The notorious murderer's mistress with humble beginnings in Norfolk
PUBLISHED: 06:30 19 January 2019 | UPDATED: 12:52 19 January 2019
She was a key figure in one of the most notorious crimes in British history, with a past rooted in a quiet Norfolk town.
At the age of 27 she made headlines around the world, caught disguised as a boy on a boat to America with her murderer lover, the infamous Dr Crippen, following the discovery of his wife’s body in a north London basement.
Yet Ethel Le Neve, for all her dark glamour, came from humble beginnings, more specifically a small cottage in the quiet Norfolk border town of Diss.
The faded yellow house sits tucked away on an off-shoot of the A1066, invisible to the thousands of travellers that pass by it every day.
Le Neve was born Ethel Neve, (adding in the ‘Le’ later) in 1883 to Walter and Charlotte Neve.
In her memoir, Ethel Le Neve: Her Life Story, she said: “Until I was seven I lived at Diss, in Norfolk, my native place. There, I remember, I distinguished myself by my tomboy pranks. Little did I imagine then that I was fitting myself to play the part of a boy in real life. Yet so I was.”
Le Neve goes on to talk about her railway worker uncle, who would take her to the nearby Diss station to see the trains.
She later moved to London and became a typist, where she first made contact with Hawley Crippen, a homeopathic doctor, as his employee. However over time their relationship deepened from professional to extremely personal.
In Le Neve’s memoir, she describes how coming to the rescue after Crippen’s attempted suicide drew them closer together, saying: “There was a real love between us.”
Crippen was am American, born in Michigan in 1862. His wife Cora was a singer known as Belle Elmore who was openly unfaithful to her husband.
In January of 1910 Mrs Crippen suddenly went missing. Dr Crippen claimed that she had moved back to the USA, and died there, while Le Neve moved into his home on Hilltop Crescent in Holloway and began openly wearing Mrs Crippen’s clothes and jewellery.
Le Neve later said she felt she had been unfairly criticised, saying that Mrs Crippen could not have owned the jewels, having very little money of her own.
Police were informed of Mrs Crippen’s disappearance by her friend, the strongwoman Kate Williams, otherwise known as Vulcana. Despite the house being searched and Dr Crippen interviewed by Chief Inspector Walter Dew, the police did not think the couple were guilty. However, Crippen and Le Neve did not know this, and fled to Antwerp, where they booked a room on the SS Montrose to Canada.
Alarmed by their disappearance, police returned to Hilltop Crescent to perform three further searches of the house, where they finally discovered human remains, buried beneath the basement’s brick floor. In later contested evidence, Mrs Crippen was identified by a piece of skin from her abdomen, and scopolamine, a drug used in anaesthetics at the time, was detected in her remains.
Meanwhile, Le Neve was dressing as a boy and Dr Crippen had changed his facial hair on board the SS Montrose in order to avoid suspicion. Despite these efforts, they were recognised by the ship’s captain, Henry Kendall, who sent a telegram to the authorities in London.
Inspector Dew caught a faster liner and boarded the SS Montrose at Quebec, disguised as a pilot, and arrested the pair. It was the first time a criminal had been caught using a wireless telegraph.
Dr Crippen was escorted back to England where he was put on trial and found guilty in just 27 minutes. He was hanged on November 23, 1910, in Pentonville Prison.
Le Neve, however, was acquitted, and briefly emigrated to Toronto, before settling in Croydon and starting a family under another name. She died aged 84 in 1967.
Helen Potter, born two years after Le Neve’s death, has lived in her childhood home, now much altered, for 24 years. She said she is not bothered by the grisly past of her house, and welcomes the many clippings and photographs shared with her by the community in Diss. She said: It’s important to keep history alive really.
“You can’t prove either way whether Ethel was guilty. Did she help? Did she kill anyone else? We don’t know.”
Ethel Le Neve: Innocent or guilty?
The innocence of Ethel Le Neve is hotly contested among historians.
On the one hand Le Neve was adamant that she had no idea that Cora Crippen may have been murdered until Inspector Dew arrived on her doorstep with a long list of questions.
Yet crime historian Jonathon Goodman, in his book The Crippen File, claims that she spent weeks in the Royal College of Surgeons library researching toxicology prior to her arrest.
Basil Abbott, manager of Diss museum, has helped organise many events in the town around Le Neve and her motives. He said: “We had an actress read Ethel’s autobiography which was squeakily innocent. Then we had David James Smith, author of Supper With The Crippens, who felt she was in it up to her eyebrows.
“On top of that there was the DNA evidence that said the remains in the cellar were not Cora Crippen. That made Ethel even more of an enigma.”