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Filet of bitch

I don’t know why the Daily Mail floated this story to the top yesterday — it’s a couple of years old — but I hadn’t heard it and we were talking murderers. This is one of the most famous.

Hawley Crippen was a henpecked American doctor living in London with his horrible wife. She disappeared in 1910. When questioned, he told the police she had run off with a man and he was too embarrassed to admit it to their friends.

Then he vanished with his mistress.

So Scotland Yard dug up his cellar and found…a big, amorphous mass of rotting belly skin and a hair curler wrapped in his pajama top.

At trial, the pathologist swore the skin belonged to his wife because it had a recognizable scar. He was hanged.

The case is famous for two things: it was Bernard Spilsbury‘s first major court appearance (if forensic pathologists had rock stars, he’d be the first and biggest). And it was the first case to involve the telegraph wireless, as Crippen was breathlessly followed across the Atlantic by the paper-reading public rather like an Edwardian white Bronco.

Welp, somebody recently dug out the microscope slide of the supposed scar and had some DNA testing done. Not only is the skin not that of Mrs Crippen, it’s not even a woman (the things they can tell from DNA these days).

If you’re interested, you can watch an hour-long PBS program about it online.

I’m not persuaded by the toxicologist’s explanation, but I truly don’t know what to think about the new evidence. One thing we certainly agree on, though — I’ve always thought it exceedingly strange that a man would successfully dispose of all the bones, organs and limbs of his victim and then give up and bury a big, nasty slab of belly skin wrapped in his own PJ’s under the floor next to the kitchen.


Comment from Phineas Fogg
Time: January 18, 2011, 11:01 pm

It wasn’t the telegraph it was the wireless shore to ship. A good to read about it is Thunderstruck by Erik Larsen

Comment from Monotone The Elderish
Time: January 18, 2011, 11:16 pm

was he perhaps framed? Maybe what he said was true and his wife did run off with another man then the man killed someone and put it in crippen’s basement? hmm….

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: January 18, 2011, 11:29 pm

Wireless. You’re entirely correct; I’ll fix it.

The toxicologist speculates he was framed by the police, Monotone. Because it was the crime of the century, at the time. But it didn’t become the crime of the century until after the blob of tissue was found.

He ran. And he tried to disguise his mistress as his teenage son. That’s just so darned incriminating it’s hard to see past it.

And one day his wife was having a dinner party with friends, the next she vanished — without taking her clothes or her jewelry — and never communicated with any of them again.

Comment from Phineas Fogg
Time: January 18, 2011, 11:45 pm


Comment from Phineas Fogg
Time: January 19, 2011, 12:27 am

He was nabbed on the SS Montrose with Ethel Neave his mistress, who was posing as a teenage boy. If you read Thunderstruck… I still say he did it. Remember OJ had DNA evidence that was deemed “tainted”

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: January 19, 2011, 12:32 am

It’s hard to believe he didn’t, Phineas. You have to concoct a pretty Byzantine scenario to deal with all the evidence against him. His family is trying hard for a pardon, though.

I’ve always thought he got a bum rap for being evil, though. He put up with Cora’s shit for years, and was touchingly solicitous of his mistress. As murderers go, he wasn’t a bad guy.

Comment from Oldcat
Time: January 19, 2011, 1:31 am

Well its kind of an awkward defense – “Look, I was framed because I buried her body in Hyde Park, not my basement!”

Comment from Monotone The Elderish
Time: January 19, 2011, 1:56 am

Ah, I see what your saying Stoaty, the fact that he ran is very suspicious but if i KNEW the police were framing me i’d rabbit too. That said, odds are that he did it…

Comment from Phineas Fogg
Time: January 19, 2011, 2:56 am

Well we don’t know how many people he might have killed with all his patent medicine either. But Cora “Belle Elmore” by all accounts was a trallop. Her paramour, a Mr. Miller, testified he only kissed her, but she would threaten H H Crippin if he didn’t please her she would run away with Miller. I always wonder if the yellow rags of the played up the Dr. H.H. bit to conjure up rememories of Dr. H.H. Holmes the real monster from America?

Comment from Hari Swollensak
Time: January 19, 2011, 2:58 am

S.Weasel said:
I’ve always thought it exceedingly strange that a man would successfully dispose of all the bones, organs and limbs of his victim and then give up and bury a big, nasty slab of belly skin wrapped in his own PJ’s under the floor next to the kitchen.

Not really that unusual. I’ve done the exact same thing a couple times.

Comment from Rich Rostrom
Time: January 19, 2011, 3:17 am

Monotone: Well, that was sort of John Gacy’s excuse: “Lots of people had access to my basement. Anybody could have buried those twenty-seven bodies there!”

(Plus one under the garage, and one under the barbeque grill. The other five went in the Des Plaines River.)

But if it isn’t Mrs. Crippen’s tissue, who was it? And how did the hair-curler get in there, not to mention Crippen’s pajama?

Spilsbury as rock-star pathologist – yeah… He was famous enough that I’ve heard of him. Among other things, he was consulted by Ewen Montagu about whether Spanish doctors could tell that the Man Who Never Was hadn’t actually drowned at sea.

Comment from David Gillies
Time: January 19, 2011, 5:04 am

These proto-murder mysteries are fascinating. I highly recommend The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale. This was a similarly sensational murder case in 1860 which had all the ingredients to excite the prurience of the burgeoning lower middle classes. Particularly interesting is how it inspired the literary trope of the dogged, single-minded detective, who uses science, psychology and intuition to crack the case – even though the real story wasn’t as neat as in novels. It is said to have inspired Wilkie Collins to write the first real detective stories as we know them today (Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue is usually thought to be the start of the genre but The Moonstone and The Woman in White have almost all the ingredients with which we’re now familiar.) Without the murder at Road Hill House, you wouldn’t have Sgt. Cuff, or Sherlock Holmes, or Poirot, or even Philip Marlowe and Harry Bosch.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: January 19, 2011, 10:23 am

Holmes was a fascinating monster, Phineas. Pity so much about him is speculation. If you haven’t read The Devil in the White City…do.

Before I started this blog, I strongly considered starting a True Crime site instead.

Comment from iamfelix
Time: January 19, 2011, 11:45 am

“Devil” is a real favorite of mine – love the building/architecture stuff as much as the crime info.

Did you ever see the crime blog “Lost In Lima, Ohio,” Stoaty?

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: January 19, 2011, 12:22 pm

Never heard of it, Felix. Looks like it’s defunct now.

The only paperbacks I moved across the Atlantic were the true crime ones. I think I had it in the back of my mind that I would unpack them one by one and write about them as I did. I have a ginormous collection.

Comment from Monotone The Elderish
Time: January 19, 2011, 1:27 pm

@Rich Rostrom, Clothing can be stolen, hair curlers planted, and as far as the tissue goes, it could’ve actually been his wife. Just, killed by someone else, (Maybe the guy he thought his wife ran off with) or, possibly just a person off the street. Although if he was framed by the member of the police it could’ve easily been a cadaver from the morgue. also, since there was no chain of evidence the guy framing him could’ve easily manipulated the evidence. Although if he was framed, He didn’t do a very good job of convincing otherwise… but again, he probably did it. What with the rabbiting and all….

Comment from Deborah
Time: January 19, 2011, 4:12 pm

I’m with you Monotone The Elderish: I think he was framed by the coppers, but I also think the Doctor murdered his wife—based on Stoaty’s narrative 🙂

Stoaty—if you promise to write about the chickens and trains occasionally, and draw us a picture now and then (pretty please), then I encourage you to explore TRUE CRIMES. If you start with crimes in England, then you and Uncle Badger will have a good excuse (like you really need one) to tramp about the country where the crimes occurred.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: January 19, 2011, 4:20 pm

Ha! That’s a fambly joke, Deborah — I navigate the UK by classic true crimes. From the Luton Sack Murder to the Brighton Trunk Murder to the Eastbourne Bungalow Murder.

Britain always had the best murders. Maybe because they don’t do it very often (or didn’t), so individual cases became Very Big Deals.

Or maybe because Brits are bugfuck crazy.

Comment from Deborah
Time: January 19, 2011, 5:11 pm

Given the dreary weather in the UK, I’m surprised there aren’t more murders—but maybe the weather is an unjustified bad rap.

Other posters mentioned books: My mother loved writer Anne Perry’s William Monk series, and Thomas Pitt series, which I read in turn, too (though I have fallen behind now).

Anne Perry—there’s a topic for you. What a sad and shocking story. Perfectly grisly.

Comment from Phineas Fogg
Time: January 19, 2011, 5:45 pm

Funny thing about Devil in the White City is that Erik Larsen wrote that followed by Thunderstruck. I guess he’s done with his H.H. themes.

Comment from Phineas Fogg
Time: January 19, 2011, 5:50 pm

Anne Perry – Beutiful Creatures

Comment from Phineas Fogg
Time: January 19, 2011, 5:51 pm

Anne Perry – Beautiful Creatures

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: January 19, 2011, 8:43 pm

I have a love/hate relationship with fictional crime. It’s often well-written and interesting. It’s also — always, as far as I can tell — wrong, wrong, WRONG.

All the complex plots and charming serial killers. No, sorry. Most murderers are either kinda, sorta accidental killers, or they’re utter dirtbags. Usually stupid lowlife dirtbags.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: January 19, 2011, 9:49 pm

Oh, and the weather here does have a bit of an unfair rap. It gets it from those periods – it can happen in any season – where it’s dreary and gray, day after day. We’re in one now. SAD sufferers go nutz.

But it’s far milder than I’m used to — seldom goes much below freezing or above 85F. And when it’s nice, which it is much of the time, it’s heart-stoppingly lovely. At least out here in the country. Gentle and sunny and just bursting with life (the upside of a wet climate).

Comment from David Gillies
Time: January 19, 2011, 10:34 pm

A particularly notorious one, which was sort of a folk memory when I was a kid even though it was 20 years before I was born: John George Haigh.

Another interesting case, James Hanratty, was also posthumously subjected to modern forensic science. The family had claimed for years he’d been wrongly executed, so eventually they had him exhumed. Twist in the tale: the DNA said conclusively it was him wot dunnit. Whoops!

Both the above bear out Weasel’s point that murderers are usually shabby degenerates.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: January 19, 2011, 11:32 pm

Yes, Mr Haigh, you can dissolve your victims in a vat of acid — but Mrs Violet Durand-Deacon’s gallstone will come back to haunt you.

The irony is, the invention he was pretending to try to sell her on was artificial fingernails. Which probably would’ve made bzillions. Well, it did fifty years later, anyhow.

Comment from lauraw
Time: January 20, 2011, 5:08 am

Dear Sweet Jesus,

Why did they hang the pathologist??

*gives Stoaty’s tail a playful flick*

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: January 20, 2011, 8:36 am

*gives lauraw an affectionate thumb in the eye*

Actually, Spilsbury gassed himself to death at the age of 70. Didn’t leave a note or anything. I’ve never liked him; too arrogant and sure of himself and his movie star good looks affected juries in unfortunate ways. But the backlash against him in recent years (for being too conservative and Edwardian) probably goes too far.

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