Dr. Hawley Harley Crippen The 1910 case of Dr. Hawley Harley Crippen is well-known: he murdered his wife, buried her in his basement, told her friends she’d gone visiting in […]
Dr. Hawley Harley Crippen
The 1910 case of Dr. Hawley Harley Crippen is well-known: he murdered his wife, buried her in his basement, told her friends she’d gone visiting in America, then took off with his young “secretary” aboard the Montrose, bound for Canada when the police questions got too pointed.
Marconi’s new trans-Atlantic wireless helped Chief Inspector Dew of Scotland Yard capture Crippen; he wired ahead to alert officials and jumped aboard a faster ship to apprehend Crippen and his lover, Ethel Le Neve (who traveled dressed as a young boy—unconvincingly, thanks to her curvy hips). [See Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck, tracing the parallel stories of Crippen and Marconi.]
Bernard Spilsbury has been called the father of modern forensic pathology and was knighted in 1923. The Crippen case, in 1910, was his first big media case. In an act of forensic pathology legerdemain, he identified the decomposing, headless torso in the basement based on scar tissue that he said resulted from an abdominal surgery Cora Crippen had. (Cora had shown her scar to friends and talked about surviving what was, at that time, a difficult surgery.)
Crippen’s defense expert argued at trial that the specimen was not scar tissue; the sex of the torso couldn’t even be identified from the remains. Nonetheless, Crippen was convicted and quickly hanged.
Val McDermid, in her wonderfully readable Forensics, reports that, in 2002, the tissue slides were again studied—applying almost 100 years of forensic progress. In that review, Professor Bernard Knight couldn’t attest that the samples were scar tissue; they looked like normal skin. More telling, DNA tests on the tissue didn’t match DNA profiles of Cora’s descendants. McDermid asks, was Spilsbury’s name-making case a mistake?
For more, see Val McDermid, Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA, and More Tell Us About Crime (2014).
Gribble, Leonard, “An Element of Farce,” in Adventures in Murder (Roy: New York, 1955), pp. 114-123.
Hynd, Alan, “The Case of the Lady Who Lost Her Head,” in Poison! Incredible True Stories of Toxic Homicides, by Jones, Richard Glyn, editor (Berkley 1987), pp. 193-205.
Excerpt from: Pickens, Cathy, “Biblio-Murder: When Life Imitates Art,” Mystery Readers Journal 3:2013.
_____, “Classic London Crime,” Mystery Readers Journal, London Mysteries II 2:2011
Dueling Wife Killers? The Greenwood and Armstrong cases
Within two years, in a small part of South Wales, two cases were linked in the public mind from the beginning, by locale, by the legal profession, and by persistent doubt about guilt.
One was that of Major Herbert Rowse Armstrong, whose case is explored in my novel A Southern Guide to Homicide. In an earlier case, Solicitor Harold Greenwood set up practice in Kidwelly, South Wales, with the help of his wife Mabel’s money, in 1898.
Greenwood had a way with the ladies. That was all anyone really had to say against him, though. His marriage to his often-ailing wife seemed happy, except for his penchant for what, according to the gossip, was benign and well-received flirting.
But one June weekend in 1919, Mabel took ill with severe vomiting and diarrhea. The doctor was summoned. He sent pills. He sent a bottle of bismuth. She died anyway. The doctor’s death certificate blamed her heart.
When Greenwood, with a flock of women chasing him, rushed to the altar 3½ months later with the newspaper owner’s daughter, the town gossips began blaming something other than her heart.
As is often the case, conflicting stories grew. Particularly damning was the testimony of the 18-year-old parlor maid who did more than anyone to fit Greenwood for a noose. He was in the pantry alone with the port for fifteen minutes, though he never went in there. The bottle the missus drank from disappeared. No one else drank that.
Her testimony was soundly countered, especially by Greenwood’s daughter: her mother didn’t drink port; they both drank brandy. Harold always washed his hands in the pantry—he’d had a towel roller installed so he wouldn’t have to go upstairs.
But the gossip burned too hot to ignore, even though less than ¼ the minimum lethal dose was found. The trial illuminated the holes in the prosecution case the gossip had ignored: Greenwood lost his wife’s income when she died, so no financial gain. The doctor wasn’t clear what pills he’d sent—opium or morphine? How much? Had he confused bismuth for her upset stomach with Fowler’s solution of arsenic? The bottles were the same.
Or was it the gooseberry tart at supper after all? Maybe tainted from the arsenic weed treatment?
Legendary defense attorney Sir Edward Marshall Hall wove his magic. Greenwood testified—and did well. His daughter did even better; even though she hadn’t been pleased with his quick remarriage, she pointed out she and her mother both drank from the same bottle. Everyone ate the same food. And the parlor maid was disgruntled over almost being sacked.
The jury took only an hour to acquit Greenwood, at which time the gossips twaddle about why he’d ever been tried at all.
Only months later and a few miles away, Herbert Rowse Armstrong was accused of poisoning his wife, Katherine.
Armstrong had been much admired in Hay-on-Wye. At first, people were aghast he’d been arrested.
Armstrong’s barrister, Sir Henry Curtis Bennett, lacked the flash and fire of Greenwood’s attorney. Usually serving as a prosecutor, he also apparently lacked faith in Major Armstrong.
Worse yet, Armstrong drew the pro-prosecution judge Mr. Justice Darling. Throughout the trial, Darling pelted witnesses with pro-prosecution questions and allowed evidence about a tea party and a box of chocolates though no relationship could be drawn with Mrs. Armstrong’s death.
The forces gathered against Mr. Armstrong proved stronger than the doubts. He was hanged on May 31, 1922, five months after his arrest. With dignity, he pronounced his innocence to the end, the only lawyer ever hanged in England.
Beales, Martin. The Hay Poisoner.
Jones, Frank. “A Tale of Two Lawyers,” in White-Collar Killers.
Pearson, Edmund L. “Nineteen Dandelions,” in More Studies in Murder.
Rose, Andrew. Lethal Witness: Sir Bernard Spilsbury, Honorary Pathologist.
Excerpt from: Pickens, Cathy. “Legal Mysteries Line-Up,” Mystery Readers Journal 2: 2012.
Brides of the Bath
George Joseph Smith had no trouble marrying women, but he did have trouble keeping his wives alive. He was convicted and hanged in 1915 for the drowning deaths of three women.
A con-man who lured the women into marriage for financial gain, he managed to drown them without leaving any physical signs of an attack. Pathologist Bernard Spilsbury [see Dark Side of Forensics tab] suggested that he’d grabbed their legs and quickly jerked them up, leaving them unable to struggle. Some suggest that a sudden mouthful of water put pressure on the vagus nerve, causing them to faint.
Apparently one of the experiments to test Spilsbury’s hypothesis left a policewoman needing medical attention.
In a landmark decision, the court allowed testimony of the similar fates of Smith’s wives—one of the first to admit “pattern” crimes in evidence.
Born in Mobile Alabama, Florence Chandler met much-older James Maybrick aboard ship and married the English cotton broker in 1881. They made their home in Battlecrease House, near Liverpool.
Maybrick used arsenic for a variety of ills and had mistresses. Florence, 23 years his junior, followed suit with Alfred Brierley—and her compromising letters caused her more harm in front of the jury than did her use of arsenic as a cosmetic.
In 1889, Maybrick died following a series of bouts of illness—including one resulting from giving himself strychnine. His brother agitated for an examination; Maybrick’s body contained small amounts of arsenic—but he was known to be an “arsenic eater,” using it as a tonic. In Battlecrease House, officials found enough arsenic to kill 50 people.
Perhaps more because of the judgment about her lifestyle than any evidence that she’d caused his death, Florence was convicted and sentenced to die. She served 14 years, was released, and returned to the U.S. She lectured and wrote a book, then lived as a recluse in Connecticut, with only her cats. Few knew of her past when she died in 1941.
Edwards, Martin, The Golden Age of Murder (2015).
Maybrick, Florence Elizabeth, Mrs. Maybrick’s Own Story: My Fifteen Lost Years (1905).