A few months ago, I had such a bad head cold that I couldn’t lie down to sleep. That’s how I found myself awake in the dead of night thinking in depth about—what else?—the notorious Edwardian murderer Hawley Harvey Crippen. I had been reading Roger Dalrymple’s manuscript, Crippen: A Crime Sensation in Memory and Modernity, earlier in the day, which is the last time I read about violent crimes while sick.
Crippen murdered his wife, Cora, in 1910, for various reasons. (Please see Dalrymple’s book for the details and context, as there’s a good deal of gruesomeness and adultery involved, and this blog is rated PG.) Crippen concealed his crime with inexplicable success for several months before the fuzz at last closed in. He then attempted to abscond to Canada, in the company of his paramour, Ethel le Neve, who was dressed, apparently not very convincingly, as a boy. Once captured, Crippen neither confessed nor defended himself. He was executed that same year.
Why was this century-old crime keeping me awake? Why did I find Crippen so unsettling? Because he comes across as a mopey, mediocre sad sack. And if as forceful a personality as Cora Crippen—an untalented yet relentlessly determined music hall performer—could be murdered by someone so Willy Lomanesque, couldn’t any of us? Likewise, his nonchalant brand of evil appears to have come out of nowhere; therefore, could not any one of us become a murderer if properly motivated?
I will remind you here that it was one o’clock in the morning and I was too hot, too cold, very tired, extremely grumpy, and not a little alarmed that Crippen’s overlarge mustache and vacant eyes seemed to have imprinted on my vision, for I kept seeing his bespectacled face looming in the dark.
What I was falling victim to was the powerful schema of “sensational” crime, created largely by the Edwardian press and literary culture. Just think the word “murder”, and you’ll see it still endures in your own head. In 1910, all the tropes you just thought of were already well on their way to being formed. The Crippen crime solidified them by fitting in perfectly with pre-existing crimes both real and imaginary. As Dalrymple points out in his book, the headline of Crippen’s police handbill (“GHASTLY MURDER . . . DREADFUL MUTILATION”) is strongly reminiscent of those around the Whitechapel murders (“GHASTLY MURDER IN THE EAST END”), connecting Crippen to Jack the Ripper in the public’s imagination. Not only that, but other poisoners, murdering doctors, and uxoricides had been caught in the recent past; Crippen combined all kinds of tropes into one crime, placing a tidy endcap on the idea of a “classic murder.”
Crippen also bore a resemblance Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Hyde, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Grimesby Roylott, and the well-known Svengali from George du Maurier’s novel Trilby—all stories adapted to the stage around the time of the Crippen murder. Crippen became a character himself in the work of many writers over the ensuing century. Together, these interweaving coincidences create a nasty little web of horrors into which innocent people with insomnia are apt to fall. Dalrymple pokes into all the corners of this web, showing how and why it came to be, and the ways it shapes how we think of criminality in real life and how we represent it in fiction.
As the author says, “The Crippen case came to define a particular discursive and imaginative field for depictions of domestic murder, for a period of some fifty years from the commission of the crime in 1910. Adapting a concept from sociologist Charles Taylor, we might even describe this field as a particular form of murder imaginary—a common repertory of concepts, images, and expectations through which individuals structure their criminological understanding” (page 222).
I confess that my own thoughts, while I lay awake haunted by Crippen, were neither so sophisticated nor coherent. I provide them here, divided them into three categories for your convenience.
1. Was Cora’s death an accident? All I will say is, there’s cause for speculation.
2. Ethel le Neve: artless ingénue or Lady Macbeth?
3. Most importantly, why hasn’t anyone written a short story about Henry George Kendall, captain of the steamship our fugitives took to Canada, and his goofy attempts to discover whether the suspicious Mr. Robinson and his son were in fact Crippen and his cross-dressed inamorata?
1. Is there a murderer in my house right now?
2. What was that noise?
General Objections to Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen
1. Not a real doctor
2. Killed a person
3. Bad husband (see above)
4. Has two names that are basically the same name
5. Looks like a real dweeb, for a murderer, causing me to realize I cannot identify potential murderers by visual analysis alone, which makes me uncomfortable
I must have fallen asleep eventually, but one could easily spend an entire night absorbed in thinking about Crippen the criminal and Crippen the book. Anyone who’s ever enjoyed a cozy mystery or simply a fascinating story will appreciate how much this book encompasses: an astonishing number of assumed identities and disguises, an arrest at sea, a love story (such as it is), evil doctors and quack medicine, the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, mesmerism, poison, theater, music halls, ballads, novels, false news stories, outright lies, and several accounts of nights spent in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors with the wax version of Crippen . . . which you will never find me doing. Crippen has given me quite enough insomnia already.
Must Close Saturday: The Decline and Fall of the British Musical Flop, by Adrian Wright, discusses the 1961 musical Belle, pointing out that Cora Crippen’s music hall aspirations make the story surprisingly fitting for a musical. Belle Elmore was Cora’s stage name.
Shades of the Prison House: A History of Incarceration in the British Isles, by Harry Potter, doesn’t mention Crippen, but provides a fascinating account of prisons and crime through the centuries.