Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen

Act Six: The Ship

"What is a ship but a prison?"

Robert Burton


"Everyone aboard the S.S. Montrose considered them to be a most considerate and devoted couple the father and son who were traveling to start a new life in Canada. Mr. and Master Robinson to use the names they gave to the purser were never seen apart, and although they were polite and agreeable, they spoke to no one else unless they had to..."

So begins the chapter on the Crippen case in Crimes of Horror, edited by Angus Hall. The story concentrates on the doctor's attempted escape from Scotland Yard across the North Atlantic on the White Star liner Montrose. "Mr. Robinson" is, of course, Crippen, and his "son" is Ethel Le Neve masquerading as a teenage boy. She thinks she is doing so to save her virtue an unmarried woman didn't share a cabin with a man in 1910 but Crippen has talked her into the guise because he knows that authorities would be looking for an attractive brunette woman of twenty-seven in the company of a fortyish male with spectacles and a mustache. He has shaved off his mustache.

Captain Kendall
Captain Kendall
The article continues: "During the day, they sat together on deck, chatting quietly about the sea, the weather and the marvels of the recently installed Marconi wireless aerial which crackled above their heads sending messages both ways across the Atlantic...But as the voyage continued...Captain Kendall's suspicions were first aroused when he noticed Master Robinson's trousers were too large for his slender body and were held in place by means of a large safety-pin."

Crippen and his love had boarded the Montrose, a 5,500-ton steerage vessel, in Antwerp on July 20. On that day it headed down the River Scheldt to the open sea, bound for Canada. The fugitive couple, who sailed second-class, were two of 280 passengers aboard. Harry Kendall, the captain, had been watching the tall, slim boy with haphazardly mended trousers and soon realized that "his" hips swayed unnaturally for a male and "his" hair that was noticeably too soft and feminine despite the hat that covered most of it.

Newspapers weren't available on the voyage, but the captain had brought along with him a copy of the local newspaper that had come out the morning of sailing; on its front page were photos of the wanted twosome, Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve. Studying the photographs, Kendall determined that Mr. Robinson closely resembled the eluding dentist and that his companion, the boy with the pretty face, could very well be Ethel.

Captain Kendall made history when on July 22 he sent the first-ever wireless telegraph that resulted in the capture of a criminal. Sent from a point 120 miles west of Cornwall, England, to the White Star Company in Liverpool, it read:

Have strong suspicion that Crippen London Cellar Murderer and accomplice are among saloon passengers. Mustache taken off growing beard. Accomplice dressed as boy. Voice manner and build undoubtedly a girl. Both traveling as Mr. and Master Robinson. Kendall.

Mitchell, Foster & Stone
Mitchell, Foster & Stone
The cable was sent immediately to Scotland Yard, its recipient being Inspector Dew who was heading up the Crippen case. Dew contacted the White Star Line to book passage on its next transatlantic voyage to Canada. Luck was with him, for he learned that the Laurentic was leaving Liverpool in the morning (July 23) and, being a faster ship than the Montrose, would arrive at Quebec a day earlier. Receiving the approval of the Central Investigation Division, Drew boarded the night train out of London to Liverpool. In the seats beside him were Sergeant Mitchell and two wardresses, Miss Foster and Miss Stone, who would take charge of Miss Le Neve upon arrest.


The British love a good mystery and, despite its gruesome nature, the Belle Crippen murder provided all the ingredients for an edge-of-the-seat melodrama right down to a chase on the briny sea that promised a thrilling novel-like climax. It captured the imagination of the world, Tom Cullen apprises in his Mild Murderer. As a cliff-hanger, it rivaled the account of Sherlock Holmes grappling with Professor Moriarty above the falls at Reichenbach. Would the Laurentic overtake the Montrose? Would the couple aboard the latter whom Kendall strongly suspected of being Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve in fact prove to be them?

Cullen points out that there had already been identification glitches. Before the drama on the high seas commenced, and while the world waited for Crippen to manifest from hiding, The London Times reported the misadventures of a poor soul in Stonebridge: On two occasions a gentleman who was unfortunate enough to resemble Crippen facially was brought to Scotland Yard...On the first occasion, he took the experience in good part, but when the same thing happened a second time he was highly indignant, and said it was getting to be a habit.

On the Montrose and inaccessible to newspapers, star players Crippen and Le Neve had no idea the country they left considered them the talk of the town. London-based newspapers and magazines splashed their pages with anything and everything pertaining to what was fast becoming known as the North London Cellar Murder. The London Times, The Pall Mall Gazette, The Westminster Gazette, The Daily Mail, The Strand had respectively made Dew and Captain Kendall heroes. Staff columnists kept abreast of the Montroses and the Laurentics positions, interviewed those who knew Crippen and Le Neve, examined their lives independently and with each other, and reviewed the stage career of Belle. (She had finally made the headlines, but not in the way she had hoped.)

Sometimes there was ribaldry in jokes, limericks and in verse. One music hall comic, after viewing Belles photo in the newspaper, announced, What a face! Crippen is innocent! A popular vaudeville tune rang:

Oh Miss Le Neve, oh Miss Le Neve,
Is it true that you are sittin
On the lap of Dr. Crippen
In your boys clothes
On the Montrose,
Miss La Neve?

Dew was on target, and ready. The Laurentic passed the Montrose at midnight, July 27, mid-sea on its way to Father Point, Quebec. The latter ship was scheduled to dock at the same place 24 hours later on July 31 at which time Dew would then board her and arrest the fugitives. Kendall remained apprised of Dews location.

Crippen and Ethel continued to be seen together in disguise, keeping virtually to themselves, usually immersed in respective novels; the doctor read a thriller called Four Just Men, while Ethel read romance, Audreys Recompense. One afternoon, Ethel became a heroine. A little Belgian boy slipped on the deck in front of where she sat reading and, if not for Ethels quick reflexes, he would have slipped through the railing into the ocean. But, the scream she reflexively emitted when grabbing his little arms was definitely that of a womans.

As the Montrose neared Quebec, a pall seemed to have fallen over Crippens up-till-then cheery spirit. Ethel noticed it, and asked him what was bothering him. He told her something that, according to her memoirs, she was never able to fully understand unless he had had a portent of doom. I might have to leave you once we disembark, said he.
What do you mean, leave me? she was flabbergasted.
He hemmed. You may want to brush up on your typing skills as Im sure you will find yourself a great job in Canada. I suggest you go to Toronto I hear its a wonderful place.
And what about you? she pressed, astonished at what she was hearing.
Oh, nothing, he answered. Thinking ahead I guess.

She felt that there was more, but didnt want to push it at this moment. Figuring he might tell her in time, Ethel didnt realize that their time together had just about ended.

Crippen (right) being led off the Montrose by Dew
Crippen (right) being led off
the Montrose by Dew
If Hawley Harvey Crippen had been having bad premonitions, they were justified; perhaps as he listened to the buzz-scratch-buzz of the Marconi wireless relay he figured out that it was etching tales of his escape for the authorities. Maybe he had seen the questions in the eyes of the crewmen. It could be that he felt, simply, his good luck had already been overextended. But, he didn't react with great surprise when, just outside Quebec, a tall gentleman in sailor's pea-coat stepped up before him and Ethel and said, with a courteous smile, "Good morning, Dr. Crippen." Crippen knew the man immediately. "Good morning, Inspector Dew."


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