Some mysteries and secrets go to the grave.
July 25, 2013
Around 1916, a young woman named Ethel Smith was living in East Croydon, a borough of London, with her husband Stanley. They were raising two children amongst the quiet, peaceful scenery. Ethel met Stanley not long after she had arrived, as Ethel Nelson, on a ship from Toronto. She had found work at a furniture store where Stanley was the accountant, and that is how they became acquainted.
Seems pretty blissful and serene, doesn’t it? Even after Stanley died, years later, she continued to live there in quiet solitude—until a novelist started digging around.
Ethel Nelson? Ethel Smith? Ethel was, in fact, Ethel LeNeve. Oh, what whispering must have gone on in the neighborhood when her true identity was discovered!
Ethel’s previous love interest was Dr. Hawley Harvey “Peter” Crippen.
Dr. Crippen was a homeopathic physician who was a partner in a dental office in London. Crippen was marred to Cora, stage name Belle, who was a plump, overbearing, flamboyant music hall singer. Belle saw herself as a great talent who would soar to the highest heights.
One day a lovely seventeen-year-old girl came to work in Dr. Crippen’s office. The middle-aged, pipsqueaky Hawley could not take his eyes off of her. It was equally obvious that the young woman had deep admiration for Dr. Crippen. To compound the drama, Crippen’s home life had been deteriorating due to Belle’s demands and mean-spiritedness. Dr. Crippen and his young employee grew closer and eventually became lovers.
At about this same time, Belle mysteriously disappeared from the Crippen home. Explanations were given to suspicious busybodies: Belle has gone to California to become a famous singer. Belle has gone to America to take care of family business. I think she must have died there.
Suspicions were not allayed when the busybodies noticed that Ethel LeNeve had moved into the Crippen home, and that she was often seen wearing Belle’s jewelry and other fine accessories. Scotland Yard showed up one day and started asking way too many questions.
Crippen and LeNeve were able to sneak away and board a ship to Canada at about the same time Scotland Yard was finding evidence of human remains buried under the cellar of the Crippen home.
The captain of a Quebec-bound ship was getting intrigued by the appearance and activities of two of his passengers, a father and son. Mr. Robertson and his son, Master Robertson, seemed odd. They were overly affectionate for a father and son, and the son seemed to walk and talk with decided feminine grace. The ship captain kept an eye on them and made an inquiry by wire to Scotland Yard.
Yes, it was true. The Robertsons were, in fact, Hawley Crippen and Evelyn LeNeve. Ethel had bobbed her hair and donned the clothing of a young gentleman as a disguise to evade officers of the law who may, or may not, be on their trail. They were detained for the return voyage and were picked up by Scotland Yard upon their return.
Crippen, who put on a poor defense, was hanged for the crime of murder. Ethel was charged as an accessory but was declared Not Guilty by the jury after less than thirty minutes. She had been overly influenced by a masterful mind, they decided. At approximately the same time Crippen was being hanged, Evelyn was boarding a ship to Toronto to fade into the woodwork.
This sensational case has generated much curiosity over the years. PBS even had a special on Dr. Crippen (Secrets of the Dead). DNA was taken from some of Belle Crippen’s living relatives and compared to DNA from the remains under the Crippen house. There were no matches. Furthermore, the DNA from the cellar was male in origin.
Was Crippen innocent? Some go so far as to say the evidence was planted. Ethel returned after living a few years incognito in Canada and resumed her life in England where she became Ethel “Nelson” Smith. She died in 1967 at eighty-four, having become good friends with her biographer, Ursula Bloom. Even though they were friends, Ethel never betrayed Crippen, and never revealed the details of the case to her biographer.