working in a Philadel­phia hospital when he met his first wife, Charl­otte Bell, and had a son Otto. In 1892 while pregnant with their sec­ond child, Charlotte died. Crippen quickly left Otto with his parents, moved to New York and was married once again.

He was a homeo­pathic physician in New York when he married his second wife, singer Kunigunde Macka­motz­ki/Cora Turner in 1894. Having gained qualifications in both homoeo­pathy and ocular medicine, Crippen was wor­k­ing in a homeopathic pharm­aceut­ical company but eventually he was sacked from the pharm­ac­eut­ical company for spending too much time managing the wife’s stage career.

In contrast to her more amiable husband, Cora Turner Crip­p­en was dominating, chang­ing her stage name to Belle Elmore. After they moved to Lon­d­on in 1897, Cora became a music-hall singer and socialised widely. Because Crippen’s U.S medical qualifications weren’t recognised, he worked selling pat­ent medicines. He shared the business with a very young secretary, Ethel Le Neve (1883–1967)

 Cora Crippen on stage
 as Belle Elmore

The Crippen marriage was unhappy. Cora was a keen drinker and happy to indulge her taste for unfaithfulness. Hawley also enjoyed his own aff­airs. Then his wife disappeared in Jan 1910, the month after telling him she planned to leave him and to withdraw their savings from the bank. Crippen explained her disappearance to friends by saying that she was visiting the U.S; later he publ­ished a death notice from the U.S. Meanwhile Ethel Le Neve moved into the Crip­pen house and accom­panied Dr Crippen in  public, wearing Cora Crippen’s jewels.

39 Hilldrop Cres, Camden Town 
Crippen’s Edwardian "house of horrors" 

Suspicions were raised, and Crippen was visited by Inspector Walter Dew of Scotland Yard. Crippen said his wife had left to live with an­other man. By the time Insp Dew visited the Crip­pen house again, Crippen and his mistress had sail­ed to North America. Dew ordered a thorough search of the house, leading to a grisly discovery. 

 SS Montrose en route to Canada

Dr Crippen boarded the SS Montrose to Canada with Le Neve, as­suming he would never be located, nor identified. But did he not know that his crime had made a sensation in the Brit­ish press? Ethel wore boy’s clothes on board and pretended to be Hawley’s son. But the ship capt­ain recog­nised the pair holding hands and notified his superiors via the recently developed technology of wireless telegraphy, marking the first time this modern skill was us­ed to track a criminal in the middle of the open ocean and rep­ort­ed back to the British police. The British public became even more rivetted to the ens­uing chase!

Police arresting Dr Crippen and Ethel Le Neve
on SS Montrose, July 1910.

Dew pursued and overtook the fugitive pair on a faster ship to Canada, and arrested them aboard. The couple returned to London, where they went on trial in mid Oct 1910. Evidence showed that Cora was definitely alive at a dinner party she hosted in their own home, in Jan 1910. As noted Hawley told everyone her that she moved back to America, raising sus­picions, but it wasn’t until July that police made a grim disc­overy in the mar­ital home. In the coal cellar lay human skin packs with no head and no bones. An aut­opsy and forensic analysis ident­ified the remains as those of Cora, who’d been poisoned then dismem­bered.

Crippen and Ethel le Neve in court,  London 1910
Daily Mirror

The evidence against Dr Crippen was nasty: missing wife; heap of human flesh in his basement; dodgy flight with a mistress; and inter­nat­ional manhunt and ar­r­est. But in court the pathologist testified he could not identify the torso remains or guess its gender. Yet after a five day trial filled with scan­dalous details whipped up by the me­d­­­ia, the jury con­vict­ed Crip­p­en in just 27 minutes of del­ib­er­­ation! Le Neve was found not guilty. VERY QUICKLY after the guil­ty verd­ict, Crippen was hanged at Pentonville Pris­on London, 23rd Nov 1910

But if Crippen’s guilt was uncertain, how could capital punishment have been considered? Since 2010, there’s been support for reop­en­­ing the case. Mito­ch­ondrial DNA, discovered in the 1960s, is st­ably transmitted only from mothers to their daughters. Inherit­an­ce made mitochondrial DNA suitable for use in forensic science, as in analysing the body parts found in Crippen’s London basement. Foren­sic experts showed that the body in the basement wasn’t Cora, possibly not even female. Perhaps the body had been put in the basement by a ten­ant before the Crippens moved there. [Of course if Crippen was the murderer, he would have stored his wife’s body somewhere else].

Is it pos­sible that one of Britain’s most infam­ous murderers was­ not a killer after all? So far, all attempts to reopen the murder trial have been re­jected. But even if the courts didn’t know about DNA testing back in 1910, they recognise that immediate execution allowed no time for appeals, new witness­es or new medical knowledge.

Ethel Le Neve's Life Story, published 1910

Photo credits: Daily Mirror


Anonymous said...

There are too many examples of bad justice leading to state sanctioned murder. It needs to stop, as it has in most civilised countries.

Deb said...

Crippen's first wife died, his second wife disappeared and he ran away with his third wife/mistress. He was a certainty to hang.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - I'd never taken much interested in the back-story, but knew about him. I certainly had never realised the American connection ... interesting to read ... thank you - Hilary

Hels said...


China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Japan, United States, Afghanistan, Egypt and Myanmar account for only 9 of the 195 sovereign nations on earth, but account for the vast majority of executions. Other countries have either banned capital punishment totally, or kept it on the books but suspended its use in practice since the 1990s.

Legal in civilised countries? I think we would have to redefine "civilised".

Hels said...


There were many factors the jury had to consider... including the three you mentioned. Plus he was a doctor (which meant he knew how to use drugs and injections) and he was American (which meant he had easy access to guns). So I assume the jury thought he was guilty, even before the court trial started.

However arriving at a guilty verdict, and particularly one based on poor evidence, did not automatically lead to a decision to execute Dr Crippen. It was the presiding judge, Lord Alverstone, who sentenced the doctor to death by hanging!

Hels said...


The London forensic expert Dr Bernard Spilsbury wasn't proven wrong until 2012 when American researchers re-examined the original British 1910 slides. The DNA did not match ANY of Cora’s relatives and in any case the tissue came from a man. That doesn't mean that Dr Crippen did or did not do the murder, but why on earth have all requests to reopen the murder trial been re­jected?

DUTA said...

Terrible case!
I'm against capital punishment as I believe we have no right to take someone's life - murderer or not. Besides, one cannot fully trust judges in a life-death matter, as these are like all of us humans with faults and failures.

Hels said...


In high school in 1961, I had to present the case for NOT executing Adolf Eichmann in Israel, even though he had been one of the most evil Nazis in Germany. Even Eichmann should not have been executed, instead kept in a clean cell for the rest of his life.

I remember the last hanging in Australia very very well .. it was a terrible event when Ronald Ryan, in gaol for bad theft crimes but no violence, broke out to stop his wife from divorcing him. Ryan killed a warder during his escape from the prison in 1965 and the right wing premier of this state insisted that Ryan should be hanged asap, as a warning to all. The death penalty was so disgusting that everybody filled the streets with protests; it was soon abolished in every Australian state. Thank goodness.

Crimescribe said...

You may want to read "‘Doctor’ Crippen, Hanged Today In 1910. Innocent? Or Hanged For The Wrong Murder..?" Was Crippen hanged for the wrong murder? Was he even guilty? New forensic evidence doesn’t conclusively exonerate him. But it certainly raises questions about the original verdict, particularly the forensic evidence that saw Crippen receive his death sentence.

If Crippen was wrongly convicted and unjustly hanged, it doesn’t just destroy the case against him. It cripples the reputation of the prosecution forensic expert, the Father of forensic science Sir Bernard Spilsbury. They also question the behaviour of the lead investigator, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Walter Dew. The press and public wanted a murderer hanged, so Dew (and possibly Willcox and Spilsbury) served them Crippen on a plate. If Dew did frame Crippen, did he frame the right person for the wrong murder?

Hels said...


thank you.. although your paper didn't make me feel better. I understand that innocent mistakes were often made, but you suggested that the senior investigators and forensic experts _knowingly_ gave their evidence to build their own careers, and to appease the press and public. Imprison "Dr" Crippen for as long as it takes to find new witnesses, run appeals, retest the forensic evidence etc etc, not a quick hanging.

bazza said...

The fact that the couple fled the country certainly made them, or one of them, appear guilty. Whether or not Crippen was guilty, there clearly very poor judicial care. However, my major objection is the existence of capital punishment under any circumstances. As you have stated , it is really murder by the state and mistakes have happened. The 1962 case of James Hanratty is still not satisfactorily resolved.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s immensely immoderate Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


I haven't heard of James Hanratty, but your point is well made. If a criminal commits murder by intentionally taking the life of another person, nations that have capital punishment seem happy to take the life of that very criminal. After all, he has forfeited his own right to continue living! But by legitimising the very behaviour that the law seeks to end, capital punishment sends the opposite message. Murder is so disgusting, even state sanctioned murder negates the morality of the nation that uses it.

The ultimate hypocrisy comes in nations that are so pro-life, they gaol or execute women who have a medical or backyard abortion, or a spontaneous miscarriage!

Luiz Gomes said...

Boa tarde minha querida amiga. Através do seu maravilhoso trabalho aprendo cada vez mais. Uma excelente terça-feira.

Hank Phillips said...

There are cases in which a perp is caught red-handed AND confesses (without benefit of nationalsocialist or internationalsocialist torture methods). In those cases granting the murderer bed and board extorted by coercion or threat from other persons does amount to murder, why? Because there are persons opposed to robbery whom tax collectors have orders to kill if they resist. Furthermore, even without invoking the existence of tax resisters on moral grounds, it is a fact that in order to garner respect for (terror of) any law whatsoever, it turns out in practice that enforcers end up having to murder some scofflaws to make the thing stick. Fobbing these judicial killings off as responses to "resisting" arrest is dishonest. I would bet nobody can identify a single exception. So the fallibility principle has its limits just as the plans to coerce without actually inflicting deadly force aft a gang gley.

Hels said...


Thank you. Brasil has capital punishment for cases involving war crimes, genocides, terrorism and crime against humanity. But it is forbidden in ordinary crimes. Is that a compromise that most people support?

Hels said...


Thanks for a detailed response. I don't think confessions mean much. I am a pacifist yet I would confess to personally shooting Napoleon, if it would save my life. But I have much more trouble with the next sentence "it is a fact that in order to garner respect for (terror of) any law whatsoever, it turns out in practice that enforcers end up having to murder some scofflaws to make the thing stick". Absolutely not. Garnering respect or terror for any law does NOT allow for murdering a criminal.

mem said...

I was reading up on Ethel just today after reading this post . She apparently "disappeared" and changed her name and married and had a family who had NO idea of who she was . What a life . Reading about her though I don't think she was the sharpest knife in the block . As her predecessor was reported missing by her friends Ethel was seen swanning around in her furs and diamonds!!

Joe said...

Amnesty reported the following. For more than a year now, Myanmar’s military authorities have engaged in extrajudicial killings, torture and a gamut of human rights violations. The military will only continue to trample on people’s lives if they are not held accountable.

The young men were convicted of and sentenced to death by a military tribunal in January for offenses involving explosives, bombings and financing terrorism under the Anti-Terrorism Law – charges that Amnesty International believes to be politically motivated. The proceedings before a military-controlled court were held in secret and grossly unfair.

Following Myanmar military’s issuance of Martial Law Order, the authority to try civilians was transferred to special or existing military tribunals where individuals are tried through summary proceedings without right to appeal.

Under international law and standards, executions carried out following unfair trials violate the prohibition against arbitrary deprivation of life, as well as the absolute prohibition of torture and other.

Hels said...


Dr Crippen's first two wives were older, noisy and wanted a life of their own. But Ethel was very young, quiet, apparently compliant and pretty.

I have added her _1910_ book to the post where she insisted that she had no idea that anything sinister had happened until they were both arrested in Canada! Either Ethel was dumber than you gave her credit for, or she was a calculating co-conspirator in avoiding the police.

Hels said...


Amnesty was spot on i.e the proceedings before a military-controlled court were held in secret and were grossly unfair. The parents of the young men weren't allowed to be present at the so-called court case, they weren't told who were the witnesses, who the solicitors were, the evidence wasn't made public and the parents couldn't even get their sons' bodies to have funerals.

Capital punishment is always awful, but sometimes it is even worse.

Hels said...


thank you for the note, but I couldn't tell which side of the debate you wanted to support.