Secrets of the Dead (2000– )
3 user

Executed in Error 

The forensic evidence that lead to the conviction and execution of Dr. Hawley Crippen for the murder of his wife in 1910 is re-examined with modern methods resulting in some surprising new conclusions.


Andy Webb


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Episode cast overview:
Liev Schreiber ... Himself - Narrator (voice)
John Trestrail John Trestrail ... Himself - Forensic Toxicologist
Beth Wills Beth Wills ... Herself - Genealogist
David R. Foran David R. Foran ... Himself - Director, Forensic Science Program, Michigan State University (as Dr. David R. Foran)
James Patrick Crippen James Patrick Crippen ... Himself - Relative of Hawley Crippen
Andrew Rose Andrew Rose ... Himself - Defense Barrister


The forensic evidence that lead to the conviction and execution of Dr. Hawley Crippen for the murder of his wife in 1910 is re-examined with modern methods resulting in some surprising new conclusions.

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Release Date:

1 October 2008 (USA) See more »

Company Credits

Production Co:

3BM Television See more »
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User Reviews

Letting in the light on Crippen
3 May 2017 | by GoingbeggingSee all my reviews

The Crippen case of 1910 riveted public attention far more than was normal for a single domestic murder. But the public was curiously intrigued by the characters in this drama.

The American 'Doctor' Crippen was not recognised as a doctor in England; he had qualified in homeopathy, and was dabbling (apparently struggling) in the shadowy world of patent medicines. He was a nervous little fellow of comic appearance, clearly henpecked by his big, overpowering wife, who went by several names, but was known - though never well-known - as Belle Elmore of the music halls. It was almost seaside postcard comedy.

Belle had cultivated a powerful group of women friends, and one day they heard from Crippen that she had deserted him and gone to America with a new man. Next he told them that she had died there - a report that struck them as odd, and one of them called in the cops. A first search of the house revealed nothing, and the case seemed to be closed. But the inspector had second thoughts and returned for another search. He found that Crippen had fled the country, along with his young secretary Ethel. When some decayed human remains were discovered under the flagstones, it turned into a dramatic chase. The two of them were already crossing the Atlantic in one of the first ships equipped with radio, and they were almost out of range. Just in time, the captain got a message to London reporting his suspicions about 'Mr. Robinson' and his 'son', a silent young person who appeared uncomfortable in men's clothes. The inspector boarded a smaller, faster vessel that intercepted them, and he was allowed to pose as the harbour pilot. The two were brought home for trial.

Nobody was surprised when the jury found Crippen guilty of murder in less than half-an-hour. It was confidently asserted that a piece of scar-tissue matched Belle's medical records, and parts of Crippen's pyjama jacket were found on the scene. The wheels of justice had turned, and Crippen went to the gallows. But... all of this was before DNA.

An American forensic toxicologist, John Trestrail, had never understood why a murderer would leave human tissue to be found, after managing to dispose of the head and hands. His researches led to the astonishing discovery that those human remains were male, and had no DNA link with Belle's matrilineal descendants! As for the evidence that proved so convincing in court, he has strong reason to believe that this was 'tailored' for the purpose of securing a quick guilty verdict, in the face of huge public pressure. (Some people felt this had happened after the murder of popular TV star Jill Dando.)

Of course, Trestrail has raised more questions than he has answered. But he believes that further analysis of surviving hair and blood samples may yet allow more light in on this dark little chapter of what can too-easily look like the Age of Certainty.

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