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Dr.Crippen murder trial witness buried in Ladywell cemetery

Located close to one of the inner pathways in Ladywell cemetery lies the final resting place of William James Spratling, sometimes referred to as W.J.Spratling. The cruciform headstone is often enveloped in shrubbery, so it needs a beady eye to spot it! Some while ago I discovered a fascinating link that W.J.Spratling had to Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen who committed one of the most notorious English murders of the 20th century. He dismembered his wife's body and buried the remains in the coal cellar of the house in North London they shared before fleeing with his lover, Ethel Le Neve, who was disguised as his son, as they tried to escape to Canada aboard the SS Montrose.

The story of that link and the 1910 trial is recounted here :

Inspector Dew escorting a handcuffed and muffled by scarf Dr.Crippen on arrival in England aboard the SS Megantic.

Inspector Dew escorting a handcuffed and muffled by scarf Dr.Crippen on arrival in England aboard the SS Megantic.

Source: Wikipedia.

Firstly Dr Crippen :

Born in Michigan in 1862, Crippen, a doctor of homeopathy, came to London in 1897 with his second wife, Cora. Mrs Crippen was a budding music hall singer, also known by her stage name Belle Elmore.  On the morning of 31 January 1910, Paul and Clara Martinetti left the Crippens’ house at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, after an evening dining and playing cards. Cora Crippen was never seen again.

After Cora’s friends caught Crippen out in his lies about her disappearance, the police began to look into her whereabouts. Despite them finding nothing suspicious, Crippen was sufficiently rattled by the investigation to flee, taking his lover and secretary, Ethel Le Neve, with him.

It was this act which caused Chief Inspector Walter Dew and colleagues to return to Hilldrop Crescent and conduct a second, more thorough, search of the property. Under the floor of the cellar, they discovered a mass of human flesh and internal organs, along with hair curlers, hair, and bloodied material from a camisole, pyjama top and handkerchief.

The chase to capture Crippen and Le Neve was played out in public. in 1910 newspapers contained regular updates of Crippen’s behaviour on the SS Montrose as received by telegraph. They were also given updates on the progress of Inspector Dew, as he raced to reach Canada before the suspects on the faster SS Laurentic.

As well as being the first time a police chase was played out in the media, the Crippen case also saw the debut of the modern forensic expert, personified by pathologist Bernard Spilsbury. There were three main pieces of evidence: the hyoscine found in the body. Crippen had purchased hyoscine and signed the poison book at Lewis and Burrows Chemists in January 1910, but had no known use for the drug and could not provide a convincing explanation for what had happened to his purchase; the pyjama top which matched a pair of pyjama bottoms found in Crippen’s bedroom, and a representative from Jones Bros stated these had only been on sale since after the Crippens had moved into Hilldrop Crescent; and an alleged abdominal scar.

It was this scar that was the key piece of evidence against Crippen. Despite the fact that even today experts cannot agree whether the mark is an operation scar or a fold in the skin, Spilsbury and his colleagues were able to convince the jury that this piece of skin provided proof of the identity of the victim.

After deliberating for less than half an hour, the jury found Crippen guilty of poisoning his wife with hyoscine and dismembering her body. He was sentenced to death and executed at Pentonville prison on 23 November 1910, still protesting his innocence.

Photo of Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve in the dock

Photo of Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve in the dock.

Source: Daily Mail Online.

A series of snatched photographs of the American homeopathic doctor, in the dock alongside his mistress Ethel le Neve, were splashed all over the papers of the day, infuriating the judiciary and politicians. In the years after Crippen was convicted and hanged for the murder of his wife, parliament passed a new law.Although that law banned, not just photographs but sketches during trials, the rules were later relaxed to allow the press to employ the talents of court artists, to sketch a likeness of the accused and others involved in a particular trial. That is until 2020 when cameras were allowed back in courts in England and Wales.

Norfolk born Ethel Le Neve, also known as Ethel Clara Le Neve was exonerated of the charge of complicity to murder. She died in Croydon in 1967.

Belle Elmore , stage name of Dr. Crippen's wife Cora c.1910.

Source : My London

The ultimate posthumous destination for many notorious murderers such as Dr. Crippen (Madame Tussauds wax works London)

Image : Tripadvisor

Secondly William Joseph Spratling :

The link to the trial (see below) was originally overlooked as W.J.Spratling's name was added to the list of witnesses having earlier been omitted. Although employed as a Chemist, he also prosecuted cases when he became a Barrister.

As well as being a prominent Freemason, it should be noted that he was the first Headmaster of Haberdashers Aske's school, New Cross.

This excerpt from an earlier piece of research I undertook offers a brief biography :

Contemporary new clipping which confirms the link to the Crippen trial. W.J. Spratling appeared on behalf of Messrs. Lewis & Burrows, based in New Oxford Street, the chemists from which poison was purchased. He had been overlooked in original witness list!

The headstone of W.J.Spratling in Ladywell cemetery.

Source : Find a Grave

Also buried in the family plot are :

Kate Elizabeth Spratling d 1961

Emily Margaret Spratling d.1933

Catherine Jane Spratling d. 1924

Kenneth Walter Ellis . d 1900

For more stories like this get our new book 'A Tale of Two Cemeteries: A Guide To Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries'