John Christie: Hidden Secrets of a Serial Killer

Last week we covered the case of Timothy Evans. Evans, you may recall, was hanged in 1950 for killing is infant daughter. But the real murderer was the man we discuss today, John Christie.

John Christie

John Reginald Halliday Christie (“Reg” to friends and family) was born in 1899 in Yorkshire, in northern England. The sixth of seven children, he had a troubled relationship with his father. Also, his mother and older sisters alternately coddled or bullied young Reg, so his childhood couldn’t have been very happy.

John Reginald Halliday Christie
John Reginald Halliday Christie

Christie served as a signalman in the British Army during World War I. During June 1918, he was wounded in a mustard gas attack and convalesced in a hospital in Calais. He later claimed that the attack left him blind and mute for three years but there is no historical evidence for this. His inability to speak much above a whisper was likely a psychological reaction to the gassing, not a physical one.

John Reginald Christie and his wife Ethel
John Reginald Christie and his wife Ethel

Christie married Ethel Simpson on May 10, 1920. The separated after four years, likely because of his habit of visiting prostitutes and his criminal activities.

Christie’s Criminal Career

Beginning shortly after his marriage, John Christie had run-ins with the law that sent him to prison several times. His first conviction was in 1921 for stealing postal orders (he worked as a postman). Other convictions were for obtaining money under false pretenses, larceny, and assaulting a woman with a cricket bat.

Police outside the flat at10 Rillington Place
Police outside 10 the flat at Rillington Place

After his release from H.M. Prison Wandsworth in 1934. Christie abandoned his career of petty crimes. He and Ethel reunited and moved to the top floor flat at 10 Rillington Place in the Notting Hill section of London. At the time, Rillington Place consisted of houses cheaply built in the 1870s that had deteriorated from poor upkeep. By the 1940s, they had become multi-tenant rentals. There was no indoor toilet and the street was close to an above-ground section of the Metropolitan rail line. The squalor is evident from photographs taken in 1953 after Christie’s murders came to light.

Christie and Ethel moved to 10 Rillington Place’s ground floor flat in 1938.

The Murders Begin

John Christie committed his first murder (at least the first he admitted) on August 24, 1943. He lured Ruth Fuerst, an Austrian munitions worker and sometimes prostitute back to his home for sex and strangled her afterwards with a rope. He initially hid her body under the floorboards of his living room, later burying her in the back garden.

The back garden at 10 Rillington Place where Christie buried his first two victims
The back garden at 10 Rillington Place where Christie buried his first two victims

Christie’s next victim was Muriel Amelia Eady, a coworker at the Acton radio factory where he was a clerk. Promising to cure her bronchitis with a “special mixture,” he instead had her breathe domestic gas, which soon rendered her unconscious. He then raped and strangled her. (Note that domestic gas in the 1940s was coal gas, which is 15 percent carbon monoxide). He buried Eady beside Fuerst.

John Christie Murders Beryl Evans

In 1948, Timothy Evans and his wife, Beryl moved into the top-floor flat at 10 Rillington Place. When Evans went to the police in late 1949 and told them his wife was dead, he blamed Christie, saying it was a botched abortion.

When police found Beryl’s and daughter Geraldine’s bodies in a detached washhouse, they extracted a confession from Evans. Charged with murdering his daughter, Evans recanted his confession, but a jury convicted him anyway. He was hanged at H.M. Prison Pentonville on March 9, 1950.

After the discovery that John Christie was a serial killer, he confessed to murdering Beryl Evans. Although he didn’t confess to strangling Geraldine, authorities assumed he killed them both and most historians agree.

John Christie is a Serial Killer

On December 14, 1952, Ethel Christie became John’s next victim when he strangled her in bed. He placed her body under the floorboards of the front room of the flat. Since he had quit his job, he sold Ethel’s wedding ring and clothes as well as some furniture to support himself.

Between January 19 and March 6, 1953, Christie lured three more women to 10 Rillington Place. There he gassed them with carbon monoxide-laden domestic gas before raping and strangling them. He then placed the bodies in a small alcove behind the back kitchen wall. He later papered over the entrance to the alcove.

The kitchen alcove where the last three bodies were discovered
The kitchen alcove where the last three bodies were discovered

Discovery

John Christie fraudulently sublet his flat to a couple on March 20, 1953 and moved out. That same evening, the landlord popped in and, discovering the couple and not Christie, demanded that they leave the next day. He also gave the tenant of the kitchen-less top floor flat, Beresford Brown, permission to use Christie’s kitchen. Brown found the alcove when he went to hang brackets for a radio. Peeling back the wallpaper, he saw the bodies. He informed police and a manhunt for Christie began.

Meanwhile, Christie had booked in at an inexpensive hotel. He’d booked seven nights but left after staying only four when news of the Rillington Place murders broke. He wandered London until March 31, when police arrested him near Putney Bridge. He was virtually penniless.

John Christie under arrest
John Christie under arrest

Trial and Conviction

John Christie went on trial for the murder of his wife on June 22, 1953. He sat in the same courtroom where, three years earlier, he had testified against Timothy Evans. Christy pled insanity and claimed to have a poor memory of events. A Dr. Matheson from H.M. Prison Brixton testified that Christie had a “hysterical personality” but wasn’t insane. The jury rejected the insanity plea, taking only 85 minutes to return a guilty verdict.

A police van delivers John Christie to court for trial
A police van delivers John Christie to court for trial

Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe said that he couldn’t find any grounds to reprieve Christie. He went to the gallows at H.M. Prison Pentonville—as did Evans—on July 15, 1953. Evans’ executioner, Albert Pierrepoint, also did the honors for Christie.

A crowd outside H.M. Prison Pentonville awaits news of Christie's execution
A crowd outside H.M. Prison Pentonville awaits news of Christie’s execution

Epilogue

There has been speculation that Christie may have had more victims than the seven women and one child attributed to him. No attempt was made at the time to link him to other missing women. However, historian Jonathan Oates considers it unlikely Christie would have deviated from his standard method of killing in his residence.

As mentioned last week, several books discuss the crimes at 10 Rillington Place. The classic work on the case is Ludovic Kennedy’s Ten Rillington Place, but it appears to be out of print.

Subscribe to the Newsletter

The Old Crime is New Again newsletter is a monthly email covering a topic that has not appeared in the blog. Don’t miss out! Sign up for the newsletter today.

Timothy Evans: A Murder Case Hangs the Wrong Man

From last week’s tale of an Old West badman, we go to postwar England. There we meet Timothy Evans, a man who—spoiler alert—went to the gallows for a murder he didn’t commit.

Timothy Evans

Timothy Evans was born in Wales in 1924. His childhood was nothing to envy. His father abandoned the family even before young Timothy’s birth. As a boy, Timothy had difficulty learning to speak and didn’t do well at school. An ailment that caused him to miss a lot of school, which further impeded his education. He also had a habit of making up boastful stories as a means of boosting his self-image.

Timothy Evans
Timothy Evans

Evans married Beryl Thorley in the fall of 1947. They initially lived with his family but moved when Beryl found out she was pregnant. They rented the top-floor flat at 10 Rillington place in the Notting Hill District of West London. Their downstairs neighbors were postal clerk John Christie and his wife, Ethel.

Evans and Beryl fought a lot. He claimed she was a lousy housekeeper and unable to manage the family finances. For his part, Evans spent much of the family income on liquor, which made his already short temper even worse. That was the situation when Beryl turned up pregnant again in 1949. Already struggling financially, Beryl decided to have an abortion (illegal in Britain at the time).

Timothy and Beryl Evans
Timothy and Beryl Evans

Beryl Evans Disappears

On November 30, 1949, Evans reported to police that his wife had died under unusual circumstances. At first, he said he’d accidentally killed her when he gave her a bottle of a supposed abortifacient. Police examined the sewer drain where he claimed to have stashed the body. They concluded he was lying when they found nothing and discovered it took three officers to lift the manhole cover.

When questioned again, Evans claimed his downstairs neighbor, John Christie, had agreed to perform an abortion on Beryl. Evans said he returned home from work only to have Christie tell him the operation was a failure and Beryl was dead.

On hearing this second story, police made a preliminary search of 10 Rillington Place, finding nothing. However, a second search on December 2 uncovered the body of Beryl Evans. She had been wrapped in a tablecloth and placed in a small outbuilding on the property. Beside her was the body of the Evans’ infant daughter, Geraldine.

Timothy Evans on Trial

In an investigation that was later to come under much criticism, police extracted a confession from Evans. Writers after the fact have accused the police of feeding Evans details for his confession. Some believe police also edited the confession after the fact to make it more incriminating. Evans himself said he feared violence at the hands of the police if he didn’t confess. Furthermore, there was a shocking lack of forensic investigation.

Timothy Evans (center), being escorted by police from Paddington Station to Notting Hill Police Station, December 1949  The photograph was obtained from the online version of the Camden New Journal, www.camdennewjournal.co.uk, the specific article from where the photo came from being http://www.camdennewjournal.co.uk/archive/r100703_6.htm. Copyright lies with the press agency who employed the photographer who took the photograph, which was Associated News according to Ludovic Kennedy's Ten Rillington Place (Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1961)., Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24197378
Timothy Evans (center), being escorted by police from Paddington Station to Notting Hill Police Station, December 1949

Evans went on trial on January 11, 1950, charged with the murder of his daughter, Geraldine. He recanted his confession and blamed his neighbor, John Christie for the murders. Christine and his wife, Ethel, appeared as witness against Evans. Christie denied having anything to do with an abortion and described in detail the quarrels between Evans and Beryl. After a three-day trial, it took the jury only 40 minutes to return with a conviction for murder. After a failed appeal, he went to the gallows at H.M. Prison Pentonville on March 9, 1950.

Epilogue

Several books discuss the crimes at 10 Rillington Place. One of these is a short treatise called A House to Remember by Edna Gammon. Another is John Eddowes’ The Two Killers of Rillington Place. Of course, the classic work on the case is Ludovic Kennedy’s 10 Rillington Place, but it appears to be out of print.

In the event, it turned out the Evans’ claim that Christie committed the murders was true. Three years after Evans’ execution, the discovery of three bodies inside 10 Rillington Place revealed John Christie to be a serial killer. We’ll discuss Christie in more detail in next week’s blog.

Subscribe to the Newsletter

The Old Crime is New Again newsletter is a monthly email covering a topic that has not appeared in the blog. Don’t miss out! Sign up for the newsletter today.

Frank Leslie: Lust, Love, and Murder

Last week’s blog dealt with the infamous saloon murder of lawman, gambler, and gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok. I thought we’d keep with the Old West motif this week and take up the case of Frank Leslie.

“Buckskin” Frank Leslie

Nashville Franklyn Leslie was born in in Texas in 1842. Sources vary as to exactly where in Texas. While most accept San Antonio as Leslie’s birthplace, others identify Galveston. Like many Old West figures, the details of his origins and early life are sketchy at best. Leslie himself told colorful, often conflicting—and improbable—stories of his life. Some of his tales included medical studies at Heidelberg and a stint as an officer in the Confederate Army. He also claimed to have served as “Deputy Sheriff of Abalene [sic] under J.B. Hickock [sic].”

William Franklyn "Buckskin Frank" Leslie photographed at the Yuma Territorial Prison
William Franklyn “Buckskin Frank” Leslie photographed at the Yuma Territorial Prison

Another story had Leslie scouting for the U.S. Army during the Indian wars, where he supposedly acquired the nickname of “Buckskin.” No hard evidence exists to support any of these stories.

What the record does show is that in 1878, Frank Leslie was living in San Francisco working as a barkeeper. He worked at that capacity in at least two establishments between 1878 and 1880.

Frank Leslie Comes to Tombstone

About a year before the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Frank Leslie showed up in Tombstone, Arizona Territory. He wore the buckskins of a scout but quickly traded the frontier look for gentleman’s togs like those he’d worn in San Francisco. To accent the new look, he donned a fringed buckskin vest, enhancing his image as “Buckskin Frank” Leslie. He proceeded to open the Cosmopolitan Hotel at 409 Allen Street with partner William H. Knapp.

An unusual photograph of the Cosmopolitan Hotel taken by Carleton E. Watkins in 1880
An unusual photograph of the Cosmopolitan Hotel taken by Carleton E. Watkins in 1880

One of the hotel’s employees was a chambermaid named Mary Jane Killeen. Frank Leslie had attended Mary’s wedding to Mike Killeen in April 1880 and was even one of the official witnesses. Nevertheless, Killeen was extremely jealous of the relationship—whatever it was—between Leslie and Mary.

Mary Jane "May" Killeen. This 1880s cabinet photograph is part of a collection of Tombstone prostitutes, making it likely she wasn't just a hotel chambermaid.
Mary Jane “May” Killeen. This 1880s cabinet photograph is part of a collection of Tombstone prostitutes, making it likely she wasn’t just a hotel chambermaid.

On June 22, 1880, Leslie and a friend, George Perine, were sitting with Mary on the porch of the Cosmopolitan. An angry Killeen attacked Leslie, first shooting at him, and then clubbing him with his pistol. In the brawl, Killeen received a fatal gunshot wound. Before dying five days later, Killeen accused Perine of firing the fatal shot.

Authorities charged both Perine and Leslie with murder. Leslie claimed self-defense and testified that Perine had not fired his gun. The court accepted this explanation and dismissed charges against both men. Eyebrows in Tombstone raised, however, when Frank Leslie married Mary Jane Killeen only eight days after her husband’s death.

Frank Leslie Kills Billy Claiborne

A major fire destroyed much of Tombstone on May 26, 1882, including the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Frank Leslie and his partner, William Knapp decided not to rebuild. Instead, Leslie took a job as a bartender at the Oriental Saloon, one of the few buildings left undamaged by the fire.

Gambling at the Oriental Saloon about the time Frank Leslie would have been a bartender
Gambling at the Oriental Saloon about the time Frank Leslie would have been a bartender (Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum)

Leslie was tending bar at the Oriental on November 14, 1882, when a very drunk Billy Claiborne came in and began verbally abusing him. Claiborne, who had survived the infamous OK Corral shootout just over a year before, believed Leslie had killed his friend, Johnny Ringo. Leslie ejected Claiborne from the saloon, but Billy waited outside.

William Floyd "Billy" Claiborne was part of Ike Clanton's "cowboy" faction . He ran away from the infamous O,K. Corral gunfight because he was unarmed. His luck ran out a year later when he picked a fight with Frank Leslie.. He was only 22
William Floyd “Billy” Claiborne was part of Ike Clanton’s “cowboy” faction . He ran away from the infamous O,K. Corral gunfight because he was unarmed. His luck ran out a year later when he picked a fight with Frank Leslie.. He was only 22

Leslie stepped out onto the street and saw a rifle protruding from behind a fruit stand. He tried to convince Claiborne not to shoot, but Billy fired anyway, missing. Frank then fired a single shot into Billy’s chest. When Leslie approached him, Claiborne reportedly said, “Don’t shoot again, I am killed.” The coroner’s inquest ruled the killing justifiable in self-defense.

Murder and Prison

Frank Leslie’s wife Mary Killeen filed for divorce. Her complaint alleged that Frank had had sex with one Birdie Woods in July 1886. She further charged that he had choked and beaten her (Mary) on March 9, 1887. Judge William H. Barnes granted the divorce on June 3, 1887, ordering Frank to pay $650 in cash and Mary’s court costs.

Sometime after his divorce, a prostitute, “Blonde Mollie” Williams joined him at his ranch, presenting herself as his wife. Like many sex workers of the time, Mollie’s surname sometimes varied. She was Mollie Bradshaw when she arrived in Tombstone from Nevada with E.L. Bradshaw. She was Mollie Williams when she took up with Frank Leslie. Her real name was possibly Mollie Edwards.

"Blonde Mollie" Williams lived with Frank Leslie after Mary Killeen divorced him
“Blonde Mollie” Williams lived with Frank Leslie after Mary Killeen divorced him

On July 10, 1889, a drunken Frank Leslie returned to his ranch and saw Mollie sitting and talking with ranch hand James Neil. In a rage, he shot Millie in the head, killing her. He then shot Neil to eliminate him as a witness, but Neil survived. Leslie was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The Mohave Miner reported his arrival at the Yuma Territorial Prison on January 9, 1890. “The eleven convicts who were brought here from Tombstone yesterday, arrived in an intoxicated condition. One of the number, a life prisoner, Frank Leslie, was so drunk that he could scarcely walk.”

Epilogue

Territorial governor Benjamin J. Franklin granted Leslie a full and unconditional pardon on November 17, 1896. Shortly his release, he married a San Francisco divorcee named Belle Stowell on December 1, 1896. Apparently the two did not live together for long. The marriage officially ended on March 19, 1903, when Belle received a divorce on the grounds of “failure to provide.”

“Buckskin” Frank Leslie married at least once more, this time to Elnora “Nora” Cast on November 6, 1913. The last public record of his remarkable life found him living on Water Street in Sausalito, California on January 27, 1920. He was 77 years old at the time. When Nora died in 1932, Frank Leslie was not listed as a survivor.

Subscribe to the Newsletter

The Old Crime is New Again newsletter is a monthly email covering a topic that has not appeared in the blog. Don’t miss out! Sign up for the newsletter today.

Wild Bill Hickok: Fortune Leaves Him in the Lurch

For Independence Day, we leave Appalachia far behind behind and reach back into America’s Western past. This week’s case is the murder of a true Old West icon, Wild Bill Hickok.

Wild Bill Hickok

James Butler Hickok lived as full a live as a man possibly could. Born in northern Illinois in 1837, he left home at 18 after he mistakenly thought he killed a man. He may have taken his father’s name, William, partly as a means of lying low. Finding his way to “Bleeding Kansas,” the man who now called himself “Wild Bill” joined the Jayhawkers, a violent anti-slavery group. As a Jayhawker, he met a 12-year-old William Cody who would later attain fame as “Buffalo Bill.”

James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok
James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok

When the Civil War formally began, Hickok joined the Union Army as a teamster and then a wagon master. Later he worked for the provost marshal in southwestern Missouri and as a scout. After the war, he gained fame as a lawman in Hays and Abilene, Kansas, and also as a gunfighter and gambler.

In the early 1870s, Abilene, Kansas was a wild town at the end of the cattle trails. In 1871, Hickok was town marshal and had a dispute with saloon owner Phil Coe. The dispute escalated, as disputes often will and on October 5, the two had a confrontation on a city street. Coe aimed his pistol at Wild Bill, but Hickok shot first, killing Coe.

After shooting Coe, Hickok got a quick glimpse of someone running toward him. He turned and fired, killing Abilene Special Deputy Mike Williams, who was rushing to help Hickok. The killing of Williams, which haunted Hickok for the rest of his life, was only one of several questionable shooting. That, coupled with claims of misconduct led the City of Abilene to relieve the marshal of his duties. Wild Bill never fought another gunfight after that.

Wild Bill Hickok in Later Life

In 1873, Buffalo Bill Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro invited Wild Bill to join their acting troupe. The company performed a wild west show called “Scouts of the Plains.” Hickok agreed, but he didn’t like acting and often hid himself behind the scenery. And at one performance, he shot out the spotlight when it focused on him!

A more civilized version of Wild Bill Hickok
A more civilized version of Wild Bill Hickok

By 1876, Wild Bill was making his living by gambling—playing cards. Sometime that year, he visited a Kansas City doctor, who diagnosed him with glaucoma and ophthalmia. Hickok was only 39, but his health and his eyesight—and, consequently, his marksmanship—were failing him.

Eighteen-seventy-six also found Wild Bill in the mining town of Deadwood, Dakota Territory, He played cards regularly at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon No. 10.

A recent photo of the site of Nuttal & Mann's Saloon No. 10. The original building burned down in 1879. (Photo by CyArk)
A recent photo of the site of Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon No. 10. The original building burned down in 1879. (Photo by CyArk)

Jack McCall Murders Wild Bill Hickok

On August 1, 1876, Hickok was playing cards at Nuttal & Mann’s. A chair opened up at the table and a drunken man named “Broken Nose” Jack McCall flopped down. The newcomer was a heavy loser. Wild Bill encouraged him to quit the game until he could cover his losses and offered him money to buy breakfast. McCall took the money, but he felt Hickok had insulted him.

This picture purports to be "Crooked Nose" Jack McCall, although it has never been substantiated.
This picture purports to be “Crooked Nose” Jack McCall, although ithas never been substantiated.

The next day, August 2, Hickok was again playing poker but this time there was a crucial difference. Normally, Bill sat with his back to a wall so he could see the entrance. This time, the only chair open faced away from the door. Twice he asked another player, Charles Rich, to exchange seats but Rich refused.

At some point during the game, McCall came in and walked up behind Hickok. He drew his .45 caliber single-action Colt Army Revolver and shot Hickok in the back of the head at point blank range. Wild Bill Hickok immediately fell to the floor, dead.

Epilogue

Jack McCall was tried twice. A miner’s court convened soon after the shooting. McCall claimed he was avenging the shooting death of his brother by Hickock and was acquitted. That trial was declared invalid, though, since Deadwood was in Indian Territory and had no jurisdiction.

A second trial convened on December 4, 1876, in Yankton, the capital of Dakota Territory. A guilty verdict followed two days later, and Judge Granville Bennett sentenced McCall to hang. He was hanged in a public execution on March 1, 1877 and buried with the noose still around his neck. It later emerged that McCall never had a brother.

Hickok was playing five-card stud (or draw) when McCall shot him. He was holding two pair, aces over eights, all black, when he died. His hole card was a diamond, either a jack or a queen. The hand subsequently became known as the “dead man’s hand.” It’s an intriguing story, but it didn’t emerge until the 1920s, so there is some doubt as to its accuracy.

The infamous "Dead Man's Hand" that Wild Bill Hickok supposedly held when McCall shot him (By Tage Olsin)
The infamous “Dead Man’s Hand” that Wild Bill Hickok supposedly held when McCall shot him (By Tage Olsin)

Subscribe to the Newsletter

The Old Crime is New Again newsletter is a monthly email covering a topic that has not appeared in the blog. Don’t miss out! Sign up for the newsletter today.