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October 2016
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Arsenal’s anniversary today, Henry Norris and the strange case of ‘Dr’ Crippen

By Blacksheep

As Tony’s Arsenal History article today reminds us, July 24th 1910 was the day Sir Henry Norris took over the club. You can read about Norris and his importance in the Arsenal story here but I’m going to look at what else happened that day.


I wrote some time ago that I was writing my own history blog, about the crimes and other incidents that came before the various magistrate (or Police Courts) of London in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Well I’ve been keeping it up as a daily blog and I now have over 80 posts and a whole variety of crimes and criminals.

It follows the calendar of the year – so today would be the 24 July – but I vary the year. Today I looked at 1910 to see if I could find a suitable case to link with the Arsenal and Norris story. Alas, the news was rather dominated by a huge crime story, perhaps THE largest crime story since Jack the Ripper (in the summer and autumn of 1888).

The story was the flight of ‘Dr’ Crippen and his mistress Ethel le Neve following the discovery of the body of Crippen’s wife, Cora, in their North London home. For those unfamiliar with the tale, Hawley Harvey Crippen was an American born homeopath living and working in England. He had married Cora Turner in New York in 1894 and they had moved to London three years later.

They lived at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, not very far from Highbury, and Cora worked in the music hall. The couple had a poor relationship; Cora criticized and humiliated him in front of his friends and Crippen started an affair with his assistant, Ethel.

In February Cora disappeared and Crippen told people she had died whilst visiting relations back in the States. Ethel soon moved in with Crippen and even began wearing Cora’s clothes and jewelry.

By July 1910 suspicions were raised in England and the USA and the London Police (led by Inspector Walter Dew) started an official investigation. The police searched 39 Hilldrop Crescent but found no evidence of Cora having met a sticky end. Crippen confessed that he’d lied about her death to hide the embarrassment that she had left him for an actor named Bruce Miller.

The police visit unnerved the couple however and they packed their bags and fled to Belgium. Neighbours noticed and alerted Scotland Yard. This time Dew’s men made a more thorough search and they found the remains of a human body, buried under the brick floor of the basement. It was wasn’t easily identifiable as Cora (The head was missing!) but it was enough to start a manhunt.

The hunt for Crippen and Le Neve became a press story par excellence. The pair were tracked to Brussels and Antwerp (where they booked passage on a ship bound for Canada). On July 24 they were heading across the Atlantic as ‘Mr. Robinson and son’, with Ethel disguised as a boy.

The ship, the Montrose, was a slow passage ship, travelling at a mere 12 knots and carrying second and third class passengers. It left Antwerp on the 16 July and due to arrive at Montreal on 30th. Importantly she was also equipped with the new technology of wireless (not WiFi folks, wireless communication).

The ship’s captain, Henry Kendall, was aware of the story of Crippen’s flight and the furore surrounding it; he had read the papers and something about the couple triggered his suspicions. He had his wireless operator send a coded message to London which (according to a report in the Daily Mail) read:

Believe Crippen and Le Neve, wanted by London Police, are on board my boat. Passengers give name Mr. Robinson and son. Have definitely ascertained that the ‘son’ is a woman. Watch has been kept. Woman answers exact description of Le Neve. Robinson is clean-shaven, growing beard, with make-up, dressed clerically, but otherwise answer exact description of Crippen. Passengers unaware of identification. Wire instructions.’

Inspector Dew set off immediately by a faster boat and intercepted the Montrose on the St Lawrence river. Crippen and Le Neve were arrested and taken back to London to face trial.

In October 1910 the couple appeared at the Old Bailey. Crippen was convicted of Cora’s murder but Ethel was acquitted of being his accomplice. Dr Crippen was hanged at Pentonville Prison on 23 November 1910.

The evidence against Crippen was very thin. No one has ever proved that the body was that of Cora Crippen nor produced forensic evidence that Crippen murdered her. His defense maintained that she had left with Bruce Miller but she never surfaced to save her ex husband.

I first encountered Dr Crippen as a waxwork in Madame Tussauds ‘Chamber of Horrors’ and have remained fascinated with the case ever since. This probably has something to do with the fact that Hilldrop Crescent is a mere stone’s throw from where I was born and grew up near Tufnell Park and near the new home that Henry Norris found for the Arsenal in 1913.


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8 comments to Arsenal’s anniversary today, Henry Norris and the strange case of ‘Dr’ Crippen

  • Kenneth Widmerpool

    Horrible story, brilliantly written,many thanks. Blacksheep,what’s your theory? Did he? Didnt he? Has anyone done further investigation -ie track down Bruce Miller and his life etc?
    Makes you wonder as you read what Crippen did with the head? What if Ethel wasnt dressed up as a boy would they have gone unnoticed?
    Any ghost sightings at the house at Hilldrop? Did Crippen plead innocent to the end,right up to the last moment?Seems like he must have done it though,otherwise why try to flee to various places?

  • Blacksheep

    Thanks Kenneth,
    My theory is that he was innocent and that Dew planted the evidence. They found clothes there but no conclusive proof they were Cora’s. Dew had been a fresh faced detective on the Ripper murder case and I think the failure of the police to nab ‘Jack’ haunted him. He was (possibly) the first policeman to see Mary Kelly eviscerated body in November 1888, must have left an impression.
    The mistake Crippen made was to travel in second class rather than third. If they had been in steerage the captain would never have seen or noticed them.
    The house is no longer there and I don’t be,evie in ghosts anyway!

  • Kenneth Widmerpool

    Blacksheep, good theory.I had a look on Wiki and Raymond Chandler brought up an interesting theory too. The DNA testers seemed pretty adamant that its a male that was under the brick floor.
    But strange that Cora didn’t re-surface again somewhere later as the story must have made headlines in the US too.She doesn’t seem like the kind of person from the wiki entry just to have disappeared.
    I also wondered that what with the changes in the world that Ethel didn’t say/leave as testament as to whether he did or didn’t just before she died.
    I was pretty skeptical about ghosts too until I lived a house where there was some very strange things happening- which were pretty unnerving and I was glad to be gone.

  • Matt Clarke

    …maybe it was Bruce Miller’s body that they found and the part about an affair, at least, was true. And that would explain why Crippen and Le Neve fled.

    Thanks Blacksheep. As my earliest memories are from less than 1 mile from there it interests me too.

    The dead are dead (Ecclesiastes 9:5 – “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing at all…”) so worry not there Kenneth.

  • Kenneth Widmerpool

    Thanks Matt-oddest thing of all was that often when I washed up in that house(my skin is crawling as I write this even 25yrs later!)that I always felt like someone was standing behind me(the sink looked out at the back so whatever was behind you it was impossible to see, and the lights would start flicking on and off,and what with all the other events(voice coming out of hi-fi my mate and I were recording some music on but when we played back after being stunned to silence there was nothing on the tape-we discussed what it said for a long time as you can imagine)I finally lost my rag and shouted as loud as I could “fuuuuuuuuuckkkkk offfff and leave me alone” once when I was on my todd and the atmosphere was especially tense and whatever it was, did.
    But it was relentless with others.Prolonged knocking on bedroom doors in the small hours when nobody else was in the house (they shat themselves and asked “whose there?” which is the last thing I would have done-I would have run like bloody fuck first asked questions later!), the sounds of footsteps walking around again upstairs all day when only one person was there downstairs,lights on and off,a severed rats foot turned up once in a bedroom(no I have no idea either-I had the attic and it wasnt creepy at all)things going missing then turning up again.
    It always gave me the fear to walk up to the bog, as it was a straight flight up then turned back on itself and the kasi was at the end of a long walk, and the room with the worst “activity” was just before it-it always seemed to take an age to get there and your feet went to concrete. Everytime I expected something to jump me or be waiting like in the Shinning,and as you went down you felt like it was watching again,making sure you went away.It sure was a creepy place,very brooding intense,heavy and unwelcoming.Perhaps it was just an old place with bad wiring and the other stuff bullhshit,who knows?
    But my stories are pretty small fry compared to some stuff people have told me.Heard some scary ones over the years.

  • Brickfields Gunners

    Thanks , Blacksheep , it brings back memories of my student days.

    I came across (Dr)Harvey Crippen about 30 years ago when we were ‘introduced ‘ to his case in our rather thin Forensic Medicine book . There were a few other cases , notably Burke and Hare.
    It was all rather drab, dry and matter of fact in nature , without all the gory stuff. Or the action packed investigations of (tv’s) CSI . Just had to memorise all the facts , names and cases . This was a time before the spate of serial killers of the late seventies and eighties .

  • WalterBroeckx

    Very interesting story Blacksheep. I love reading about murdercases but don’t get the time for the moment to do so… So you filled a gap for me 😉

  • Gunnerjoe

    Deadly stuff 😃