The SS Laurentic & the SS Montrose:

 A story of murder, disguise, and a  trans-Atlantic chase.

 by Mark M. Nichol

 


This strange and unusual story begins in 1910 London, with 48 year old American born Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, MD. (who also enjoyed practicing dentistry) Dr. Crippen was married to Cora, who preferred her stage name 'Belle Elmore.' 'Belle' was a mediocre theatrical singer in her early 30's originally from New York and the couple had moved to England some years earlier. Belle was described as being overbearing in the marriage, fond of collecting diamonds and pink frilly clothes. She supposedly had acquired a taste for alcohol and liked flirting with men at parties. Reportedly, she was persistent in nagging and henpecking her husband and he eventually turned his interests to other women, namely his 28 year old secretary, Ethel Clara Le Neve. Belle had apparently become aware of her husband's philandering and threatened to leave him with nothing.

'Belle Elmore' (Cora Crippen)

In the early morning hours of February, 1910, after friends (the Matinetti's) had left a party at the Crippen house, Dr. Crippen decided it was time to put an end to Belle and continue his affair with Ethel. He mixed a medication (hydrobromide of hyoscine, also known as nightshade) in one of Belle's drink's and evidence suggests that he also shot her to assure her death. Neighbor's later reported hearing shouting, pleas for mercy, and what sounded like either a door slamming shut or a distant gun shot. Dr. Crippen then proceeds to take his wife's lifeless body to the cellar where he disembowels, decapitates and cuts off her arms and legs before burying the body in the cellar floor. Crippen then continued his affairs as if nothing ever happened.

He pawned some of Belle's jewelry and gave some to Ethel; who in March of that year had moved in to the Crippen house. The couple told neighbors and friends that Belle had been called suddenly to America to tend to a sick relative and explained that Ethel was Crippen's niece. At a ball later that year, Dr. Crippen and Ethel ran in to friends of Belle's, Mr. and Mrs. John E. Nash. Lil Nash noticed that Ethel was wearing an expensive broach that had belonged to Belle. Crippen later told another one of Belle's friends, Clara Matinetti, that Belle had taken sick in America and may not live. A short time after that he sent her a telegram confirming that she had died. The Nash's heard the news about Belle and asked Crippen where she had died. He replied that it was in a little town near San Francisco but he could not recall the name.

 

Chief Inspector Walter Dew

Not believing Crippen's story, the Nash's went to Scotland Yard with their suspicions. Chief Inspector Walter Dew was assigned to investigate the complaint. Dew was affectionately know as "The Blue Serge" due to his wearing a favorite blue suit on nearly a daily basis. As a constable early in his law enforcement career, he was the first officer on the scene at "Jack the Ripper's" fifth and final victim, Mary Jane Kelly. After examining early complaints from Belle's friends, he wrote the following report:

 

"It will be gathered from the forgoing that there are most extraordinary contradictions in the story told by Crippen, who is an American citizen, as is Mrs. Crippen, otherwise known as Belle Elmore... without adopting the suggestion made by her friends as to foul play, I do think that the time has now arrived when 'Doctor' Crippen should be seen by us and asked to give an explanation as to when, and how, Mrs. Crippen left this country, and the circumstances under which she died..."

 

The grave in the cellar floor where Cora's remains were discovered

When Dr. Crippen was visited at his home by Inspector Dew, he used a preplanned alibi. He told the Inspector that his wife was really alive and had run off to Chicago to be with her lover, a prize fighter by the name of Bruce Miller. He stated that he had become ashamed and embarrassed by the situation and made up the story that she had died. When Inspector Dew asked Dr. Crippen if they could search the house, he allowed it. The search turned up nothing and for the time being the Inspector was satisfied that Crippen was telling the truth. Meanwhile, Crippen, fearing that the police were on to him, told Ethel that he wanted to move. When the Inspector returned later to clear up a couple of minor details, he found Crippen's house empty. Dew called for a second more through search of the house this time revealing the headless, limbless body of Cora 'Belle' Crippen buried in the cellar floor.

A warrant was now issued for Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Nerve. The story also had made the London newspapers. Getting nervous, Crippen decided to flee England for Canada and eventually hide in America. They hid at a hotel in Brussels and waited to board the Canadian Pacific steamer Montrose; scheduled to sail from Antwerp to Quebec. Attempting to disguise himself, he stopped wearing his glasses, shaved his moustache and grew a beard. He fitted Ethel with boys clothes, cut her hair, and had her pull a hat down over her eyes when she was in public view to give the appearance that she was a boy. Posing as father and son, he signed the passenger list as Mr. John and Master Robinson. 

What destroyed Crippen's charade was the Montrose' captain, Henry Kendall. Kendall considered himself a sort of amateur detective and was very observant as to the goings on aboard his ship. He watched this supposed father and son walking the decks from his wheelhouse and thought it was strange that a father and son would hold hands frequently and disappear behind the lifeboats. Captain Kendall later said in an interview:

"I happened to glance through the porthole of my cabin and behind a lifeboat I saw two men. One was squeezing the other's hand. I walked along the boat deck and got into conversation with the elder man. I noticed that there was a mark on the bridge of his nose from wearing spectacles, that he had only recently shaved off a mustache, and that he was growing a beard. The young fellow was very reserved, and I remarked about his cough."

 

 

 

 

 

(Above left) In Disguise. Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Nerve walk the decks of the Montrose disguised as father and son.  (Above right) the Canadian Pacific liner Montrose

Wanting to confirm his suspicions by getting a closer look, Captain Kendall invited the disguised "father and son" to his table for dinner and even to his cabin, telling Crippen that a necessary form needed to be filled out before they reached North America. It was then that the captain noticed safety pins on "Master Robinson's" clothes that disguised the curves of a female. Kendall compared the features of the "suspects" to pictures in a newspaper that he had on board. He was now convinced.

Captain Henry Kendall, SS Montrose

The SS Montrose was one of very few Canadian Pacific liners fitted with a Marconi wireless radio. (similar to Titanic's) Kendall had the operator wire the White Star Line Offices in London with the following message: 'Have strong suspicions that Crippen - London cellar murderer and accomplice are among Saloon passengers. Moustache taken off - growing beard. Accomplice dressed as boy. Voice manner and build undoubtedly a girl." Inspector Dew was given the information and quickly boarded the White Star Liner Laurentic.

 

 

 

 

The Montrose had a three day lead but was still 11 days out from Quebec. With a speed of 13 knots; the 15,000-ton Laurentic could easily over take the Montrose. Reaching the St. Lawrence River before the Montrose' arrival, Dew disguised himself as a tug pilot and boarded the Montrose. He walked up to Crippen shook his hand and removed his pilots cap saying "Good afternoon Dr. Crippen, remember me? I'm Inspector Dew with Scotland Yard." Starring at the Inspector in total disbelief, Crippen replied "Thank God it's over" and held out his wrists for the handcuffs.
 

 

 

 

 

 

Inspector Dew with a disguised Dr.Crippen in handcuffs.

 

 

 

 

 

The White Star Liner Laurentic

Waiving extradition, Dr. Hawley Crippen and Ethel Le Nerve were taken back to London on the White Star Liner Megantic to face charges. Tried by the Central Criminal Court, Crippen maintained his innocence to the end. After a 5-day trial he was found guilty of murdering his wife Cora Crippen and was hanged at Pentonville prison on November 28, 1910. Cora Crippen's body was positively identified by an old surgical scar on the torso. The head and extremities were never found. Ethel Le Nerve hired herself a high-priced attorney and was acquitted of any wrong doing. She changed her last name to Nelson and moved to Canada. A few years later she moved back to England and married an accountant named Stanley Smith. Smith died at an early age of a heart attack after the couple had produced a son and daughter. Smith never new the secrets that Ethel kept. Ethel Le Nerve (Nelson) Smith died in 1967 at the age of 85.


Article below from the Nebraska State Journal July 30, 1910

Story Sources:

Marconi Archives

The Crime Library

Metropolitan Police, UK Crime Museum Archives

Recorded voice of Captain Kendall

The Mild Murderer; The True Story of the Dr. Crippen Case. Tom Cullen. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston. 1977
The Detectives. Frank Smith and Myles Ludwig. J. B. Lippincott Company. 1978.

Nebraska State Journal July 30, 1910


Return to Home