British Serial Killer
Born 1899 Died 1953
It is necessary to refer to John Reginald Halliday Christie by his full given name if only to distinguish him from his almost exact contemporaries, John Christie (1882–1962) who was the founder of Glyndebourne Opera, and the John Christie (1883-1953) who was the leader of the South African Labour Party. Our John Christie, sometimes known as the 'Whispering Strangler' or the 'Strangler of Notting Hill', was the man who killed at least six, and possibly as many as eight women, between the years 1943 and 1953, and hid their remains at his home in 10 Rillington Place in Notting Hill. What is perhaps most bizarre about his career is that, prior to his being identified as a serial killer, he had appeared as the chief prosecution witness in the murder trial of another resident of the same property named Timothy Evans, who had left the bodies of his two alleged victims only feet away from where the authorities later discovered three of Christie's victims.
Early life and career
John Reginald Halliday Christie was born on the 8th April 1899 at his parents' home of Black Boy House in the village of Shibden near Halifax in Yorkshire, being the fifth and youngest child in the family of two sons and five daughters of a carpet designer named Ernest John Christie and his wife, Mary Hannah Halliday. Young John won a scholarship to Halifax Secondary School, where he apparently did well in mathematics, sang in the church choir and became a boy scout. He left school at the age of fifteen, and found work as a cinema projectionist, although by the age of seventeen he was working as a clerk for the police, at which time he was caught stealing and thrown out of the house by his father. Christie subsequently survived by taking up residence at his father's allotment where his mother would take him food.
During World War I he joined the 52nd Nottinghamshire and Derby Regiment, although he was seconded on arrival in France to the Duke of Wellington's (West Riding) Regiment as a signalman. He saw action on only the one occasion, when he was knocked unconscious by a mustard gas shell. He claimed to have been temporarily blinded for five months as a result of this experience and also to have lost the power of speech for three years thereafter, although the medical opinion was that this was a hysterical reaction rather than a real physical illness. Despite his real or imagined disabilities, Christie subsequently found work as a postman and married Ethel Simpson Waddington on the 10th May 1920. Unfortunately Christie was then caught opening the mail and stealing postal orders, for which offence he was sentenced to serve three months imprisonment on the 12th April 1921. Two years later he was again up in court on charges of obtaining money by false pretences and impersonating a military officer, for which he received twelve months probation. Shortly afterwards his marriage broke down, and in the following year his wife Ethel went to live with her relatives in Sheffield whilst Christie went to London.
Whilst in London, Christie continued his life of petty crime, being sentenced to nine months in September 1924 for theft, and to a further six months hard labour in May 1929 for assaulting a prostitute that he was living with at the time in Battersea. (He hit her over the head with a cricket bat.) In 1933 he received a further three months imprisonment for stealing a car from a priest, although strangely enough, it was during this last period of incarceration that Christie and his wife became reconciled, and on his release in November 1933 she moved south to join him. It was shortly afterwards that Christie was hit by a car and had to be hospitalised, and although he was not seriously hurt in the incident, it led to a resurgence of his hypochondria, and over the succeeding years Christie was a frequent and regular visits to the doctors as he claimed to be suffering from a variety of ailments.
Nevertheless, after re-establishing contact with his wife and reviving his marriage, Christie succeeded in staying out of trouble over the next few years. In December 1938 they wife moved into the ground floor flat at 10 Rillington Place in the Ladbroke Grove area of Notting Hill, and with the outbreak of World War II in the following year, Christie signed up as a volunteer member of the War Reserve Police and became a Special Constable at Harrow Road Police Station. There he remained for the next four years, where he apparently enjoyed the experience of exercising authority over his neighbours, earned two commendations for "efficient detection in crime", and became known as 'the Himmler of Rillington Place'. It was however whilst he was in the War Reserve Police that he began an affair with a woman working at the police station whose husband was a serving soldier. This carried on until the husband returned and caught them both red handed and gave Christie a good thrashing. Christie subsequently resigned from the force in December 1943 and got a job with Ultra Radio Works in Acton.
Christie and Timothy Evans
The house at 10 Rillington Place in Notting Hill was divided into three flats. The Christies had the privilege of renting the ground floor flat, the first floor was occupied by a certain Mr Kitchener, who was in his sixties and suffered from poor eyesight, whilst the top floor flat, which was little more than a bedsit, was often unoccupied. It was in April 1948 that a Timothy Evans moved into the top floor flat at 10 Rillington Place together with his pregnant wife Beryl. She subsequently gave birth to a daughter named Geraldine on the 10th October. To cut a long story short (and it is a long story), on the 30th November 1949 Timothy Evans walked into a police station at Merthyr Vale in South Wales and confessed to putting his wife's dead body down a drain. The police duly carried out a search of 10 Rillington Place on the 2nd December 1949, and discovered the bodies of Beryl and Geraldine Evans hidden in the washhouse at the back of the property. Timothy Evans later confessed to the murders, then retracted his confession, professed his innocence, and claimed that they had both been killed by John Christie. Evans nevertheless appeared at the Old Bailey on the 11th January 1950 charged with the murder of his daughter Geraldine, with John Christie appearing as the chief prosecution witness. He was convicted of his daughter's murder on the 13th January 1950 and later hanged at Pentonville Prison on 9th March 1950.
During the trial the prosecution made reference to Christie's service in both World Wars, whilst naturally the defence brought up the matter of his previous criminal convictions. As it turned out Christie had spent the last four years in the employment of the Post Office Savings Bank, and they promptly dismissed him as soon as they became aware of his criminal past. The loss of his job certainly unsettled Christie. It is said that he lost a good deal of weight during the following months, and was unemployed for some time afterwards. He later found work as a clerk at British Road Transport Services, where he remained until the 6th December 1952 when he abruptly announced that he was leaving for a better job in Sheffield. By the 8th January 1953 Christie had sold most of his furniture, and in response to enquiries about the whereabouts of his wife Edith, told everyone that she had already left for Sheffield.
Christie eventually moved out of 10 Rillington Place on the 20th March 1953, but not before he'd sublet the property to a Mr and Mrs Reilly and persuaded them to hand over the sum of seven pounds for a quarter's rent. Of course as soon as the landlord discovered this, he ordered the Reillys to leave. In the light of what subsequently transpired they might have regarded this as a blessing in disguise despite the loss of their seven pounds.
Beresford Dubois Brown
Since the downstairs flat was now vacant the landlord decided to allow the upstairs tenant named Beresford Dubois Brown to make use of the former Christie kitchen. Brown noticed that the room bore an unpleasant smell and thought that it needed a good clean. On the 24th March 1953 Brown then decided it would be a good idea to put up a shelf in the kitchen for his radio, and therefore began tapping the walls to identify a location suitable for a shelf. As a result he found one section of wall that sounded hollow, pulled away some of the wallpaper, and so discovered there was a door hidden behind the wallpaper. Whilst he couldn't get the door open, he did manage to shine a light through the gap between the door and its frame and saw what he thought was a naked woman. It was then that Beresford Dubois Brown very wisely called the police.
The police subsequently attended 10 Rillington Police and gained access to the space behind the hidden door, where they found the corpse of a woman left in a sitting position amid a pile of a rubble. They also noticed the presence of two more 'objects' in the former coal cellar which turned out to be the corpses of two more women. As it turned out, all three bodies were of young women in their mid twenties, whom it was subsequently established had died from a combination of strangulation and carbon monoxide poisoning, and had all been sexually assaulted at or near to the time of their deaths. Then at around 8.30 pm that same night, the police noticed that there were some loose floorboards in the front room. Having prised up the floorboards they dug through the rubble underneath and found yet another body of an older woman in her fifties two and a half feet down. It was later established that the older woman under the floorboards was indeed the former Mrs Ethel Christie, whilst the three younger women were identified as being Hectorina McLennan, Kathleen Maloney, and Rita Nelson, all of whom were believed to be local prostitutes.
The police then turned their attention to the 'garden' at the back of the house, although it was really nothing more than a twenty foot square patch of wasteland that was home to a few dustbins. They soon spotted a human femur which was in plain view supporting a wooden fence, and after a thorough search of the ground found other bones scattered amongst the flower beds. Although they only found one skull (at the bottom of a dustbin), they concluded that these bones were the remains of two further female victims. One was identified as being that of Ruth Marguerite Christine Fuerst, who had had been missing since 24th August 1943, the other was believed to be that of a Muriel Amelia Eady, a former employee of Ultra Radio Works who had disappeared in November 1944 whilst Christie had also been employed at the firm.
During the search of the property the police also came across a tobacco tin containing four locks of pubic hair. At one time Christie said that they were from his wife and the three women that were found in his former coal cellar, although on another occasion he claimed that one sample came from Beryl Evans. A Dr Lewis Charles Nickolls who examined this evidence later concluded that whilst one of the locks might have been from Mrs Christie, the others were not the same as any of the three dead young women found in the house. No one can therefore say with any certainty as to who the 'donors' were.
Naturally the daily newspapers of the 25th March were full of the news of the discovery of the three bodies at 10 Rillington Place, and reported that the police were "anxious to trace" the whereabouts of a certain John Christie. The authorities pleas for information regarding the whereabouts of their prime suspect where duly repeated when the same newspapers reported on the discovery of the fourth body on the 26th March, and of the two additional victims on the 30th March. It was clear that the police believed that Christie was lying low somewhere in London, and appealed to cafe owners and inn keepers to keep an eye out for him.
The Christie Murders
The sequence of the murders committed by John Reginald Halliday Christie were later established as follows.
1. Ruth Fuerst (1943) and Muriel Amelia Eady (1944)
John Christie killed his first two victims whilst his wife was away visiting her sister in Sheffield. The first victim was Ruth Fuerst, an Austrian girl with whom he had been conducting an affair. It was believed that he strangled her to death sometime in August 1943, and largely on a whim whilst he was engaged in the act of sexual intercourse with her. As Christie was later to recall, "I remember, as I gazed down at the still form of my first victim, experiencing a strange, peaceful thrill". His second victim, Muriel Amelia Eady, was killed over a year later, probably on the 8th November 1944. In contrast to Ruth Fuerst this was a far more deliberate act of murder, as Christie was later to claim, "I planned it all out very carefully". Muriel Eady was a work colleague and Christie apparently lured her to his home by offering to cure her bronchitis with his 'special mixture', which was nothing more than ordinary domestic gas suitably disguised with the odour of Friar's Balsam, delivered by means of a homemade inhaler constructed from a glass jar and a length of rubber tubing. As Christie later explained events, once the gas had rendered her unconscious, "I had intercourse with her while I strangled her."
Christie buried both of these first two victims in the back garden of 10 Rillington Place and burned their clothing in the dustbin. He later accidentally unearthed Ruth Fuerst's skull which he placed in the dustbin to be burned, and later a broken femur bone, which was the one he used to prop up the fence. His dog later dug up Muriel Eady's skull which he dropped off one night in a bombed-out house, which is why it was never found at his home.
2. Beryl Evans and Geraldine Evans (1949)
As far as the next two victims are concerned there is some dispute about whether or not it was Christie who actually murdered both Beryl and Geraldine Evans in 1949. Christie did indeed confess to killing Beryl Evans, although he claimed that he first rescued her when she had tried to kill herself with gas, and had only gassed and strangled her on the following day after she'd begged him to help her die. However it has been said that he only confessed to support his claim to be insane, whilst he never admitted to killing Geraldine. Although oddly enough, a subsequent judicial enquiry concluded that he had killed Geraldine but not Beryl, the generally held view is that Christie did indeed murder both and then framed Timothy Evans for the murders. However there are those, most notably the author John Fellowes, who argue that Christie was 'innocent' of both crimes, and that they were both indeed killed by Timothy Evans.
What is known is that in November 1949 Beryl Evans found out that she was pregnant, and that she later told a number of people that Christie was going to perform an abortion on her. Of course Christie was no more capable of performing an abortion than he was of curing bronchitis, and it has therefore been suggested that this was simply another ruse adopted by Christie to allow him to bring his 'special mixture' into play.
3. Ethel Christie (1952)
Christie's third definite victim was his wife Ethel, whom he strangled on the 14th December 1952 whilst she was lying on her bed. Christie was later to claim that he had woken up and discovered his wife having some kind of convulsive fit, and come to the conclusion that she had taken an overdose of phenobarbitone tablets in a bid to end her own life. He therefore tied a stocking around her neck and strangled her to death because he couldn't bear to see her suffering. His distress at this unfortunate turn of events did not however, prevent him from pawning his wife's wedding ring, or indeed from forging her signature so that he could empty her bank account.
4. Rita Nelson, Kathleen Maloney and Hectorina MacLennan (1953)
His final three victims were killed during the months of January and March 1953. Whilst Christie initially claimed that they had all been aggressive towards him, and that their deaths were in some way accidental, he subsequently admitted that they were killed in much the same circumstances as Muriel Eady, which is to say that they were gassed into unconsciousness, and that Christie then proceeded to have sex with them as he strangled them to death. Since Rita Nelson was twenty-five weeks pregnant at the time of her death, it is considered likely that Christie adopted the guise of an abortionist in order to persuade her to visit him, whilst as far as Kathleen Maloney and Hectorina MacLennan were concerned, they had both been looking for accommodation, and it seems that Christie had claimed to be able to help in some way. Christie himself provided various accounts at different times of the precise manner in which his last three victims were killed, and no one is therefore quite certain of the circumstances of their deaths. The fact that Christie himself appears to have made a mistake regarding the order in which they were killed only adds to the confusion. Nevertheless there is no doubt that he did kill them.
The psychology of a killer
Over the years various theories have been advanced which seek to 'explain' why Christie became a serial killer. Christie himself apparently claimed that he was "terrified" of his father and that he found his mother "over-possessive", whilst his three older sisters were also said to have "dominated him", or as Ludovic Kennedy put it "He both loved and hated them because they aroused his masculinity and then stifled it". Thus it has been suggested that Christie was motivated to dominate and kill women by his desire to revenge his own treatment at the hands of his mother and sisters. Reference is also frequently made to the fact that when his maternal grandfather died in 1906, the eight year old Christie saw his grandfather's body lying in an open coffin, and claimed to have experienced a sense of contentment given that he had previously been frightened of the old man. This, it is said, gave rise to his interest in matters pertaining to death.
Much is also made of the fact that his first adolescent attempt at sex was a disastrous failure, and earned him the nicknames of 'Can’t-Make-It-Christie' and 'Reggie-No-Dick' and led to claims that he was impotent. However if that was the case his impotence was psychological rather than physical, and it does not seem to have prevented him from regularly frequenting prostitutes or indeed from conducting a number of extra-marital affairs, whilst one account claims that he was a compulsive masturbator, on account of the fact that semen traces were found "all over his house clothes and slippers".
As with much amateur (or indeed professional) theorising on the motivations of serial killers, much of this is nothing more than speculative, as to this day no one has any real idea of what makes a serial killer.
Arrest and Trial
On the day he left Rillington Place, John Christie booked a room at the Rowton House in King's Cross under his real name and address. He paid for a stay of seven nights, he abruptly left on the 24th March, a decision that was no doubt inspired by the appearance of the first press reports of the discoveries made at his fomer address. He then wiled away the daylight hours in various cinemas and cafes, whilst sleeping on park benches at night.
It was on the morning of 31st March that he was approached by Police Constable Thomas Ledger near the embankment at Putney Bridge. When asked to identify himself, he gave his name as John Waddington and provided a false address. Constable Ledger then asked him to remove his hat, and after he'd done so, came to the conclusion that Mr Waddington bore a certain similarlity to photographs of the wanted John Christie. Constable Ledger then arrested him and took him to Putney police station. There he was discovered in possession of an identity card, ration book, and union card in the name of John Reginald Halliday Christie. Having confirmed that they had indeed got their man, the police placed Christie in a closed van and took him to Notting Hill at 5.10 pm that day to be questioned by detectives. He later appeared at West London Magistrates' Court on the 1st April charged with his wife's murder, and made a further appearace at the same court on the 15th April when he was charged with murder of the three women found in the coal celler.
John Christie stood trial at the Old Bailey on 22nd June 1953 on the single charge of murdering his wife, with the Attorney-General Lionel Heald leading the prosecution, Derek Curtis-Bennett acting for the defence, and with Justice John Finnemore as the presiding judge. Christie pleaded Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity on the grounds that he was suffering from a "defect of reason" that prevented him from "fully appreciating the criminality and immorality" of his actions, and so the defence therefore brought in details of all the others murders in order to show just how insane he must have been. Once in the witness box Christie subsequently described the seven killings for which he was now claiming credit, although he was often rather vague over the precise details, and when asked about whether he'd killed anyone else in the apparent gap between the murder of Muriel Amelia Eady in 1944 and that of Beryl Evans in 1949, Christie said that he wasn't sure and that "I might have done". The prosecution however argued that whilst Christie did indeed possess an "hysterical personality", that was a neurosis and not a defect of reason, and made much of the facts that Christie had altered the date on a letter written by his wife from the 10th to the 15th December and sold his wife's wedding ring for thirty-seven shillings, as these were hardly the acts of a madman, and suggested a far more calculating personality.
The trial lasted for four days, after which the jury deliberated for an hour and twenty minutes, before returning to deliver their verdict of guilty. Justice John Finnemore naturally sentenced Christie "to suffer death by hanging" and to be "buried in the precincts of the prison". On the 29th June 1953 Christie's lawyers announced that they would not be launching an appeal, but that they would make an application to the Home Secretary, David Maxwell Fyfe, for the exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy. On the 13th July Maxwell Fyfe decided that there were no grounds on which to issue a reprive, and on the 15th July 1953 John Christie was duly hanged at Pentonville Prison. Rather ironically he met his end on the very same gallows and by the very same hangman that had earlier ended the life of Timothy Evans.
The arrest and conviction of John Christie was extremely embarassing for the authorities since, at the very least it was noted that had the police carried out a proper search of the garden at 10 Rillington Place at the time of Evans's arrest, or emptied the dustbin in which Ruth Fuerst's skull was later found, rather than simply poked the contents about, the course of justice might well have taken a different path. Or as Christie's own barrister pointed out at his trial, "I wonder what would have happened if the police had found that there were two skeletons in the earth in the garden at Rillington Place. Do you think they would have been quite so certain that they ought to charge Evans?" Whilst of course the jury at Evans's trial might possibly have reached a different verdict had they known that the chief prosecution witness was himself already responsible for the death of two women. Such considerations certainly led to the widespread view that Timothy Evans's murder conviction was a miscarriage of justice.
Rillington Place was later renamed as Ruston Close due to the street's unfortunate associations, and was later completely demolished in the early 1970s to make room for the Westway. The exact location where 10 Rillington Place once stood is now apaprently a small garden between Bartle Road and Ruston Mews. None of which has prevented the address of 10 Rillington Place becoming as infamous in its time as did 25 Cromwell Street for a later generation. It became the title of a book on the murders by Ludovic Kennedy, which was later made in to a film featuring a young Richard Attenborough as the now infamous John Reginald Halliday Christie.
- Ludovic Kennedy, 10 Rillington Place
- Michael Eddowes, The Man on Your Conscience (Cassell, 1955)
- John Eddowes, The Two Killers of Rillington Place (Little Brown, 1994)
and the following contemporary reports from The Times digital archive;
- John Christie, 10 Rillington Place Notting Hill
- Famous Criminials: John Christie
- John Reginald Halliday Christie (1899-1953)
- Katherine Ramsland, The Christies
- John Reginald Haliday Christie
- John Christie/Timothy Evans Case
- John Reginald Christie
- Virtual Musuem of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea: John Reginald Halliday Christie http://www.rbkc.gov.uk/vmpeople/infamous/johnreginaldhallidaychristie.asp
- The Strangler of Notting Hill, Time Magazine, Apr. 06, 1953
- In a Strange Country, Time Magazine, Jul. 06, 1953
- Christie In Court On Four Murder Charges, Apr 23, 1953
- Christie Further Remanded On Murder Charges, Apr 30, 1953
- Christie Sent For Trial, May 07, 1953
- Christie On Trail, Jun 23, 1953
- Christie In Witness Box, Jun 24, 1953
- Christie Trial Evidence, Jun 25, 1953
- Christie Found Guilty Sentence Of Death, Jun 26, 1953
- Christie Not To Appeal Decision, Jun 30, 195
- Christie Not To Be Reprieved, Jul 14, 1953