Marconi’s waves wash up a killer
FOR the opportunity to burn popcorn in a microwave oven and hear political demagoguery on radio, we are indebted to the persistence of Guglielmo Marconi, the son of a wealthy Bolognese farmer and an heiress to an Irish whiskey fortune, who in his childhood became fascinated by the mysteries of electricity and later established the way toward wireless communication by conquering the enigma of the ether and the wiles of powerful competitors.
For the gloriously appalling ingenuity of a murder most foul, we are indebted to Hawley Harvey Crippen, a mild-mannered, thick-spectacled successful doctor and patent-medicine dealer browbeaten, exploited and cuckolded by his wife without much complaint, at least until the night he poisoned, decapitated, eviscerated, filleted and buried her in the basement of their North London home.
And for braiding the stories that led to Marconi’s credit for wireless and to Crippen’s noose, we can thank Erik Larson for “Thunderstruck.” Larson’s last book, “The Devil in the White City,” also juxtaposes a decent man and a devil -- Daniel H. Burnham, the impresario of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer presenting himself as an amiable doctor. Here, Larson once again entwines two disparate tales, this time by showing how the newest technology of the time snared a practitioner of the oldest of crimes hours before he otherwise would have escaped capture.
Crippen is regarded as the second most famous murderer in England; Jack the Ripper retains a stranglehold on the title. Both were pursued by Inspector Walter Dew of Scotland Yard, who had the stomach-churning fortune to discover the remains of both Mary Kelly, the Ripper’s final and most hideously mutilated prey, in 1888, and the macabrely reduced Belle Elmore Crippen, in 1910. (Dew was promoted to chief inspector by then.)
Crippen had met his wife in Brooklyn in 1892. She was 17 and worldly, he was 30 and widowed. He was a doctor, she -- her name was Cora Turner then -- had theatrical ambitions and would soon reinvent herself as the presumably more stage worthy Belle Elmore (though neither was her real name; her father, a Russian Pole, and her German mother christened her Kunigunde Mackamotzki). He was short, small-boned, balding and plain. She was full-figured -- the word that sprung to most people’s minds when they saw her was voluptuous -- and, Larson writes, “Her eyes were alight with a knowledge not of books but of how hardship made morality more fungible than the clerics of Brooklyn’s churches might have wanted parishioners to believe.”
At the time Cora called on Crippen to treat a “female complaint,” she lived in an apartment paid for by a stove maker, who resided elsewhere with his wife but frequented Cora’s boudoir. She parlayed Crippen’s immediate infatuation with her into the means of jumping from one bed to a more feathered one (along with funding for her quest for stardom) by convincing the doctor that the stove maker wanted to run away with her. Marriage quickly followed, and misery came close behind. “She was always rather hasty in her temper,” Crippen would later write, but somehow his attachment outweighed her behavior.
Kunigunde/Cora/Belle’s irritability was likely fueled by her lack of success. Despite a vast amount spent by Crippen on lessons and costumes, her quest for first operatic and then music hall triumph was foiled by her minuscule talent, apparent to all but herself; one critic referred to her as “the Brooklyn Matzos Ball.” In time she would dangle another man in front of Crippen just as she had the stove maker, but although that worked for a while despite their sleeping in separate bedrooms, something unexpected happened: Crippen fell for his secretary, sweet, 17-year-old Ethel Le Neve, and in the course of the next nine years the prospect of life without Belle turned from bleak to quite rosy.
In January 1910, Crippen did in Belle following one of her outbursts of temper. He told people she had left suddenly to visit a sick relative in America and then equally suddenly died. Crippen took up with an unsuspecting Ethel, who had no reason to doubt him. When questions arose about Belle’s true disposition, Crippen contrived a story to convince Ethel to accompany him to the United States disguised as his son, and in July, they boarded a boat in Antwerp bound for Quebec City, and a manhunt for them commenced.
The ship’s captain found them a bit suspicious; there were wireless exchanges between him and Scotland Yard that were intercepted by newspapers; Dew got on a faster ship that would reach Quebec before Crippen’s; and the world read dispatches of the chase while Crippen and Ethel serenely sailed. (In an irony worthy of Alfred Hitchcock -- who drew on Crippen’s crime in “Back for Christmas,” a 1956 episode of his television program “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” -- one day the murderer sat on deck near the wireless cabin, listening to the electric crackle of messages. Unaware that the rapid dots and dashes detailed police plans to intercept his flight, Crippen greeted the captain and enthused, “What a wonderful invention it is!”)
He almost assuredly would have been home free had he murdered Belle a few years earlier, before Marconi figured out how to broadcast wirelessly across the ocean, and the story of Marconi’s trial-and-error progress alternates with the Crippen saga until the two seemingly unrelated tales prove important to each other. Without Marconi, Crippen would have disappeared. Without the drama and immediacy of Crippen’s capture because of wireless, Marconi’s achievement would have continued, at least for a while longer, as something of an oddity. Though, one suspects, not that much longer.
Marconi as illuminated by Larson was an agreeable boy but an adult more to be admired for his implacable faith in his idea than for his character. His daughter Degna would describe him as “an aggregate of opposites: patience and uncontrollable anger, courtesy and harshness, shyness and pleasure in adulation and ... thoughtlessness toward many who loved him.” His determination to improve communication makes his social deafness stand out all the more. He consistently alienated those who believed in his work and offered him critical scientific and business introductions. His treatment of his wife, Beatrice, was atrocious in its thoughtlessness -- he not only went to sea shortly before she was due to give birth to their son in 1910, he also neglected to tell her which ship he was on (although a message from her announcing the birth addressed simply “Marconi-Atlantic” wended its way to him).
For someone to whom the workings of the telephone, television and all things wireless is a mystery that borders on the miraculous, a bit more explanation of the science behind the achievement would have been welcome. But “Thunderstruck” is a ripping yarn of murder and invention as well as a captivating book that brings to life an era when seances were considered actual communion with the dead, when letters were the way the living related (in 1897, the post office handled 2,186,800,000 of them throughout Britain, with deliveries in London up to a dozen times a day), and the world was in the last days of what Degna Marconi later called “the Great Hush.”
Eric Lax is the author, most recently, of “The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle.”