Bibliophilia: Mr Crippen & The Islington Mystery

Mrs. Crippen
Mrs. Crippen

When I’m doing research for this blog my starting point is always Wikipedia. It’s the only site that  intuitively eggs me on. Every article link I click on makes me feel like I’m reading my way towards something great. It’s like a thought crescendo. And when the music swells and you you finally reach that one article; it’s a fantastic moment. Last Friday I reached that point when I came across the article for Hawley Crippen and discovered one of the most bizarre [possible] murder stories I’ve ever heard. But since, in theory, this is a blog about books lets begin at the literary interpretation of Mr. Crippen’s crime in Arthur Machen’s 1927 story “The Islington Mystery.”

What I found particularly interesting about “The Islington Mystery” is how Machen begins his story. Plenty of horror stories, in an attempt to gain plausibility, begin with a foreword telling the audience that everything that follows is “true” but Machen takes it a bit farther. Machen not only mentions the Crippen case by name but talks about how much of sensation it was and how it’s constant coverage overshadowed what Machen felt to be more interesting crimes. In doing this he cheekily equates murder to an art form and gossip hounds to an audience who more often pass up “quality” for fanfare.

 A murder that might have stood in the very first rank, that might have vied with the affair of Madeleine Smith—there were certain indications that made this seem possible—was suffered to fade into obscurity, while the foolish crowd surged about elementary Crippen and his bungling imbecilities. So there were once people who considered Robert Elsmere as a literary work of palmary significance.

From these considerations Machen goes on to describe another murder that was swept up by obscurity, “The Islington Mystery,” but of course it was just his own re-write of the Crippen murder.  Machen picks and chooses what he wants; keeping most of the circumstances but completely changing the characters. In Machen’s version the tension comes from the brutally unpleasant marriage between a quiet taxidermist, Mr. Boale, as his cruel wife, Mrs. Boale. He paints us a harrowing story of a man trapped by his cartoonishly evil and domineering wife:

 Boale passed as a very nice sort of man in this circle and everybody was sorry for him. Mrs. Boale was a tartar and a scold. The men of the quarter kept out of her way; the women were afraid of her. She led poor Boale the devil’s own life. Her voice, often enough, would be heard at the Quill door, vomiting venom at her husband’s address; and he, poor man, would tremble and go forth, lest some worse thing might happen. Mrs. Boale was a short dark woman. Her hair was coal-black, her face wore an expression of acid malignity, and she walked quickly but with a decided limp. She was full of energy and the pest of the neighbourhood, and more than a pest to her husband.

From here you can guess what happens. A horror story about a taxidermist and his mean wife written by a man in the early 1900’s… and that’s about all Machen gives us. It’s an interesting choice too because after Mrs. Boale disappears and suspicions arise  the reader is not in a point to condemn him. Even when he is brought into court the lack of evidence is what clears his name and sets him free of any charge. The story ends with him living quietly in a quaint house with a new a pleasant wife in the United States. This is of course the very opposite of what happened in the Crippen case.

The crippen case was one void of any subtlety beginning with the Crippens themselves. Mr. Crippen was a failed doctor and Mrs. Crippen was a stage singer who kept company with other performers. In fact, Mrs. Crippens best friend was Vulcana a stongwoman who performed with her lover, a strongman, Atlas. They lived in London where they moved from New York. Since Mr. Crippen’s medical license was only valid in the United States he took up selling patent medicines until he found a job working as a manager for Drouet’s Institution for the Deaf. Meanwhile Mrs. Crippen was continuing her stage career and holding parties at her house where she openly had affairs.

It is unclear in anything I’ve read whether or not Mrs. Crippen’s affairs where a point of contention between her and her husband; however, it is clear that Mr. Crippen had started administering anaphrodisiacs to his wife in an attempt to quell her desires. Then one day Mrs. Crippen was no longer around and a young typist from Drouet’s had been seen around town wearing Mrs. Crippen’s clothes and jewelry. When questioned about it Mr. Crippen said that his wife had gone back to the United States to visit her mother. His explanation didn’t sit well with Vulcana so she altered Scotland Yard who went and searched the Crippen’s home.

Scotland Yard had found nothing and suspected that Mr. Crippen was telling the truth; however, Mr. Crippen was so frightened by their initial visit to his home that he and the young typist fled incognito on a boat to Canada. Mr. Crippen shaved his mustache and his lover, the typist, dressed up as a newspaper boy. Upon seeing how quickly the couple fled Scotland Yard returned to the house for another inspection and found a torso buried in the basement. The couple was soon after caught and brought to trial. Mr. Crippen was executed and the typist was acquitted of the charges against her.

Of course that’s not where it all ends. There has been suspicions raised as to whether or not the torso found in the cellar belonged to Mrs. Crippen. One theory was that Mr. Crippen had been using the cellar of his house to perform illegal abortions and the torso found was that of a patient who didn’t survive the procedure. Another theory is that Mr. Crippen did kill his wife but accidentally, with an overdose of her anaphrodisiac. Famous writer Raymond Carver has his own doubts about the case saying that it doesn’t make sense that Mr. Crippen would be able to expose of the head and limbs (never found) but not the torso. Even as recently as 2008 a research team from Michigan State University did some forensic research into the case eventually concluding that the torso found in the basement was male.

There just seems to be something about the Crippen case that lends itself to interpretation. From Machen’s sparse and misogynistic take on the crime to Michigan State’s genuine effort to reevaluate the crime through modern technology we all see something beyond what we’ve already been told. There was even a film adaptatation made of Machen’s version in 1960 by Mexican director Rogelio A. González, El Esqueleto de la señora Morales.

So what do you think? Have you ever heard about the Crippen murder case before? Why do you think so many people are drawn to it? What interests you about the case? Please leave some comments below so that we can continue our discussion on quiet taxidermists, strongwoman Vulcana, and escaping to Canada.

-Jet Fuel Blogger, Lucas Sifuentes

4 thoughts on “Bibliophilia: Mr Crippen & The Islington Mystery

  1. Sharon January 30, 2013 / 12:18 pm

    I think what interests me most are the silent decisions that people make in the midst of their own attempts to navigate marriage. And really, it’s not necessary for a spouse to be murdered for one party to destroy another – possibly out of their own confusion and pain. Or perhaps put a different way, the part of the story that interests me is how people respond to feelings of being unhappy. Of course, like anything, it’s more interesting to zoom in on this question under circumstances that are extreme and involve missing limbs, people called Vulcana, affairs, circuses, drugs, ocean liners and cross dressing. Heck, the guy’s name is Crippen. It’s perfect.

  2. Lucas Sifuentes February 2, 2013 / 8:46 am

    Yes totally, I think the absurd solutions that they formulate to solve their problems is what interests me too. Because from an outside perspective what they do looks absolutely ridiculous; yet, in their immediate train of deluded thought what they were doing seemed to be the only solution. It’s almost as if when a person becomes so confused and worried with life their brain starts refusing actual reason and starts working purely with dream logic.

    • Sharon Houk February 3, 2013 / 7:48 am

      “Dream logic”. Love that. You are right.

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