December 14, 1926. An 11-day nationwide search ends when crime novelist Agatha Christie is discovered living under a false identity at a hotel in Harrogate, England after disappearing from her home.
A listener note: this episode contains references to suicidal thoughts. It may not be suitable for all audiences.
It’s the evening of April 13th, 1958 at the Savoy Hotel in London.
68-year-old Agatha Christie exits an elevator wearing a dark satin ball gown, white gloves, and three strands of pearls. She walks toward the hotel’s luxurious ballroom, brimming with anticipation for tonight’s invitation-only gala dinner to celebrate one of her favorite pieces of writing.
Last night, one of Agatha’s plays The Mousetrap had its 2,237th performance at the Ambassador Theatre. That makes it the longest-running theatrical production in London’s West End. And tonight, Agatha is the guest of honor at the celebration to mark the record-breaking run.
Agatha approaches the ballroom door and sees a group of press photographers inside, checking their equipment as they wait to take shots of her before the dinner begins. Near them, technicians stand by with television cameras, here to interview her for tomorrow’s news. Agatha is about to walk in when… a member of the hotel staff swiftly shuts the ballroom door in her face.
Agatha politely knocks. The door opens again and the member of staff looks sternly at her. Before Agatha can say a word, he gruffly announces that the dinner will not begin for another half-hour…
And then he shuts the door again. Agatha sighs. She retraces her steps to the elevator… and returns to the hotel’s lounge bar.
Seconds later, she sits down next to her husband and picks up a gin and tonic. He looks at her with a questioning face. Agatha shrugs. And with a chuckle, she tells him: “It seems I’m not famous enough to be recognized!”
In 1958, Agatha Christie was refused entry to an event where she was the guest of honor. The doorman did not recognize that the ordinary-looking grandmother in front of him was actually a world-famous author. But Agatha found the misunderstanding amusing. The woman now credited as the best-selling fiction writer of all time was used to flying under the radar. And thirty-two years ago, it was Agatha’s ordinary appearance that allowed her to go incognito and vanish from her home for 11 days. Back then, the mystery of her disappearance created a media frenzy that pumped sales and drove her works to the top of the best-seller charts. Never would Agatha Christie be more famous than when she was discovered living under a false identity at a hotel in Harrogate, England on December 14th, 1926.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is December 14th, 1926: The Mystery Disappearance of Agatha Christie.
It’s 1916, two years into World War I, and ten years before Agatha Christie’s mysterious disappearance.
26-year-old Agatha Miller bustles around the dispensary of a hospital in Torbay, a small town on the south coast of England. Her eyes flit down a list of prescriptions ordered by the doctors. Her fingers work quickly as she fills small paper bags with pills and medicines. And when she reaches the end of her list, she sits down to rest her aching feet. Agatha knows that another order will arrive soon, but until then all she can do is wait. And to pass the time, she grabs her pen and notebook and begins to write.
Like many middle-class women, Agatha wanted to pitch in after Britain declared war in 1914. First, she waved goodbye to her fiancé, Archibald Christie, who shipped off to France as an officer in the Royal Flying Corps. Then she threw herself into a volunteer role in a Red Cross hospital. She began as a cleaner before moving on to the wards as a nurse, and then training as a medicine dispenser—a more responsible role that paid a token wage.
Wartime work brought the opportunity for Agatha to live a more independent life. Previously, women of her class would have expected little more than to be a housewife and mother. But Agatha always harbored another dream. She wanted to write. Before the war, she had penned short stories and a novel. All were rejected by publishers. But Agatha still enjoys jotting her ideas on paper during work breaks like this one.
Agatha sits back in her chair, tapping her pen against the paper, waiting for inspiration to come. Her eyes fall on the book she has recently finished reading. It’s The Valley of Fear—the latest Sherlock Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle.
Agatha loves detective stories like these and wonders whether she could write her own. But she wants her tale to be different from Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock is tall and strong, a bare-knuckle boxer who also knows martial arts. Agatha wants her detective to be far more introspective and thoughtful. Someone who solves crimes by the observation of people and their behavior, rather than finding physical clues.
Agatha’s brow furrows as she tries to think of another way to distinguish her detective. For a moment, Agatha’s mind drifts to her walk to the hospital that morning, when she bumped into a Belgian family on the seafront. Many refugees from the continent have escaped the carnage of the Western Front by crossing the Channel and coming to Britain. If Sherlock Holmes is the epitome of Englishness, perhaps her detective could be a foreigner. She decides to make her character a Belgian like the family she met that morning and jots down several potential names until she has one she is happy with: Hercule Poirot.
Now, Agatha has a beginning of a main character, but she still needs a case for him to crack. She closes her eyes and thinks. And when she opens them, her eyes focus on the bottles of medicine on the shelves in front of her. Agatha grins. These bottles have given her an idea. She’s spent the past few months learning about the effects of different medicines and drugs on the human body. So the crime that Poirot must solve will be a poisoning.
Over the next few months, Agatha works on her novel. She writes during breaks at work and on her days off. When she begins to run out of steam, she takes herself to a hotel in the Devon countryside for two weeks to concentrate without any distractions. Eventually, she has a 74,000-word manuscript titled The Mysterious Affair at Styles. But although Agatha thinks the novel is as good as she can get it, six different publishers disagree, they all reject her.
Three years later, in 1919, the war is finally over. Archibald and Agatha are reunited and married. And shortly after the birth of her first and only child, Agatha sits in the office of John Lane. John is the owner of The Bodley Head publishing house, the seventh publisher Agatha has pitched her book to. He called Agatha to his office today to discuss her manuscript.
Agatha’s nerves settle as John gives her a warm smile. He tells her that his reviewers think her story has potential. But he does think it needs a little rewriting.
Agatha nods. She’s happy to do whatever is necessary to get her book published. And after a detailed discussion, she agrees to rewrite the scene where Poirot unmasks the identity of the poisoner. Rather than solving the crime from the witness box in a courtroom—something John thinks is implausible—the killer will be revealed in the drawing room of the mansion where the killing took place, and Agatha loves this new idea.
John pushes a piece of paper across his desk and asks Agatha to sign a contract. She scribbles her name down without even reading the print. John arches an eyebrow, but Agatha is just grateful to be published. John explains that The Bodley Head will put out Agatha’s first six books, but he hopes their relationship will last longer than that.
Unfortunately, John’s wish does not come true. When The Mysterious Affair at Styles is published in 1920, it’s only a moderate success and so are her next four novels and a collection of short stories. But none of them are best-sellers, and Agatha begins to regret committing to The Bodley Head’s stingy royalties and middling marketing.
By the time her next novel comes out, Agatha will switch to a new publisher. And the sales of her new book will skyrocket. But her newfound success will not be thanks to her publisher. Instead, it will be the result of a mysterious disappearance which will turn Agatha from a mere novelist into a notorious celebrity.
It’s close to 10 PM on December 3rd, 1926.
36-year-old Agatha Christie has tears in her eyes as she kisses her seven-year-old daughter Rosalind, who sleeps peacefully in her bed. Agatha walks down the stairs of her home and strokes her dog lying in the hall. She takes off her wedding ring and leaves it on a side table. Then, she waves at her parlor maid, picks up a small case by the door, and quietly exits the house. She gets into her car and drives away in the darkness, unsure if she will ever see her home again.
It's been six unhappy years since the publication of Agatha’s debut novel. In 1922, Agatha felt guilty when she left her daughter in the care of her sister for ten months while Agatha accompanied her husband on an around-the-world promotional tour. When she was back home, she continued to feel guilty that writing was eating up the time she should be spending with her daughter. Especially since the financial returns Agatha got from her book deal were disappointing.
Making matters worse, Agatha’s mother died eight months ago, and shortly after, her husband, who had been increasingly distant in his affections, announced that he was having an affair with a younger woman. Now, Agatha is left depressed and wanting nothing but to escape her unhappy life.
So at first tonight, Agatha drives aimlessly through the night, following roads she knows well from her regular drives around the country. She stops at a bridge near Maidenhead, west of London, and gets out of the car. She looks at the rushing water of the River Thames below her. She leans far over the side of the bridge and considers jumping. But years of plotting murders for her novels have taught Agatha a thing or two about dying. She decides that drowning is too painful. She forces herself to step back from the edge and gets back into her car to resume her directionless drive around the outskirts of London.
As dawn nears, Agatha approaches Newlands Corner, southwest of London. But she misjudges the gear needed to drive up a hill and the car stalls. Agatha sits behind the wheel, staring blankly ahead. By the time a farm worker drives past her, Agatha is shivering. Her coat is in the trunk, but she doesn’t think to put it on. And when the farm worker knocks on the window to check if she is alright, Agatha rouses herself and asks if he would crank the engine to restart it for her. With the car running again, Agatha thanks the man for his trouble and drives away.
But Agatha doesn’t get very far. A few miles on, she spots the steep side of a quarry falling away from the side of the road. Agatha turns the wheel and her car bounces off the road and along the grass toward the precipitous drop. Before Agatha can reach the cliff, she crashes her car into a hedge and comes to a sudden stop.
In the collision, Agatha bangs her head against the steering wheel and she stumbles out of the car in a daze. But she starts a tentative march forward and is soon peering over the edge of the quarry, considering jumping. But then she shakes her head, trying to clear her dark thoughts, and tears herself away from the edge. She walks farther from her car, leaving her suitcase behind, and heads toward the local train station. There, she catches the morning commuter service to London’s Waterloo Station and switches to a connecting train heading north. Only once the train is speeding away from her unhappy home does Agatha finally allow her eyes to close.
Several hours later, Agatha walks through the doors of the Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, a spa town more than 200 miles from London. Agatha notices the clerk behind the reception desk eye her warily. She looks down and notices her bedraggled appearance. She feels the bump on her head from the crash. But Agatha still smiles and asks if she can book a room for the week. When the receptionist tells her the price, Agatha opens her handbag and pulls out a wad of banknotes. She explains her lack of luggage by saying she has recently arrived from South Africa and her suitcases will soon follow. Then, she signs her name in the guest register as Mrs. Teresa Neele.
Agatha’s choice to check in under a false identity will ensure nobody realizes who she really is when news of her disappearance breaks. And although her car will soon be discovered, the police will not know whether she has committed suicide or run away. The truth is probably that Agatha suffered a mental breakdown and contemplated suicide but could not bring herself to leave her daughter without a mother. But no matter the reason for her disappearance, the resulting press frenzy will grip the nation for 11 days until Agatha is finally discovered.
It’s the evening of December 14th, 1926, eleven days after Agatha Christie disappeared.
Inside the lobby of the Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, Police Inspector MacDowell sits next to Archibald Christie. Both men are waiting for the woman who has had them, and much of the nation, on tenterhooks for the past 11 days.
The police investigation into Agatha’s disappearance had little to go on. Officers searched the countryside around her abandoned car but found nothing to go on. Interviews with Agatha’s friends and family revealed few leads. But when the press got hold of the story, wild theories surrounding Agatha’s disappearance soon circulated. When news leaked that her husband was having an affair, some imaginative readers suggested Agatha had engineered a cunning plot to win him back. Others thought her husband had arranged her murder so he was free to marry again.
But eventually, staff at the Hydropathic Hotel began to notice that one of their guests bore a striking resemblance to the photos of Agatha Christie printed in the newspapers. Now, Inspector MacDowell is here to follow up on a tip-off from one of the hotel's workers.
Inspector MacDowell looks up when he hears the elevator doors open. A neatly dressed woman steps out, and MacDowell looks to his side as Archibald nods, quietly saying, “That’s her.” MacDowell stands and walks across the lobby, intercepting Agatha on her way to the dining room. He stands in her path, unsure what to say. He doesn’t know Agatha’s state of mind.
After a pause, Inspector MacDowell gets Agatha’s attention with a quiet, “Excuse me, madam.” Agatha fixes him with a piercing gaze but doesn’t say a word. MacDowell points across the lobby to Archibald, asking, “Do you know that man?” Agatha smiles and nods. MacDowell beckons Archibald over and the married couple hug and kiss cheeks. Then, Agatha takes her husband’s arm and directs the two of them into the dining room.
Inspector MacDowell is stunned. Agatha is acting completely normally, not shocked at all by the sight of her estranged husband. As they wander out of sight, MacDowell sees several men begin scrawling in their notepads. Despite his best efforts, MacDowell realizes that journalists have also been informed about Agatha’s whereabouts. He isn’t surprised about this. The newspapers have followed the story since the beginning. And their sensational stories appear again in the following day’s papers.
Their articles heralding Agatha’s discovery in a spa town hotel catapult the author to even greater fame. Sales of her newest novel skyrocket. Her publisher, William Collins, rushes out a new edition to cater to the increased demand.
And after her discovery, Agatha will resume her career as a novelist. By the time of her death in 1976, she will sell 300 million copies, becoming the best-selling novelist in history. And her play, The Mousetrap, will continue to hold the record for the longest continuous run of performances, reaching 27,500 in 2018. But her professional success will be in part due to her own personal mystery, a result of Agatha’s strange disappearance which gripped the nation for days until her stunning reappearance on December 14th, 1926.
Next on History Daily. December 15th, 1890: Native American chief Sitting Bull is killed by Indian police on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.