GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan – The name Hawley Crippen has been synonymous with murder for nearly a century in England.
The Michigan-born homeopathic physician was executed in November 1910 after being convicted earlier in the year of poisoning and dismembering his showgirl wife. Crippen was arrested after he and his mistress fled the country across the Atlantic Ocean with the police in pursuit.
Investigators from Scotland Yard pinned their case on some human tissue found beneath some steps in the cellar of the couple's London home. A pathologist testifying on behalf of the prosecution during the sensational trial identified what he claimed was an abdominal scar consistent with the Cora Crippen's medical history.
The jury took only 27 minutes to convict Hawley Crippen, who was born in Coldwater, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) southwest of Detroit. Until his hanging 10 months later, he always maintained his innocence, saying his wife had run off with another man.
Now, some Michigan medical researchers say their examination of DNA evidence proves conclusively that the human remains were not those of Crippen's wife but of someone else.
"Whose tissue's under the steps? That's another trial. That's another investigation," said John Trestrail III, a Grand Rapids-based clinical and forensic toxicologist. "But the bottom line is, Hawley Crippen was hanged in error."
Trestrail, the managing director of the DeVos Children's Hospital Regional Poison Center, said the case has fascinated him for more than 30 years. The dismemberment never made any sense to him because people who use poison to murder their victims want such deaths to look as natural as possible.
He formed a team several years ago with David Foran, who heads up a forensics biology laboratory at Michigan State University, and Beth Wills, a genealogist from Ionia, to resolve what he saw as inconsistent evidence.
Foran needed some DNA from the victim to begin his work. The Royal London Hospital Archives and Museum agreed to send him one of the original microscope slides presented as evidence at trial that contained tissue from the remains found in the cellar.
His laboratory has devised methods to extract and isolate mitochondrial DNA, the genetic blueprint that is passed down in the egg from mother to daughter. Unlike regular DNA, which comes from a cell's nucleus, Foran said mitochondrial DNA remains more stable in aged tissue and is easier to retrieve.
It also remains relatively undiluted through generations, offering a reliable familial match, he said.
"Using that knowledge, we could go and find relatives of Cora Crippen who are living this day and ... analyze their DNA and compare it to the tissue on the slide," Foran said Thursday.
Tracking down a suitable relative of Crippen to obtain a comparable DNA sample was the task assigned to Wills, an amateur genealogist who became obsessed with the case. Most of her spare time during the past six years was spent poring over census records, microfilm, birth certificates, death certificates and baptismal records.
Cora Crippen had no children before her husband's arrest, so Wills concentrated on looking for descendants of Crippen's mother. The genealogist ultimately located three grandnieces, and Foran's testing of their DNA proved that a tragic error had been made nearly 100 years ago.
Wills recalled speaking with one of the grandnieces.
"The exciting thing for me, when I finally did get a chance to talk to her, was that she had a glimmer of memory: 'Oh, I remember. My grandpa talked about an uncle that killed his wife back in London,"' she said. "Those personal memories are just way more valuable than any piece of paper that you can get."
Now that Foran and the rest of the team have determined that the human remains found in the cellar of the Crippens' home were not those of Cora Crippen, he hopes to someday identify them correctly.
The technology that is currently available will limit his search, at least for now, to perhaps determining the victim's gender, he said.