Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen

Act Five: The Ladies

Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea."

Henry Fielding

According to his co-workers, Crippen seemed very at ease when he showed up at work Tuesday, the morning after he killed Belle. In her memoirs, Ethel Le Neve reports, "Outwardly at any rate, he was his old calm self. Surely we, who knew him so well and every expression on his face, would have noticed at once if he had shown the slightest agitation."

However, she recalls how taken aback and, admittedly, pleased she was when, on Wednesday morning, February 2, her employer drew her aside to inform her that Belle had left him. She describes their dialogue as follows:

"Did you see her go?"
"No, I found her gone when I got home last night."
"Do you think she will come back?"
"No, I don't."
"Did she take any luggage with her?"
"I don't know what luggage she had, because I did not see her go. I daresay she took what she wanted. She always said the things I gave her were not good enough, so I suppose she thinks she can get better elsewhere."

With that, the doctor surprised Ethel again by drawing from his side pocket a handful of women's jewelry, lying each precious item, one at a time across his desk; necklaces, bracelets, rings, earrings and brooches. Fine pieces, all encrusted with diamonds and other gems. "She left these behind," he announced, "and I wish you would take one or two; I would like to know you had some fine jewelry, for I know you would appreciate it. They will be useful to you when dining out."

Ethel, catching her breath, replied. "Please pick one or two pieces for me, then, if you are sure it's all right. You know my taste."

He nodded and selected, after a moment's decision, a set of four diamond-and-ruby rings and what Belle used to refer to as her "rising-sun brooch," a gorgeous pendant whose black center-stone was cut with a cluster of diamonds from which extended a ray-beam design of smaller diamonds, inlayed.

When Ethel was later arraigned for complicity in the murder of Belle, her accusers based much of their reasoning on the fact that she displayed next to no reticence in accepting these jewels and, in time, other articles of clothing left behind by the wife. At that time, and again in her autobiography, she admits that her excitement in having Hawley finally to herself was her all-consuming concern. She adds, "(Belle's desertion) did not altogether surprise me. I knew well enough that they had been on bad terms. I knew that she had threatened to go away and leave him (and) that she had a secret affection for Bruce Miller ...I could not pretend to commiserate with him. He had led me into the secret of his unhappy married life, and now that his wife had disappeared it seemed to me best for him, perhaps also best for her."

Having no patients scheduled for the morning, Crippen announced to his partner Dr. Rylance that he would be going out for a bit; in private, he had confided to Ethel that he was planning to pawn the remainder of the jewels better, said he, than lying around his house, reminding him of the bad days with Belle and, at the same time, serving to tempt burglars who might know he was away at work most days. (The jewels he pawned netted him, according to the Holloway, North London, Police website, 3,195.)

Before he left, he handed Ethel a sealed envelope and package, requesting that she deliver them to the Ladies Guild, which was meeting that morning down the hall. Ethel figured the letter had something to do with Belle Crippen's disappearance and that the attached parcel contained Treasurer Belle's account logs, receipts and checkbooks. She guessed correctly. The letter read:

"Dear Friends,

"Please forgive me a hasty letter and any inconvenience I may cause you, but I have just had news of the illness of a near relative and at only a few hours notice I am obliged to go to America. Under the circumstances, I cannot return for several months and, therefore, ask you to accept this as a form letter resigning from this date my hon. treasureship."

Ladies Guild members
Ladies Guild members
From that instant, the good ladies of the Guild smelled a rat. First, the handwriting did not seem to be Belle's; in fact, it was quite masculine. Second, they found it incredulous that Belle would bother to write a note and send it through Hawley when she could have more easily called one of a number of women that's what telephones were for! Third, Hawley had told Clara Martinetti, when they met perchance on the street later, that Belle had gone to California to nurse a relative back to health yet, Clara had never heard Belle once talk about any family besides her relatives in New York City.

But, whispers were whispers and were as gossamer wings without merit that is until Crippen showed up at the Music Hall Ladies' Guild Annual Variety Fund Raiser Ball, arm in arm with Ethel Le Neve. He had bought tickets to the February 20 event in advance and, as he explained to the ladies, since Belle was out of town he was sure she wouldn't mind that he brought his secretary. Of course not! they answered, then retired to the Criterion House's powder room and chattered.

Ethel looked stunning in her lavender gown of silk and chiffon from Swan & Edgar's. As she swirled with Crippen on the dance floor, he holding her tightly, the mouths at the tables hung open to emit one universal gasp. And then someone noticed that brooch the rising-sun brooch that Ethel wore on her decollete and was sure it was the one that had belonged to Belle. Like a telegraph wire zapping emergency signals, the scandal leaped across candelabras and over champagne cups until, curiosity dammed to the brink, the leading magpies fluttered again to the powder room and burst forth a renewed fever of delicious slander.

The outrage felt by the Ladies' Guild would grow over the coming months. Pestering Crippen for more information How is Belle, have you heard from her? How is her ailing kin? When will she be home? Can we write her? they were getting unsatisfactory answers. Crippen sidestepped their inquiries, keeping her whereabouts and state of affairs a blank. Finally, in late March, the doctor visited the Martinettis to tell them he had heard very distressing news concerning his wife: Apparently, said he, poor Belle had contracted pneumonia and was forced to her bed in California. When they and others urged for an address that they may send get-well cards, the doctor discouraged them, sternly advising, "No, she is so very ill, it is best she be left alone. I am expecting very sad news at any moment, based on the latest cables I have been receiving."

Then, on March 24, he sent a telegram to the Martinettis informing them, "Belle died yesterday at six o'clock." Attempting to contact Crippen for details, Clara Martinetti learned that he had gone out of town.

By choosing that particular time for Belle's formal demise, Crippen was doing more than making an attempt to get the Ladies' Guild off his back. He was playing the romantic. He and Ethel had taken a holiday to Dieppe, France, and, in notifying his love of Belle's death while on the trip, he exclaimed that now they could consider this vacation their honeymoon. Legally, they could claim each other.

Ethel may have had "implicit faith in all he said," according to her memoirs, but not so the Ladies' Guild. That rat they had instinctively smelled from the start was running around in circles now, squeaking. Self-appointed snoops from within the club's rank and file began to investigate. They learned from neighbors near the Crescent that Number 39 had a new mistress. Ethel had moved in with Crippen and, Belle's body still warm, was disposing of Belle's things in a flash. Many articles of furniture and clothing were transferred to storage. A neighbor woman who lived behind Crippen claimed that one evening she could see through an open lit window Ethel trying on one dress after another, handed to her by the doctor from a stage trunk. Ethel had also been seen in the garden rearranging the backyard to suit her own taste, accompanied by a young maidservant named Valentine Leqoc whom she had brought back with her from Dieppe.

After returning from his "honeymoon," Crippen had announced to Belle's inquisitive friends that there would be no funeral, for she was being cremated in America. Her ashes would be sent to him in due time, he explained, and after he received them he would notify the ladies in the event they wished to conduct their own private service.

Another confusing link to the chain of events, thought the ladies. The fact that Belle would be cremated didn't make sense; Belle was Catholic and Catholics did not accept cremation at that time.

On behalf of the Guild, spokesperson Louise Smythson approached Scotland Yard in the Spring and relayed her organization's suspicions to Chief Inspector Walter C. Dew. "Dew was anything but encouraging," relates Tom Cullen's Mild Murderer. "Pointing to a steel filing cabinet behind him, the inspector claimed it was chockfull of reports of missing persons (because) wives ran away from husbands for no other reason than that they could not get a divorce." And as for Crippen's lady wearing the wife's brooch, "Husbands were seen dancing with their secretaries who, in some cases, were decked out in the absent wife's jewels. The police could do nothing about it. They were not custodians of morals."

In the meantime, the Guild continued to play sleuth and were coming up with startling clues that made them wonder if Belle had ever even left London. Given Crippen's evasive mien, they couldn't help thinking otherwise. Clara Martinetti and member Annie Sutton checked with the dock authorities to see what ocean liners had left for America on the morning Belle was supposed to have sailed; they discovered that La Touraine, the only ship that would have made that voyage at the estimated time had been under repair at Le Havre. Isabel Ginnett, president of the Guild, contacted California authorities over the summer and learned, upon reply, that no person named Belle Crippen or Belle Elmore (her stage name) had died in that state.

Armed with this new information, the Guild returned to Scotland Yard on June 30, this time meeting with both Dew and his superior, Superintendent Frank Froest. The women's group was represented on this go-around by Lil Nash (the former Hawthorne Sister) and her husband John. The couple communicated the Guild's findings as well as a conversation John had had recently with Crippen. According to Nash, the doctor could not recall in what town his wife died Was it San Francisco? Los Angeles? Alameda maybe! nor what crematorium prepared her ashes.

The detectives were impressed. Now intrigued with the situation, Dew agreed to speak with Crippen. A few days later, on Friday, July 8, he visited 39 Hilldrop Crescent at which time the doctor admitted that his wife had not died after all, but he had fabricated the tale to avoid the sticky wicket of scandal. Dew reasoned it made sense. He drew up a statement, which the citizen signed, and the inspector tally-hoed back to his office.

But, the Ladies' Guild remained discontent. Dew, while getting frustrated, felt that their devotion to Belle Crippen merited at least one more go. Taking with him his aide, Detective-Sergeant Arthur Mitchell, the men stopped at Yale Tooth Specialists on Monday, July 11. The firm's clerk told the two that Crippen was not expected to be back for some time, having taken a rather sudden trip. When Dew asked to speak to Miss Le Neve, the clerk disclosed that she was away, too, accompanying, he believed, the good doctor on his voyage. Where they had gone the clerk did not know. Dew and Mitchell rushed to 39 Hilldrop Crescent.

*****

The evening of July 8, after Inspector Dew first interviewed Crippen, he confessed to Ethel that he had lied to her about Belle's death. He did it to save face, he told her, but Ethel felt betrayed.

"He had been untruthful to me for the first time in ten years to me, of all people in the world, who was certainly the one to know the truth and all the truth," her memoirs speak. "I had been faithful to him. I loved him (although) it hurt me frightfully that he should have deceived me.

"'For money's sake,' I asked, 'tell me whether you know where Belle Elmore is. I have a right to know.'
'I tell you truthfully,' he said, 'that I don't know where she is.' He repeated this several times...He explained to me that the stories he made up about (Belle's) disappearance...would now be revealed to everybody...and that a tremendous scandal would be caused...and that neither he nor I would be able to face the office again. (Because) the scandal would be far more worse for me than for him...he would do anything to save me from it."

He suggested that they repair to Canada until the gossip wore thin, probably within a year. Ethel agreed, assuming that would be the best thing to do. She didn't, however, have an inkling that, at this point, Hawley Harvey Crippen had a skeleton in the closet rather, a body in the cellar and was panicking.

The following day, he and Ethel took the Tube, the London Underground, to Liverpool Station, from whence they boarded the train to Harwich. From there, Crippen told Ethel, they would sail to Rotterdam, then Antwerp, to reach a Canadian-bound vessel before its launch.

*****

Inspectors Dew and Mitchell arrived at Crippen's to find only the maid at home. All she knew was that her employ had been terminated and she was left there alone to board up the place. She hadn't the faintest notion where the doctor and the lady of the house had ventured.

The Cellar where Belle was found (London Metro Police archives)
The Cellar where Belle was
found
(London Metro Police
archives)
"(Dew's) suspicions now thoroughly awakened...made a further search of the house," says author Filson Young, "taking up portions of the garden, examining the coal cellar, testing the bricks with his foot; but found nothing. With a fortunate pertinacity which won him his distinction in this case, he returned to the search on the next day, and again on the following day, the 13th when, probing the bricks of the cellar floor with a poker, he discovered that one of them could be raised. Having got a few more out by the same process, he got a spade and began to dig, and a few inches down came upon a compact mass of animal remains which, on expert investigation, proved to be the greatest part of the contents of a human body from which the head, limbs and bones were missing..."

Inspector Dew sought the fresh air of the back yard to avoid passing out from the sight and the stench. He recalled the morning he had found one of Jack the Ripper's mutilated victims, Mary Kelly, in 1888. While Master Jack's work had been even more revolting, this murderer's craft came a close second.

"Medical examination of the remains gave the information that the corpse was of a stout female, who bleached her hair and who had had an abdominal operation," reads the North Holloway Police's historical website. "Traces of hyoscine, in sufficient quantities to indicate a lethal dose, were found in various organs." Research showed that Belle had had such an operation as indicated above in her earlier years and that she had recently dyed her brown hair a golden blonde.

Three days later, an arrest warrant was issued by the Metropolitan Police for the arrest of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen and Miss Ethel Le Neve.

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