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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 October 2007, 12:56 GMT 13:56 UK
Crippen mystery remains despite DNA claim
Dr Crippen
Dr Crippen was apprehended on his way to Canada
On 18 October, 97 years ago, the murder trial of Dr Hawley Crippen started at the Old Bailey. It gripped the public, as had his flight with his mistress dressed as a boy and subsequent police chase across the Atlantic.

Now US researchers suggest DNA evidence shows a body found under his house was not that of his wife. To Irish author John Boyne, who maintained the doctor's innocence in his novel Crippen, it is no surprise.

For a novelist, debunking the theory behind a notorious murder case makes for attractive fiction.

In his book Crippen, John Boyne suggests Hawley Crippen was wrongly hanged for the murder of his showgirl wife Cora.

Dr Crippen went to the gallows maintaining his innocence - it appears now he was telling the truth
John Boyne

Now American scientists say they have DNA evidence proving the headless body found under the Crippens' north London home was not actually Mrs Crippen.

"Dr Crippen went to the gallows maintaining his innocence - it appears now he was telling the truth," said Mr Boyne.

The researchers from Michigan State University tracked down three of Mrs Crippen's grandnieces and compared their mitochondrial DNA with that of the body in the cellar kept on a microscope slide since the trial in 1910.

DNA samples

Mitochondrial DNA is passed down from mother to daughter. Unlike regular DNA, it remains more stable in old tissue and is easier to retrieve.

David Foran, a forensic biologist and director of the university's forensic science programme, said: "This can't be Cora Crippen. We're certain of that. The DNA in the sample is different from the known relatives of Cora Crippen."

For his 2004 book, Boyne pored over pages of original trial transcripts and came to the conclusion the evidence against Crippen was flimsy.

"Everybody at the time who knew Crippen was really shocked," he said.

"He was too mild mannered, they said, too meek. I thought there must be something in that."

In the pre-DNA days of the trial, pathologist Bernard Spilsbury's identification evidence rested on a scar on the body's abdomen he claimed was consistent with Mrs Crippen's medical history.

It was like the OJ case
John Boyne

But to trial observers, what sealed Crippen's guilt was his suspicious flight with his mistress, Ethel le Neve, disguised as his son.

The pair boarded the SS Montrose to sail to Canada. But they were recognised by the ship's captain.

Even more unluckily for them was that the Montrose was the first ship to carry Marconi's new telegram system so the ship's captain could alert Scotland Yard.

With newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic following every twist and turn of the chase, they were able to take a faster passage and meet the Montrose as she arrived in Quebec.

The details of the flight captivated the public back then, and continues to intrigue.

Remaining mystery

"It's still an interesting story," said Mr Boyne. "To be so unlucky to be on the first boat with the telegram.

"Everybody in the world knew they had been identified and detectives were on their way - apart from the people on the boat. It was like the OJ case."

In his story, Mr Boyne invents another character who could have killed Mrs Crippen.

But even if it wasn't her, there was still a body under the Crippens' house.

"I don't think the DNA evidence has cleared anything up," he said.

"There were suggestions Crippen could have been an abortionist and the body in the cellar was one which went wrong.

"He still dressed his mistress as his son and fled. He obviously had something to hide.

"Dr Crippen is one of those mysteries that will never be solved."

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