Agatha Christie’s Greatest Mystery

agatha-christie-young

She has been called the “Duchess of Death”, the “Mistress of Mystery”, and the “Queen of Crime”. She wrote sixty-six detective novels and fourteen short story collections.

The Guinness Book of World Records has named her the “best-selling novelist of all time”. She is also one of the world’s best-selling writers of any kind, second only to William Shakespeare. An estimated one billion copies of her novels have been sold in English, and another billion in 103 other languages. She is famous for intriguing plot twists that make the seemingly impossible, possible.

Fans of every generation cannot get enough.

 But did you know that a non-fictional event in Agatha Christie’s life proved to be as mysterious as one of her novels? Read on to learn more about Agatha and the disappearance of the century!

Just My Imagination…

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born on this day, September 15, 1890 in Devon, England. She was the youngest of three children. Her parents, Frederick Alvah Miller and his wife Clarissa were wealthy recipients of a family fortune. Because her siblings were so much older, little Agatha is spent much of her time with pets and “imaginary friends”. This may have fueled her great ability to later imagine characters for her novels.

Young Agatha was a clever child, able to read at age four. She was home schooled, but at age twelve she attended boarding school in Paris. She always had a keen interest in reading and writing, and even wrote and performed amateur plays as a child.

At First Sight

In October 1912, at age twenty two, she was introduced to Archibald “Archie” Christie at a formal dance given by Lord and Lady Clifford of Chudleigh.

Archie was a dashing army officer. The couple quickly fell in love. Just three months after their first meeting, Archie proposed and Agatha accepted. They were married on Christmas Eve, 1914.

During World War I, Agatha  served as a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment of the Red Cross. She worked as a nurse, a medical dispenser and an apothecaries’ assistant.

It was here that she acquired special knowledge of poisons which she would later use in the plots of her stories. She was a huge fan of  Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’ series. Her own first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published in 1920.  Her second novel The Secret Adversary, was published in 1922. Both became bestsellers.

After the war, the Christies settled into home life. Agatha gave birth to a daughter named Rosalind.

They also toured the world, visiting exotic places like South Africa, Hawaii and New Zealand. They bought a house in Sunningdale, Berkshire, which they called “Styles”, named after the mansion in Agatha’s novel.

For all practical purposes, they seemed to have an ideal marriage. But trouble was brewing…

An Officer, Not a Gentleman

In April of 1926, Agatha’s mother died. They had an extremely close relationship, and the death sent Agatha into a deep depression. She was so distraught that she traveled to a small village in the Basque country of southern France to recover from a “nervous breakdown”.

When Agatha returned four months later, Archie asked her for a divorce. He had never actually been a very faithful husband. He now claimed he had fallen in love with a woman named Nancy Neele, whom he had met through his military connections. This, no doubt, added insult and agony to the already fragile Agatha.

 On Friday, December 3, 1926, Archie and Agatha had an argument when Archie announced he planned to spend the weekend “away with friends” and unaccompanied by his wife. Agatha did not take it well.

Without a Trace

At shortly after 9.30 pm that night, Agatha kissed her sleeping daughter Rosalind goodnight. She then exited the house, climbed into her Morris Cowley automobile, and drove off into the night. She would not be seen again for 11 days. Her disappearance resulted in the largest manhunt ever conducted in British history.

Agatha Christie was a famous and beloved author. Her disappearance created a state of emergency. The Home Secretary, William Joyson Hicks, assigned over one thousand policeman to the case. Hundreds of civilians volunteered to help, bringing along bloodhounds, terriers and police dogs. For the first time ever, aeroplanes were incorporated in a missing person search, gliding over the rural landscape.

Searchers try to find clues to Christie's disappearance.

Even Agatha’s idol, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was called in, as well as detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers. It was hoped that their special knowledge of crime would help solve the mystery.  

The next morning, Agatha’s car was found abandoned on a steep slope at Newlands Corner nature resort near Guildford. The car was reported to be “dangling on the edge of a chalk pit, the front wheels actually overhanging the edge,” with only a thick hedge-growth preventing it from plunging into the pit.  Inside the car was an expired driver’s license and some clothes.

Agatha, however, was not there.  

As the days passed and there was still no sign of her, speculation began to mount. The Christies were a stylish, high profile couple. Plus Archie’s infidelity was a known fact. The public was eager for gossip and the press quickly exploited the story. One newspaper offered a £100 reward for Agatha’s return (approximately equivalent to £6,000 in today’s money). Her disappearance was featured on the front page of The New York Times.

Stranger Than Fiction

It was the perfect tabloid story, with – ironically –  all the elements of an Agatha Christie whodunnit. For the vivid imagination, there were also several spooky elements.

Close to the place where the car had been found was a lake known as the Silent Pool, where two young children were said to have died. Some tabloids began suggesting that Agatha had drowned herself.

Yet her body was nowhere to be found.

Rumors began circulating that Archie had killed her, wanting to be free to go off with his mistress.

Yet another tabloid specullated that Agatha had fled her own house, fearing it was haunted! “It stands in a lonely lane,” the paper claimed, “unlit at night, which has a reputation of being haunted. The lane has been the scene of a murder of a woman and the suicide of a man. … ‘If I do not leave Sunningdale soon, Sunningdale will be the end of me,’ she once said to a friend.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was known to have occult beliefs, tried using paranormal powers to solve the mystery. He took one of Christie’s gloves to a celebrated medium in the hope that it would provide answers. It did not. Other spiritualists even held a séance at the chalk pit where the car had been found.

To make things even more dramatic, one newspaper reported that eerie clues had been found near the site, including “a bottle labeled poison, lead and opium, fragments of a torn-up postcard, a woman’s fur-lined coat, a box of face powder, the end of a loaf of bread, a cardboard box and two children’s books.”

At this point it was anyone’s guess.

Swan Song

On December 14, a full eleven days later, Agatha was finally found. She was safe and well, having checked into the posh Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire.

Harrogate Hydro, the spa where Christie was found.

Interestingly, she had registered as “Teresa Neele of Cape Town, South Africa”, using the last name of her husband’s lover.

Upon questioning, Agatha claimed she remembered nothing.

So what happened?

The police put together a story they believed was reasonable. They thought Agatha had left home and headed for London but crashed her car en route. She then boarded a train to Harrogate, Yorkshire, where she checked into the Swan Hotel with no luggage.  

The town of Harrogate was a spa resort. In the 1920s it was known for its elegance. Agatha, a wealthy world traveler, probably looked right at home in the chic establishment. Apparently, she mingled around, attending balls and dances. It was a man named Bob Tappin, a banjo player, who finally recognized her and contacted the police. Archie was then notified.

When Archie showed up at the Swan to collect his wife, it was reported that she was “in no hurry to leave.” She even kept him waiting in the hotel lounge while she changed into her evening dress. It was not a happy reunion. When Agatha finally emerged, Archie was “welcomed by her with a stony stare.”

The celebrity couple continued to attract attention at the train station. Hundreds of people showed up, hoping to catch a glimpse.

Within the next year, Agatha sued her husband for divorce.

Silence is Golden

Agatha herself never offered an explanation for her eleven lost days.

Over the years, observers have crafted several theories as to what happened. Some believe it was amnesia. Others think she may have been in a “fugue” state – a rare condition brought on by trauma or depression. During this time, she could have developed her new personality, Theresa Neele, and failed to recognize herself in newspaper photographs.

Agatha Christie biographer Andrew Norman, who studied the case extensively, stated: “I believe she was suicidal. Her state of mind was very low and she writes about it later through the character of Celia in her autobiographical novel Unfinished Portrait.”

In her own autobiography, Christie wrote simply, “So, after illness, came sorrow, despair and heartbreak. There is no need to dwell on it.”

Love on the Orient Express

Needless to say, Agatha Christie went on to have an amazing career. She took several journeys on the Orient Express, traveling to places like Istanbul and Bagdad. It was on these journeys that she gathered inspiration for future novels. She also met the man who was to be her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan. (Archie ended up marrying his mistress, Nancy Neele.)

Agatha Christie received many awards in her long career. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1950, and appointed  Commander of the Order of British Literature  (CBE) in 1956. She was the co-president of the Detection Club  from 1958 to her death in 1976. In 1961, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Literature Degree  by the University of Exeter. Her play The Mousetrap was the world’s longest-running play, performed in London’s West End from 1952 to 2020, only being shut down this year in response to the Covid pandemic.    

In 1971 she received the title Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Her husband Max also received  knighthood for his archaeological work. After her husband’s knighthood, Agatha could also use the title “Lady Mallowan”.

She died peacefully of natural causes on January 12, 1976.

Happy Birthday Agatha! You gave us so much, and a part of you will always be a mystery.

 

Lizzie Borden Took an Ax…

 

Gave her mother forty whacks.

When she saw what she had done

Gave her father forty one.

Or did she?

Infamous might-be ax murderer Lizzie Borden was accused of murdering her father and stepmother in their own home, injuring them with (maybe not forty) but so many bloody hatchet whacks their faces were unrecognizable.

The story had all the elements of Gothic intrigue. A wealthy family. A miserly widower. An evil stepmother. Two secluded, spinster daughters. A family enmeshed in bickering and resentment. A gory murder and the trial of the century. Read on to find out about the real Lizzie Borden, a mind boggling tale and a murder mystery that continues to baffle experts to this day.

Lizzie Andrew Borden was born on this day, July 19, 1860, in Fall River, Massachusetts. Her parents were Sarah Anthony and Andrew Jackson Borden. Lizzie had one older sister, Emma, born in 1851. Lizzie attended the Morgan Street School. After graduating, she became a Sunday school teacher, a secretary of the local Christian Endeavor Society and a member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. (The real Lizzie was yet to be revealed…)

Lizzie’s life was hardly a whirlwind of adventure. And this just may have been the environment that led her to crack.

Evil Stepmother, Frugal Father

Andrew Borden’s first wife Sarah died in 1863 when Lizzie was just three years old. Two years later Andrew remarried a woman named Abby Durfee Gray. Since Lizzie was so young, Abby should have been her main maternal figure. But Lizzie and her sister Emma never liked Abby very much. They called her “Mrs. Borden” rather than “mother”, and didn’t even eat their meals with her. Lizzie believed that Abby had married her father for his wealth.

Andrew Borden was indeed a wealthy man. But with the way he lived, no one would know it. He came from modest beginnings and eventually made a fortune in real estate and textile mills. He was also president of the Union Savings Bank and a director of the Durfee Safe Deposit and Trust Co. The guy was loaded. At the time of his death in 1892, Borden’s estate was valued at $300,000  — the equivalent of $9 million in today’s money!

Despite his vast wealth, Andrew was a notorious miser. Picture Ebenezer Scrooge, holed gloves, scant coals on the fire, watery tea.

The house the family lived in was small and shabby. It had no electricity or indoor plumbing. It was located in a modest part of town, far from the Fall River elite, who lived in a ritzy district known as “The Hill”.

Sisters Lizzie and Emma longed for a life on The Hill. Debutante balls, champagne, glitzy dancing, diamond brooches. But no. Because of their father’s frugality, these luxuries were denied them.

In addition to Lizzie hating her stepmother, other tensions were growing within the family. Miser Andrew had bestowed generous gifts of real estate to various members of Abby’s family. For example, he had given a house to Abby’s sister. In retaliation, Emma and Lizzie had demanded property of their own. They purchased a house from their father for one dollar. A few weeks later they sold it back to him for $5,000 —  the equivalent to $142,000 in today’s money. A pretty good deal 🙂

And money wasn’t the only issue. Lizzie was a devout animal lover.  She had recently built a roost in the barn for stray pigeons. Andrew decided they were a nuisance, so he took a hatchet and sliced up the birds. (Yes, a hatchet. You will see a theme emerging here…) Needless to say, Lizzie was devastated.

The Bordens were NOT a happy family.

By July, 1892, a family argument prompted both sisters to take vacations. When Lizzie returned, she was not eager to go back to her father’s house, and even stayed a few days in a hotel before returning. Emma remained on vacation for an extended time and was therefore (lucky for her) not home during the time of the murders.

In Cold Blood

The Borden murders occurred on August 4, 1892.

It started out like any other morning. The family had breakfast.

The Bordens employed a live-in maid named Bridget Sullivan, whom they called Maggie. A relative named John Morse, Lizzie’s uncle, had come for a visit. The only people in the house that day were Lizzie, Andrew, Abby, Maggie and John. At around 8:30 am John left and went to town to buy a pair of oxen. (Can you imagine going to town to buy oxen? But I digress 🙂 )

At a little after 9 am, Andrew went out for his daily morning walk. At sometime between 9 and 10 am, Abby went upstairs to do housework in the guest room. The making of that bed would be her last. By 10:30 am Abby was dead.

According to the forensic investigation, Abby was first struck on the side of the head with a hatchet. Her ear was cut, which caused her to turn and fall face down on the floor. The killer then struck her seventeen times in the back of her head.

Meanwhile, Andrew returned from his walk. He had trouble with his key at the door and Maggie came to let him in. The door was jammed and Maggie uttered a curse word as she opened it. She later claimed she heard Lizzie laughing at this, her voice coming from the top of the stairs. (This was significant because anyone upstairs would have presumably been near Abby’s body.) Lizzie, however, denied it. She claimed to have chatted briefly with her father. She also claimed she had removed Andrew’s boots and helped him into his slippers before he lay down on the sofa for a nap.

Interestingly, the photos from the scene of the crime show a dead Andrew with his boots still on.

Maggie was in her room on the third-floor. At approximately 11:10 am she heard Lizzie call from downstairs, “Maggie, come quick! Father’s dead. Somebody came in and killed him.”

Andrew had been struck in the head eleven times with a hatchet. His face was so bludgeoned it was nearly unrecognizable.

Actual police photo. See the shoes.

Somebody called the police. Detectives and a forensics expert were called in. Andrew’s still-bleeding wounds suggested a very recent attack.  It was estimated he died at approximately 11:00 am. Upstairs, Abby’s body was already cold.

Trial of the Century

Reporters swarmed in. News spread through town and crowds began to gather around the Borden house. People walked off their jobs to check out the scene. This was the most exciting event of their lives! Nothing like this had ever happened before in Fall River. People were also terrified that the murderer was still on the loose.

Lizzie was a prime suspect. Of the other household members, John Morse had an alibi and Emma was out of town. Maggie was briefly considered, but she was not a likely candidate because she had no motive. Lizzie, on the other hand, stood to gain financially from her parents’ deaths.

The idea of Lizzie being accused of ax murder was a shock to the townspeople. Polite Victorian society could not fathom the idea of a woman wielding an ax. It was simply too unladylike. They could not picture it. So therefore, the townspeople maintained Lizzie’s innocence from the beginning and never flinched.

At the inquest, Lizzie gave conflicting and confusing testimony. She tripped up her story, claiming to be in different places – – in the kitchen reading a magazine, in the garage searching for tackle, in the orchard eating pears. Finally the judge had enough. Lizzie was arrested for the murder of her parents and thrown in jail.  (To be fair, it should be noted that doctors had prescribed doses of morphine to Lizzie at this time, to help her cope with the horrible situation. The confusing testimony was given under the influence of heavy drugs.)  When the case finally went to trial, the press called it “the trial of the century”.

Lizzie herself did not testify in court, saying only, “I am innocent. I leave it to my counsel to speak for me.”

Plenty of evidence was stacked against her. For one thing, it was reported that she’d tried to burn a dress a week after the murders. Presumably the dress was stained with blood. A friend, Alice Russell, testified that the dress had been stained with paint, not blood. There was also a report that Lizzie had tried to buy poison just days before the murder. (Her parents had also become sick, presumably with food poisoning, during those days.) And then there was the matter of the murder weapon. A hatchet head, detached from its handle, was found in the cellar. Miraculously, no blood stained clothes were ever found in the house, despite the fact that these crimes were a literal blood bath.

As it turned out, the jury was sympathetic. The evidence presented was not considered “direct enough” to convict her.  Lizzie was acquitted on June 20, 1893. She had spent ten months in jail.

Bright Young Things

After the trial, Lizzie and Emma inherited their father’s fortune. (It was nine million bucks, remember?)  They immediately bought a fourteen room mansion in (you guessed it) the prestigious neighborhood of The Hill. The house was a magnificent palace, full of summer and winter bedrooms, crystal chandeliers and lavish furniture. The girls had finally achieved their dream.

You would think the story ends here and the Borden sisters lived happily ever after, right? But NO!

Lizzie was no shrinking violet, and now that she had money she did as she pleased. Her ‘notorious’ activities did not sit well with the polite society of Fall River. And what exactly were those activities? Well… prepare to be shocked!

  • Lizzie changed her name to Lizbeth. Unheard of! It was only acceptable for girls to change their names if they were married! The townspeople gasped, ogled, wagged fingers and disapproved.
  • Lizbeth decided to put a name on her mansion as well. She named it “Maplecroft” and had the name engraved in the porch.

Unheard of! This was a flamboyant, shameless display of wealth and definitely NOT to be tolerated! (Ax murder your parents? Fine. But name a mansion? Oh no, that will not do!)

  • And finally, the pièce de résistance! Lizzie started hanging around with (wait for it…) THEATER PEOPLE! Lizzie loved the theater. She attended often and made friends with actors and actresses. They were, of course, considered the dregs of society. Lizzie took to entertaining them, throwing lavish parties at Maplecroft.

That was it! The last straw. Even her own sister Emma abandoned her, moving out of the house in 1905. The two never spoke to one another again. (True story!) 

Lizzie ‘Lizbeth’ Borden died on June 1, 1927 of pneumonia, at the ripe old age of sixty-seven. We shall never know whether or not she actually committed the murders, but she sure had a hell of a life. What do YOU think?

Happy Birthday Lizzie! You were slick, wicked and uncompromising.