© National Portrait Gallery, London
© Private Collection, Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Art Library
Portrait of Sir Bernard
Spilsbury, taken by
Elliott & Fry
The arrest of Dr Crippen
and Ethel le Neve on the
Montrose from Le Petit
Journal of 14 August 1910
If there ever was an incarnation of the legendary Sherlock
Holmes, it would undoubtedly be Bernard Henry Spilsbury,
the medical detective. He did more for the advancement of
forensic medicine than any man in history, particularly in the
application of the science in its legal context to the criminal
courts of justice.
Through a highly eventful and fulfilling medical career,
Spilsbury found, or maybe created, time for full-fledged
Masonic activity in several Lodges and Orders.
Coincidentally, some of the accused involved in his cases
were also Freemasons. Sadly, he suffered personal tragedies
and the added burden of the repugnant actions of others
finally led him to take his own life on 17 December 1947.
Bernard Spilsbury, born in Bath in January 1877, could
trace his family association with medicine as far back as the
late 17th century. His disciplinarian father, James Spilsbury,
and his churchgoing mother, Marion Joy of Stafford, moved
to Leamington in 1876, where their four children were born.
Bernard was the eldest and destined to become a doctor,
not least because it was the wish of his father – and his father
was a strong-willed man. With his brother Leonard and sisters
Constance and Gertrude, Bernard was tutored until the age
of 12, when the family moved to London. He went to
Leamington and then Owens College and is recorded to have
been ordinary in sport and mediocre in his academic studies.
He grew to become a handsome man, more than six
feet in height, quiet and cheerful and always well dressed.
In 1893 he was admitted to Magdalen College, Oxford to
read Natural Science in preparation for his entry in 1899
to St Mary’s Hospital Medical School. His father’s gift of a
new microscope led Bernard to switch from general practice
to pathology, and he never looked back.
Forensic medicine at this time was not only in its infancy,
but still treated with suspicion and even contempt by the
medical and legal fraternity. Three key men, all doctors at St
Mary’s Hospital, were the pioneers and founding fathers of
the new science: Dr A P Luff, William Wilcox and A J Pepper.
It was this group that Bernard Spilsbury joined and with them
wrote history in this particular field of medical discipline.
It was two years after his marriage to Edith Thorton that
Spilsbury took on the mantle of chief pathologist at St Mary’s
from his mentor, Dr Pepper. Now well-known in the medical
community, it was the Crippen case in 1910, a landmark in
forensic medicine, that made him a household name.
Hawley Harvey Crippen was born in Michigan in 1862
and came to England as a doctor in 1907. He was hanged at
Pentonville Prison on 23 November 1910 for the murder
of his wife, Kunigunde Mackamotzi, who went by the
name of Belle Elmore. Early that year Belle had disappeared.
Crippen’s mistress, Ethel le Neve, who was seen wearing
Belle’s clothes and jewellery, overtly and shamelessly took
her place. To enquirers as to the whereabouts of his wife,
Crippen claimed she had returned to the United States.
Following the rumours of Belle’s disappearance, the pair
fled on the SS Montrose to Canada, Ethel le Neve disguised
as a boy. When the police returned to search their house, they
found mutilated remains of a body hidden in the basement.
Telegraphic despatches with descriptions of the fugitives led
to the arrest of the couple on 31 July 1910 – the first such
arrest with the use of the new wireless system.