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Was the Doctor Convicted of Killing His Wife Guilty? A London Mystery Involving an American Adulterer

LONDON--‘Hilldrop Crescent is a quiet suburban place, although in the inner ring of the Metropolis, and reasoning specifically, it would be the last spot one would have dreamt of for the scene of a sordid murder’. Thus did the British newspaper The Islington Gazette for 15 July 1910 describe the location of one of Edwardian London’s most notorious crimes; the poison murder by Michigan-born Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen of his German-American wife Cora at number 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Holloway. Number 39, in 1910 a semi-detached Victorian villa in a leafy north London street, promptly entered the long and baleful catalogue of London murder sites. Even after almost a century’s passing, what happened here can still draw a shudder.

The facts of the case were, and remain, sensational. It started off as a missing persons investigation and became the ultimate in contemporary popular titillation. The burgeoning British popular press of the early 20th century lapped it up with gusto; the drama truly gripped the nation. In 1910, Dr Crippen, an American self-styled physician - he never qualified with a full medical degree – was working in London for Munyon’s, a firm specialising in homoeopathic remedies. Born in 1862 in Coldwater, Michigan, Crippen had worked all over the United States selling homoeopathic medicines before being sent by Munyon's to work in their London office in 1900.

Crippen's move to London was a fateful one. He was questioned by police on 8 July 1910 following the disappearance of his second wife Cora. Cora, also an American - born Kunigunde Mackamotski in Chicago- who took the stage name 'Belle Elmore', was a failed variety performer turned Honorary Treasurer of the Music Hall Ladies Guild. Whilst she was an ardent social climber (to put it mildly), he was a reserved, bespectacled 48 year old, standing five feet three inches tall. Both were involved in extra-marital affairs in a loveless marriage on the brink of collapse. On 9 July 1910, police were surprised to learn that Crippen had suddenly left London with his secretary and mistress, Ethel Le Neve, for Quebec, Canada on board the liner Montrose. Detectives subsequently dug up the coal cellar of number 39 on 13 July where they found what appeared to be the dismembered remains of Cora Crippen. Forensic examination of the corpse revealed the presence of Hyoscine hybromide poison, significant quantities of which Crippen had purchased in January 1910. The murder date was estimated as the previous February.

A transatlantic chase ensued. The pursuit of Crippen and Le Neve – the latter disguised as his son - made criminal history. For the first time, police made use of shore-to-ship wireless telegraphy in apprehension of a murder suspect. It caused a British tabloid news feeding frenzy as the public followed accounts of the police pursuit led by Chief Inspector Walter Dew aboard a faster liner, the Laurentic. Both fugitives were arrested as the Montrose docked at Quebec on 31 July. Crippen was subsequently tried at the Old Bailey, found guilty and hanged on 23 November 1910 at Pentonville Prison – barely one mile east from Hilldrop Crescent. Ethel Le Neve was acquitted and lived until 1967 in South London.

But the story of this London cellar murder was far from over. After Crippen’s execution, number 39 became a voyeur’s delight. London’s most infamous address in 1910, it provided column inches galore. What is more, the Crippen case’s notoriety has not decreased over the past century. If anything the controversy has deepened. Since 2002 alone a series of books, newspaper articles and television documentaries have attempted to prove serious failings in the case and exonerate Crippen from guilt. These accounts allege use of flawed forensics at Crippen’s trial by pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury and the mistaken conclusions of expert witnesses Doctors Augustus Pepper and William Henry Wilcox; Crippen’s weak defence versus outstanding prosecution counsel; undue media influence on the jury (the tabloid John Bull paid for Crippen’s defence but bombarded the public with every lurid detail), paid prosecution witnesses and crime scene contamination by the Metropolitan Police. Enough, the revisionists say, to make Crippen’s conviction and execution unsound. One ex-FBI toxicologist has even spent the past decade attempting to prove by DNA analysis that the corpse was not that of Cora Crippen at all. More recently, some theories allege that Cora had already left Crippen to return to Chicago with her long time lover, Bruce Miller, a Chicago prizefighter and strongman. Then, even as Crippen awaited execution in 1910, a letter - with a Chicago postmark- reached Pentonville Prison purporting to be from Cora herself. But it was never used as evidence in Crippen's defence trial. The British Home Secretary of the day - one Winston Churchill - decided not to include it in the evidence submissions.

Amid the swirl of modern claim and counter claim regarding the criminal case, the story of what happened to the murder location itself is rather less well known. Passers by on this North London street can still find much to ponder, even if little physical evidence of the house remains today. When the Crippens moved to 39 Hilldrop Crescent in 1905, an upmarket move from their lodgings in Bloomsbury, number 39 represented stability, outward respectability and aspiration. A four storey shrubbery-fronted semi-detached Victorian villa, it was a highly desirable location between busy Caledonian and Holloway Roads. Modifying Charles Dickens, The Islington Gazette further described the house as ‘situated in a back wash of the whirling waters of modern Babylon’. The Crippens had rented number 39 – plus the services of a single servant - for the then expensive £50 per year. The account of one of Cora Crippen’s acquaintances states that she proceeded to fill several rooms with stage costumes, painted large sections of the interior pink and delighted in holding American-themed cocktail parties for her theatrical set and fellow Music Hall Ladies Guild members. But the pressures of life at number 39 were mounting. Whilst concealing his affair with Ethel Le Neve, Dr Crippen’s financial worries and his wife’s own infidelities and extravagances were also increasing. By early February 1910, he was ensnared in a series of risky business ventures and had been obliged to sublet one floor of number 39 to to meet the yearly rent. Before 1914, London - like large US cities of the era - was a seething melting pot of nationalities. In the run up to the First World War the British capital hosted a large expatriate German community. Crippen sublet the room to several young German students with whom - to his rage - Cora built rather too close a relationship. It was set against this background that Cora Crippen disappeared shortly afterwards.

The fate of number 39 Hilldrop Crescent in the years following 1910 was not to be a happy one. Gawked at for years by the curious, it was eventually sold to an entrepreneur, Sandy McNab Esq, who turned it into a Crippen museum of the Grand Guignol type. Dressed in top hat and frock coat – he drew the line at a swirling cape – he was pictured in the national press beckoning paying customers inside. When this venture inevitably failed, number 39 became a lodging house for variety performers, an irony given Cora Crippen’s failed aspirations as a music hall chanteuse. During the 1920’s and 1930’s number 39’s fortunes dipped further. The bad memories persisted as it became increasingly run down and the surrounding borough of Islington felt the full effects of the Depression years. The end finally arrived on the night of 8th September 1940. Hilldrop Crescent was bombed by German aircraft as the London Blitz intensified. According to local Islington Borough archives, three houses in the Crescent (nos 37-40) were destroyed or badly damaged. The remnants of number 39 remained a bomb site until 1951. In 1953, post war local authority flats were built over number 39’s foundations. Named Margaret Bondfield House (after the first British woman MP to become a Cabinet Minister in 1929) these corporation flats were designed to represent the future. Hilldrop Crescent today is mostly post-war housing estate developments festooned with satellite dishes. Only eight Victorian houses are left. The Crescent’s aura of middle class respectability has long since departed.

Yet one can still gain a flavour of the past. In 2008, maisonettes in several of the surviving Victorian villas - identical to the Crippen residence - are for sale. A one bedroom second floor flat was recently on the market for £250,000. At a stretch, one can imagine Dr Crippen walking daily to the end of his quiet crescent to catch tram and omnibus to the bustling central London of 1910. Even as his marriage failed and the clinking bottles of Hyoscine at his workplace turned from innocuous remedies to instruments of murderous wish fulfilment.

Today, the site of number 39 Hilldrop Crescent guards its secrets closely. A plaque on Margaret Bondfield House recalling the events of 1910 is unlikely any time soon. Perhaps this is not surprising; most residents still object. Meanwhile, it will likely prove a place of prurient interest for years to come. Like the faint aroma of a dangerous toxin, number 39 Hilldrop Crescent and the vanished Edwardian world of which it was part lingers uneasily in modern imagination.

It was also journey's end for American songstress Kunigunde Mackamotski. In death, she would make criminal justice history and achieve the fame she craved in life. Unfortunately, the venue would be a cold London basement.