Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen

Act Three: The Secretary

"There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved."

George Sand

 

In December, 1901, two years after he was dismissed from Munyon's, Dr. Crippen found a full-time position at Drouet's Institute for the Deaf on Regent's Park Road. Despite its pretentious name, Drouet's was no more than a medicinal mail-order house whose inventory aimed at diseases of the ear. Bordering on quackery, Dr. Drouet's firm offered, to quote Tom Cullen's The Mild Murderer, "little plasters that the patient was directed to stick behind his ears and that were supposed to give wonderful penetrating powers. Other Drouet remedies included drops, gargles and anti-catarrhal snuff." Crippen served as one of several consulting physicians whose job it was to diagnose a write-in patient's symptoms, and then prescribe products best suited to his or her ailments.

Monthly income fell far below what he had earned at Munyon's, but the job did have its benefits. For one, he was given a beautiful office of Chippendale furnishings with a pleasant view of Hyde Park and the Marble Arch, as well as an up-to-date consulting chamber for walk-in patients. Another benefit and to Crippen the finest benefit allowed his stale life was pretty and poised Ethel Le Neve.

Ethel Le Neve
Ethel Le Neve
Ethel was 18 years old when she met Hawley Crippen; he was 39. Age not withstanding, a romantic relationship eventually developed between them, though it took nearly a year for either of them to intimate more than the play-acting of platonic friendship. In 1901, the year she met her new boss, Miss Le Neve had just graduated from Pitmans Secretarial College in London, having procured a job as shorthand typist at Drouets through the mediation of her younger sister Nina, head secretary. When Nina left Drouets employ, Ethel took her place becoming Crippens private secretary and bookkeeper.

Born in Diss, Norfolk, in 1883, Ethel Clara Le Neve was one of six children born to Walter and Charlotte Neve. When she was seven, the family moved to London. Of her earliest years, Ethel writes in her 1911 memoirs, I distinguished myself by my tomboy pranks...At that time my chief companion was my uncle, who was on the railway. Nothing delighted him more than to take me to see the trains, and even to this day there are few things that interest me more than an engine. How he used to laugh when he saw me climbing trees, or playing marbles, or shooting with a catapult. For dolls or other girlish toys I had no longing.

But, underneath the dirty cheeks of a tomboy a sentimental girl blossomed, dreaming of far-off places and knights in shining armor, wise to the world and sturdy. Once she attained independence, she glamorized her name with a Gallic flourish to Le Neve. It was this romantic disposition that led her to admire then fall in love with Crippens noble maturity, something that boys her age lacked.

Ethel found Crippen at all times galante. If they worked late he would accompany her to her familys doorstep she still lived with her parents to see she reached home safely in the dark; when she accomplished a praiseworthy project, he would treat her to dinner at her favorite restaurant; and, through it all, he never once ventured beyond the role of gentleman. If there was work to be done on weekends, he would bring the work to her where they would finish it together on her parents garden patio. What impressed her most was that his conversations remained professional; even when alone, he never condescended nor behaved inappropriately.

To Crippen, Ethel had everything Belle lacked she was sweet, considerate, graceful, dulcet voiced, learned and a lady in all circumstances. Yet, he had to admit to himself, it wasnt all Ethels demeanor that attracted him. Pens author Cullen, (She) was no beauty, but she had the kind of face that made a married woman clutch her husbands arm a little tighter when Ethel was around. Her mouth, which turned down at the corners, could be interpreted as either tragic, or as an invitation to sensuality. She had light brown hair, which she wore piled high on her head, a long, straight nose, grey eyes and a way of looking up intently into the face of her interlocutor when in conversation.

She made him feel like a man again and not a flunkey, adds the collectanea, Crimes of Horror. Most important of all, she was the one person with whom he could discuss his shameful and humiliating home life.

They fell in love deeply, passionately, hopelessly in love. By the advent of 1903, the boss and his secretary were inseparable.

At least in spirit.

On the flip side of their fantasy, and quite in their way, there was still Belle.

While Mrs. Crippens husbands mood had much improved since his employment at Drouets, Belle hadnt noticed. When not in the arms of Bruce Miller, she had manoeuvred to ingratiate herself with the Music Hall Ladies Guild, a politically fervent organization of stage women whose quest for fame had, like hers, come and gone. Some members were not theatre veterans as it were, but wives of men who were one-time stage performers. If Crippen found these females a roost of old hens, their objective was nevertheless quite admirable: to raise money and clothing for members of the theatre world who had fallen on hard times. Belle, to her credit, worked hard to collect tuppence, sixpence, farthings and shillings on their behalf, helping to plan various fund-raising enterprises a night at the theatre, a boat trip, a circus or knocking door to door at neighbors homes for a donation. The Ladies Guild liked the American-born Belle, they liked her enthusiasm, and those who learned about Bruce Miller and her other affaires de intrigue turned their heads because she was doing their organization a piece of whats good. At their weekly teas, when they came together to plan or simply gossip, Belles input was valued.

She became intimate with several of the members to whose homes she and Hawley were often invited for a supper. Among these ladies were former contralto Marie Lloyd, the clubs founder; Lil Nash, once part of the harmonious Hawthorne Sisters; and best friend Clara Martinetti, whose husband Paul had been a famous mime in the zenith days of Victoria. Now that Hawley was employed at Drouets and earning a regular salary again, Belle pestered him to move into a house worthy to reciprocate her lady friends dinner invitations. Hawley agreed. The couple packed up their belongings, bid adieu to their cramped quarters in Bloomsbury, and, in September, 1905, leased a three-story brick townhouse in Londons northern rim, at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Holloway, for £52 per year.

Their new home which lay in, what writer Filson Young calls a quiet leafy crescent, consisted of a front and back parlor, a study, several bedrooms up and down, two lavatories, a spacious attic, a kitchen and pantry, and a beauteous garden out back. A coal cellar lay just below street level behind the garden steps.

Belle redecorated her home with zest, dabbing its décor with her favorite color, pink. Mrs. Crippens florid taste was reflected, so far as their means permitted, in the furniture and decorations (and) nearly all the rooms in Hilldrop Crescent were decorated in this propitious color, remarks Young. The lampshades were pink, the doilies were pink, the table coverlets were pink, the vases were pink, and even the mantle globes were pink. She collected furniture, mostly second hand, as well as art imitations, worrying very little if it was all compatible. Crippen found her taste gaudy, even nauseating at times, but learned to ignore it after all, he was spending long hours at the office now or eating meals out in the company of Ethel. Except when called home for one of his wifes dinner parties, he made it a point to repair from the domicile as late and as long as mildly respectable. He could breathe when with Ethel.

While the lovers wined and dined, embraced, cooed and kissed, their relationship continued without consummation. Ethel and Hawley were both reared on the sizzling brimstone grills of old-time religion and dared not commit adultery in the face of that convention. That done and said, it was probably Ethel who kept the mustang at bay, engendered with a more practical form of chastity belt: a womans holdout for commitment. But, Crippen remained timid in that direction, promising but not delivering his freedom from Belle.

However, in late 1906, things changed. Crippen didnt give in; Ethel did.

His love for Ethel mounting, Crippen did maintain a certain degree of guilt. Simultaneous to his affair with Ethel, Belle, it seemed, had done an unexpected turnabout and amended her amorous ways. Crippen had learned that blustering Bruce Miller had returned to Chicago and, in observing his wife, the doctor detected no other interest than in the Music Hall Ladies Guild, of which she had just been voted treasurer, a position she seemed to throw herself into exclusively. Of course, it didnt matter he loved Ethel and would never give her up but, nevertheless, in the process he was left torn between right and wrong (and, frankly, unable to define the two).

Belle as a member of the Ladies Guild
Belle as a member of the
Ladies Guild
After they moved to the Crescent, Belle insisted that they take in lodgers for extra money money that would allow them to live the way she had become accustomed to in the earlier days of their marriage when Hawley worked for Munyon. (Besides, she had just bought a black lacquer piano for the music room that had set them back a month's rent.) Crippen consented, as ever easy to please, and in November, 1906, the Crippens opened their third floor chambers to three exchange students from Heidelberg University currently studying in London.

The boys were well behaved and respectful and their lodging did help pay the bills that Belle continued to ring up at the merchandisers. One of the Germans, Richard Ehrlich, paid an additional allowance to have Belle tutor him in the English language. Because of the benefits his tenants brought, the doctor didn't mind rising at dawn every morning while Belle slept to fix them breakfast, do their laundry and shine their boots.

However, one afternoon, December 6, 1906, Crippen came home from his office earlier than usual. He found Ehrlich in bed with Belle.

Rushing to Ethel, Crippen shed tears onto her bosom. As he bawled in her arms, she grasped for the first time his confusion and frustration. She now realized hers, too, and gave to him her full passion, unleashed. When they awoke in the slim light of morning in Ethel's bedroom, they referred everafter to December 6, 1906, as their "wedding day".

Even though Crippen continued to live with Belle, even though he continued to jump to her every request and grimace at her every threat to leave him, even though he catered to their boarders (not Ehrlich, for he had fled in terror), even though he cooked meals, cleaned house and gardened to the point that neighbors called him hen-pecked, he was a happy man. What he did, he did for himself, and damn the shrew. He let Belle bleat and meow and moo, and closed his ears to daydream of the woman he loved.

All allegiance to Belle had vanished. He lived for the day he could cast her off like a dead canary. That he held back from leaving at this point or kicking her rump over the threshold was in apprehension of the trouble she could make for Ethel. Belle could turn mean nay, vicious. Worse, she had become suspicious, and when she demanded to know who the other woman was There is one, Hawley, I can see it in your expression! it was the one request to which he didn't jump. He clammed up as she had clammed up when he found Bruce Miller's demonstrations of love under her pillow.

*****

Ethel held on, understanding and compassionate, trysting with the man she adored. Evenings, they would meet somewhere, anywhere, as long as they could be together for as long as possible, growing less careful that they might be spotted by family, friends or neighbors. They would stroll the Embankment along the Thames or window shop at Trafalgar or the Strand, fingers interlocked, and kiss under the silvery London moon; they would shop at Whiteley's where he would buy her lockets and chocolates; would share a cordon bleu at Café Royal, or a mild liqueur at Jack Straw's Castle; would attend the Follies at the Lyceum or Aida at Covent Gardens; would listen to the palm court orchestra at Frascati's or the chamber music of Albert Hall, or dance to a gazebo band in gas-lit Hyde Park. If Ethel liked a particular ballad they heard during the course of an evening, she would rest her head upon his shoulder in the confines of the hansom cab afterward and murmur in his ear the verses she best recalled. One of her favorites was:

"I care not for the stars that shine,
I dare not hope to e'er be thine.
I only know I love you.
Love me, and the world is mine."

Before they parted for the night, they would ride to one of many small inns near Victoria or Euston or St. Pancras rail stations and, posing as man and wife between train stops, hire a room. In the darkness, shades drawn to an outside world, enraptured, intoxicated on each other, they would forget, at least momentarily, that Hawley had a wife to whom he must return before sunrise.

*****

People began to talk. And those who heard the rumors doubted their validity until, when Dr. Crippen left Drouet's for another position, he brought his secretary with him. Crippen had long sought to escape the hum-drummery of catalog sales and go into a real medical practice again. Knowing that he once practiced dentistry in New York, Ethel persuaded him to open a dental practice in a fashionable locale and advertise his services to the wealthier shop owners and professionals in the vicinity. Partnering with one Dr. Gilbert Rylance, the two opened shutters under the name Yale Tooth Specialists in the Albion Building on New Oxford Street, coincidentally sharing an office with Munyon's Homeopathic Remedies, his old firm.

New Oxford Street
New Oxford Street

If Belle hadn't known who her husband's "other woman" was until that time, she knew now. On her way to her Ladies' Guild meetings in the same building as Yale dentistry, she would peek into the open door of her husband's office and espy Hawley and assistant Ethel bending over a patient's open mouth, heads close together and obviously enjoying the nearness. The Guild members, the same ones who dismissed Belle's liaisons for the sake of their own purposes, now told her that they had seen her husband lunching quite often with that same young woman, and that each time they looked quite chipper.

Ethel and Belle had met in person on a few instances, once at Hilldrop Crescent when Belle delivered a message to Crippen from the office and a few times when the wife stopped in Drouet's Institute. In her memoirs, Ethel tells us of one such event when Belle stormed into Crippen's consulting room: "There were...angry words, and just before she left I saw the doctor suddenly fall off his chair. I ran up to him. He was very ill, and I believed he had taken poison. He told me that he could bear the ill treatment of his wife no longer. However, I managed to pull him around with the aid of brandy, and we did our best to forget the painful incident. I think it was this, more than anything else, which served to draw us closer together."

Things were coming to a head. One morning Ethel admitted that she was pregnant. Crippen took the news as she hoped he would, with elation. It was a blessing because it provided the spur he needed to kick free of his stale life and wife. Ethel left home to move into the boarding house of elderly Mrs. Jackson in Hampstead Heath where she could let her tummy bulge away from curious eyes of family.

"Ethel in the months following her pregnancy was happier, more serene, more optimistic than any other woman in her life...a radiant young woman," asserts Tom Cullen in The Mild Murderer. "Then Ethel lost the child she was carrying and the whole human equation was changed."

*****

Ethel's miscarriage occurred before Crippen chanced to tell Belle that he wanted a divorce, but Belle had known about the pregnancy, and his intentions, notwithstanding. She and the Ladies' Guild had eyes, and Belle had prepared to counteract her husband's move. The miscarriage didn't appease her, for she knew that Ethel was in her late twenties and could easily conceive again. Belle bet her booties she would try. This time, though, the wife would nip her husband's paramour in the bud.

Despite her own adulterous wanderings, Belle did not take "a philosophic view of her husband's liaison," reads Filson Young's preface to the Trial of Hawley Harvey Crippen. "It is true that she had ceased to care for him, and spared him neither in public nor in private before her friends; but in the means of soul, vanity takes the place of nobler passions, and though she did not want Crippen, it was not in accordance with her vanity that he should enjoy the love of any other woman."

Young believes that as the months ensued, however, Belle realized her boredom with Crippen, with her house, her jewels, her friends, and she began looking for an excuse to leave, one that would complement her "guise of a virtuous and ill-used wife fly(ing) to the protection of some man who was, or whom she believed to be, ready to receive her."

Towards the close of 1910, the seams of Hawley's and Belle's long-blistering life together fell apart. No longer taking in lodgers, if the couple happened to be home together on any given evening, bickering prevailed. Subject scholars envision an all-out quarrel having finally taken place, Belle backing Crippen into a corner metaphorically if not physically. If Filson is correct, Belle hoped to either scare Crippen out of the house, allowing her to file for divorce on grounds of abandonment, or enrage him so that he would smartly file for divorce first. Then, her conscious clear, she could find another Bruce Miller, if not hunt down Miller himself who had supposedly returned to Chicago.

But, the experts agree, Belle may have gone too far, driving Crippen to desperation: Emoting the jealous wife don't forget, she was an actress her approach may have been over-dramatic: "You don't think you're going to continue living here after bedding Miss Snooty Pants, do you? You continue this double-dealing of yours and I'll be sure to tell every one of your patients exactly what kind of home-wrecking trollop she is! Why, all of London will know her name! And just you see, Dr. Crippen, if you think I'm going to put up with that whore! It's either her or me! Make your choice or put it in your pipe and puff on it!"

Home-wrecker? Trollop? Whore?

To a man so tempestuously in love with a woman, there was no forgiving those words said of his angel. Belle had crossed the line; she had insulted and had threatened to defame her. Accepting Belle's ultimatum would be the same as agreeing with Belle that, yes, Ethel was a home-wrecker, a trollop, a whore.

No, he would never let those insults pass to public ear.

He would die first...

Or perhaps Belle would.

 

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