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On a routine Westbound transatlantic crossing in 1910, an unremarkable Canadian Pacific liner called the S.S Montrose played host to a much more infamous passenger. Though no one onboard knew it at the time, there was a murderer in their midst.
Built in 1897 for Elder, Dempster & Company, the S.S Montrose became part of the Canadian Pacific Steamship fleet in 1903. She was just 444.3 feet in length and had a maximum width of 52 feet. She sported a low, squat profile topped with a single funnel. In short, even for the turn of the last century she was rather unremarkable when compared with the much larger, vastly more luxurious Cunard, Hapag, Holland America and White Star liners. But she got the job done, routinely sailing between Europe and Canada.
Much like the Montrose, Hawley Harvey Crippen was something of an unremarkable man. Modest and slight in appearance, Crippen was a homeopathic doctor who had worked for several years in the United States before moving to London with his wife, Corrine “Cora” Turner, a music hall performer who went by the stage name Belle Elmore. By all accounts, she was difficult to please, and continually harassed her husband. The couple lived at 39 Hilldrop Crescent in London, where they took lodgers to add to Crippen’s modest income.
Cora made little effort to hide her displeasure with her husband, and embarked on a string of not-so-subtle affairs with other men. While Crippen tolerated her behavior, it may have been because he’d embarked on an affair of his own with Ethel Le Neve, a young typist who had worked with him for almost a decade.
On January 17, 1910, Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen purchased four grains of hyoscin, a drug routinely used in sedation. Four grains, however, was well beyond a normal dosage.
On January 31, 1910, after enjoying a game of whist with friends, Cora Turner vanished. In the days that followed, Crippen alternated the sale of her jewelery with spreading a note claiming she’d packed up and left him, bound for America. One of Turner’s stage performing friends was sufficiently concerned to contact Scotland Yard, where Chief Inspector Walter Dew became involved.
A veteran of the force, Dew had been involved in the search for Jack the Ripper some twenty-two years prior. He proceeded to interview Crippen and performed a cursory search of the house, but found nothing suspect in either. Crippen, however, was spooked: he disappeared along with Ethel Le Neve to Brussels.
The good Doctor’s sudden disappearance concerned Chief Inspector Dew enough to perform another, more exhaustive search of 39 Hilldrop Crescent. During these repeated searches, the remains of a human body were found buried beneath the basement floor, and a piece of skin was traced back to Cora Turner. The limbs and appendages belonging to the body were never found.
Crippen and Le Neve boarded the Montrose in Antwerp, Belgium destined for Montreal. Because of the increased media attention, they had disguised Ethel Le Neve as a boy. While the disguise may have worked admirably on the passengers of the Montrose, one person in particular had his doubts: Captain Harry Kendall.
A strong seafaring man, Captain Kendall was nobody’s fool. Before steaming out of range of land-based transmitters, Captain Kendall ordered a telegraph sent to Scotland Yard advising them that Crippen was potentially onboard. Back in England, Chief Inspector Dew reacted immediately: he booked passage aboard White Star’s Laurentic. Much faster than the Montrose, the Laurentic passed the slower Canadian Pacific ship in the Atlantic and arrived in Quebec ahead of it.
When the Montrose entered the St. Lawrence River, Dew was ready: he’d disguised himself as a harbour pilot. As Dew was boarding the Montrose, Captain Kendall stealthily invited Crippen to watch the activities. Dew spied Crippen immediately and walked over, removing his cap as he did so.
“Good Morning, Dr. Crippen. Do you know me? I am Chief Inspector Walter Dew from Scotland Yard.”
After a brief pause, Crippen let out a sight and said, “Thank God it’s over. The suspense has been too great. I couldn’t stand it any longer.”
On Juy 31, 1910, Crippen and Le Neve were arrested aboard the Montrose and transported back to England onboard the White Star liner Megantic. It was the first time that a killer had been apprehended at sea thanks to the aid of the then-new Marconi Wireless.
Harvey Hawley Crippen stood trial at England’s Old Bailey court before being convicted and executed on November 23, 1910. He was 48 years old.
The Montrose sailed on until 1914, when she ran aground on December 20th after being sold to the British Admiralty for use as a blocking ship.
In 2007, it was argued that the remains found beneath the basement of 39 Hilldrop Crescent were not those of Cora Turner. While Crippen’s innocence is now being hotly debated, it begs the question: if that wasn’t Cora Turner, who was it?
Curious to know more about the Montrose and Dr. Crippen? Recommended reading: ‘Thunderstruck’ by Erik Larsson juxtaposes the invention of Marconi with the murderer it helped catch, Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen.
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