On December 3rd, 1926, the Queen of Mystery, Agatha Christie disappeared and wasn't seen again for 11 days. What happened to her? Let's travel back in time and peek behind the carefully wrought facade of Agatha's seemingly perfect life. We'll find out why she took this one to the grave.
There's a lot of information floating around about this topic, but I'll do my best to give you the best I've found. Hope you enjoyed the show!
Further reading mentioned on the show [affiliate links]:
A man walks inside the dimly lit parlor, stroking his mustache and clearly concerned, and hands a small glove to another man, who is sitting at a round table, shoulders hunched. His breath leaves him in small puffs that look like smoke in the icy cold room. The glove sits in his large hands as he glides his thumb across the delicate crocheted stitches. When he speaks, the gentlemen leans in, ears attentive and eyes piercing with intensity. He says, “The person who owns [this] is half dazed and half purposeful. She is not dead, as many think. She is alive.”
That was the best piece of evidence authorities had on the disappearance of the lady of mystery, Agatha Christie. And it was given by the psychic Horace Leaf to, spiritualist and famous detective fiction writer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
British citizens were in an uproar. She must be found! The news even showed up on the front page of The New York Times.
But let’s step back in time, for a moment, it’s 1926—the Golden Age of detective fiction. Springing from WWI, the world loves a good mystery, and there are several brilliant authors willing to give it to them. This also includes our Agatha. In 1926, her writing career was finally taking off, upon the release of her last novel. She and her husband, Archie, even buy a home and name it after an estate in one of her books. There, the couple, spend their time raising their beautiful daughter Rosalind and playing with Agatha’s beloved dog, Peter. But this blooming life is a facade, a carefully wrought picture for the world to gaze upon. And the truth behind Agatha’s disappearance is found behind closed doors, in the dark corners of her seemingly perfect life.
Known today as one of the most adored mystery writers of all time, Agatha kept a few secrets of her own. And perhaps this one is her greatest mystery.
On December 3rd, 1926 in the late evening hours, the infamous lady of mystery decided to walk away from her life. She and her husband had been having marital troubles, but more than that, she knew Archie’s dirty little secret—Nancy Neele. Some say that Archie’s affair was the result of having grown tired of Agatha’s baby weight and that he had resented her for making more money than him. And then there was the emasculating chore of having to ask for permission to drive her car or access any money.
On the morning of Saturday, December 4th, Agatha’s car, a Morris Cowley, was found abandoned near the folkloric Silent Pool. Inside the car, authorities found her license and a fur coat.
Considering the strange and uncharacteristic events, a massive police hunt ensued. The police then interviewed Archie, who just so happened to be spending the weekend with his mistress, Nancy Neele. Understandably, Archie didn’t disclose all the details in their marriage, which only made him look more suspicious. And as we all know, the husband is always the first suspect.
The media of the time—newspapers—hyped the mystery all over the country and even in the United Staes. People began wondering if this was an epic hoax, meant to skyrocket sales for the budding young author at the time.
But there was something flawed in that story... because Agatha really was gone. And she stayed that way for 11 days.
The Home Secretary William Joynson-Hicks reached out to fellow mystery author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, believing that his wide knowledge in the detective field may help. As I mentioned earlier, Doyle reportedly gave a glove to a psychic in hopes of finding clues to the whereabouts of Mrs. Christie. Despite his super-logical character, Sherlock Holmes, Doyle himself was a huge believer in the supernatural and was a spiritualist. So, to him, this was likely a very plausible way he could contribute to finding the beloved author.
Agatha’s photo was blasted everywhere, and there was a 100 pound award for finding her.
On Sunday the 12th of December, about a week later, two members of a hotel band at the Harrogate Hydropathic Hotel in Yorkshire went to the police and mentioned that they thought they recognized her as one of the hotel’s guests. Upon investigation, police learned that Agatha checked into the hotel on Saturday, December 4th. She strangely used the name Teresa Neele—the sir name of her husband’s mistress. She said that she was from South Africa.
Backtracking a bit, in April of the same year, Agatha’s mother Clarissa died. The two were close, and this was a devastating blow for the author. To make matters worse, Archie had been out of town on “business,” and was unable to be there for her, so Agatha suffered this great loss alone. And as if things couldn’t get any worse, Archie decided that when he got home, that would be the ideal time to tell his wife about his affair.
Clearly, it all had become too much.
According to guests and employees at the hotel, Teresa Neele seemed perfectly normal, dancing, eating, and socializing. It’s been reported that a guest had mentioned to her how much she looked like the author, Agatha Christie, but she just laughed it off.
The police had Archie come to identify his wife. When he got there and saw her, he confirmed the theory. They had dinner together at the hotel. Oh to be a fly on that table, right?!
The official story from Archie that has been maintained by the family was that she had suffered amnesia from the stress of losing her mother and her overwhelming workload. Most people were unconvinced by this, which is why the story is such a captivating mystery.
The majority of the public believed that all of this was a publicity stunt, but those closest to Agatha, believe that’s so far from the truth. Agatha, rarely even wanting her own photos on her books, was a hugely private individual who shied away from the media whenever possible.
Biographer, Jared Cade, believes that Agatha staged the whole thing to give Archie “a shock” and says that Agatha spent the first night with a close family friend named Nan. According to sources, the two worked out what the author would do in the days to come. Agatha’s goal—make Archie feel what it would be like to live without her.
I can imagine there was a great sadness tied to this whole ordeal. Perhaps, this was Agatha’s last hope to see if Archie would snap out of it and come to his senses, recognize what a beautiful life the two of them had built and come back to her.
The reality was, though, he no longer loved her. No matter how much she loved him, she couldn’t make him love her back. And she wanted her daughter, Rosalind, to grow up with both parents.
It’s clear that Agatha had no idea what a ruckus her disappearance would cause. If this were to happen in modern times, we’d all know about her disappearance within an hour, and news and social media would blast it nearly non-stop until she was found or something more interesting came along. Everyone would be searching, and the story would spread like wildfire.
The effects on her career were two-fold. Ever since then, there’s been talk about this and people have wondered if the author was desperate for more than just attention from her husband. But it did boost her book sales. People wanted to know more about the woman who lived her own mystery, who stepped from the pages of one of her books and decided to create it in real life.
In 1926, she was published and was doing well, but she wasn’t a household name. Her most famous book, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, pre-dated the event.
A long while later after the dust settled, Agatha finally granted Archie a divorce, and she and her daughter went on a vacation to the Canary Islands. Archie married Nancy Neele, and Agatha snagged herself a younger man, as well—Sir Max Mallowan. She’s famously quoted saying, “An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she gets, the more interested he is in her.” The two, in essence, lived happily ever after.
To fans, there seems to be a pre-disappearance and a post-disappearance Agatha when it comes to her writing. Topics in her books became a little darker and deeper, and this is also when the Miss Marple character came to fruition. She’s the opposite of all the young, blissful characters of before. Agatha’s work shifted from youthful Romanticism to adult skepticism.
There are two other theories surrounding Agatha’s disappearance. One is that Agatha had plotted to kill herself but couldn’t see it through, which is detailed in the fictional but heavily researched account in Andrew Wilson’s novel A Talent for Murder. Realizing she couldn’t do it, feeling that it was a sin and not wanting to leave her daughter, she decided to just spend some quiet time away to figure somethings out.
Theorists cite quotes from her books to support this. In her semi-autobiographical novel Unfinished Portrait, published in 1934 under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott, a character named Celia attempted suicide, and in Christie’s words, “She admitted that it had been very wicked of her to try.”
And it wasn’t uncommon for Agatha’s real life to spill into her work or any other author, for that matter. For writers, small things tend to bleed into our writing, even when we don’t mean for them to. One of her books, Murder in Mesopotamia, is the perfect example of this. Christie’s husband Mallowan was the assistant archaeologist to Sir Leonard Woolley, and for some reason, Woolley’s wife wasn’t too fond of Christie. And the feeling became mutual for Christie because Woolley’s wife wouldn’t allow her to stay at the campsite with her husband, so he had to travel every night to be with her. As a sort of vengeance (I imagine), Christie made an architect’s wife the murder victim in the book and dedicated it to the Woolleys.
Not so subtle, Agatha. Ha!
Another theory by Andrew Newman is that she suffered from a psychogenic fugue, which is a temporary mental break which causes loss of identity.
Even in her autobiography, she didn’t speak about what happened. Critics mention that she talked about almost every other thing in her life besides this—arguably the most intriguing mystery she invented. It all makes one wonder... it would be easy and even expected if she’d just said, “Yeah, I was having a hard time. My mother died, and my husband was cheating on me. Anyone would be entitled to a few bad days.”
We’d all agree with her there. I think it’s her reluctance to speak for herself on the topic—Archie’s statement was the only one really recorded. And who wants to hear from him anyway, right?
I think it’s her reluctance that makes us all still curious and wonder if there’s more to the story. In the movie Agatha and the Truth of Murder (available on Netflix), writers speculate that Agatha may have been trying to help solve a real-life mystery. It’s certainly entertaining and worth watching, and at this point, who knows what really happened?
Obviously, this is how Agatha wanted it. Maybe this was her way of continuing to write the mystery even after her death. After all, people are still writing their theories, and we’re still talking about it. All publicity is good publicity, right?
It’s true that she didn’t speak directly about what happened those 11 days, but according to the UK’s Daily Mail in 1928, she opened up about her emotional state on the day she went missing. She admitted that she was having a hard time eating, sleeping, and felt horribly depressed. She went on to say that she’d once paid a visit to a relative and passed a quarry. These are Agatha’s words:
There came into my mind the thought of driving into it. However, as my daughter was with me in the car, I dismissed the idea at once. That night I felt terribly miserable. I felt that I could go on no longer. I left home that night in a state of high nervous strain with the intention of doing something desperate.
By leaving us in the dark, the lady of mystery has left us with an enduring question: What happened to her during those 11 days? Was she really ready to walk away from everything, or was she simply needing to clear her head? Did she truly suffer from amnesia, or did she actually plan her own death? We may never know, which makes it all the more intriguing for some, but it’s a frustration for her fans, who are accustomed to all the loose ends tied up at the end. And who knows, maybe we’ll actually find out the truth someday, in some final plot twist. But we all know that real life is messy and sometimes incomplete. Perhaps, that’s the truest lesson she’s left us with—not every mystery can be solved.
Crossing the Threshold - Ghostpocalypse, I Knew a Guy by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
E’s Jammy Jams, Darktown Strutters Ball: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eDtR192jK-k