At the Crossroads of Media, Culture and Technology

The Murderous Dr. Crippen…

In January of 1910 a simple murder was committed in London. Later that year, a man was apprehended, convicted of the crime and hanged in punishment. The jury believed that this man murdered his wife in order to be with his mistress. The story itself is a good one. It is a story that might ignite the imagination of Poe. However, it is not only the murder itself that is interesting. Instead, the circumstances of his arrest mark a pivotal moment in the history of communications.

The second part of the story is about the wireless telegraph. It was Marconi’s (and Tesla and Lodge’s) ingenious machine that made Crippen’s arrest and conviction possible.

As we look toward the seemingly endless horizon of what technology and communication will become in the Twenty-First Century, it might also occasionally be helpful to look back behind us. It sometimes feels like the technological pace of change over the last decade has been overwhelming. With business models collapsing around old distribution chains and social norms changing rapidly in response to the proliferation of personal communications technology, the current century might seem singular and miraculous. But we need only look at the dawn of the previous century to see another era of social, technological and market disruption. Lets step into our FTM “wayback” macine to take a closer look at the circumstances surrounding a once seemingly forgotten domestic crime.

Hawley Harvey Crippen was a mild mannered doctor born in Michigan. His first marriage ended with his wife’s death and Crippen sent their child to live with her parents while he continued his medical practice. While in New York, he met and married a young actress who went by the name of Cora Turner. Eventually they moved to London where Crippen continued his studies and practices of medicine and dentistry.

Cora pursued her career as a singer and actress. Dr. Crippen took a mistress, a typist named Ethel Le Neve. Cora took lovers as well. In December of 1909, Cora told Crippen she planned to leave him and take their money. Dr. Crippen ordered a large amount of hyoscin hydrobromide, a sedative that has legitimate medical uses but in large doses, can be fatal.

Mrs. Crippen then disappeared. Dr. Crippen told friends and neighbors that she had returned to the US and was caring for a sick relative. He then sold some of her furs and jewelry and loaned others to his mistress, Ethel, who was seen wearing them. Ethel then moved into the house with him. Friends became increasingly concerned.

A friend happened to travel in the US and he was unable to locate Mrs. Crippen. As suspicion grew, more friends wanted to contact Mrs. Crippen. Dr. Crippen then told people that she had passed away during her US visit. When pressed for details, he said she died in a little town in California, but that he could not remember the name. People doubted the story went to Scotland Yard to file a report. Scotland Yard assigned Chief Inspector Dew to the case.Dew went to the Crippen home, investigated and found nothing. When confronted about the circumstances around her death in the United States, Dr. Crippen then told the authorities that she had actually run off with her lover to Chicago. Dew thought the story possible, and left.

However, when Dew went back to the Crippen home to confirm some details, he found the house empty. Dr. Crippen and Ms. Le Neve had left for Antwerp. Scotland Yard conducted a second search of the Crippen home while the lovers were abroad. Human remains were discovered under the cellar floor. Crippen and Le Neve were now prime suspects in Cora’s murder and a warrant was issued for their arrest. Dew trailed them, but Crippen and Le Neve boarded an ocean liner, the Montrose, bound for Canada. Now the manhunt took a trans Atlantic turn.

News and photographs of the fugitives filled the newspapers. The Captain of the Montrose, Captain Kendall, prided himself on being up to date in the current events. It made for lively table conversation during dinner. So Captain Kendall was familiar with the story of Mrs. Crippen’s demise and familiar with what the suspects looked like.

On board his ship there was a father and son, Mister and Master Robinson. Captain Kendall noticed that the duo had an oddly close physical relationship and that they held hands quite a bit and spent lots of time behind lifeboats.He also noticed that the father had marks from wearing glasses on his nose and had recently changed his facial hair. He also noted that Master Robinson wore lots of pins in his clothes as if to disguise “womanly curves” and coughed a lot. Kendall looked at a newspaper he had on board ship and was convinced that the father and son were actually the fugitives.

Transatlantic travel was booming at the time. Ships carrying passengers and cargo left ports daily bound for points east or west. Until the turn of the century, once the ships were at sea, there was no communication with them until they reached the opposite shore. However, now Marconi’s wireless radio was installed in a few ship liners. This invention allowed shore to ship and ship to shore communication. The whereabouts of ships could be monitored and disasters avoided (or at least abated, in the case of the Titanic) with communication.

Captain Kendall then radioed the ship’s owners of his suspicions and they contacted Scotland Yard. Dew boarded a ship that was faster than the Montrose, sailed to Canada and met up with Crippen and Le Neve in Montreal. There he arrested them and brought them back to England. They were tried, and Crippen was hanged. Le Neve was acquitted and lived out her life in England. This was the first case of a crime being solved using wireless communication.

Marconi’s wireless telegraph used many patents and inventions of Nikola Tesla and Oliver Lodge. In fact, there were many patent infringement lawsuits that sprang from the wireless telegraph. Ultimately, Marconi is considered the inventor and became a very rich man, and Tesla died impoverished.

Marconi’s company installed the wireless telegraph on many ocean liners at the time. In fact, the Titanic disaster was lessened by the fact that there was a wireless aboard ship. The ship was able to send distress signals and other ships in the area were alerted to go look for survivors. Had the wireless not been aboard, the ships would not have known to assist. Marconi is credited with saving the lives of the 700 plus survivors. Britain’s postmaster general was quoted as saying, “Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr. Marconi…and his marvelous invention.”

The Crippen story covers more than the wireless. Newspapers and the printed word allowed the Captain to be aware of the fugitives. Photographs gave him a representation of exactly what the culprits looked like. The advent of the telegraph itself made possible the notion that time and space could be condensed across the ocean with long distance communication that did not depend upon a ship to get the word there and that did not depend on the speed of that ship to determine the length of time it takes to get the message there. What the wireless allowed however, was for the space and time gap between people across large bodies of water to be shrunk. Time and space were contracting as communication became evermore efficient.

Megan Mullen in her article, Space Bias/Time Bias: Harold Innis, Empire and Communications, writes about communication studies pioneer Harold Innis’ theories of communication bridging the space time bias that “it is essential for both of these biases to be present in any enduring civilization and to function in tandem—for that is where the cultural and economic links that allow empires to prosper are forged. As Innis goes on to explain: “Large-scale political organizations such as empires . . . have tended to flourish under conditions in which civilization reflects the influence of more than one medium and in which the bias of one medium towards decentralization is offset by the bias of another medium towards centralization.”

A piece that I found particularly interesting about the Dr. Crippen story, was that the biases worked in tandem across nations. Perhaps the ease of communications across nations expands the definition of “empire” and informs us what current wireless mobile technology might mean for the future of “empire.”

The story of Dr. Crippen holds a lot of intrigue in the story itself and the impact of wireless communication on the modern world. This “marvelous invention” shrank the expanse of the Atlantic. People were saved, and criminals were brought to justice.


Alison’s piece was originally written for Ken Rufo’s Evolutions and Trends in Digital Media graduate seminar at the University of Washington’s Master of Communication in Digital Media.

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4 Responses to The Murderous Dr. Crippen…

  1. Thank you, Alison, for the terrific story, and one I’d personally never heard.

    As a physician misbehavior investigator, I of course am more interested in the treachery of Hawley Crippen than the miracle of electronic communication. Because the jaw-dropping truth is, physician Homicide is many times over more common today, than it was 100 years ago.

    Consider a few of these ugly realities:

    1. The Nat’l Practitioner Data Bank has identified well over 237,000 doctors who couldn’t seem to maintain an ethical path, including thousands considered “Dangerous” or “Questionable.

    2. 50 doctors EVERY week are found guilty of Felony-level crimes – 2,389 just last year alone.

    3. We have 204 MDs in prison for Murder, at any given time.

    4. Bad doctors and faulty medical procedures kill 400+ citizens every day of the year.

    The bottom-line in this discussion is this: Hawley Crippen, MD was merely an early pioneer of thousands of American doctors to follow, who believed they had the God-given right to Murder for profit.

    NO profession in society creates more crime; nor generates more unnecessary suffering & death – than the errant doctor population.

  2. Alison Fiorito says:

    @patricparamedic – Those are really fascinating statistics you give about a profession many of us blindly trust. You also raise more ethical and legal questions that deserve a very close look. Your perspective certainly gives a whole new lens through which to view the story and I love to know it if you do any follow up writings concerning the story from errant physician stance.

    I too had never heard of the story before encountering it in Dr. Rufo’s class, yet I found lots of fodder for the writing. If you’d like a deeper dive into the story, local Seattle author, Eric Larson wrote a book titled Thunderstruck that gives a detailed account of the Crippen story and the development of the wireless telegraph. Additionally there are lots of follow up reports where current DNA evidence suggested that the human remains found under the cellar floor were not those of Mrs. Crippen and subsequent reports where the validity of the DNA results were questioned. I also found follow up interviews conducted with Le Neve’s family after her death in which her immediate family had no idea that she was the mistress of Crippen and many other pieces of evidence from the story that I did not include in this short blog post.

    Thank you for your vigilance!


  3. Alison -

    I truly appreciate your comments, and will absolutely add “Thunderstruck” to my lab coat lunatic library.

    My own book – for anyone interested – is “America’s Dumbest Doctors” which as far as I know, is the only project of its type. In this particular study, I asked medical professionals around the country to send me true stories of strange, unethical and/or illegal doctor behavior. I was a bit stunned to receive well over 400, with names, dates, times, etc. Many of these were of course not murderous at all – many were simply off-the-chart bizarre. My goal was to focus on the funnier aspect of the phenomenon, of wacky physician behavior, because frankly a litany of the horror which goes on would likely be too painful to read.

    By August, a new website entitled “Medical Maniacs” will be up an running.

    Please do keep up your writing, and I’ll certainly keep reading. I can promise you, all indications are, the volume of medical miscreants isn’t getting any smaller.

  4. Pingback: The Murderous Dr. Crippen… | Yesteeyear

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