Whether you believe that it was a publicity stunt or the result of a decline in her mental health, Agatha Christie’s 11-day disappearance in 1926 remains to this day one of her best unsolved mysteries.
Christie is one of Devon’s own, born in Torquay on September 15th, 1890, to an American father and English mother. Despite living in a number of different places and travelling extensively with both of her husbands, she retained a love for Devon, purchasing a holiday home on the banks of the River Dart.
This beautiful Georgian house, Greenway, is now in the care of the National Trust and is visited by thousands of people every year. There are many other Devon-related anecdotes: Christie wrote her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, whilst staying at the Moorlands House Hotel near Haytor on Dartmoor in 1916, and met her first husband Archibald Christie at a concert in Ugbrooke, near Chudleigh, in 1912. She stayed on Burgh Island, which features in both And Then There Were None and Evil Under the Sun, and attended dances at Oldway in Paignton. South Devon is peppered with locations that can be linked to Agatha Christie.
Christie was at home in Berkshire on Friday, 3rd December, 1926, when she went to say goodnight to her seven year-old daughter Rosalind, then got into her Morris Cowley and drove away. It would be eleven days before her family saw her again.
When Christie failed to return home, one of the largest-ever manhunts was instigated, with thousands of police, civilians, dogs and planes – the first time planes had been used for this purpose. Personalities such as the Home Secretary William Joynson-Hicks became involved, maintaining pressure on the police for a speedy resolution. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L Sayers also attempted to provide the police with some assistance, without success.
The story of Christie’s disappearance made headlines across the world, with newspapers such as the New York Times publishing rumours and speculation about what might have happened, as well as reporting on the progress of the police investigation.
On 6th December, three days after Christie vanished, her car was discovered near Guildford at Newlands Corner. Some sources claim that there was nothing to indicate an accident, whereas others state that the car was found up a slope, its front wheels over the edge of a chalk quarry, with only a thick growth of hedge or shrubbery having prevented it from plunging to the bottom of the pit. There was no sign of Christie, but the car contained random items of women’s clothing and an attaché case of papers.
Not far away was the Silent Pool, a reputedly bottomless natural spring which was believed to be haunted by two children who had drowned there. This gave rise to speculation that Christie had drowned herself, yet there was no sign of a body, and nothing, it seemed, in Christie’s life that might have driven her to suicide.
She had a daughter she adored, and her sixth book, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was extremely successful. Stories gradually arose hinting that her husband Archie, known to have a mistress, had murdered her, but there were also suggestions that the entire situation was nothing more than a grandiose publicity stunt. Archie claimed that his wife was suffering from a nervous breakdown, and one of her friends told police that Christie had a happy home life, so even in the early stages of the investigation, the police were dealing with contradictory information.
The police called off their search on 8th December after Archie’s brother Campbell stated that he had received a letter from Christie in which she said she was going to a spa in Yorkshire for ‘rest and treatment’. Her mother had died not long previously and shortly after that tragedy, Archie had admitted that he was having an affair. It is interesting that the Yorkshire spa lead was not followed up, given that the police resumed their search two days later on December 8th, clearly dissatisfied with Campbell’s information.
One of Christie’s dogs was brought to Newlands Corner a couple of days later, in an attempt to track her. Although it did sniff around the area, the dog ‘whined pitifully’ and the exercise proved fruitless, as did Dorothy L Sayers’ visit to the scene to look for clues. Similarly, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who took one of Christie’s gloves to a medium, was unable to provide any assistance to the investigation. The search focused on the Silent Pool, as the police believed suicide was the most likely explanation. Numerous reports of sightings were dismissed by the police as a result.
Around this time, there was some speculation in the press that Christie was afraid of her own home, Sunningdale. It was in an isolated lane, near which an alleged murder and suicide had occurred. Christie was even reported as having told a friend that if she didn’t leave, the house would be ‘the end of me’. This was later refuted by her secretary Charlotte Fisher.
On December 11th, it was revealed that Christie had actually left behind three letters – one to her brother-in-law Campbell, one to Archie and one to Charlotte Fisher. Campbell and Archie had both burned their letters, with Archie refusing to reveal the contents of his, as they were personal and had no bearing on his wife’s disappearance. Fisher stated that her letter contained only scheduling information and denied that any mention had been made of leaving Sunningdale.
By 12th December, there were three main theories. The first was murder or abduction, although the police had no evidence to support either. The second was suicide, but there was still no sign of a body. The third was a deliberate disappearance. Again, Charlotte Fisher was quick to defend her employer when the words ‘publicity stunt’ were mentioned, stating that Christie was ‘too much a lady for that’. Unfortunately, an advert was printed announcing the forthcoming serial publication of The Mystery of the Downs, which did lend some credence to the publicity stunt theory.
The police were still at a loss at this point, to the extent that they requested help from the general public, specifically asking bloodhound owners to bring their dogs to Newlands Corner. At the same time as they focused their search around the abandoned car, however, they were also speculating that Christie might be hiding in London, disguised as a man. Rumours circulated about another letter Christie had left – this time a sealed one, only to be opened if her body was discovered.
Searchers had discovered a variety of objects around Newlands Corner, including a torn up postcard, a box of face powder, two children’s books and a handbag which was similar to one of Christie’s. Spiritualists held a séance at the site, with the medium pronouncing that foul play was involved.
By December 14th, the ‘disguised as a man’ theory had been abandoned and the New York Times printed a comment that the police had vital information indicating that Christie had no intention of returning home. This information was never revealed.
Agatha Christie was discovered on 14th December, when a musician at the Swan Hydro, a popular spa in Harrogate, recognised her amongst the guests and contacted the police. Archie went with the police to collect his wife, who is variously reported as greeting him with a stony stare and being entirely unaware of who he was. She had checked in as ‘Mrs Neele’, and although Archie initially claimed he had no idea why she would use that name, it later transpired that his mistress was named Nancy Neele.
Christie had no recollection of anything after abandoning her car. She had found herself in a strange hotel, and, believing she was Mrs Neele, had placed an advert in the London Times, asking her relatives to contact her, in an attempt to find out what she was doing there. The police eventually concluded that, after abandoning her car, she must have taken the train to Harrogate, but to this day, Christie’s movements are still a mystery.
Christie stuck to the amnesia story for the rest of her life and only discussed her disappearance once, in an interview with the Daily Mail in 1928. She explained that she had been out driving with her daughter and, on passing the quarry, was overwhelmed by a desire to drive into it, but as she had her daughter with her, she carried on driving home. It was only later that, feeling miserable, she left the house and drove to the quarry. The car hit something and stopped, causing her to hit her head on the wheel. After that, she remembered nothing.
There is much speculation about the amnesia claim, especially when Archie Christie went on to marry his mistress Nancy Neele just a few years later. Was it the ploy of a desperately unhappy wife to publicly humiliate her unfaithful husband? Had it been a carefully-staged publicity stunt? Or was it, as biographer Andrew Norman believes, more likely to have been a psychogenic trance or fugue state, a rare condition triggered by stress and depression? He believes that, in using Neele’s name, a suicidal Christie was adopting a new personality, which explains why she failed to recognise herself in the numerous photos in the papers.
Whatever the cause of this sensational episode, Christie recovered and seems to have suffered no lasting ill-effects – at least, not that we are aware. She divorced Archie and went on to marry the archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, accompanying him on excavations as her own career soared. She has sold over two billion books and her stage show The Mousetrap is the longest-running drama in the world…almost as long-running as the real-life mystery of its author’s disappearance.