Legal History

DNA: Did Crippen Really Kill His Wife?

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Updated: One of Britain’s most notorious murderers could have been wrongly convicted.

Harley Crippen, a mild-mannered American doctor convicted of poisoning, dissecting and burying his wife in the cellar of their London home so that he could marry his mistress, actually may not have committed the crime for which he was hanged almost 100 years ago, reports the London Times.

Yesterday “a team of American scientists who compared mitochondrial DNA from the corpse that was claimed to be Mrs. Crippen with that of her living relatives said that the dismembered body was not her,” the newspaper reports. An expert on poisoning who was part of the team points out, too, that the mutilation and burial are inconsistent with a poisoning murder, in which the method ordinarily is used to obtain a “natural death” certificate. However, the expert, John Trestrail, speculates that the mutilated body found in the cellar of his home might have been a victim of a botched illegal abortion procedure performed by Crippen.

The article does not explain what happened to Cora Crippen, who reportedly disappeared and apparently was never seen again, prompting a police investigation that led to the discovery of the body. Crippen’s mistress, Ethel Le Neve, fled with him on an ocean liner headed for Canada after the two were questioned by police about his wife’s whereabouts. She was eventually acquitted of being an accomplice to the murder.

The Crippen case was followed with intense interest at the time, due in part to a dramatic Atlantic Ocean pursuit of the fleeing couple by British police, aided by brand-new wireless telegraph technology that made it possible for newspapers to report on the chase as it transpired. The Crippen case is also the subject of a recent book, Thunderstruck, by Eric Larson, that has been well-reviewed. (Individuals discuss the book on the Goodreads blog.)

A Web page about the case posted by Michigan State University, with which the research team is affiliated, provides more details about the DNA project.

(Updated Oct. 19 at 10:07 a.m., CDT.)

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