Notorious Dr Crippen wrongly hanged, scientists say
LONDON (Reuters) - It was sensational stuff that riveted a nation: A mild-mannered American doctor poisons then dismembers his unfaithful wife, flees England in disguise with his mistress -- and is caught, tried and hanged.
The problem is that the poisoned corpse that sent Dr Hawley Crippen to the gallows in London in 1910 was not that of his wife, according to new evidence found by U.S. researchers.
A team led by John Trestrail, head of the regional poison centre in Grand Rapids, Michigan, took mitochondrial DNA -- genetic material passed on through the mother -- from a tissue sample from the corpse kept in a London museum.
They then compared it with samples from three of Cora Crippen's female descendants, found after a 7-year search.
"That body was not Cora Crippen's," said David Foran, a forensic biologist at Michigan State University. "We don't know who that body was or how it got there."
Crippen, a struggling doctor who moved to England with his showgirl wife, was convicted of poisoning her with an obscure toxin and then burying her dismembered body under their North London home.
Police nabbed Crippen and his mistress on a transatlantic ship as it entered Canadian waters. The captain had recognized the doctor from newspapers and become suspicious of his companion, disguised as a man, and famously used the newly invented wireless telegraph to alert the British police.
"POISONERS DON'T MUTILATE"
"The thing about the Crippen case is the mutilation, which is contradictory to what poisoners do," said Trestrail, whose books on poisons are used by detectives across the world. "They want a 'natural death' certificate, and to walk away."
Police found the remains with no head, no bones and no genitals. The grisly revelation shocked the public, spurring newspapers to describe Crippen as "one of the most dangerous and remarkable men who have lived this century."
Throughout the trial and all the way to the gallows, he insisted that he was innocent and the body not that of his wife.
But his flight, and the contradictory accounts he gave of his wife's disappearance, did him no favors.
The final nail in his coffin was evidence of a scar on the body, which convinced the jury that it was Cora's, an inference that the researchers now say was almost certainly wrong.
But they concede that other evidence clearly shows that the body could only have made its way to Crippen's house when he and his wife were living there.
Trestrail speculates that Crippen might have been performing illegal abortions and that the body could have resulted from a procedure that went horribly wrong.
There are also clues suggesting that Cora Crippen slipped out of England with a new man and settled in the United States.
"The two questions are 'Where did she go?' and 'Whose remains are they?'," Trestrail said. "But that is another investigation and trial."