Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen

Act Four: The Murder

"...I've got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground
And who never would be missed, who never would be missed."

The Mikado Gilbert & Sullivan


At the stroke of midnight, New Year's, 1910, Ethel Le Neve and her aunt Octavia, with whom she was temporarily boarding in Hove, stepped out onto their front porch to hear the toots of pedestrian blow-horns and the peeling of the church bells around Sussex. Ethel's thoughts were on Hawley, wishing she were with him tonight. Oh! What a celebration it would really be! She hoped for good fortune in 1910.

Miles away, at the same time in London, the Crippens and their dinner guests, the Nashes, listened to the street racket of celebrants, whose din almost drowned out the reverberations of steeple bells from All Souls Church. Hawley, enwrapped in visions of Ethel, didn't hear any of it. He wasn't going to wait for fortune. He would make his own in 1910.


On January 17, Crippen ordered five grains of the poison hydrobromide of hyoscine from Lewis & Burrows, chemists whom he dealt with through his profession. Hyoscine, a nightshade, was commonly used by doctors in extremely small dosages at London's Bedlam Institute to quiet its violently insane and alcoholic patients. The drug is so lethal, however, that if injected in a quantity above a quarter-grain it could kill instantly.

Two weeks later Belle disappeared.

The last friends to see her alive were Paul and Clara Martinetti who dined and played whist with Belle and Hawley on the evening of January 31. "At 1:30 when they decided to leave Belle urged the Martinettis to stay the night rather than to brave the inclemency out of doors; but the couple insisted on going home," Tom Cullen reports in The Mild Murderer. "Crippen was dispatched to fetch a carriage (which he found on) Camden Road. Then there was the leave-taking with the Crippens standing at the top of the steps, and Clara kissing Belle goodnight. When the latter wanted to accommodate her friend down the steps to the waiting cab, Mrs. Martinetti stopped her, saying, 'You'll catch your death.'"

Before dawn, Belle was dead. Winter's winds hadn't killed her. Her husband had.

Because Hawley Crippen never confessed to the crime, and since the ensuing trial was never able to explain in detail what really did happen that morning of February 1, 1910, there remains only conjecture, pieced together from the state of the body when it was uncovered and from various testimonies. Several respected contemporaries of Crippen presented speculation as to what they thought might have occurred at 39 Hilldrop Crescent during those dark hours. Among these men were Inspector Dew of Scotland Yard and the renowned barrister, Sir Edward Marshall Hall, K.C. (King's Counsel), who studied the case at the time and for years afterward.

The most illuminative theory, however, comes from London Coroner and barrister S. Ingleby Oddie. To present his grand scenario, which is based on forensic findings revealed months after the murder, we are obligated at this point in the chapter that deals with the murder to present those findings now before returning to and resuming with the chronology at hand. In doing this, Crippen's actions immediately following his crime until the time he is arrested for it, will be made more comprehensible and relevant to the unfolding sequence of events.

Now, Oddie's hypothesis:

Crippen mixes a hot toddy for his wife before retiring, something he is known to do. But, this time, he laces it with hydrobromide of hyoscine. He waits for the drug to take effect, to lull her to sleep, to invalidate her muscular movement, to steadily decrease the rate of her heart. His plan is to wait many hours after she succumbs, then, feigning shock, telephone a personal friend and colleague, Dr. John S, Burroughs, informing him that he has found Belle dead in bed. The reasons that Oddie believes Burroughs would have been the contact are two-fold: 1 Oddie had great respect for Burroughs and would have gone along with his medical diagnosis, thus eliminating any cause for examination of the corpse; and 2 Crippen had told Burroughs in mid-December that he had been worried about his wife's health, as she had been feeling ill lately.

Belle does not react to the toxin as expected; instead of becoming lethargic, she begins to babble, then scream. Crippen realizes that he has administered too large of a dose. When dealing with this form of poison, there is a fine line between sedation and frenzy; a half-grain can kill without incident, a mite of a percentage more can cause vomiting, hallucination and lunacy. (Says Oddie: "Mrs. Crippen became hysterical under the influence...and started running amuck, shouting and shrieking the house down...")

Crippen alarms. Afraid that neighbors will rouse from their beds by her screams, he panics and grabs for a six-chambered .45 caliber revolver he has stored in his armoire for protection. (The one that Inspector Dew later found in his search of the premises.) The doctor shoots his wife in the head. ("Shrieks were heard in the house on that fatal night," Oddie attests, "and a loud noise like a pistol shot or a door banging was heard by one of the neighbors.")

With a corpse on his hands, Crippen's initial plans go awry. He now must dispose of the evidence, the body itself. The only solution is dissection. (Crippen has been schooled in anatomy.) But, such an operation causes extensive blood staining unless performed in Crippen's enameled bathtub, next to the bedroom.

Knowing at this point that he will bury her in his cellar, which isn't very large 6' by 9' in fact he reduces her cadaver into parts, severing arms, legs and head. Belle was a stout woman with a large skeletal structure, so to squeeze her remains into the smallest space possible, he literally fillets her, removing her ribs and spine. Wrapping these bones in an oilcloth, he takes them down to the kitchen hearth where he burns them in the grate. In the morning he will pulverize what is left. Remaining in the tub, soaking in its own blood and loosened organs, is a deflated balloon of flesh that was once Belle Crippen.

After wrapping the torso in a pair of his own pajamas, he buries it under the stone blocks of the cellar, just below the back staircase. He returns to the bathroom, gathers up her limbs, head and severed organs, including her heart, and deposits them into a heavy cloth, which he stores in a crate in the dustbin.

It has long been daylight. He throws his bloody clothes into the fire, and then dozes a little. At the appointed time, he rises. Waking, he surveys the murder and dissection areas for traces of blood that he may have overlooked through tired eyes. Dressing, shaving, he heads to work, arriving at the dental office on time, 9 a.m. He acts as if nothing has happened.

That evening, Tuesday, he goes straight home, eats dinner. Grabbing several bricks from his garden, and the sack of body parts in the dustbin, he strolls the few blocks to the Holloway Sanitation Canal. Crouching in the shadows at the end of Cliff Road, he weighs the sack with the bricks and drops the grisly package into the murky, bubbling waters.

Dead tired by this time, having had virtually no sleep for 48 hours, several patients and more than his share of back-breaking work at home, he retires early.


If he dreamed at all that Tuesday night, it may have been of the good life. Of 39 Hilldrop Crescent without Belle. Perhaps, he drew his pillow beside him and embraced it to his chest. And pretended it was the soft form of Ethel Le Neve who would soon lie beside him, for real, for evermore.



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