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Wednesday, October 1 at 8 p.m. Secrets of the Dead: Executed in Error

(Rochester, NY) In 1910, an American doctor named Hawley Crippen was convicted in England of poisoning and dismembering his wife. The vicious murder — and execution that followed — made international headlines. It was a landmark case: the first trial by media and the first to be dominated by forensic science. But did the prosecutors get it right? Almost 100 years later, investigators have re-opened the files on a murder that became known as one of the crimes of the century. Secrets of the Dead: Executed in Error airs Wednesday, October 1 at 8 p.m. on WXXI-TV 21 (cable 11) and WXXI-HD (cable 1011 and DT 21.1).

Executed in Error traces the steps of the modern-day re-investigation. Narrated by actor Liev Schreiber (CSI, The Manchurian Candidate), the film follows a team of American science and history researchers as they resurrect and retrace the case. Forensic toxicologist John Trestrail, DNA expert David Foran, and genealogist Beth Wills re-examine recently declassified case files, use modern DNA analysis on the original evidence, track down long-lost relatives of Crippen and his wife, and cast serious doubt on the original verdict.

The quiet Dr. Crippen moved to the U.K. in 1910 and worked as a homeopathic doctor in London. His flamboyant and flirtatious wife, Cora — also known by her stage name Belle Elmore — was a struggling music hall singer. In January of 1910, Cora disappeared under mysterious circumstances following a dinner party at the couple’s home. Crippen told Cora’s friends that she had returned to the United States to visit relatives, and then soon after, that she had taken ill and died. He then invited scandal by asking his secretary and lover, Ethel Le Neve, to move in with him. Friends grew suspicious and asked the police to investigate. Crippen told them that Cora had left him for another man, and that he had lied to her friends to save face. When the inspectors returned a few days later to ask more questions, they found that Crippen and Ethel had fled. A thorough search of the Crippen home resulted in the grisly discovery of body parts beneath the cellar.

According to the police report, the victim had been poisoned and then filleted. The horrific murder, so reminiscent of Jack the Ripper’s attacks only two decades earlier, quickly became headline news. The media glare and close government scrutiny put Scotland Yard under intense pressure to catch Crippen and solve the crime. Even a young Winston Churchill, then Britain’s home secretary, was intimately tracking the investigation. Crippen and Le Neve tried to flee to Canada, but were apprehended after the captain of their ship used a new technology — the Marconi wireless machine — to alert authorities to his whereabouts. The high-profile case that followed included incriminating pajamas, a rare poison that Crippen was known to have possessed, and a showy pathologist (with a red carnation) who convinced the jury that marks on the skin samples proved they were from Cora.

“The Crippen case was the O.J. Simpson case of 1910,” says Trestrail in Executed in Error. “I don’t think any murder in history had been covered that much in the newspapers. It was being read about all over the world.”

A poison expert intrigued by the Crippen crime, Trestrail was troubled by its circumstantial evidence. He had never heard of a case in which a poisoner had dismembered his victim — poisoners usually did all they could to make death look accidental. And even if Crippen had committed both acts, why would he have disposed of so much of the body, then left a few incriminating pieces behind? His questions led to careful analysis of the court records and new forensic testing on the physical evidence that still remains from the crime scene. The film follows Trestrail as he travels between the U.S. and England to piece together details of the infamous crime, working closely with DNA expert Foran and genealogist Wills each step of the way.

The biggest breakthrough comes when Dr. Foran’s team, working in his forensic biology lab at Michigan State University, compares DNA from the 100-year-old tissue to modern DNA from relatives of Cora that Wills has managed to track down. Expecting to confirm that the body was Cora’s, the team instead finds that the DNA doesn’t match, and even more startling, the body parts were from a male victim.

With convincing evidence that the body wasn’t Cora, Trestrail began to dig deeper into the police and court archives, slowly unraveling a series of suppressed documents and possible evidence of police tampering. He even finds a letter to Crippen from Cora, in which she claims she is living in America and has no plans to save him from execution. The letter was deemed a hoax by investigators, but was never even shown to Crippen or his lawyers.

With all the new findings, James Patrick Crippen, the closest living male relative of Crippen, is now formally requesting that the British government pardon the doctor and return his bones to America.

Before he was executed, Crippen wrote an eerily prophetic letter to Ethel Le Neve. In it, he said, “Face to face with God, I believe that facts will be forthcoming to prove my innocence.”

For more information, visit www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets.

Pictured: Archival photo of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen.
Photo Credit: The Met Police Archive

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