THERE ARE SOME MALEFACTORS down the years whose names only make us shudder because we know the deeds with which they have become associated. In themselves, they are just ordinary names, commonplace even. West, Brady, Hindley, Sutcliffe, Shipman, Haigh – take a look in your local telephone directory, and you will find them by the dozen, all, we assume, leading blameless lives. But our man here is something of an exception – Crippen. It has a nasty little bite to it, consonants crunching into vowels. Say it over. It sounds sinister, doesn’t it?
Hawley Harvey Crippen was never a doctor, in the accepted sense. He was at best, a purveyor of quack medicines and homepathic cures to the gullible. He may even have been a backstreet abortionist, but that has never been proved. He was born in Michigan in 1862, but emigrated to England in 1897 with his second wife Cora. Cora was a second rate music hall entertainer and Crippen, tired of her charms, took up with a young typist named Ethel Le Neve.
In 1910, Cora disappeared. Crippen claimed that she had left him and returned to America. Ethel Le Neve was duly installed in her place at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Hollway (sketch, right). A friend of Cora Crippen eventually raised the alarm, as she suspected foul play. The house was searched, and nothing was found. Crippen and Le Neve, however, were spooked, and fled to the continent, where they bought a passage on a steamer bound for Canada.
The guilty couple’s disappearance triggered more exhaustive searches of the house and , eventually, the remains of a woman were found under the basement floor. The discovery filled newspapers around the English speaking world. Meanwhile, on board the SS Montrose, Le Neve had cropped her hair and disguised herself as a boy, but the Captain had his doubts and sent a radio telegram to Britain. With great alacrity Chief Inspector Walter Dew, no doubt smarting that he had accepted Crippen’s earlier story at face value, took an express boat to Canada, and arrived in Quebec before the SS Montrose.
Crippen and his ‘boy’ were duly arrested, brought back to England, and were duly tried. Crippen was found guilty and was hanged at Pentonville Prison on 23rd November 1910. Le Neve? She escaped with a minor conviction and left for Canada on the morning of her lover’s execution. The mundane is never far away in these dramas, however, and Le Neve returned to England, changed her name, and died in relative obscurity in 1967, in Croydon of all places. Below is a composite of Ethel Le Neve contrasting her feminine and boyish modes.
Dr Crippen by Katherine Watson