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.

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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.

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June Devaney: Unique Strategy Solves a Horrific Murder

This week we return to England, and the case of a horrific child murder. What makes this case noteworthy is the technique the police employed to find the man who killed June Devaney.

June Devaney Goes Missing

June Anne Devaney was only three years old in the spring of 1948 and had a mild case of pneumonia. Her parents, Albert and Emily checked her into Queen’s Park Hospital in Blackburn on May 5. She was placed in Ward CH3 under the care of nurse Gwendolyn Humphreys. By May 14, little June was much improved and due to go home the next day. However, at 1:30 on May 15, nurse Humphreys went to investigate a draft from an open door. She found June’s cot empty, surrounded by footprints from adult stocking feet plainly visible on the highly polished floor. The side of the crib-like cot was still up, meaning someone had taken the girl from her bed.

Ward CH3, Queen's Park Hospital. June Devaney slept is the cot second from left. Note white footprints on the waxed floor.
Ward CH3, Queen’s Park Hospital. June Devaney slept in the cot second from left. Note white footprints on the waxed floor.

Nurse Humphreys frantically searched the ward looking for June before raising the alarm. She and other hospital staff continued to search for the child for about 30 minutes without success. Then they called the police.

Police didn’t have to search for long. At 3:17, they found little June’s body lying face down next to an eight-foot wall. It was clear from her injuries that the police had a murder to investigate. Detective Chief Inspector John Capstick caught the 6:20 train from Euston Station in London to Blackburn.

Scotland Yard Investigates the June Devaney Murder

June’s autopsy showed that she died from shock following severe blunt force trauma to the head. The pathologist theorized that her killer had held her by her legs and swung her against the wall near where police found her body. She also suffered other injuries both internal and external prior to death.

The Winchester bottle found near June's cot. White marks show where Inspector Colin Campbell found fingerprints.
The Winchester bottle found near June’s cot. White marks show where Inspector Colin Campbell found fingerprints.

Ward CH3 revealed two significant clues. First, footprints on the waxed floor indicated the killer had prowled through the ward. Apparently, he had peered into each of the cots before selecting June Devaney as his victim.

Police found a second and potentially more useful clue in the Winchester bottle they discovered near June’s cot. Examiners found several fingerprints on the bottle, but they didn’t match any in Scotland Yard’s files. The bottle was not in its proper place, leading investigators to conclude that the killer had moved it. This meant the fingerprints were likely his.

An Unusual Strategy for the Investigation

Since there was no match for the fingerprints on the bottle, DCI Capstick took an unusual step. He decided to take the prints of every male in Blackburn age 16 and over. The printing was voluntary, and police promised to destroy the prints after the investigation was over. No police force in England had ever attempted an operation of this type before.

Armed with the Electoral Registry, Inspector William Barton and 20 other officers began the task of taking fingerprints. After two months, they had visited over 35,000 homes and collected more than 40,000 prints. Frustratingly, the killer’s prints were not among them. Next, they compared the Electoral Registry with people registered for ration books at the local Food Office. They found over 200 men whose prints they hadn’t taken.

Police log and check the fingerprints of the more than 40,000 men in Blackburn to find the killer of June Devaney
Police log and check the fingerprints of the more than 40,000 men in Blackburn.

The expanded search led them to 31 Birley Street, the home of one Peter Griffiths. Griffiths, 22, was an ex-serviceman who worked nights at a local flour mill. And his niece had been in Queen’s Park Hospital the night June Devaney disappeared. When police compared his fingerprint card to the prints from the Winchester bottle, they matched.

Arrest and Trial

DCI Capstick arrested Griffiths on August 12 as he left his home to go to work. At first, Griffiths denied any involvement in the crime. That changed when Capstick confronted him with the fact that his fingerprints were on the Winchester bottle. Soon police had a complete confession.

Peter Griffiths' mugshot. He confessed to murdering June Devaney shortly after police took this photograph.
Peter Griffiths’ mugshot. He confessed to murdering June Devaney shortly after police took this photograph.

Griffiths went on trial before Mr. Justice Oliver on October 15, 1948, six months after the murder. The prosecution relied on forensic evidence, the most significant being the fingerprints. Inspector Colin Campbell testified to the prints and showed enlarged copies of the to the jury. The defense argued that Griffiths was legally insane at the time of the killing.

Griffiths' fingerprint card proved his guilt in the June Devaney murder
Griffiths’ fingerprint card, proved his guilt in the June Devaney murder

The jury retired to consider its verdict after a two-day trial. They only took 23 minutes to return with a guilty verdict. Mr. Justice Oliver donned the ceremonial black cap and sentenced Griffiths to death.

Epilogue

Griffiths did not appeal his conviction. He was hanged at H.M. Prison Liverpool (formerly Walton Gaol) on the morning of November 19, 1948.

H.M. Prison Liverpool (formerly Walton Gaol)
H.M. Prison Liverpool (formerly Walton Gaol)

Just weeks before Griffiths’ hanging, authorities publicly destroyed the fingerprint cards they collected during the investigation at a local papermill. Several local journalists were present to witness as the cards became pulp.

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Major Armstrong: Greed and Obsession Make Murder

From last week’s New York case, we’re back to Britain this week for the case of Major Armstrong. The major, a solicitor, killed his shrewish wife with arsenic and used it to try to eliminate a rival.

Major Armstrong

Herbert Rowse Armstrong was born in Plymouth in 1869. After obtaining a law degree, he began practice in Liverpool. Then in 1906, joined the firm of an elderly solicitor, Edmund Cheese, in the market town of Hay-on-Wye. With his prospects promising, he married his fiancée, Katherine Friend, the next year. The couple had two daughters and a son. Armstrong was increasingly successful as a solicitor and Cheese made him a partner in Cheese & Armstrong. With continued success, he moved his family into a rather grand house called Mayfield in the village of Cusop Dingle. He was popular and active in the social life of Hay-on-Wye and, among other organizations, joined the Volunteer Force.

Major Herbert Rowse Armstrong
Major Herbert Rowse Armstrong

Armstrong was called up to serve when the First World War broke out in 1914, He achieved the rank of major in the Royal Engineers and served for a time in France. After the war, almost everyone called him “Major Armstrong.”

Mrs. Armstrong’s Unfortunate Death

Katherine was the dominant force in the Armstrong marriage. Her attention to etiquette bordered on obsession. As for her husband, she strictly ordered his life and had a habit of humiliating him in public.

Katherine Armstrong
Katherine Armstrong

Katherine had always been nervous with a tendency toward hypochondria. But in 1919, she began to have health problems that her doctor, Dr. Thomas Hincks, diagnosed as “brachial neuritis.” She appeared to recover from this, but a year later both her physical and mental health deteriorated precipitously. Admitted to a private mental asylum in August, she was delusional and had symptoms that included fever, vomiting, and heart murmurs. She improved at the asylum, but after returning home in January 1921, her symptoms came back with a vengeance. She died on February 22, 1921.

Mayfield in Cusop Dingle
Mayfield in Cusop Dingle

Major Armstrong Tries to Poison a Rival

Before the war, Cheese & Armstrong were the most successful solicitors in Hay-on-Wye. After the war, however, a rival firm solicitor, Robert Griffiths, took on a new partner named Oswald Martin. Martin had a keen knowledge of the arcane British tax laws. He used it to set up trusts and other instruments that helped minimize taxes. This was a field that Cheese & Armstrong were not able to compete in. Furthermore, Martin began to poach some of Armstrong’s other business.

Armstrong and Oswald Martin represented opposing parties in the complicated sale of the Velinewydd estate. The sale had become a drawn-out affair, ostensibly because Armstrong was dragging his feet. Martin was threatening to terminate the contract. On October 26, 1921, Armstrong invited Martin to his house, where he served tea and scones. If Martin expected to discuss the sale, he was disappointed. The two men only discussed ordinary things (although Martin could have brought up the sale if he’d wanted to).

Later that night, Martin became violently ill, which his doctor diagnosed as stomach flu. However, Martin’s father-in-law, John Davies, insisted that this was a case of arsenic poisoning. Davies just happened to be the local chemist (druggist) and had sold arsenic to Armstrong. Martin contacted Scotland Yard, who agreed there was cause for suspicion. They advised caution—Major Armstrong was a prominent man in the community after all—and agreed to investigate.

Ten months after her death, Katherine Armstrong was exhumed. The eminent pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury conducted an autopsy and ruled that she had died of a massive dose of arsenic poisoning. Unsurprisingly, Armstrong found himself in the dock charged with murder and attempted murder.

Major Armstrong on Trial

No direct evidence linked Major Armstrong to either his wife’s death or Martin’s alleged poisoning. But there was considerable circumstantial evidence. Over time, the major had purchased quite a bit of arsenic from the chemist Davies. The major said he used the arsenic to kill dandelions. He divided the powdered arsenic into little packets. Then dissolved a packet in water, put the solution in a squirt gun, and blasted away at the weed’s roots. He had one of the packets in his pocket when police arrested him.

Armstrong at his magistrate's hearing
Armstrong at his magistrate’s hearing

Probably the most damning witness against Major Armstrong was the renowned Spilsbury. Once the great man made up his mind, nothing could move him to change it—or his testimony. Armstrong’s barrister, Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett, K.C. tried on cross-examination to shake the pathologist but only ended up strengthening his testimony. That left the defense up to Major Armstrong himself, who testified on his own behalf.

Armstrong, a lawyer himself acquitted himself well in the witness box. Despite a somewhat lackluster defense, when he stepped down, courtroom observers thought the odds were tilting toward acquittal. Until, that is, the judge called him back.

Mr. Justice Darling
Mr. Justice Darling

Mr. Justice Darling had a few questions of his own and gave the major a very uncomfortable time in the witness box. By the time the interrogation from the bench ended, so had Armstrong’s chances for acquittal. The jury took less than an hour to find him guilty. Mr. Justice Darling, known as a hanging judge, sentenced Armstrong to death. He was hanged on May 31, 1922 at Hereford Shire Hall, Gloucester, proclaiming his innocence to the end. Armstrong remains the only solicitor to be hanged for murder in England.

Did It Really Happen That Way?

The summary above is the ‘accepted” version of the Hay poisoning case. The major’s guilt was a foregone conclusion for over seventy years. Then in 1995, Martin Beales reexamined the case in Dead Not Buried, later republished as The Hay Poisoner. Beales, a solicitor himself, bought and lived in the Armstrong house, Mayfield. He also worked in the same office at the same desk as the major.

Armstrong's office in Hay-on-Wye at the time Martin Beales worked there (Sam Blacketer)
Armstrong’s office in Hay-on-Wye at the time Martin Beales worked there (Sam Blacketer)

Beales contends the evidence against Major Armstrong was weak and the case largely driven by Oswald Martin’s father-in-law, John Davies. He also cites a weak performance by defense barrister Curtis-Bennett and Mr. Justice Darling’s obvious prejudice. And he reminds his readers that it was common in 1920s Britain for people to use arsenic around the house. Furthermore, he disputes the idea that Martin was taking business from Armstrong and contends it was the reverse.

Beales died of cancer in 2010.

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