The arrest of Dr Crippen
2010 is the hundredth anniversary of the first occasion when wireless telegraphy proved to be instrumental in the arrest of a criminal suspect, the murderer Harvey Hawley Crippen. Also significant is that the events involved the use of wireless at sea. Since the anniversary is the theme of this yearâ€™s reunion, it is thought the story, although reasonably well-known, bears repeating. The following is an edited extract from the MIMCO publication â€˜Wireless at seaâ€™ by HE Hancock. Ed.
The finding of the body parts of his wife had led to a warrant being issued for the arrest of Crippen and his mistress Ethel Le Neve. After interrogation by Scotland Yard, the pair had fled the country and sailed for Montreal on the liner SS Montrose. Their descriptions had been circulated and published in the press. The girl had cut her hair short, and was dressed as a boy, but it was not long before the shipâ€™s master, Captain Kendall, realised that they bore a striking resemblance to the missing pair; and so in the evening of July 22, 1910, he telegraphed the companyâ€™s offices in Liverpool to say that he believed Crippen and Le Neve were on board the vessel. The company at once informed Scotland Yard, who communicated directly with the master by wireless and procured further details which convinced them that the clue should be followed up without delay.
From that point until the time of the arrest wireless telegraphy kept the police in touch with the ship. On Saturday July 23 Chief Inspector Dew set sail for Canada in the SS Laurentic, which was due to reach Canada in advance of the Montrose. So began a race across the Atlantic upon which the eyes of the world were fastened, and its interest lost nothing through it only being possible to follow the progress of the contest between the two ships from such charts and diagrams as the newspapers provided. Day by day the certainty that the Laurentic would overhaul the Montrose was the one topic of conversation.
It was at this stage in the history of the chase that the powerful agency of wireless came to be realised. The first message had already indicated that if the fugitives were on board the Montrose this modern accomplishment of science would track them down. How completely it had defeated the hope of escape, for the first time in its application to criminal investigation, was very quickly proved. There was something intensely thrilling in the thought of these two passengers travelling across the Atlantic in the belief that their identity and their whereabouts were unknown, while news of both was being flashed with certainty to all quarters of the civilised world.
Three police officers, including Inspector Dew – all three disguised as pilots – went off to the Montrose in a small boat rowed by three sailors. Crippen was promenading the deck with the surgeon of the Montrose. The supposed pilots went on board and walked along until they passed the spot where Crippen was standing. Then, as Dew was able to get a good quick look at Crippen, he gave the preconcerted signal and the arrest was made.
Great credit was due to Captain Kendall for his prompt appreciation of the part which wireless could play in such an emergency. This, perhaps, was not surprising for Captain Kendall was second officer in the SS Lake Champlain at the time that vessel – the first British ocean-going ship to be fitted with Marconiâ€™s apparatus – was equipped for wireless telegraphy. He no doubt remembered the first wireless message which that vessel received off the South of Ireland. It was from Marconi himself, wishing Captain W Stewart, the master of the SS Lake Champlain, every success with the wireless system.