Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen

Act Seven: The Trials

"Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell."

Emily Dickinson


Arraignment in London (Sketch: Daisy Bank Publishing)
Arraignment in London
(Sketch: Daisy Bank Publishing)
Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve were tried separately in October at the Old Bailey courthouse he for the murder of Belle, she as an accessory after the fact and a fugitive from justice.

The womans trial, merely a formality, was brief one day and punctilious. Public sentiment weighed heavily for her while legal luminaries likewise forecast her innocence. Her brilliant defender, Frederick Edward Smith, K.C., merely challenged prosecutor Richard Muir to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Ethel was cognizant of her lovers crime and aware that, while on the Montrose, her trip was actually a flight from justice. The Crown was unable to successfully establish guilt in either allegation. After twenty minutes of deliberation, Ethel was found Not Guilty.

Crippens trial, which lasted from October 18-22, had been just as nearly open-and-shut as Ethels, but it spoke with an altogether different voice. A horribly mutilated body had been found in his cellar, that of his wife with whom he had shared an unhappy, sometimes hostile life; what he had done to the victim was unforgivable, beyond human understanding. When cornered, he had (by his own confession to Drew) lied time and again about Belles whereabouts lied to neighbors, friends, the police. Most damaging of all, the day after he had been questioned by a Scotland Yard detective (Drew), he absconded out of the country with his inamorata.

A. A. Tobin
A. A. Tobin
He pleaded not guilty, yet he knew the cards were stacked against him. And he did nothing to change the image of the man caught with the knife in his hand. His defense counselor, Alfred A. Tobin, did what he could and probably could have done more had Crippen cooperated.

Most legal experts are agreed that Crippens only hope of escaping the hangmans noose lay in entering a plea of guilty, making play of such mitigating circumstances as there were, then throwing himself upon the mercy of the court, declares biographer Tom Cullen. A guilty plea would have involved...dragging into the open the whole sordid story of Crippens married life with Belle...Ethel would have to be called as a witness, and the story of Crippens affair with Ethel including her pregnancy and miscarriage would have to be developed through her testimony in open court...Crippen of course would not for a single moment hear of calling Ethel to his defense.

Taking the stand, the defendant stood his ground and denied having killed anyone. How Belles body was buried beneath his home he could not say; and when he left England, it was because he hadnt understood that he was expected to remain. His justification was tremulous, but the accused didnt tremble once.

He chose to die honorably, Crippen did. Vindicating Ethel came noticeably first and foremost in his actions, a demeanor that drew praise even from his detractors, from the police, from the courts, even from the newspapers who had been braced up to gibe another Jack the Ripper but wrote with philosophic pen when the time came. They condemned the heinous crime but not the respectful Prisoner of the Bar who behaved with contrition as if taking up so much of everyones time.

They pondered: What, they asked, could have driven this gentleman to commit the atrocity he committed? It was Jekyll and Hyde, a dual personality. Or was it something else? He may have loved so much, adored so much that Ethel, to him, was his guardian angel and Belle the Evil barring him from her. When he slashed Belle to pieces, did he actually see the nature of his crime, or did he envision that tub-full of blood as a sacrificial altar mandating protection of all the good and sweet things in the world?

Says Filson Young in the Trial of Hawley Harvey Crippen, He never gave any trouble, showed any concern or asked for any benefit for himself; all his concern and all his requests were for the woman he loved...We may consider Crippen a hateful man; but nobody who came in contact with him was able to say so (including) the officials of the prison in which he was executed as a condemned murderer.

The Right Honorable Lord Alverstone
The Right Honorable Lord
After five days of weak defense testimony and a battering ram prosecution by Richard Muir, the jury found Harvey Crippen "guilty of wilful murder" When Lord Chief Justice Lord Alverstone, presiding, asked the prisoner if he had anything to say why the judgement of death should not be passed upon him, Crippen murmured, "I still protest my innocence."

The black scarf having been placed upon his white wig, Lord Alverstone cleared his throat and, refusing to blink, caught the dimming eyes of the condemned man. "Harvey Hawley Crippen," he began, "you have been convicted, upon evidence...that you cruelly poisoned your wife, that you concealed your crime, you mutilated her body, and disposed piece-meal of her remains; you possessed yourself of her property, and used it for your own purposes. It was further established that as soon as suspicion was aroused, you fled from justice...I implore you to make your peace with Almighty God. I have now to pass upon you the sentence of the Court, which is that you be taken from hence to a lawful prison, and from thence to a place of execution, and that you be there hanged by the neck until you are dead...And may the Lord have mercy on your soul!"

And the chaplain, head bent, grieved, "Amen!"


Crippen's plea for an appeal was dashed when the appellate jury ruled against it. The only prayer that remained was for a reprieve from Home Secretary Winston Churchill but that never came. Pentonville Prison Governor Major Mytton-Davies delivered the bad news to Crippen on November 19 that Churchill severed all hope.

His execution would take place within the week, on Wednesday morning, November 23, 1910.

"He was so kind and considerate," Crippen wrote to Ethel, describing the warden's emotion in breaking the news to him. Ethel refrained from telling him in their heartbreak that it was Mytton-Davies himself who had vindictively ordered her away from his home when she had gone there to plead for Crippen's life.

Ethel visited her lover daily. They followed each visitation with a letter. Hers may never be seen as they were buried with the condemned, but his speak of his adoration to her and of a growing belief that God would sanction their love after death. "We shall meet again!" he vowed.

The night before her last visit to his cell, dreading their final moments together, he anguished, "How am I to endure to take my last look at your dear face; what agony must I go through when you disappear forever from my eyes. God help us to be brave."

He requested of the prison, and was granted, permission to take her photo and her letters to the grave with him. Both gave him consolation. And final dreams.


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