- Gavin Whitehead
The Men Who Caught Crippen (S1BE1)
Updated: Jan 31
In 1910, Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen poisoned his wife, Cora, and fled to Canada with his mistress in disguise. Detective Walter Dew, who cut his teeth on the force while hunting for the Ripper in 1888, donned a costume of his own as he pursued the fugitives. Like the Whitechapel murderer, Crippen is dubiously said to have procured his disguise from wigmaker and costume designer Willy Clarkson. Show notes and full transcript below.
Above: Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen on the left and his wife, Cora, also known as Belle Elmore, on the right. This illustration accompanied an article announcing the capture of Crippen and his mistress, Le Neve, in the Evening Journal on August 2, 1910.
A photograph of Walter Dew, taken around 1920, some ten years after he chased down Crippen and Le Neve.
Above and below, this news item illustrates the events leading up to Belle Elmore's murder as well as Crippen and Le Neve's flight from London. Published in a Puerto Rican periodical, it also shows that the doctor's misdeeds had become an international sensation.
Henry George Kendall, captain of the Montrose and the man who notified Scotland Yard that Crippen and Le Neve were aboard his ship. By CruisingThePast.com: digitized image illustrating "More passenger lives were lost on the 1914 sinking of the RMS Empress of Ireland than the RMS Titanic" by Michael L. Grace. May 11, 2009.</ref>, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24136319.
---Dew, Walter. The Annotated I Caught Crippen: Memoirs of Ex-Chief Inspector Walter Dew C.I.D. Edited by Nicholas Sonnell. London: Mango Books, 2019.
---Greenwall, Harry. The Strange Life of Willy Clarkson: An Experiment in Biography. London: J. Long, 1936.
---Saward, Joe. The Man Who Caught Crippen: The Amazing Life of Henry Kendall. Morienval, France: Morienval Press, 2010.
Jack the Ripper wasn’t the only murderer who did business with Willy Clarkson—or so we’re informed by his earliest biographer, Harry Greenwall. One of these killers even comes close to rivaling the Whitechapel slasher in notoriety. The miscreant in question claimed the life of a single victim, whom Clarkson and his contemporaries would have known as Belle Elmore. Amazonian in build and at times warlike in temper, Belle hailed from the United States, where she had started a career in New York show business, doing variety acts and hoping to make it big as a music hall performer. In 1897, she moved to England with her Michigan-born husband, a smallish, balding, sandy-haired homeopath named Hawley. Standing beside this scrawny little man with the oversized mustache and thick-rimmed spectacles, the well-built Belle seemed more like an MMA fighter than a variety artist. In the words of Harry Greenwall, “She looked like she could lift her husband up and swing him around her head.” Belle would never dominate the stage as a singer, but thanks to an administrative job she lined up in London’s Music Hall Ladies’ Guild, she nevertheless remained immersed in the industry and became well-liked by many of its starlets. According to Greenwall, Belle was a familiar face at Clarkson’s, accompanied now and then by her doctor-husband. Then, one day in early 1910, Belle went missing, and her spouse stopped by at the wigmaker’s without her. He may not have cut an imposing figure, but his name would loom large in criminal infamy once the public discovered what occasioned this supposed visit. Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen had poisoned his wife, Cora, better-known as Belle, and now he needed a pair of disguises so that he and his mistress could flee the country.
Greenwall includes this story in The Strange Life of Willy Clarkson, shortly after the account about the curly, light-brown wig the Whitechapel murderer was supposed to have left behind at Berner Street. As you might recall from episode 2, there’s reason to question the veracity of this Ripper anecdote, and we should approach the Crippen episode with caution as well. It is possible—even probable—that Clarkson met Belle and sold her wigs or costume pieces since both were involved in London music hall. At the same time, there’s no indication whatsoever that Crippen procured disguises from the wigmaker’s establishment, and it wouldn’t surprise me if either Clarkson or Greenwall made it up.
Still, we do know for a fact that Crippen and his paramour went on the lam incognito, and that’s only half of it. As we also discussed in our Willy Clarkson episode, there were two sides to the role of disguise in the Whitechapel nightmare. While some suspected that the perpetrator was altering his appearance to escape detection, policemen and journalists were wearing disguises while pursuing the killer. There’s a similar dynamic in the Crippen affair. Today, we’ll hear the amazing true story of how a clear-eyed ship’s captain saw through the murderer and his inamorata’s disguises as well as how a Scotland Yard detective donned a costume of his own while chasing them down. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to bonus episode 1 of The Unusual Suspects . . .
The Men Who Caught Crippen
Chief Inspector Walter Dew first heard the name of Dr. Hawley Crippen at Scotland Yard near the end of June 1910. Dew had worn a police helmet and carried his cudgel for more than two decades. In fact, he joined the force in 1888, the year of the Ripper crimes, cutting his teeth in Whitechapel’s H-Division. If we take him at his word, Dew was even among the first on the scene of Mary Jane Kelly’s homicide and recalled the look of terror in the victim’s lifeless eyes for the rest of his career. The detective recounts his experiences both as a rookie pursuing the Ripper and as a veteran chasing Crippen in his 1938 memoir, straightforwardly if somewhat gloatingly entitled I Caught Crippen.
The Crippen affair started with a message from Sargent Frank Froest, who requested Dew in his office. There, Dew met with Mr. and Mrs. Nash. The latter performed in music halls under the pseudonym of Lil Hawthorne and was fresh from a tour of the United States. Shortly after the homecoming, Mr. and Mrs. Nash received horrible news. Nearly six months earlier, sometime following January 31, their friend Belle had abandoned her husband, Dr. Crippen, and absconded to the U.S. without a word of goodbye. She eventually fell ill and died in California. It was unlike Belle to up and leave like that, the Nashes insisted, but when they called on Crippen for more information, they got the same story.
The doctor had the look of a serpent about him. Since his wife’s vanishing, he had taken up with his much younger typist, Ethel Neave, known as Le Neve. The two made no secret of their romance and certainly turned heads when they showed up at the Criterion restaurant’s Benevolent Fund dinner together, not least because Crippen’s date was sporting one of Belle’s broaches as well as her furs.
After making inquiries among music hall professionals acquainted with Belle, Dew thought it best to interview Crippen himself. On July 8, he visited the doctor’s home at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, a large, semi-detached dwelling set back from the road and screened by the foliage of overgrown trees. The homeopath repeated that Belle had flitted off to the U.S. and was remarkably forthcoming about his relationship with Le Neve. Yes, they had grown intimate, and if Dew wanted to know, their feelings for each other had blossomed before his wife went away. Crippen also came clean about Le Neve’s living with him “as his wife”—a polite circumlocution on Dew’s part, meant to convey that the unwedded couple were sharing the same bed. Also present, Le Neve was no less candid than Crippen.
Accompanied by the master of the house and his amour, Dew searched the residence’s eight rooms, examining every wardrobe, dressing-table, and cupboard for hints of Belle’s whereabouts. If indeed she had split, Belle had left her clothing behind. As Dew remembers in his memoir, she clearly had a passion for exotic accessories, owning “enough ostrich feathers to stock a milliner’s shop.” After surveying the chambers aboveground, Dew ventured down to the basement level. It consisted of a breakfast room as well as a kitchen, with a coal cellar adjoining. He struck a match in the pitch-black darkness of the cellar, discerning nothing more than a couple lumps of coal and a pile of firewood. The room itself looked unremarkable to Dew, though he couldn’t help noticing that neither Crippen nor Le Neve set foot inside the cellar while Dew was looking around.
On July 9, the very next day, Crippen and Le Neve skipped town. It made them look guilty for obvious reasons, and Dew returned to Hilldrop Crescent to investigate further. Without Crippen and Le Neve breathing down his neck, Dew could spend as much time searching for clues as he wanted. He took the place apart but came up empty-handed. More than once he went down to the coal cellar. Nothing looked amiss to him, but he felt drawn to it nevertheless. Scouring it once more, he caught sight of something his eyes had passed over before: an almost indiscernible gap between two of the paving stones. Dew retrieved a trowel from the garden and pried them apart. In an instant, the reek of putrefaction filled the cramped cellar, driving him outdoors for a breath of fresh air.
After fortifying himself with a swig or two brandy, he began the nauseating task of digging up the cellar. He soon unearthed what little remained of Mrs. Crippen: a mass of flesh that had come from her torso. The killer had evidently dismembered the body, severing the head along with the limbs while also removing the bones and internal organs. Police never recovered these missing body parts. Several signs suggested that these remains were Belle’s, but a scar she’d gotten from a recent surgery proved that they were. The public would have hated Crippen for killing his wife no matter how he decided to dispose of the body. Yet the hideous extent of these mutilations added another jolt of horror and outrage to the story, and soon the British capital was baying for Crippen’s blood.
At the same time, they weren’t altogether pleased with Dew. His detractors slammed him for allowing Crippen and Le Neve to slip through his fingers, insisting that he should have had Hilldrop Crescent watched for suspicious activity. Member of Parliament William Thorne went so far as to accuse Dew of “grave neglect of duty” in the presence of Home Secretary Winston Churchill. Dew defended himself by maintaining that prior to exhuming Belle’s remains, he had not had evidence enough either to arrest Crippen or to order his home surveilled. The policeman would long resent this criticism.
The manhunt was on. In the beginning, law enforcement met with one frustration after another. As in the case of the Ripper crimes, members of the public were eager to aid in capturing Crippen. Tips poured in from all over Britain, and it was incumbent on the police to check up on all of them. Irrespective of how well-meaning the senders might have been, many of these leads proved fruitless. On any given day, tipsters spotted Crippen in as many as a dozen different places.
Dew oversaw the investigation with the utmost seriousness. As he notes in his memoir, however, the quest for Crippen was not without the occasional flourish of humor. He recalls, “On two [separate] occasions, the [same] gentleman who was unfortunate enough to resemble Crippen facially, was brought to Scotland Yard on suspicion of being the wanted man. On the first occasion, he took the experience in good part, but when the same thing happened a second time he was highly indignant, and said it was getting to be a habit!”
Crippen look-alikes notwithstanding, the situation was growing dire. The more time passed without a breakthrough, the more distance the fugitives put between themselves and the law. As it turns out, Crippen and Le Neve had made it awfully far from London.
Henry Kendall Plays the Detective
A trans-Atlantic passenger ship called The Montrose had just pulled out of Antwerp, Belgium and was slipping along the River Scheldt. The vessel’s captain, seasoned seafarer Henry George Kendall, was fetching a cigar from his captain when he happened to cast a glance out his porthole. Two men—one older and one younger—were standing behind a lifeboat, as if hiding themselves. Perhaps drawn in by their effort to evade notice, he studied them for a moment. Were they both men? The younger of the pair was squeezing the other’s hand. After a spell, the older fellow emerged from their hiding place and scanned the deck, making sure that nobody was watching. Satisfied this furtive display of affection had gone unwitnessed, they resumed holding hands. They hadn’t been nearly cautious enough, and starting that day, Kendall would scarcely let the pair out of his sight for the remainder of the journey.
After exiting his cabin, Kendall took a turn on deck and found the two fellows behind their lifeboat, no longer hand-in-hand at this point. He asked if they had reserved their seats for lunch, and when the elder man replied in the negative, Kendall invited them to dine with him at the captain’s table. They accepted the generous and unexpected offer, whereupon the mariner took his leave.
Consulting the purser, Kendall learned more about the men he was spying on. In Brussels, they’d booked tickets to Quebec and come aboard wearing a set of brown suits, soft gray hats, and white canvas shoes. The middle-aged gentleman answered to the name of John Robinson and spoke with a hint of an American accent. As Kendall would note in the coming days, he was fastidious about shaving his mustache and had a funny habit of stroking his ever-burgeoning beard with a look of approval. He never wore glasses, but there was an imprint on the bridge of his nose where frames would have rested if he did. It was as if Mr. Robinson had used the same pair for years and then gotten rid of them back in Antwerp. His sixteen-year-old son, John Robinson Jr., never said more than a few words at a time but usually smiled when spoken to. Curiously enough, Robinson Sr. paid extra in Brussels, purchasing a four-berth cabin for the two of them, guaranteeing that nobody would disturb them below deck.
Later on, at lunchtime, Kendall paid careful attention to his guests, especially the teenager. His father sat between the captain and the lad, making it difficult to get a good look at the youth. All the same, nobody could have missed it. Master Robinson handled cutlery and fruit with an unmistakably feminine daintiness. There was no way Johnny Jr. was a boy.
By now, Kendall was pretty sure he was eating his salad next to Crippen and Le Neve. Like everyone else who had picked up a newspaper in the past week or two, he was aware of the horrible murder. The press had reported that the alleged perpetrator and his mistress had fled to Brussels, precisely where the Robinsons had bought their tickets, and part of Kendall had suspected that he had found them out as soon as he peeped at them behind the lifeboat. Still, Kendall needed more to go on than he had.
He tried out another trick after lunch. While the Robinsons were enjoying the sea breeze on deck, he stood behind them and yelled “Mr. Robinson” to see if either responded. Once, twice, three times he called out to them before the youth realized they were being addressed and urged Robinson Sr. to give a reply. Turning around to face the captain, the American apologized for the delayed response. The wind up here could make a man deaf.
More suspicious than ever, Kendall shut himself up in his cabin and consulted a copy of the Continental Daily Mail. It featured photographs of a mustachioed Crippen and a long-haired Le Neve. Kendall whited out the homeopath’s moustache with a piece of chalk on hand. Then, because Robinson Jr. had short hair, he cut a circular hole in a card and placed it on top of Le Neve’s picture, so it covered up her locks. No doubt about it—Kendall was looking at Mr. and Master Robinson.
This gave way to yet another revelation, perhaps more embarrassing than anything else. As Kendall gazed out his porthole at the Robinsons, a gust of wind kicked up the back of Le Neve’s jacket, giving the captain a view of her trousers. Someone had clearly taken in men’s britches to fit a slender female and made a shambles of it. Kendall later characterized the younger Robinson’s trousers as “anything but a good fit.” They were “very tight about the hips and are split a bit down the back and secured with a safety pin.” Such slapdash tailoring would have appalled Willy Clarkson, and it’s hard to imagine the great costume designer would have taken credit for it if he had ever seen it.
By July 22, two days had passed since Kendall had formed his initial suspicions, and he still hadn’t notified police about them. As he was well aware, the window of opportunity to do so was closing. In the late 1890s, Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi pioneered radio telecommunication, which in turn paved the way to wireless telegraphy. The Montrose had a wireless telegraph onboard along with an operator who knew how to use it, and this was the only viable means with which Kendall could alert the authorities. However, because his ship was pulling into the Atlantic, it would soon be too far out to sea for its signal to reach England. In theory, the Montrose’s telegraph could receive messages from up to 600 miles away, but its transmitters were rudimentary and weaker than intended. In practice, they could seldom shoot messages farther than 150 miles. Now was the time to sound the alarm. Kendall pulled wireless operator Llewelyn Jones aside and instructed him to send this dispatch to Liverpool: “Have strong suspicions that Crippen London cellar murderer and accomplice are amongst saloon passengers. Moustache taken off, growing beard. Accomplice dressed as boy, voice, manner, and build obviously a girl. Both travelling as Mr. and Master Robinson. Kendall.” It was the first time in history that wireless telegraphy was used to catch a criminal, and it’s one of many reasons why the Crippen affair sent waves of excitement through the public.
Race Across the Atlantic
Kendall’s message made it from Liverpool to London and eventually into the hands of Walter Dew. He was convinced that the captain had Crippen and Le Neve onboard. The best course of action must have seemed at once obvious and unfeasible. Dew needed to find his way onboard the Montrose and take the fugitives into custody before they could disembark in Canada. This was easier said than done because Crippen and his companion had a head-start of several days at sea. Nevertheless, Dew had to try, and he might stand a chance of intercepting the Montrose before it was too late if he could secure passage aboard a high-speed steamer. Luckily for Dew, his immediate supervisor was prepared to authorize his daring plan, and as it turns out, this official was none other than Melville Macnaghtan, whose name you might remember from our episode on Lewis Carroll. He missed out on the hunt for the Whitechapel slasher by just one year, but he authored the so-called “Macnaghten memoranda,” which name three Ripper suspects, including Montague Druitt.
Dew set out the following day under the assumed surname of Dewhurst. He told nobody—not even his wife—where he was going, determined to avoid unwanted publicity. Despite his discretion, a story this good was bound to get leaked, and the press had picked it up and printed it on either side of the Atlantic in no time. Dew boarded a steamship leaving from Liverpool and as he progressed across the ocean, the world waited on tenterhooks as the cat closed in on his runaway prey. Meanwhile, Crippen was unaware of the threat, though according to Kendall, he showed an interest in all the noise the wireless telegraph was making.
Dew and Newsmen in Disguise
Having completed his trans-Atlantic journey, Dew set foot on Canadian soil at a remote pilot station called “Farther Point,” situated on the bank of the St. Lawrence River. The voyage had been anything but relaxing for Dew. He had tried to contact Kendall by telegraph to no avail. With wireless telegraphy still in its infancy, connectivity wasn’t what it needed to be. To make matters worse, a doubt would have plagued the inspector along the way. After all, he was crossing an ocean on the basis of a single lead. He’d already weathered a storm of criticism back in London, and if this turned out to be a wild goose chase, God only knew what kind of media maelstrom would await him when he returned.
At Farther Point, Dew transmitted a message to Kendall, and much to his relief, he received a response. Dew’s ship, the Laurentic had overtaken the Montrose according to plan, and Crippen was just as clueless as ever.
His relief was short-lived. Having caught wind of Dew’s intentions to board the Montrose, a band of American journalists hatched a plot to rent a raft and steer it toward the larger vessel, hoping it would halt. Then, posing as “shipwrecked mariners” who needed saving, they would climb onboard, allowing them to quiz Crippen and his mistress about their adventure before the inspector could capture them. With considerable tact, Dew persuaded them not to go through with their ploy, promising to send a signal from the Montrose if he found Crippen aboard and managed to detain him.
With that crisis averted, the next phase of the mission took shape. The following morning, Dew would row out to the Montrose before it pulled into port, come aboard the vessel, and arrest the wanted man and woman. The plan, though dramatic, was simple enough. Yet the inspector feared that he could still run aground. He had interviewed Crippen in person. If the fugitive recognized Dew before he could cuff him, Crippen might throw himself overboard or take some other equally drastic measure.
None too keen to have come this far to fish a drowned fugitive out of the St. Lawrence, Dew disguised himself, pulling on the “uniform of a genial old pilot.” It wasn’t the first time in his professional life that Dew had availed himself of a costume. Early in his career, for instance, he attempted to arrest a criminal by dressing himself as a “rag and bone man.” (Rag and bone men, in case you’re wondering, sold second-hand clothing and, well, bones, the latter of which could be used as ornaments, toys, and handles for knives. These vendors often found their wares by picking through garbage.) Anyway, while Dew was in the process of detaining the offender, a housemaid happened to catch sight of him and took him for a robber mugging an innocent pedestrian. Bent on stopping the apparent theft, she emptied a bucket of filthy water on Dew’s head. He could only hope his pilot disguise would serve him better.
The foghorn blared at seven the next morning. Kendall welcomed the stentorian moan as he reasoned that fog could work in Dew’s favor. A thick layer of it was hanging over the water right now, and if it kept up, it would be impossible for Crippen to espy the detective’s approach from the deck. When the Montrose came within about five miles of Farther Point, a westerly wind picked up and dispersed the fog. Kendall later recalled, “It was like raising the screen at theatre and revealing the beauty behind.” The sun lit up the St. Lawrence like a stage in limelight, and Kendall could make out a small boat about a half-mile distant on the port side. Safe in his disguise, Dew and his colleagues were headed his direction. About another half-mile down the river, he descried the Eureka, a steamer with maybe 40 people aboard, most of them journalists come to watch the drama. An international murder mystery was about to reach its climax.
Kendall and Dew offer starkly contrasting versions of what followed, which makes it difficult to say what happened with absolute certainty.
In Kendall’s telling, he met Dew in his cabin. After shaking hands, Kendall directed Dew to his porthole and pointed out Crippen to him. The color must have drained from the detective’s face. “My God, Captain, that’s not him!” Dew cried. In that moment, his worst fears were coming true: he’d raced to Canada for the wrong guy.
Kendall shook him out of it. The seman recalls, “I replied that it was certainly him and that if Dew did not arrest him then I would!” As captain of the Montrose, Kendall did have the authority to place Crippen under arrest. He would have done so on the other side of the Atlantic, in fact, if only he had had the requisite manpower at his disposal to detain the murderer as well as Le Neve and keep them safely under lock and key.
Kendall had a crewman bring Crippen to his cabin. When the unsuspecting man on the run walked in, Dew was positioned with his back to him. Spinning around, he extended his hand and said, “Good morning, Dr. Crippen.” Crippen was speechless, clearly not having recognized the detective. Dew removed his airman’s cap, and explained himself, “I am Inspector Dew from Scotland Yard. I’ve come here to have you arrested under the name of the King for the murder and mutilation of your wife Cora Crippen on or about Feb. 1.”
In I Caught Crippen, Dew depicts a different confrontation. For starters, he never falls for Crippen’s disguise. Dew has this to say about the fellow Kendall indicates to him: “The man [was] now walking slowly up and down. He looked like Crippen. Yet, he was different. This man had no heavy, sandy moustache, and he was wearing no glasses.”
Approaching the fugitive, Dew greeted him with a cheerful, “Good morning, Dr. Crippen.” The little man gave a start, a look of puzzlement in his eyes. “Then,” Dew relates, “A sudden twitching of his Adam’s apple told me that recognition had come to him… ‘Good morning, Mr. Dew,’ Crippen replied.”
Dew’s screenplay-worthy “Good morning, Dr. Crippen” is common to both accounts, and he may well have said it in actuality. The question of how quickly good guy and bad guy recognized each other is harder to settle. Either way, Dew showed up to this spectacular arrest with a first-rate disguise.
Back in England, Crippen went to court and hung by the neck on November 23, 1910. Meanwhile, Le Neve stood trial as an accessory after the fact. After an acquittal, she relocated to Canada to work as a typist. Two years later, she was back in England, where she died in 1967.
Dew had reached the apex of his career with the Crippen mission and bowed out of Scotland Yard soon after. He became a private investigator and spent his free time gardening. Nearly thirty years later, he authored I Caught Crippen, its title acknowledging that case’s defining impact on his legacy. Dew passed away some nine years later in 1947.
Crippen’s arrest would likewise mark a highpoint in Kendall’s life. It brought him untold glory—not to mention a sizable check. While aboard the Montrose, Dew informed Kendall that he would receive a reward of £250, roughly equivalent to £20,000 in 2010, the year in which Joe Saward published his book about Kendall, The Man Who Caught Crippen. Within two or three months, Kendall had voyaged back to England, where he enjoyed a hero’s welcome. By October 5, he had the promised reward check in hand, but that doesn’t mean he took it to the bank. Instead, he had it framed and hung on the wall inside one of the Montrose’s salons. Kendall clearly valued this tangible reminder of all he had done to bring down Crippen at more than £250. That’s one expensive trophy.