All posts by Michael Clarke

Dr Crippen — Christopher Dorries — 18th January 2016.

As a Senior Coroner, our speaker this week, Christopher Dorries, was well qual­i­fied to exam­ine the trial of Dr Crippen. In a fas­cin­at­ing present­a­tion we were invited, like a jury, to con­sider the evid­ence for a case that for over one hun­dred years had become more legend than fact.

Dr_crippenHenry Harvey Crippen was born in Michigan in 1862. Doctor Crippen was an American Homeopath, ear and eye spe­cial­ist and dis­penser of medi­cine. He was hanged in 1910 in Pentonville prison for the murder of his second wife, Cora, and was the first sus­pect to be cap­tured and con­victed with the aid of wire­less tele­graphy and forensic tech­niques. Nearly one hun­dred years later DNA evid­ence was to ques­tion the iden­ti­fic­a­tion of the body, which was found to be male.

Crippen was an insig­ni­fic­ant little man, slight in stature and mild in manner, who per­haps sur­pris­ingly owned a fire arm, then legal in GB as in USA. In 1887 he mar­ried Charlotte Bell, who died in preg­nancy in 1892 aged only 33 appar­ently from a stroke. Within eight months he had mar­ried Cora Turner (alias Kunigarde Mackamotski), a ‘would be’ singer who openly had affairs. They lived vari­ously in St Louis and New York, where Cora had sur­gery to remove her womb and over­ies, the scar from that oper­a­tion later being cent­ral to the iden­ti­fic­a­tion of her body.

In 1895 Crippen’s work for Munyon’s, a homeo­pathic phar­ma­ceut­ical com­pany sent him to Philadelphia but Cora remained in New York to train in Opera. 1897 saw Crippen trans­ferred to a post in London where he was not qual­i­fied to prac­tice as a Doctor. Cora soon joined him but her tal­ents and earn­ings did not match her determ­in­a­tion to spare the pen­nies while scat­ter­ing the pounds on cos­tumes and finery. During a brief visit home to America Cora struck up a rela­tion­ship with Bruce Millar, a music hall actor, send­ing her mar­riage to Crippen on a down­ward spiral. In 1905 the Crippens moved to a new address in Camden where they slept in sep­ar­ate bed­rooms. Lodgers were taken to aug­ment Crippen’s meagre income. To make mat­ters worse, Crippen was sacked by Munyon’s for spend­ing too much time on man­aging Cora’s unfruit­ful stage career but he found work as Superintendent of a deaf insti­tu­tion. It was here that he met Ethel Le Neve, a young typist who enjoyed bad health but endured bad teeth. Crippen was to take her as his mis­tress in 1908. Meanwhile, per­haps to com­pensate for her fail­ures on stage, Cora became Secretary to the Music Hall Guild.

By December 1909 Cora had become tired of with her love­less mar­riage and resolved to leave Crippen. She had inten­ded to take their sav­ings of £600 but the bank col­lapsed before she could with­draw. On 19th January 1910 Crippen obtained a large quant­ity of
the poison, Hyoscin Hydrobromide (found in sea sick­ness tab­lets). Crippen later claimed in Court that this was for use in homeo­pathic pre­scrip­tions but he was unable to name a single patient. Less than two weeks later on 31st January, Cora was seen alive for the last time by guests at a dinner party held at their home. Crippen was to claim that Cora had dis­ap­peared the fol­low­ing day while he was at work, sug­gest­ing that his fund­less wife had returned to America. With inde­cent speed his lover Ethel moved in and she was soon to be noticed wear­ing sev­eral of Cora’s out­fits, jew­ellery and furs. Cora’s sudden dis­ap­pear­ance and the couples’s beha­viour began to raise sus­pi­cions among her artistic friends who star­ted to check the ever chan­ging story which cumu­lated in her appar­ent death in USA from pneu­mo­nia. One, a Mr Nash, even vis­ited America to con­firm that she had not con­tac­ted her two sis­ters living in New York. Having made a fruit­less search Nash con­tac­ted Scotland Yard on his return.

Chief Inspector Dew (with exper­i­ence from ‘Jack the Ripper’) was given the enquiry. A super­fi­cial search of Crippen’s house was made with noth­ing found and a state­ment writ­ten over a steak lunch with the sus­pect. But it was enough to make Crippen panic and he left for Antwerp with Ethel dis­guised as a boy. Within a couple of days Dew returned to check a few details but found the house empty. Once the alarm raised, descrip­tions were cir­cu­lated, ports aler­ted the house was now thor­oughly searched. This time a dis­membered body was found under the cellar floor, buried in lime.

A few days later (20th July) the flee­ing couple embarked on the SS Montrose, bound for Canada. The Captain, Henry Kendall, observing this odd couple on deck, became sus­pi­cious. Using the new wire­less tele­graphy Kendall con­tac­ted London on 22nd July while still in range off the Lizard: “Have strong sus­pi­cion that Crippen, London cellar mur­derer and accom­plice are among salon pas­sen­gers….”

Drew now raced to Liverpool and boarded a faster ship, the SS Laurentic, which was to over­take the SS Montrose en route to Montreal where the couple were arres­ted on 31st July. Dew had come aboard dis­guised as a pilot. The trio were to return to London on 19th August.

And so to the trial. The massive press cov­er­age on both sides of the Atlantic would ensure that Crippen could not expect a fair hear­ing. There was little left of the body but the pro­sec­u­tion claimed that Cora had been iden­ti­fied by a piece of skin with an abdom­inal scar con­sist­ent with her hys­ter­ec­tomy and the high level of Hyoscin found in the body.

This had been buried in a pair of Jones Brothers Ltd pyja­mas match­ing a pair of the same make found in a bed­room. With the evid­ence stacked up against Crippen the Jury took just 27 minutes to con­vict him. (Ethel was sub­sequently found not guilty of being an access­ory). Crippen was sen­tenced to death by no less than the Lord Chief Justice.

Henry Crippen was hanged on 23rd November 1910 only one mile from the scene. Two weeks before he died he wrote “I am inno­cent and some day evid­ence will be found to prove it”

And the story did not end there. As recently as October 2007 micro­scopic slides used by the well known patho­lo­gist Sir Bernard Spilsbury, were ana­lyised. The DNA did not match Cora’s living family and in any event was the wrong sex. If the body was not Cora’s, whose was it? The victim of a botched abor­tion? The cir­cum­stan­tial evid­ence at the time strongly poin­ted to a guilty ver­dict. But if the trial took place today could we say that such a ver­dict would be given beyond all reas­on­able doubt?


The Royal Navy — 9th November 2015

It didn’t need the ship­ping fore­cast to make us real­ise we were set fair for another inter­est­ing ses­sion. Our own Dickon Wilkinson (Captain RN Retired) cast off by intro­du­cing our speak­ers from the Royal Navy Presentation Team Portsmouth namely: Commander Colin Williams, Marine Connor O’Bride and Leading Seaman James Staples who inter­spersed their con­tri­bu­tions with video mater­ial.

The main pur­pose of RN Presentation Teams is to engage with public audi­ences seek­ing to recon­nect people with the mari­time, to remind us just how essen­tial the sea is to our daily lives, and why the Royal Navy is fun­da­mental to our island nation’s secur­ity, eco­nomy, inter­na­tional stand­ing and sense of iden­tity.

The team opened by out­lining the role of the six Divisions of the Royal Navy: the Surface and Submarine fleets, the Fleet Air Arm, the Royal Marines, and the Maritime Reserve. As a whole the Senior Service had four core roles: Power pro­jec­tion, Homeland defence, Defence engage­ment and Maritime secur­ity (often oper­at­ing within NATO). The latter included poli­cing and pro­tect­ing International Law, seaborne trade, emer­gency relief and coun­ter­ing illegal activ­ity such as piracy, slavery and drugs smug­gling. All these activ­it­ies added greatly to the cred­ib­il­ity and prestige of Great Britain inter­na­tion­ally. In these days of fin­an­cial con­straint they were delivered by only 30000 per­son­nel (half the size of Boots Chemists) for those in ships and sub­mar­ines at a daily sub­sist­ence cost per person, of 63p (the price of a 1st class stamp)!

The team went on to explain the import­ance of free flow­ing imports and exports to our nation and as indi­vidu­als. While many of our coastal com­munit­ies remain depend­ent on fish­ing or ship­build­ing, we all rely on seaborne trade for full super­mar­ket shelves , run­ning our cars and warm­ing our homes. Naval defence expendit­ure provides highly skilled jobs and expert­ise. Increasing glob­al­isa­tion and inter-dependence together with ‘just enough, just in time’ deliv­ery has res­ul­ted in vul­ner­able ‘ware­houses at sea’ making it vital for the Navy to retain long range cap­ab­il­ity in such ‘choke’ points as the Straits of Hormuz, Malacca and Gibraltar, the Suez and Panama Canals. Elsewhere, RN pres­ence is main­tained in the Gulf, off the Horn of Africa and the Falkland Islands. Two nuc­lear sub­mar­ines are always at sea. On the home sta­tion patrols are main­tained to give pro­tec­tion to our fish­er­ies, our ports, 290 North Sea Gas install­a­tions, and the English Channel together with 10000 miles of coast­line. Elsewhere, RN pres­ence is cur­rently deployed in the Gulf, off the Horn of Africa and the Falkland Islands. The Navy is not just to deter aggres­sion. We were given sev­eral examples of recent involve­ment in nat­ural and civil­ian emer­gen­cies. HMS Richmond is cur­rently much in the news res­cuing refugees from Syria and North Africa in the Mediterranean area. Since 1975 The Royal Navy has con­trib­uted to over 800 oper­a­tions, includ­ing the Gulf and Falklands Wars.

We moved on to con­sider the future. No one knows how the situ­ation in the Middle East will develop. While threats will always be uncer­tain the Navy will, as ever, train and pre­pare its man­power –its most vital resource – to the highest levels in order to be able to oper­ate its units, weapons and equip­ment in any envir­on­ment. The pace of tech­nical change it speed­ing up, espe­cially it the field of cyber elec­tron­ics, and the need to design hard­ware with 2050 in mind is fully recog­nised. These devel­op­ments are reflec­ted in the designs of the new Type 45 Destroyers, the Elizabeth Class car­ri­ers and Astute Nuclear sub­mar­ines now coming into ser­vice. The Royal Navy will always seek to be at the fore­front of new equip­ment and through its innov­at­ing demands on the Defence Industry con­trib­ute to jobs and national prosper­ity.

We were left reas­sured that the White Ensign will con­tinue to fly for the fore­see­able future!

As might be expec­ted, such a present­a­tion stim­u­lated a wide range of ques­tions. These included:
-Implications of pos­sible Scottish Independence on British defence and its impact on Faslane, Rosyth and the Clyde
-Cooperation with Europe and espe­cially France
-Tackling bur­eau­cracy and waste­ful prac­tices
-Recruitment and reten­tion
-Filling the gap while the Elizabeth Class car­ri­ers are com­pleted and the vul­ner­ab­il­ity and pro­tec­tion of these ves­sels once in ser­vice
-Our capa­city and expert­ise for build­ing war­ships in the future and the supply of steel to build them.

The ses­sion con­cluded with a vote of thanks given by Dickon Wilkinson and our Chairman who presen­ted each of the team with a “Round Tuit” dish appro­pri­ately made from Sheffield stain­less steel. Apparently this was the first time the team had received such appre­ci­ation in terms of per­sonal tokens of grat­it­ude.

Our thanks for Dickon for arran­ging such an inter­est­ing morn­ing, an ideal pre­lude to our annual Christmas Lunch which fol­lowed at the Hallamshire Golf Club.

Fighting Ebola In Sierra Leone — Dr Charles Heatley — 14th September 2015.

Dr Charles HeatleyOur Speaker this week was a local GP who shared his exper­i­ence of the Ebola crisis which was dom­in­at­ing the head­lines only a year ago.

Dr Charles Heatley has prac­ticed Medicine for 22 years.  He received his ini­tial med­ical train­ing at Glasgow University, includ­ing a year of study­ing trop­ical medi­cine.  It was this back­ground know­ledge and interest gained by later elect­ives to East Africa that promp­ted him to volun­teer when the Government appealed for med­ical staff to go to Sierra Leone in November 2014.

Ebola is a virus dis­covered in 1976 and named after a trib­u­tary of the River Congo.  The three West  African coun­tries mostly effected by the 2014 out­break were Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.  By November of that year around 27,000 cases and 11,000 deaths had been estim­ated by the World Health Organisation. Thanks largely to the efforts made by people in our story, the out­break has been brought under con­trol.

This viral dis­ease attacks vic­tims’ internal organs. Symptoms, which are ini­tially sim­ilar to Malaria, start up to three weeks from con­tact.  These include muscle pain and head­aches which typ­ic­ally develop into a rash, then vomit­ing and diarrhoea.  There may be internal and external bleed­ing.  The virus spreads quickly through con­tact with the blood or bodily liquids of an effected person or animal –entry via the eye mem­branes is common. There is no cure but rapid rehyd­ra­tion can help many vic­tims to sur­vive.

Charles Heatley explained that West Africa is prone to such out­breaks due to its extreme poverty  low stand­ard of living and the still largely rural pop­u­la­tion which is 40% illit­er­ate. In Sierra Leone there were only 60 Doctors to serve a pop­u­la­tion of 6 mil­lion. With a low pro­tein diet it is still common for people to raid the jungle in search of meat.  The liking for fruit bats, apes and other game could be a factor as some spe­cies are known car­ri­ers of the virus.

The danger to med­ical staff is obvi­ous and our speaker out­lined his own train­ing by the MOD/Army Medical Corps in York.  After ini­tial suit­ab­il­ity tests, Charles under­took an intens­ive nine day course in York.  This included train­ing in a sim­u­lated Ebola Treatment Centre (ETC) ran­ging from dress­ing into and undress­ing from the com­plic­ated plastic pro­tect­ive kit, to the use of chlor­ine in the water supply, san­it­a­tion, rehyd­ra­tion tech­niques, drug applic­a­tions, dis­charge pro­ced­ures to hand­ling the cul­tural expect­a­tions of staff and patients.

It was soon time to put all this into prac­tice.  Charles flew to Freetown in early November for his second­ment.  After ini­tial induc­tion he spent five weeks at the Kerrytown ETC. Sparing us much of the details,  He described life in the heat of a pro­tect­ive suit where the body can lose 1.5 litres per hour, the dif­fi­culties of phys­ical and mental exhaus­tion and the inev­it­ab­il­ity of a high patient death rate.

Despite the trauma of all this, his story had a pos­it­ive side which gave encour­age­ment when facing sim­ilar out­breaks in the future. In par­tic­u­lar our speaker was impressed by:

  •  The gen­eral response of our UK Government, the MOD and Army.  Although this might have been cri­ti­cised by some as being ‘too little, too late’ the pro­fes­sion­al­ism, tech­niques and qual­ity of the Army train­ing staff were out­stand­ing.
  • The supply and logist­ical arrange­ments and the way per­son­nel over­came dif­fi­culties on the ground.
  • Above all, the gen­eral will­ing­ness and com­mit­ment of all involved to make a dif­fer­ence in a dif­fi­cult situ­ation. In par­tic­u­lar, the coordin­a­tion and cooper­a­tion with of teams from such diverse counties as Cuba, Norway, Italy and Spain.  However, with the excep­tion of Medicines Sans Frontieres and Save the Children, cooper­a­tion and coordin­a­tion by the Non- Government Organisations (NGOs) could have been better.


As one member summed it up “Our speaker has given us a fas­cin­at­ing insight into how, even in the most dif­fi­cult of cir­cum­stances, horror can be turned into hope”

The Mayerling Mystery — Michael Rose 15th — June 2015.

If you like mys­tery stor­ies –dark nights, isol­ated houses, dodgy characters- and  having your ima­gin­a­tion tickled, this story had the lot. One of our mem­bers, Michael Rose, kept us spell­bound as he out­lined the plot set in 1889 in a time and place of which we knew little.

On the 30th of January that fate­ful year the mutil­ated bodies of Crown Prince Rudolf, the 30 year old heir to the throne of the Austria-Hungarian Empire and Baroness Maria Vetsera, his sev­en­teen old mis­tress, were dis­covered in a ground floor bed­room in the Royal Hunting Lodge at Mayerling in a remote wooded area south west of Vienna.  Both had met with viol­ent deaths. It was no wonder the Imperial family tried to draw a veil over the affair.

The manner in which the couple died, and the sur­round­ing intrigue, has res­ul­ted in one of the great unsolved mys­ter­ies of his­tory having become the sub­ject of over twenty movies, a ballet, a musical  -includ­ing a Japanese version- and count­less art­icles and books in a dozen lan­guages. And the list still grows!

There have been many attempts –legal, forensic, and dra­matic to ‘solve’ what has become known as the Mayerling Mystery.  Michael sug­ges­ted the prot­ag­on­ists fell into two main groups: -did the not so happy couple die in a sui­cide pact, motiv­ated by the fear that they would be forced to part?  Or was it a planned murder, driven by the work of darker forces? Our Lawyer speaker invited us to wit­ness this debate which, typ­ical of such stor­ies, raised more ques­tions than sat­is­fact­ory answers.

Like a Jury, we were asked to con­sider the evid­ence and the con­tex­tual back­ground. Was Rudolf killed because he was plot­ting the over­throw of his father, Emperor Franz-Joseph?  Apparently they did not get on, the elder favour­ing to con­tinue inde­pend­ence from, and the younger, closer rela­tions with the ascend­ing Germany.  What could have been revealed in the black box full of encryp­ted papers?  Was Johann Loschek, the Prince’s loyal valet and the first to find the bodies at 06.55 pre­cisely, telling the truth?  Was Marie Larisch, the Prince’s all-seeing and all hear­ing cousin and con­fid­ante, a reli­able source for all the inform­a­tion she dis­closes?  Why have all the police files dis­ap­peared?  What role, if any, did Dr Karl Graves, a sup­posed Master Spy, have in influ­en­cing events? Did a carpenter’s son have the real solu­tion? And why, after WW2 were the Russians so inter­ested?  As for the journ­al­ists, they were never to let the facts-if known- spoil a good story!

What we do know is that Rudolf’s life, like many Hapsburgs, was influ­enced by people of doubt­ful wisdom and motiv­a­tion.  The family had a his­tory of mental ill­ness and obses­sions.  It was clear from his Army ser­vice the Prince was unre­li­able and prone to extreme mood swings.  Leaving the Army at his father’s insist­ence his  son had noth­ing worth­while to do.  Rudolf became a ser­i­ous woman­iser –a trait noted when he vis­ited Queen Victoria at Windsor when Edward found he had a com­pet­itor!  Rudolf’s taste in women ranged from street pros­ti­tutes to wives of aris­to­crats, one of whom had chil­dren by four men.  Such liais­ons rarely lasted long and were sub­ject to rapid turnover but gen­er­ously rewarded- the wages of sin might amount to a town or coun­try house! His rela­tion­ship with Maria Vetsara had lasted around 12 months.  Her time was more than up. Unable to think of another way of dis­en­gage­ment could Rudolf have killed her and then com­mit­ted sui­cide?

The story was not end with those gory deaths in 1889. In 1928 Loschek, the valet, changed his story admit­ting he had heard shots at 06.55 fol­low­ing a fierce argu­ment between Rudolf and Maria.  In 1949 Maria’s (who had been denied a Catholic funeral and burial while Rudolf went to the Royal Mausoleum) remains turned up 150 miles away in Linz. She was rebur­ied in a marked grave but not allowed to rest ,  her remains being forensic­ally examined –all inconclusively- no less than three times (the latest in 1991).

What is clear is that the story will con­tinue to run if not in fact, cer­tainly in the ima­gin­a­tion.  Like the many books and films it inspired, the mys­tery behind this drama will con­tinue to niggle the curi­ous seek­ing the truth.

Thank you, Michael, for such an enter­tain­ing morn­ing!


What It’s Like To Be A Bird — Professor Tim Birkhead – 11th November 2013.

Hearty con­grat­u­la­tions to our speaker find­ers for allow­ing Stumperlowe Probus to enjoy what was cer­tainly a lec­ture of out­stand­ing merit.  Professor Birkhead’s orni­tho­lo­gical know­ledge and aptitude for trans­mit­ting fas­cin­at­ing facts to his audi­ence were imme­di­ately appar­ent. One could, at once, appre­ci­ate why he has been able to write over twenty best-selling books on the sub­ject of bird­life. He dis­played, with tre­mend­ous aplomb, an enthu­si­asm for his sub­ject and a rarely-seen abil­ity to effort­lessly enter­tain us with his seem­ingly infin­ite grasp of what makes birds tick.

 The theme of Tim’s dis­course was to dis­play how birds differ from humans in their habits and life­styles. Starting on a remote island in the Irish Sea, we learned of the abil­ity of the female Guillemot to recog­nise her return­ing part­ner from a dis­tance of 700 m and sur­roun­ded by count­less other, to us, identical birds – even when close up, we couldn’t tell one from the other.

 Next, we were told of the Blue Tit’s aptitude to see in the ultra­vi­olet spec­trum and, by so doing, to hunt out poten­tial insect food. Owls and other pred­at­ory spe­cies have phe­nom­enal aud­it­ory powers to fur­ther their stalk­ing suc­cess. Kiwis have poor vision, but good hear­ing and a very great sense of smell, which enables them to locate and  unearth buried food without any pre­lim­in­ary prob­ing.

 Professor Birkhead then showed us how ducks are able to taste and touch by means of minute recept­ors behind the edge of their beaks, which they use to judge what to eat. Flamingos in South West Africa can sense when the rains have arrived in Etosha Pan, about 200 miles away and will migrate  there , but only fol­low­ing a spe­cific amount of rain­fall. Some Vultures hunt by sight when flying over open ter­rain, but others use their sense of smell to scav­enge  whilst hov­er­ing over dense forests.

 At the end of all this won­der­ful enlight­en­ment, we were cer­tain that the term, “Bird Brain” was any­thing but a cor­rect descrip­tion of a human dunce! In many ways birds can show humans a thing or two, and thou­sands of years will pass before we evolve to their state of ingenu­ity!

 Professor Tim Birkhead was named as UK Bioteacher of the Year by the UK Society of Biology , in honor of his three dec­ades of inspir­a­tional teach­ing, matched by a long­stand­ing  pas­sion for research out in the field.

 There is a museum at the University of Sheffield  run by Tim Birkhead called the Alfred Denny Museum in the Dept. of Animal & Plant  Sciences. It’s about the amaz­ing world of nature and it is open to the public on the first Saturday of every month from 9.30 to 1pm. Places can be booked via or 222 9308 during office hours.”