Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen

Act Two: The Wife

"One was never married, and that's his hell; another is, and that's his plague."
Robert Burton


Belle's and Crippen's matrimonial life had been as unmatched as red and green. She wanted glitter and tinsel, he wanted just to be thought of as something more than sawdust. To her, the fantasy evening was yodeling one of her many comic ditties to a music hall-full of appreciative and enamored beaux. To him, it meant sitting arm in arm beside a woman of poise in a private box at the D'Oyly Carte Opera.

Hawley Harvey Crippen was born near the Coldwater River in Michigan, in the Protestant-heavy town of Coldwater, "brought up," says biographer Tom Cullen, "in the self-denying religion of his grandparents and parents. Hard work and fear of the devil were the main tenets upon which that religion was based...In response to the first imperative, (grandfather) Philo had opened a dry goods store...As the fur trappers and loggers passed through on their way to the northern woods, Philo had fitted them out. By the time Hawley's father, Myron Augustus Crippen, had inherited the business, it was prosperous enough for him to marry Andresse Skinner, a local girl, who became Hawley's mother. By 1862, when Hawley was born, the Crippen house...was easily the most imposing."

As a child, Hawley was intrigued by his Uncle Bradley's profession; Bradley was town physician. The interest never waned and throughout his adolescence he would tell his friends he was going to be a physician. After graduating from the University of Michigan, he earned an M.D. at Cleveland's Homeopathic Hospital in 1892. After practicing in Cleveland for several months, he relocated to New York City where he utilized his homoeopathic skills as an eye and ear specialist.

In the 1880s and 1890s, homeopathy was a popular, new medicinal treatment somewhat comparable to today's alternative medicines. By right a naturalist science, the platform of homeopathic medicine was that illnesses are best cured by injection of drugs that produce symptoms not unlike the sickness being treated. Its novel approach came at a time of social and industrial revolution in the world, when people sought enlightenment in all things, where creativity stirred the imaginations of pedestrians in many avenues of life, including the pursuit of health.

Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell
While an intern at Hahnemann Hospital in Manhattan, Crippen wooed and won Irish colleen Charlotte Bell, a nurse. She bore him one son, Otto, but as their life together barely began she died of apoplexy in January, 1892. Overwhelmed by single fatherhood and a demanding medical practice, he left Otto with the elder Crippens (now living in California) and returned east. Upon his return, he met Belle.

To a man like Crippen, raised on practicality with the idea that work, work, work is all that matters, Belle, a young idyllic star-struck, gaudy-in-feathers brown-eyed 19-year-old was a strange and alluring animal. Unlike his deceased wife, unlike anyone else he had known, Belle emanated an almost-libertine fun that caught 30-year-old Hawley Crippen by the libido. He tumbled, a mad hatter, to her perfume of high spirits and freedom to sex, all wrapped in a large bosom and swaying hips.

Belle, in turn, felt attracted to Crippen by his profession. To have a man with M.D. taped after his name was more than complimentary. It represented to her a victory. For, she was in love with the theatre, not Crippen, but Crippen was a Jacobs Ladder to the heaven of bright lights and diamond rings. Hawley Crippen, M.D. could buy her way to the marquee.

It was the age of the great divas, writes Cullen in his Mild Murderer, the age when Adelina Patti could demand and get $5,000 a performance at the Metropolitan Opera House...the age when Emma Calve, when she sang La Traviata, was gowned by Patou, and her jewels came from Cartiers...From the peanut gallery Belle (would) gaze down at the Golden Horseshoe where the Vanderbilts, the Morgans and the Goulds had their boxes, and she could catch the fire of the jewels worn by their ladies. From below and from all sides came the dry cackle of applause, which greeted the singers as they took their curtain calls.

It was a world where Belle belonged, or so she felt. She didnt see herself as Kunigunde Mackamotzki, the name that her grocer parents had given her upon her birth in Brooklyn in 1873. No fruit stands and overcrowded Bowery streets for her. She talked her parents into paying for singing lessons from local professors who did what they could with her tonsils of tin and didnt have the heart to tell the would-be chanteuse she simply did not have what it took. Leaving home at 16 years old, she moved in with a prosperous industrialist who sent her to high-class teachers in exchange for sex, but the climb was arduous and without benchmarks. Hawley Crippen came along and, ready to turn over his pocketbook to her pursuits, the industrialist became history. Kunigunde, who preferred to hide her Baltic background behind the charismatic Belle, married Crippen in September, 1892.

But, fate can be darkly comical. Crippen had met Belle while she had been seeing a fellow doctor for female complaints. Almost immediately after their I Dos, Crippen discovered that he himself began to experience female complaints of a different nature. His wife learned too abruptly that the M.D. she married into was as useable as the cost of the parchment paper on which Crippens degree was stenciled. Not long after they wed, the countrys taste for homeopathy regressed to a renewed belief in established medicines. Dr. Crippens waiting room grew empty and Belles dissatisfaction grew tart.

The Crippens felt the pinch; money for singing and dramatic lessons had run dry. Adding to Belles discouragement, the country had collapsed into a financial depression, one for which President Grover Cleveland, who happened to be in the White House at the time, was blamed. A nation reeling for want of bread on the table cared little about the arts. New Yorks larger theatres remained open by the skin of their teeth, but the smaller community playhouses, the type that might have given a Bohemian artsy nobody like Belle Crippen a chance, chained their doors for want of patrons. Belle, stuck at home ironing, suffocated slowly out of her element.

For a while, Crippen hung a shingle outside his apartment window and practiced dentistry; too soon he realized that straight, white teeth were another trivial concern among the common folk in New York. Answering classifieds, he interviewed for a consultants position with Munyons Homeopathic Remedies. Despite the downfall of homeopathy as a consulting medicine, it remained a popular industry within another booming industry: mail order. Thanks to such entrepreneurs as Alva Sears and Richard Roebuck, ordering everything from (literally) soup to nuts through specialty catalogs had become a civilian way of life. Medicines were not excluded. To the poor, who could not afford doctor visits in an age before family medical insurance, home remedies such as that offered by the homeopathic field were quite affordable. Munyons, Crippen learned, was growing by leaps and bounds.

Professor Horace Munyon liked the bespectacled, erudite Crippen of whom he later told the New York Times, (He) was one of the most intelligent men I ever knew. Considering him a man of vision with a good work ethic, Munyon in 1895 appointed Crippen general manager of his central office in Philadelphia. After notably increasing sales in that sector, Crippen was again promoted and charged with opening a new office in the Commonwealth of Canada. His star was rising. It gleamed a year later when Munyon gave him the chance of a lifetime: to establish and manage the first of Munyons overseas offices. He was going to London, England, guaranteed a salary of $10,000 a year exorbitant for 1897.

Belle, a publicity shot by Hana's of London, ca 1898
Belle, a publicity shot by
Hana's of London, ca 1898
As Crippen lay the cornerstone of Munyon's in the center of London's business district, on Shaftesbury Avenue, Belle remained in Philadelphia wasting no time in opening her own connections to the city's top vocal coaches and acting instructors. This interaction involved the acquaintanceship of many of the opposite sex. And to say she was flirtatious would be an understatement. According to several accounts, Belle, a woman of sudden means, was also one of sullen virtue. She covered her wrists and outstanding cleavage in gems and expensive baubles to tickle the interest of idle and lusting stage-door johnnies.

Was Crippen aware of her flirtations back in the States? He must have greatly suspected them, for her batting eyelids had caused many a domestic battle over the years. After six months apart, the matters of business in gear, he at last summoned her to London to their luxurious flat near Picadilly. He hoped that, once in England, she would throw herself into the pursuit of art and forget about men, not realizing it was that very pursuit that fed her an unending availability of men. One of these was a former Chicago prizefighter-turned-showman and swaggering man-about-town named Bruce Miller.

Thanks to the support of a songwriter and playwright named Adeline Harrison, who shared professional friendship with London's West End cultural crowd and who had taken a liking to the effervescent Mrs. Crippen, Belle obtained an indefinite run at the Old Marylebone Theatre. Her debut presented a libretto that she wrote, but which was greatly overhauled by Mrs. Harrison, called The Unknown Quantity. Belle failed to charm her nightly audiences one evening they booed her and the production closed within the week. Following this miserable ingress, she performed ditties and one-acts at out-of-the-way theatres in suburban Clapham, Camberwell and Holborn, effecting little if any impression on the theatre-going crowds of London town.

In its chapter on Dr. Crippen, the anthological Crimes of Horror, edited by Angus Hall, expresses of Belle, "(She had) a grandiose ambition to become an opera star. As a professional singer...Belle...made a fairly indifferent chorus girl. Her voice matched that of her personality, and was loud, vulgar, unsubtle and lacking in feminine charm." Short in stature, and predisposed to a full figure, she did not cut the idyllic personae of the leading lady she hoped to become.

When first embarking on her British career, Belle employed the stage name Cora Motzki, which she thought was Continental enough to suggest the exotic, but her detractors and unfortunately there were many came to calling her "Cora, the Brooklyn Matzos Ball". When she learned of this, she grew livid and promptly changed her moniker to Belle Elmore.

The name change did not help. On occasion, husband Crippen would attend one of Miss Elmore's performances. Not considering himself a judge of what is and isn't la theatre, he did consider himself a fair monitor of human reaction. One wonders, then, what he thought when, standing in the dark behind the last row of a half-empty house, he could see for himself the careless behavior of the spectators captured in the reflective gaslight of the proscenium. While his wife strutted in some peacock-colored costume or chirped of love to a sometimes-off-key orchestra, the audience whispered, played, teased each other, or shared asides of something remote to what unfolded in front of them. And when she dared to perform opera, they even laughed. Lyrics such as

"I'm called little Buttercup, dear little Buttercup, though I could never tell why.
Still I'm called Buttercup, poor little Buttercup, sweet little Buttercup I!"

would bring the house down.

But, Belle loved living the nightlife that the theatre brought; in that aspect, she was successful. She never hesitated to refuse nightly dinners of sumptuous proportions alongside her footlight friends while Crippen paced the Oriental rugs at home. Often, her late-dinner chums were of an intimate nature males like Bruce Miller who found her plumping curves dessert after flaming duck. Miller proved to be everything that her Hawley was not; he was toned of muscle, curly-haired and possessive of the beast-grunt that a woman of Belle's fantasies desired.

Men. She loved men. The quicker her professional aims fizzled the quicker she found compensation in the bed of an admiring dandy. Unlike Hawley, these men like Miller sympathized when she complained of her talents-so-overlooked and even if their compatriotism was merely a suggestion of praise to unlace her petticoat, well, it was more than what she was getting from stick-in-the-mud Hawley.

It wasn't that Crippen was consciously cold to her needs, but the ups and downs of a theatrical career even his wife's were, to a man of logic, superfluous. That he understood and felt sorry for her disappointments, there is no doubt. If asked why he remained unobliged to listen to her curtain call anecdotes, he might have answered with some shock that she cared little when he explained the curing elements in Munyon's recently introduced bottle of liver pills and, besides, hadn't his income made it possible for her to buy all those costumes, furs, dresses, necklaces, brooches and everything else she needed to play the star?

If pressed further to explain his remoteness, Crippen might even have alluded to the fact that she continued to flirt and sometimes wander home at sunrise with implausible excuses.

Things might have been different if he loved her. Or if she loved him.

Not long after she joined him in London, it became obvious that their relationship had evolved into two plains: They either argued incessantly, days and nights without letup, or would sink into a vacuum that consisted of unemotional statements of Good Morning and Good Night. In between, he immersed himself into the world of glass vials and bell jars and herbal root cures packaged in sanitized bottles and shipped across England by parcel express. She retreated into the false idolatry of stage dreams. When they had sex, it was as generic as the habitual bowls of oatmeal they ate at breakfast.

The one time that Crippen did show support for her stage work resulted in disaster. In November, 1899, he purchased a full page in a London playbill to promote his wife's theatrical efforts, listing himself as her business manager. It truly was a heartfelt effort to show her his support. Whether or not she appreciated the act is not recorded, but someone definitely did not: Professor Munyon. Misconstruing the message, Hawley's employer believed Crippen was spending too much time on other ventures instead of those of the organization.

Crippen was instantly fired.

"(The) loss of his $10,000 a year position with Munyon's left Crippen floundering," Tom Cullen attests, "and it was many months before he again found his feet. First, he went to work for a rival concern, the Sovereign Remedy Company, failed after eight months. Then he tried marketing a nerve tonic called 'Amorette,' bottled from his own remedy...but (it) failed to get off the ground." The couple was forced to move from their first-class apartment to a much cheaper one in Bloomsbury. And, to pepper the wound, he found letters addressed to Belle from Bruce Miller, who signed off, "Love and Kisses to Brown Eyes."

These affections came at a time when Crippen was experiencing a mental low. Brashly disarmed of his finances, rudely ushered from his world of medicine, his pride had slipped and with it his feeling of manhood. Belle's reaction to his discovery of Miller's sweetie-pie letters was not repentant, but defensive. She blamed her spouse for both her downfall on the stage and his own collapse in business. His resolve weakened, he remained mute.


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