The sensational story of how wireless telegraphy was used a century ago to catch two murderers on the run

It was the year 1910. For the first time in the history of criminal investigation wireless telegraphy was used to catch fleeing killer Hawley Harvey Crippen and his mistress, Ethel Le Neve, the main accused in the sensational and still being discussed Crippen Murder Case.  Both were on the run from Scotland Yard, travelling from London to Canada on board the S.S. Montrose. They registered themselves in a second-class cabin as Mr. Robinson, and his son, Master Robinson, the woman disguising herself as a young boy.

The story is familiar…Crippen wanted to get rid of his overbearing adulterous wife and marry his mistress. Yet the murder created history, because it opened up new windows to forensic science, crime investigation, and the role of a new mode of communication, wireless telegraphy. Wireless telegraphy was developed by Guglielmo Marconi who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1909 for his many inventions.

Hawley Harvey Crippen was an American homeopath who lived at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, a quiet suburb of London along with his wife Cora, an ambitious woman who was a music hall artiste. Cora was popular and easy-going. She threw parties at home for her like-minded friends while her husband served and did the dishes. Not surprisingly, Crippen discovered her affair with one of the regulars and persuaded his secretary, the teenage Ethel  to become his mistress.

One day Cora went missing and Crippen told her friends that she had gone to the United States to look after a sick relative. Soon after a telegram reached London stating that she had died! It was sent by Crippen. Ethel began attending parties wearing Cora’s flashy jewellery, chains and her favourite brooch. Her friends wondered how she had left behind her favourite jewellery. One of them contacted Inspector Dew of Scotland Yard who promptly called on Crippen who spun him a convincing story. However, the Inspector wanted to check on some facts and went to the house only to find it securely locked. Aware that the bird had flown he arranged for the house to be searched. When the floor was dug up the cops found the remains of a body which was  identified as that of Cora because of a surgical scar on a piece of skin. The head and some other parts were never found.

Crippen and Ethel’s presence on the ship raised the suspicions of the ship’s captain. He felt that the clothes of Master Robinson were ill fitting and obviously held by strings and pins. He also found the ‘father’ and ‘son’ taking long walks on the deck holding hands and lingering in dark corners which convinced him that they were no father and child. He invited them to dinner at the captain’s table and meanwhile asked one of his men to search their cabin using the spare key. The search revealed many women’s clothes in a box. The captain’s suspicions were now confirmed and rummaging through his stock of old papers received from London, he was stunned to see the photograph of Crippen and Ethel on the front page, wanted for murder!

Certain that they were the wanted couple, and using for the first time wireless telegraphy in crime investigation he sent a message to Scotland Yard  mentioning that the couple was on board. At once Scotland Yard detective Dew sailed on another ship and reached Canada before the S.S. Montrose could dock. He accosted the couple, arrested and brought them to London to face trial. Crippen was found guilty of murder and hanged, while Ethel was acquitted as not guilty.

More than a dozen books, countless articles, and a movie and TV series have been made on this case and the interest has never waned even after more than a century. 39 Hilltop Crescent was demolished long ago and yet visitors from all over the world still visit the site.