The Mysterious, Unusual, and Temporary Disappearance of Agatha Christie
Missing persons cases usually don't have the best outcome. In a lot of cases if no body is found, then the family is left wondering what could've happened. These are heartbreaking cases and a situation that no one wants to find themselves on either side of. While the statistics for missing persons being found alive aren't as high as we would like, thankfully it does happen. The tales of these missing persons being brought home captivate us and give us hope. There is one such case in which the missing person being found created more questions than answers, though. Ninety-six years after the disappearance and recovery of Agatha Christie we still have questions as to what exactly happened those eleven days she just vanished without a trace.
The mysterious disappearance of the queen of mystery herself became fodder for newspapers and tabloids all over the world. It was a media sensation that became Agatha's greatest mystery of all. Since then the story has been featured on episodes of Unsolved Mysteries, Comedy Central's Drunk History, Buzzfeed Unsolved, and Doctor Who. It was also the subject of a 1979 feature film called Agatha.
Agatha Christie was born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller on September 15, 1890 in the southwest part of England in Torquay, Devon. She was the youngest of three children born into a comfortable middle-class family. She was home schooled by her American father, Fredrick Alvah Miller. Agatha's mother, Clarisa Margaret Boehmer, or Clara as she was known, was said to be a great storyteller. I guess it's not hard to imagine where Agatha got her talent for spinning a good tale from.
The reasoning behind it is not known, but Agatha's mother did not want her learning to read until she was eight-years-old. Being the only of her siblings home schooled and stuck in the house all day, she got bored quickly. By age five Agatha had taught herself how to read to fill the lonely boring days at home while her siblings attended school. Her upbringing has rightfully been described as strange, but it was happy nonetheless. Agatha was loved, cared for, and doted upon by her family. She loved to play with her animals, invent imaginary friends, attend dance classes, and write poetry as a child.
Around the time that Agatha was teaching herself to read she spent some time in France with her family. In order to economize the family rented out Agatha's childhood home, named Ashfield. Her governess in France, a woman named Marie, taught her how to speak the language. Not much else is known about her time spent in France as a little girl.
By the time Agatha was eleven her family was facing some serious financial issues following a series of heart attacks her father had suffered. After this series of heart attacks, Fredrick Miller passed away, leaving his wife absolutely distraught. After their difficult loss Agatha became her mother's closest companion. Clara had been left to face the family's financial hardships all alone. There was even talk of selling Ashfield, the family home, at this time as well. Clara was a very strong woman that managed to shoulder the burden and come out on the other side just fine. They were able to keep the family home and by the age of fifteen, Agatha was boarding at a series of pensions in France.
While in France for the second time in her life, Agatha took piano and vocal lessons. This was the first formal education she'd ever received. She was said to be so good on the piano that she could've easily been a concert pianist. Her severe shyness to people she didn't know prevented her from stage performance, though. It wasn't until she was eighteen that she began writing short stories just simply to entertain herself. Some of these were published in revised form in the 1930s. She received the most constructive advice from family friend and published author, Eden Philpotts when she said, "The artist is only the glass through which we see nature, and the clearer and more absolutely pure that glass, so much the more perfect picture we can see through it. Never intrude yourself."
In 1910, Agatha accompanied her mother on a three-month "season" in Cairo, due to Clara's health. They stayed at the Gazirah Palace Hotel, where Agatha dressed in her most beautiful gowns to attend nice parties with successful people. At this time in her young life, Agatha was more interested in parties than the archaeological sites available to tour. This would change as she got older, though. Though shy, Agatha made many friends on her trip that invited her to parties back home upon her return to England. A young, attractive, intelligent, and talented woman, it comes as no surprise that she was swimming in marriage proposals at this time. She could've had any man in England she wanted, but she settled for Colonel Archibald Christie, or Archie as he was called.
Archie was born on September 30, 1889, in Peshawar in The British Raj, modern day Pakistan. His father, also Archibald Christie, was in the Indian Civil Service and it's said that he was also a judge. His final death notice in The Law Times Journal says he was a barrister, though. Archie's mother, Ellen Ruth Coates, also known as Peg, had been born in Ireland and came from a respected family. Her father was a doctor and her brother had went to work in the Indian Medical Service. Peg first met the senior Archibald when she was only thirteen-years-old. They married when she was twenty-six and went on to have two sons, Archie and his brother, Campbell. Archie grew up to be a pilot for the Royal Flying Corps and would go on to become a very successful businessman after leaving the service.
Agatha and Archie met in 1912, and a whirlwind romance followed. They fell hard and fast for one another and desperately wanted to get married, but had no money to so. In her autobiography, Agatha would later say that it was the "excitement of the stranger" that had drawn them together. They finally married on Christmas Eve in 1914, after the two had experienced war on both fronts. Agatha worked with the Voluntary Aid Detachment in a Red Cross Hospital in Torquay on the home front. Archie served on the front lines in France.
It was Agatha's time spent working as a nurse with the Red Cross that gave her the knowledge of poisons that she later utilized in her novels. Her knowledge of poisons was so vast that her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, received a glowing review from a pharmaceutical magazine. A 1977 thallium poisoning was even solved by British medical personnel that had read her book, The Pale Horse, and recognized the symptoms she had described in the novel.
Once Agatha and Archie were married they were able to spend a three-day long honeymoon at The Grand Hotel in Torquay. On December 27, 1914, Archie had to return to France and to the brutality of WWI, leaving his new wife behind in England to worry. Throughout the rest of the war the young, married couple didn't get to see much of each other. It was a hard way to start a marriage, but it seemed to work for quite some time. Archie was finally posted at the War Office in London after the war ended. It was then that Agatha felt their marriage had truly begun.
At the beginning of their marriage they bought a flat in Northwick Terrace in London. They only lived there a short time before moving. Agatha and Archie's only child, Rosalind, was born in 1919, in Agatha's childhood home, Ashfield. Soon after Rosalind's birth they found a larger flat for the three of them in Addison Mansions, London. Then in 1920, Agatha published The Mysterious Affair at Styles to much acclaim. Her first novel introduced her most famous character, Hercule Poirot. This character would be rivaled only by Miss Jane Marple.
When Archie finally left the military he took a job in the Imperial and Foreign Corporation. He stayed at this job until he was offered a position as a financial advisor in the British Empire Exhibition Tour in 1922, by Major Ernest Belcher. Major Belcher would end up becoming a good friend of Archie and Agatha's as he and Archie worked together. The tour, promoting the forthcoming British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924 and 1925, kicked off in January 1922. It started in South Africa, and for the next ten months Archie traveled the world with Agatha by his side. Their trip would also take them to Oahu, Hawaii. While there the two learned how to surf and actually got quite good. Some historians believe that they may have been among the first Brits to learn how to ride a surf board standing up.
Upon returning from the tour, Archie began working in the city and moved to Austral Development, establishing himself in the world of finance. He also took up golf and was elected to the Sunningdale Golf Club. While Agatha worked on her novels, Archie would spend his weekends at the Golf Club. He absolutely loved Sunningdale and wanted very much to move his family there. In 1924, he did. They moved from their flat in London to another in Sunningdale. They named the home Scotswood and stayed there for two years after moving in.
At the start of 1925, Agatha was invited to participate in a committee to design and organize a children's section of the 1925 British Empire Exhibition. The committee that she sat on designed and organized the Children's Paradise section of the exhibition, which included Treasure Island as its centerpiece. It was a substantial and successful contribution that was outlined in-depth in The Times, where all names of the committee members were mentioned. Among those names included Nancy Neele, a name that will become very important soon. The following year Treasure Island was imported to the US for the Sesquicentennial Exposition in Philadelphia, where it was praised and lauded as the best feature at the exposition.
By the beginning of 1926, Archie and Agatha bought a big, impressive house in Sunningdale that they called Styles, after the house in her first novel. By this point in her life, just six years after publishing her first novel, she had already become a household name. She'd already published such works as: Secret Adversary, The Murder on the Links, The Man in the Brown Suit, The Market Basing Mystery, and The Witness For the Prosecution, among other titles.
In April 1926, Agatha suffered the most devastating loss of her life at this point. Her mother passed away, leaving her understandably distraught. She moved back into her childhood home of Ashfield to pack away her mother's things and grieve her loss. In August, just four months after Clara's passing, Archie decided it was the right time to admit to an affair he'd been having with Nancy Neele. Making this blow sting all the more, he told Agatha that he was in love with Nancy and wanted a divorce. Agatha did not want this divorce at all. For the next four months after Archie's request it seems that they continued to live together at Styles and raise their young daughter together.
Nancy Neele was nine years Agatha's junior, born in 1899. She was brought up in a middle-class family in Stockport, Cheshire. Her father, Charles Woodward Neele, was the Chief Electrical Engineer to the Great Central Railway. Her mother, Mable Lily Frasier, came from a very cultured and musically dominated family where she had been one of five sisters. Nancy's mother and all four of her aunts played orchestral music from a young age. When Nancy was still a child her family moved into a house they named Rheola in Croxley Green.
Once she finished school, Nancy took a course at the Triangle Secretarial College in London. After finishing her class she began working for the Imperial Continental Gas Association. Not long after starting her new position a friend of her's from college, Madge Fox, also began working there. Madge married Frank Henry James in 1925, and the two moved to Hurtmore Cottage near Godalming. Madge and Frank loved to entertain and were known to throw parties on the weekends. It was at one of their parties that Archie first met Nancy Neele.
Fast forward to the chilly Friday of December 3, 1926. That day Archie decided that he would be spending the weekend with friends and made his intentions known to Agatha. Needless to say, she didn't think much of a married father spending his weekend away with friends. She likely figured that this was a thinly veiled excuse to get out of the house and spend the weekend with Nancy. I know I would've. An argument erupted between the two and by the end of it, Archie had left Agatha to stew for the weekend.
Shortly after 9:30 that night Agatha got up from her armchair after finishing some letters she'd written to her secretary, her brother-in-law, and to Archie. To her secretary, she simply informed her that she wouldn't be home that night and left a schedule. To her brother-in-law, she stated that she was going to a spa in Yorkshire. He made this information known to the police. Archie never disclosed the contents of his letter.
After leaving her chair, Agatha walked upstairs to her daughter, Rosalind's room. Only seven-years-old at time, she was tucked into her bed, snug under the covers, fast asleep. Agatha kissed her gently on the forehead before returning downstairs. She got into her car, a Morris Cowley, and just drove away. For the next eleven days one of the largest searches ever mounted was well underway. More than one thousand officers were assigned to the case and hundreds of citizens joined in the search as well. Airplanes were also utilized for the first time in a search.
Home Secretary William Joyson-Hicks urged police to find her as quickly as possible. After he laid the pressure on the police and the press, a 100 pound reward was offered for information on Agatha's whereabouts. As of 2019, this would've been equivalent of 6000 pounds.
Speculation grew as news of Agatha's disappearance quickly traveled the globe. The story had all the mystery and intrigue of her novels. A cheating husband, a young mistress, and most importantly, a missing wife. The papers went wild publishing their theories. Some thought that it was just a publicity stunt for her upcoming series, The Mystery of the Downs. She was reamed in articles for causing such trouble with a young daughter at home, dependent upon her. Her secretary refuted these theories as nonsense saying, "It is ridiculous. Mrs. Christie is quite too much of a lady for that. She never for a moment would think of causing all this sorrow and suspense...It is the last thing in the world she would do."
There were others that speculated that Archie had killed her to get her out of the way so he could marry Nancy. As the search went into its third day, Agatha's car was found in front of a chalk quarry near a natural spring, known to the locals as Silent Pool. Two young children had previously drowned at Silent Pool. It was also believed by locals to be bottomless. Once the discovery of her car was made the speculation began to shift to suicide, many believing her to have drowned herself in the spring. This was highly unlikely though, as her sixth novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, had recently released to raving reviews. The book was selling very well and she was also working on another manuscript at the time of her disappearance.
By the third day of the search the news had already spread as far as the US. The New York Times printed a front page article on the captivating mystery. Once her car was found one of the biggest searches ever conducted took place around the site. Between 10,000 and 15,000 volunteers joined in, hoping to find clues that would point to her whereabouts. Investigators also brought along "six trained bloodhounds, a crate-load of Airedale terriers, many retrievers, and Alsatian police dogs," among the dogs that were brought for the search. Silent Pool was drained amid rumors of her suicide, but this turned up nothing. Locals did learn that the pond wasn't bottomless, though.
During the search some strange and random items were found. Bottles labeled 'poison lead' and 'opium,' a torn up postcard, a women's fur-lined coat, a loaf of bread, and two children's books. Not a single solid clue was found. What was found didn't even manage to paint a disjointed picture of what might have happened to her.
With the case going nowhere fast, the rumor mill continued to churn out gossip. Another rumor began to spread that Agatha had left her secretary a letter to be opened in the event of her death. One paper reported, "The police have information which they refuse to divulge and which leads them to view that Mrs. Christie had no intention of returning when she left home."
Grasping at straws, the police turned to two of Britain's most famous crime writers for help. Dorothy L. Sayers, author of the Lord Peter Wimsey series, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, were more than happy to help in their very different ways. It was the hope of investigators that these writers could look at the case with fresh eyes and possibly come across clues they hadn't seen before. Sir Doyle tried utilizing the powers of the occult to find Agatha. He held a seance at the chalk pit her car had been found at with no effect. He also took one of her gloves to a medium and got no results there, either.
Dorothy Sayers approached the case much differently. Like a real investigator, she went to the chalk pit to look for evidence. She turned up nothing at all, sending police back to the drawing board. As the search continued and every avenue had been tried, her unfinished manuscript was gone over with a fine-tooth comb for clues. There was nothing there, but a whole lot of spoilers. Of course, Archie was also thoroughly investigated. He even had his phones tapped before it was all over.
There are many that have posited over the years that Agatha's disappearing act was her way of punishing Archie. She had plenty of motive to do so between his infidelity and his request for a divorce so soon after her mother had died. If that really is the case, it's one hell of a way to punish somebody and something that only Agatha Christie could've pulled off.
It was December 14, 1926, at the swanky Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, now known as the Old Swan Hotel, that Agatha was finally found. With hardly any luggage she stayed for eleven days, enjoying the Palm Court entertainment. She dressed up in lovely evening gowns and attended parties in 1920s Harrogate, which was the height of elegance at the time. All of the young, attractive, rich people flocked to Harrogate for the spas in the area. Possibly because she simply blended in to the crowd of faces, she managed to go unnoticed the almost two weeks she was there. Even with her face splashed all over every newspaper and tabloid cover in the world, she flew right underneath the radar.
It was the hotel's banjo player, Bob Tappin, that recognized her and alerted police. Archie was contacted by authorities and told to go to the Swan Hydropathic Hotel and identify her. When he arrived that cold winter's day, less than two week shy of Christmas, he was stunned to realized that Agatha didn't know him. Upon first seeing him, she actually called him brother. Furthermore, she seemed in no hurry to leave the luxurious spa she'd disappeared to. She had Archie wait in the lounge for some time while she returned to her room to change into an elegant evening gown. When the records at the hotel were checked it was found that Agatha had checked in under the name Mrs. Teresa Neele. This just furthered the speculation that she'd done all of this for revenge against Archie.
Archie gave a statement on behalf of his wife, saying that she was suffering from a nervous disorder and a complete loss of memory. He commented, "She does not know who she is...she has suffered the most complete loss of memory." She boarded a train back home and was met at the King's Cross train station by a swarm of hundreds of her most dedicated fans. The world could now breathe a sigh of relief. The banjo player had solved the case of the missing mystery writer singlehandedly. The New York Times reported, "Hundreds of amateur detectives were putting away their lynx eyes, gum shoes, and Sherlock Holmes pea jackets and resting from their weary tramplings over the Surrey Downs."
She recovered at her sister's home of Albany Hall after returning. Although the queen of mystery had been found, there were still a myriad of questions. Journalists weren't kind in their articles, either. Some accused her outright of attempting to frame Archie for her murder. Others posited that it was just a publicity made at the expense of her daughter and Archie. Agatha only ever spoke of the incident once in an interview with The Daily Mail in 1928. She said that she had been overtaken by the urge to drive herself into the chalk pit. Suffering a concussion after driving her car to edge of the pit, she says she the concussion cause her to experience out-of-body amnesia.
After this interview with The Daily Mail she never brought it up again. Not in her personal life or in interviews. A friend of Agatha's would comment later, "It was the unspoken subject. Agatha refused to talk about it. It was a real no-go." Agatha's refusal to speak about her own disappearance just kept the mystery alive and fueled speculation to this day.
Some say it was a suicide attempt gone awry, while many more think she suffered some sort of mental break. Laura Thompson, the biographer of Agatha's life, posits that it was a nervous breakdown. She apparently would've been totally conscious of her actions, but completely unable to control them. Biographer, Andrew Norton has a similar theory, stating that she went into a fugue state, or a psychogenic trance. This a rare condition brought on by trauma or depression. Seeing as how Agatha had been slapped in the face by both in the course of just months, this theory has legs to stand on.
Though this is a sad excerpt of her life, things got much better for Agatha. In February 1930, during a trip to Iraq for an archaeological dig she'd been invited to on a previous trip to the country, she met archaeologist Max Mallowan. By September of that year they were already married. They remained very happily married until Agatha's death in 1976. She would accompany her second husband on his expeditions and travel much of the Middle East. It was these travels that provided background information for many of her novels set in the Middle East, like Death on the Nile, originally published in 1938.
In 1928, The London Detective Club was founded, in which Agatha was a member in very good standing. It was a social club for crime writers that insisted upon its members taking a mostly joking oath to never keep vital clues from their readers or use fictional poisons as a plot crutch. By 1956, Agatha was the honorary president of the club. She also served as president to the local amateur dramatic society from 1951-1976. In 1950, she was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 1956 New Years Honours. The University of Exeter granted her an honorary Doctor of Literature degree and by 1971, she was promoted to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the New Years Honours. Max was also knighted for his archaeological work in 1968, allowing Agatha to be styled as Lady Mallowan. Among all of her other accomplishments were her prizes for horticulture as gardening was a favorite hobby of her's.
Despite all of her accomplishments and the amount of money that she made on her books, she wasn't known to be a flashy woman. She was a devout Catholic and a regular attendee of the Church of England. Agatha was also known to keep her mother's copy of The Imitation of the Christ by her bedside. After her divorce from Archie, Agatha stopped taking the sacrament of communion. Being extremely camera-shy, she refused photos be taken for her book jackets. Agatha also loved children and favored causes that donated to children and the elderly. The Agatha Christie Trust for Children was established in 1969 to further her work. A charitable memorial fund was set up in her honor after her death to champion causes for children and the elderly.
Throughout her career Agatha wrote 66 detective novels, 14 short stories, and 19 plays, one of which was the longest running play in history. The Mousetrap was preformed in the West End from 1952-2020. She also penned six novels under the pseudonym, Mary Westmacott. These novels were drastically different from her regular work. They were deep dives into the bittersweet ups and downs and life and love. They were quite successful and Agatha was actually able to keep her pseudonym a secret for twenty years before it was revealed. Her first novel had actually been written on a dare from her sister. It was rejected six times before it was finally published in 1920.
Among all of her books and plays, Agatha also created the only fictional character to ever receive an obituary from the New York Times. Hercule Poirot was introduced in her first novel and the character stayed with her throughout her career. He became just as big as she had until his character was killed off in the 1975 novel, Curtain. On August 6, 1975, his obituary was printed on the front page of the New York Times and it described all of his fictional life's accomplishments. It's almost poetic justice that Agatha passed away just five months later.
At one point during WWII Agatha was even investigated by MI5, the forerunner to today's MI6. A character named Major Bletchley that appeared in her 1941 novel, N or M?, raised some concerns with British Intelligence. The book was about two deadly fifth columnists in wartime England. MI5 thought that she had a spy in Britain's top-secret codebreaking centre, Bletchley Park. The worry only increased when she told her friend, codebreaker Dilly Knox, "I was stuck there on my way by train from Oxford to London and took my revenge by giving the name to one of my least lovable characters." Nothing ever came of their investigation and it was terminated. She was no spy, just really good at research.
Agatha passed away from natural causes at the age of eighty-five on January 12, 1976. She died at her home which she named Winterbrook House for its location in Winterbrook. Upon the announcement of her death two West End theaters dimmed their lights in her honor. St. Martin's, where The Mousetrap played, and the Savoy, where a revival of another of her plays, Murder at the Vicarage, played. Her funeral was described as simple, with twenty newspaper and television reporters coming from as far as South America to attend. Thirty bright, colorful wreaths adorned her grave. One was sent from the cast of The Mousetrap, another was sent by the Ulverscroft Large Print Book Publishers, "on behalf of the mulitude of grateful readers." Her grave site is located in the churchyard of St. Mary's, Cholsey.
Thankfully when Agatha Christie went missing she was found alive and well. We would be without so many great works, such as Death on the Nile, if she hadn't been found. From teaching herself to read by age five, to being one of the first Brits to learn how to surf standing up, to being one of the best selling and most well known authors of all time, she lived a very interesting life. Most will always remember her as the amazing writer and fascinating woman that she was. Although some will never forget the eleven days she mysteriously vanished or all the questions they have.