Recently, through the use of Mitochondrial DNA testing, a forensic science team in Michigan may have discovered evidence that could exonerate Dr. Hawley Crippen. What makes this discovery so unusual is that Hawley Crippen was tried and hung for murder in London England almost 100 years ago. This gruesome homicide is considered one of the most infamous murder mysteries in London’s history. Over the past decade, dozens of books have been written outlining the events, motives, and possible theories surrounding this crime.
Dr. Crippen, who was originally from Coldwater, Mich., decided to leave the U. S. in 1900 and move abroad, settling in London with his wife Cora. In 1910, Cora disappeared and suspicions of foul play quickly arose after Dr. Crippen was seen with a new female companion. When questioned, Dr. Crippen’s explanation for his wife’s disappearance was that they had been fighting, she returned to the U. S., had died unexpectedly, and was cremated. Sensing that he could be tried and executed for the death of his wife, Crippin fled London and headed for Canada with his new mistress. During his escape, police searched the Crippens’ home and found remains of a body, thought at the time to be those of his wife Cora. After this discovery, he was accused of poisoning his wife Cora, dismembering her body, and hiding the remains under the basement floor. Police eventually arrested, tried, and hung Hawley Crippen for the murder of his wife. However, throughout the entire trial, Hawley Crippen maintained his innocence.
Nearly 100 years after Crippen was executed for his wife’s murder, John Trestrail, a toxicologist who has researched Crippen’s story for over 30 years, teamed up with David Foran, a forensic biologist from Michigan State University. Using evidence slides that had been preserved from the original trial, the two men discovered DNA evidence that could prove that Hawley Crippen did not in fact murder his wife. The slides contained tissue of the victim discovered in Crippen’s basement, and through the process of Mitochondrial DNA testing, both scientists were able to extract a DNA profile of the victim. Mitochondrial DNA testing is a type of analysis that proves maternal lineage from mother to daughter. The duo, with the help of a genealogist, was able to locate two female descendants of Cora Crippen. After comparing both females DNA and verifying their relation, Trestrail and Foran then compared the DNA profile generated from the evidence slides to Cora Crippens’ descendants. After the analysis was complete, forensic DNA testing proved that the DNA located within the evidence slides did not match the DNA of Cora’s descendants—proving that the body in Crippen’s basement was not Cora.
While this conclusion left many questions still unanswered—the most obvious of which being who’s remains were left in the Crippen basement and what really happened to Cora Crippen—Mitochondrial DNA testing did reveal that the body discovered in Hawley Crippen’s basement was not his wife’s. The Crawley case is yet another example of how DNA analysis can help scientists and forensic experts better understand evidence of a crime, no matter how old the crime may be.