Jan. 19 2011 12:00 AM

A cold murder case reheats in a MSU forensics lab


On Nov. 23, 1910, Hawley Harvey Crippen, a homeopathic doctor born in Coldwater, Mich., was hanged in Pentonville Prison, London, England, for the murder of his wife, Cora.

Things were looking bad for Crippen even before his trial. Cora (aka Belle Elmore, a music-hall dancer) disappeared early in 1910. That summer, he fled his home in Hilldrop Crescent, Camden, with a mistress.

The case of the missing showgirl and her philandering husband was already media catnip before London inspectors took Crippen’s cellar apart later in July and found a boneless, headless, limbless blob of remains.

As a corpus delicti, it was several innings short of a complete game, but it had a scar that seemed to match an operation Cora had.

Measured by ink spilled, books published (over 40), ballads written and the insatiable public appetite for details, the Crippen story was every bit the media circus the O.J. Simpson trial was 85 years later.

The saga of the “mild-mannered murderer” climaxed with a low-speed chase more spectacular than Simpson’s flight in the Bronco. Henry George Kendall, the captain of the Canadian Pacific liner Montrose, recognized Crippen and his mistress (disguised as a boy) on board and sent a wireless message to Scotland Yard, the first ever used to catch a criminal. Kendall’s obituaries in 1965 led with his historic “Crippen Aboard” dispatch.

As the public followed the saga from both sides of the Atlantic, Chief Inspector Dew of Scotland Yard rode a fast ship and caught up with Crippen just as he reached Canada.

In 1910, H. G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” was 15 years old. It’s a pity that nobody thought of hopping a ride to East Lansing circa January 2011.

In this month’s Journal of the Forensic Sciences, a team led by Michigan State University’s David Foran declared that the remains found in Crippen’s apartment were not those of Cora Crippen. They aren’t even female.

“Today, the DNA testing we did would be the first thing they would have done on those remains, but they didn’t even know about DNA then,” Foran, director of the forensic science program at MSU, said.

Beth Wills, a genealogist, spent five years locating three living maternal line relatives of Cora Crippen: Two grandnieces and one great-grandniece.

Mitochondrial DNA is inherited from mother to daughter, through the maternal egg, retaining its distinctive chemical sequence. It’s like a hitch-hiking bacterium that stays in its protective shell, aloof from sexual hanky-panky and the genetic shuffling that goes with it.

Foran’s team found that the mitochondrial DNA of the three Crippen relatives matched each other’s, but none matched the DNA from the scar on the cellar remains found on microscope slides loaned to Foran by the London Hospital museum where they have been carefully preserved for 100 years.

Foran was disappointed that PBS took out a lot of the science in its overheated 2008 documentary on the case, “Executed in Error,” so here are two of the most important points, in a nutshell.

To make sure the slide wasn’t contaminated, Foran scraped tissue from the slide and divided it into two tubes.

In one, he used standard organic solvents that are fine for isolating DNA from your cheek
and determining whether you have to pay child support. But the
century-old Crippen sample was bound up by formaldehyde, which locks
everything, DNA included, into a solid brick of stuff. That’s formaldehyde’s job.

was relieved when he got no DNA out of this first sample. If somebody
had contaminated the slide in the handling process, the organic solvents
would have found the handler’s DNA.

In the second sample, Foran used a different procedure known to work on formaldehyde-preserved tissue. He found DNA.

was exciting enough to learn that the DNA didn’t match Cora Crippen’s
maternal lineage, but there was another surprise in store.

before work on the Crippen slide began, Brianne Kiley, a graduate
student in Foran’s lab, developed a technique that detects a particular
section of DNA found in abundance on the Y chromosome. Only males carry a
Y chromosome, yet the Crippen slide gave “a very nice, strong signal,”
Foran said. That meant the remains were male.

“That one I didn’t really predict,” Foran said.

scientists ran multiple controls and repeated the whole process from
scratch, with new bits of DNA, and got the same results.

not the kind of case Foran sees every day. It’s highly unusual, he
said, for soft tissue evidence to stay in such good shape for a century.

“They went right from the trial to the museum, and they’ve been kept very nicely,” Foran said.

But if the remains aren’t those of Cora Crippen’s, whose are they, and how did they get in the cellar?

A common theory is that Inspector Walter Dew, smarting from his failure to nab Jack the Ripper, had the evidence planted.

why would Dew risk his reputation planting phony remains when the real
Cora Crippen was still missing and could turn up any day? (She was never
seen again.)

said historic cases liven up the lab for his grad students, but they’re
only about “1 percent” of the work done at MSU’s forensics lab.

“We can do specialized analyses the state police don’t have expertise in,” he said.

cutting-edge project at Foran’s MSU lab is to examine bits of
improvised explosive devices that have been detonated and look for tiny
traces of “touch DNA” on the fragments.

two weeks, Foran will testify at a murder trial in Wisconsin where dog
hairs found at a crime scene may have incriminated the dog’s owner.
Foran is an expert in wildlife forensics.

doesn’t have a dog in the Crippen case — he did the work pro bono — but
his findings are still making waves. An Ohio relative of Hawley
Crippen’s, Patrick Crippen, and attorney Giovanni de Stefano (famous as a
member of Saddam Hussein’s defense team) are urging that the remains of
Hawley Crippen be re-interred in Coldwater.

Hawley Crippen is buried in the Pentonville Prison yard, but his remains are mixed with those of other prisoners.

Is this another case for Foran’s MSU team?

not interested in that one,” Foran said. “A nicely preserved museum
slide is one thing. Remains mixed in with soil for 100 years are
something else.”