Real Life Horror: John Christie

John Reginald Halliday Christie was an English serial killer active in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

John Reginald Halliday Christie was born on 8th April 1899 in Illingworth near Halifax, West Riding of Yorkshire. He had a troubled relationship with his father, carpet designer Ernest John Christie, an austere and uncommunicative man who displayed little emotion towards his children and would punish them for trivial offences. Christie was also dominated by his five sisters, causing his mother, Mary Hannah Halliday, to overprotect him, all experiences that undermined his self-confidence. During later life, Christie’s childhood peers described him as “a queer lad” who “kept himself to himself” and “was not very popular”. As an adult, Christie spoke of seeing at the age of eight the open coffin of his maternal grandfather and how profound an experience it had been to see the dead body of a man who had previously frightened him.

At the age of 11 Christie won a scholarship to Halifax Secondary School, where his favourite subject was mathematics, particularly algebra. It was later found he had an IQ of 128. Christie sang in the church choir and was a Boy Scout. After leaving school aged 15, he began a job as an assistant movie projectionist.

During September 1916 Christie enlisted in the army and during the next April he was called up to join the 52nd Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment. During April 1918 Christie’s regiment was dispatched to France, where he was seconded to the Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment as a signalman. That June, Christie was injured in a mustard gas attack and spent a month in a military hospital in Calais. Later in life, Christie claimed to have been blinded and rendered mute for three and a half years by the attack. Christie’s period of muteness was the alleged reason for his inability to talk much louder than a whisper for the rest of his life.

Author Ludovic Kennedy points out that no record of his blindness has been traced and that, while Christie may have lost his voice when he was admitted to hospital, he would not have been discharged as fit for duty had he remained a mute. His inability to talk loudly, Kennedy argues, was a psychological reaction to the gassing rather than a lasting toxic effect of the gas. That reaction, and Christie’s exaggeration of the effects of the attack, stemmed from an underlying personality disorder that caused him to exaggerate or feign illness as a ploy to get attention and sympathy.

Impotence was a lifelong problem for Christie; his first attempts at sex were failures, branding him throughout adolescence as “Reggie-No-Dick” and “Can’t-Do-It-Christie”. (Nevertheless, a post-mortem report confirms Christie’s genitals were normal physically). His difficulties with sex remained throughout his life, and most of the time he could only perform with prostitutes. On 10 May 1920 Christie married Ethel Simpson from Sheffield, at Halifax Register Office, but his problems with impotence remained, and he continued to use prostitutes. The couple moved to Sheffield, but separated after four years of marriage. Christie moved to London, and Ethel remained in Sheffield with her relatives.

During the decade after his marriage to Ethel, Christie received many convictions for criminal offences. His first was for stealing postal orders while working as a postman, for which he received three months’ imprisonment on 12 April 1921. During January 1923 Christie was convicted of obtaining money on false pretences and violent conduct, for which he was bound over and put on 12 months’ probation respectively. He committed two further crimes of larceny during 1924 and received consecutive sentences of three and six months’ imprisonment from September 1924. 

In May 1929, he was convicted of assaulting a prostitute with whom he was living in Battersea and was sentenced to six months’ hard labour; Christie had hit her over the head with a cricket bat, which the magistrate described as a “murderous attack”. Finally, he was convicted of stealing a car from a priest who had befriended him, and was imprisoned for three months in late 1933. Christie and Ethel were reconciled after his release from prison, but although Christie was able to end his recourse to petty crime, he continued to seek prostitutes. In 1937 Christie and his wife moved into the top-floor flat of 10 Rillington Place in Ladbroke Grove, then a rather run-down area of London, moving to the ground floor flat in December 1938. 

The house was a three-storey brick terrace; the ground and first floors contained a bedroom, living room and kitchen but the second-floor flat had no living room. Living conditions were “squalid” – the building’s occupants had just one outside lavatory to share, and none of the flats had a bathroom. The street was close to an above-ground section of the Metropolitan line (now the Hammersmith & City and Circle lines), and the train noise would have been “deafening” for the occupants of 10 Rillington Place.
On the beginning of World War II, Christie applied to join the War Reserve Police and was accepted despite his criminal record, as the authorities failed to check his records. He was assigned to the Harrow Road Police Station, where he met a woman with whom he began an affair. Their relationship lasted until mid-1943, when the woman’s husband, a serving soldier, returned from the war. After learning of the affair he went to the house where his wife was living, discovered Christie there, and assaulted him.

The first person Christie admitted to killing was Ruth Fuerst, an Austrian munitions worker and part-time prostitute. Christie claimed to have met Fuerst while she was soliciting clients in a snack bar in Ladbroke Grove. According to his own statements, he impulsively strangled her during sex at Rillington Place during August 1943. He buried Fuerst’s body in the back garden after initially hiding it beneath the floorboards of his front living room. Soon after the murder, at the end of 1943, Christie resigned as a Special Constable. The following year he found new employment as a clerk at a radio factory. 

There he met his second victim, co-worker Muriel Amelia Eady. In October 1944, he invited Eady back to his flat with the promise that he had concocted a “special mixture” that could cure her bronchitis. Eady was to inhale the mixture from a jar with a tube inserted in the top. The mixture in fact was Friar’s Balsam, which Christie used to disguise the smell of domestic gas. Once Eady was seated breathing the mixture from the tube with her back turned, Christie inserted a second tube into the jar connected to a gas tap. As Eady continued breathing she inhaled the domestic gas, which soon rendered her unconscious – domestic gas during the 1940’s was coal gas, which had a carbon monoxide content of 15 percent. Once Eady was unconscious, Christie raped and then strangled her, before burying her body alongside Fuerst’s in the back garden.

During Easter of 1948 Timothy Evans and his wife Beryl moved into the top floor flat at Rillington Place, where Beryl gave birth to their daughter, Geraldine, in October 1948. In late 1949 Evans informed police that his wife was dead. A police search of 10 Rillington Place failed to find their bodies, but a later search revealed the dead bodies of Geraldine and Beryl Evans in an outdoor wash-house. Beryl’s body had been wrapped twice over in a blanket and then a table cloth. The post-mortem revealed that both had been strangled and that Beryl Evans had been physically assaulted before her death, judging by the bruises on her face. Evans at first claimed that Christie had killed his wife in a botched abortion operation, but under police questioning he eventually confessed to the murder himself.

The alleged confession may have been fabricated by the police themselves, as the statement appears contrived and artificial. After being charged Evans withdrew his confession and once again accused Christie, this time of both murders. On 11 January 1950, Evans was put on trial for the murder of his daughter, the prosecution having decided not to pursue a second charge of murdering his wife. Christie was a principal witness for the Crown and gave evidence denying Evans’ accusations. The jury found Evans guilty despite the revelation of Christie’s criminal record of theft and violence, and, after an appeal on 20 February had failed, Evans was hanged on 9 March 1950.

The police made many mistakes in the handling of the case, especially overlooking the remains of previous murders left in the garden at Rillington Place: one femur was later to be found propping up a fence, for example. The garden at the house was very small (about 16 by 14 feet) and the fence was next to the wash-house where the bodies of Beryl and Geraldine were later found. Several searches were made at the house after Evans confessed to putting his wife in the drains, but the wash-house was not entered at any point by the three policemen involved. The garden was apparently examined yet all the searches missed the visible bones. Christie later admitted that his dog had unearthed a human skull in the garden shortly after the police searches, which he removed and left in a nearby bombed-out house. 
There was clearly no systematic search made of the crime scene in which this or other human remains would have been found, and pointed to Christie as the perpetrator. The skull was found and handed in to Notting Hill police station during the investigation, but ignored. The several police searches of the property showed a complete lack of forensic expertise and were superficial at best. Had the searches been conducted effectively, the investigation would have exposed Christie as the murderer, and the lives of four women as well as Evans would have been saved.

The evidence of builders working at the house was ignored, and their various interviews with Evans suggest that the police concocted a false confession. It should have been clear, for example, from the very first statement made in Wales that Evans was totally unaware of the resting place of the body of his wife, or how she had been killed. He claimed that his wife’s body was in a drain at the front of the house, but a police search failed to find any remains there. That in itself should have prompted a thorough search of the house, outside wash-room and garden, but no further action was taken until later, when the two bodies were found in the wash-room. Evans was also totally unaware at his first interview that his daughter had been killed. 

The police interrogation in London was mishandled from the start, when they showed him the clothes of his wife and baby and revealed that they had been found in the wash-room. Such information should have been kept from him so as to force him to tell them where the bodies had been concealed. The several ‘confessions’ apparently made by Evans bear no relation to what he probably said, and were almost certainly inventions made by the police, as Ludovic Kennedy pointed out much later after the truth about Christie had emerged.

The police accepted all of Christie’s statements as factual without further probing, and he was the crucial witness at the trial of Evans. Bearing in mind Christie had criminal convictions for theft and malicious wounding (which Evans didn’t), the reliance on his testimony was questionable to say the least. Nearly three years passed without major incident for Christie after Evans’ trial. Christie lost his job at the Post Office Savings Bank because his criminal past had been disclosed in the trial, but he found alternative employment as a clerk with the British Road Services at their Shepherd’s Bush depot.

At the same time, new tenants arrived to fill the vacant first and second-floor rooms in 10 Rillington Place. The tenants were black immigrants from the West Indies; this horrified the Christies, who regarded their neighbours as inferior and disliked living with them. Tensions between the new tenants and the Christies came to a head when Ethel Christie prosecuted one of her neighbours for assault. Christie successfully negotiated with the Poor Man’s Lawyer Centre to continue to have exclusive use of the back garden, ostensibly to have space between him and his neighbours.

On the morning of 14 December 1952, Christie strangled Ethel in bed. She had last been seen in public two days earlier. Christie invented several stories to explain his wife’s disappearance and to help mitigate the possibility of further inquiries being made. In reply to a letter from relatives in Sheffield, he wrote that Ethel had rheumatism and could not write herself; to one neighbour, he explained that she was visiting her relatives in Sheffield; to another, he said that she had gone to Birmingham. Christie had resigned from his job on 6 December and had been unemployed since then. To support himself, Christie sold Ethel’s wedding ring, watch and furniture. Every week he went to the Labour Exchange to collect his unemployment benefit. On 26 January 1953 he forged his wife’s signature and emptied her bank account.

Between 19 January and 6 March 1953, Christie murdered three more women whom he had invited back to 10 Rillington Place: Kathleen Maloney, Rita Nelson and Hectorina MacLennan. Maloney was a prostitute from the Ladbroke Grove area. Nelson was from Belfast and was visiting her sister in Ladbroke Grove when she met Christie. Christie first met MacLennan, who was living in London with her boyfriend, Alex Baker, in a café. All three met on several occasions after this, and Christie let MacLennan and Baker stay at Rillington Place while they were looking for accommodation. On another occasion, Christie met MacLennan on her own and persuaded her to come back to his flat where he murdered her. Later, he convinced Baker, who came to Rillington Place looking for her, that he had not seen MacLennan. Christie kept up the pretence for several days, meeting Baker regularly to see if he had news of her whereabouts and to help him search for her.

For the murders of his final three victims, Christie modified the gassing technique he had first used on Muriel Eady; he simply used a rubber tube connected to the gas pipe in the kitchen which he kept closed off with a bulldog clip. He seated his victims in the kitchen, released the clip on the tube, and let gas leak into the room. The Brabin Report pointed out that Christie’s explanation of his gassing technique was not satisfactory because he would have been overpowered by the gas as well. Nevertheless, it was established that all three victims had been exposed to carbon monoxide. The gas made his victims drowsy, after which Christie strangled them with a length of rope.

As with Eady, Christie raped his last three victims while they were unconscious and continued to do so as they died. When this aspect of his crimes was publicly revealed, Christie quickly gained a reputation for being a necrophiliac. One commentator, however, has cautioned against categorising Christie as such; according to the accounts Christie gave to the police, he did not engage sexually with any of his victims exclusively after death. After he murdered each of his final victims, he hid their bodies in a small alcove behind the back kitchen wall, which was covered over with wallpaper. Christie wrapped his semi-naked victims’ bodies in blankets, similar to the way in which Beryl Evans’s body had been wrapped.

Christie moved out of 10 Rillington Place on 20 March 1953, after fraudulently sub-letting his flat to a couple from whom he took £7 13s (£7.65 or about £186 in todays money). The landlord visited that same evening and, finding the couple there instead of Christie, demanded that they leave first thing the next morning. The landlord then allowed the tenant of the top-floor flat, Beresford Brown, to use Christie’s kitchen. On 24 March, Brown discovered the kitchen alcove when he attempted to insert brackets into the wall to hold a wireless set. Peeling back the wallpaper, Brown saw the bodies of Maloney, Nelson and MacLennan. After getting confirmation from another tenant in 10 Rillington Place that they were dead bodies, Brown informed the police and a citywide search for Christie began.

After he left Rillington Place, Christie went to a Rowton House in King’s Cross, where he booked a room for seven nights under his real name and address. He stayed for only four nights, leaving on 24 March when news of the discovery at his flat broke, after which he wandered around London, spending much of his time in cafés. On the morning of 31 March Christie was arrested on the embankment near Putney Bridge after being challenged about his identity by a police officer; all he had in his possession were some coins and an old newspaper clipping about the remand of Timothy Evans.

While in custody, Christie confessed to seven murders: the three women found in the kitchen alcove, his wife, and the two women buried in the back garden. He also admitted being responsible for the murder of Beryl Evans, which Timothy Evans had originally been charged with during the police investigation in 1949, although he denied killing Geraldine Evans.

Christie was tried only for the murder of his wife Ethel. His trial began on 22 June 1953, in the same court in which Evans had been tried three years earlier. Christie pleaded insanity and claimed to have a poor memory of the events. The jury rejected the plea, and after deliberating for 85 minutes found Christie guilty. Christie did not appeal against his conviction, and on 15 July 1953 he was hanged at Pentonville Prison by Albert Pierrepoint, who had also hanged Evans. After being pinioned for execution, Christie complained that his nose itched. Pierrepoint assured him that “It won’t bother you for long”.

After Christie’s conviction there was substantial controversy concerning the earlier trial of Evans, who had been convicted mainly on the evidence of a serial killer living in the same property in which Evans had allegedly carried out his crimes. Christie confessed to Beryl Evans’ murder and although he neither confessed to, nor was charged with, Geraldine Evans’ murder, he was considered guilty of both murders by many at the time. This, in turn, cast doubt on the fairness of Evans’ trial and raised the possibility that an innocent person had been hanged.

The controversy prompted the then Home Secretary, David Maxwell-Fyfe, to commission an inquiry led by John Scott Henderson, QC, the Recorder of Portsmouth, to determine whether Evans had been innocent of his crimes and if a miscarriage of justice had occurred. Scott Henderson interviewed Christie before his execution, as well as another twenty witnesses who had been involved in either of the police investigations. He concluded that Evans was in fact guilty of both murders and that Christie’s confessions to the murder of Beryl Evans were unreliable and made in the context of furthering his own defence that he was insane.

Far from ending the matter, questions continued to be raised in Parliament concerning Evans’ innocence, along with newspaper campaigns and books being published making similar claims. The Scott Henderson Inquiry was criticised for being held over too short a time period (one week) and for being prejudiced against the possibility that Evans was innocent. This controversy, along with the coincidence that two stranglers would have been living in the same property at the same time if Evans and Christie had both been guilty, kept alive the issue that a miscarriage of justice had taken place in Evans’ trial. This uncertainty led to a second inquiry, chaired by High Court judge, Sir Daniel Brabin, which was conducted over the winter of 1965–66. Brabin re-examined much of the evidence from both cases and evaluated some of the arguments for Evans’ innocence. His conclusions were that it was “more probable than not” that Evans had killed his wife but not his daughter Geraldine, for whose death Christie was responsible. 

Christie’s likely motive was that her continued presence would have drawn attention to Beryl’s disappearance. Brabin also noted, however, that the uncertainty involved in the case would have prevented a jury from being satisfied beyond reasonable doubt of Evans’ guilt had he been re-tried. These conclusions were used by the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, to recommend a posthumous pardon for Timothy Evans, which was granted, as Evans had been tried and executed for the murder of his daughter. Jenkins announced the granting of Evans’ pardon to the House of Commons on 18 October 1966. It allowed authorities to return Evans’ remains to his family, who had him reburied in a private grave.

There was already debate in the United Kingdom over the continued use of the death penalty in the legal system. The controversy generated by Evans’s case, along with a number of other controversial cases from the same time, contributed to the 1965 suspension, and subsequent abolition, of capital punishment in the United Kingdom for murder. 

In 1954, the year after Christie’s execution, Rillington Place was renamed Ruston Close, but number 10 continued in multiple occupation. The three families living there in 1970 refused to move out for the shooting of the 1971 film “10 Rillington Place”, which was therefore set in the empty number 7. Richard Attenborough, who played Christie in the film, spoke of his ambivalence concerning the role: “I do not like playing the part, but I accepted it at once without seeing the script. I have never felt so totally involved in any part as this. It is a most devastating statement on capital punishment.”

September 1969 saw the opening of “Christie In Love”, a play by Howard Brenton about Christie’s murders and psychological abnormality, that relates them to violence and sadism in society as a whole. It has been revived several times since. In January 2003 the Home Office awarded Timothy Evans’s half-sister, Mary Westlake, and his sister, Eileen Ashby, ex-gratia payments as compensation for the miscarriage of justice in Timothy Evans’s trial. The independent assessor for the Home Office, Lord Brennan QC, accepted that “the conviction and execution of Timothy Evans for the murder of his child was wrongful and a miscarriage of justice” and that “there is no evidence to implicate Timothy Evans in the murder of his wife. She was most probably murdered by Christie.” Lord Brennan believed that the Brabin Report’s conclusion that Evans probably murdered his wife should be rejected given Christie’s confessions and conviction.

Based on the pubic hair that Christie collected from his victims, it has been speculated that he was responsible for more murders than those carried out at 10 Rillington Place. Christie claimed that the four different clumps of hair in his collection came from his wife and the three bodies discovered in the kitchen alcove, but only one matched the hair type on those bodies, Ethel Christie’s. Even if two of the others had come from the bodies of Fuerst and Eady, which had by then decomposed into skeletons, there was still one remaining clump of hair unaccounted for—it could not have come from Beryl Evans, as no pubic hair had been removed from her body.

Writing in 1978 Professor Keith Simpson, one of the pathologists involved in the forensic examination of Christie’s victims, had this to say about the pubic hair collection:

“It seems odd that Christie should have said hair came from the bodies in the alcove if in fact it had come from those now reduced to skeletons; not very likely that in his last four murders the only trophy he took was from the one woman with whom he did not have peri-mortal sexual intercourse; and even more odd that one of his trophies had definitely not come from any of the unfortunate women known to have been involved.”

However, no attempts were or have been made to trace any further victims of Christie, such as examining records of missing women in London during his period of activity. Michael Eddowes suggested in his book of 1955 that Christie was in a perfect position as a special police constable during the war to have committed many more murders than have been discovered.

“For me a corpse has a beauty and dignity which a living body could never hold . . . there is a peace about death that soothes me.” – John Christie

If you want to watch a documentary on John Christie then just check out the video below:

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