We Value Your Privacy

This site uses cookies to improve user experience. By continuing to browse, you accept the use of cookies and other technologies.

I UNDERSTAND
LEARN MORE

The Real Life Crimes That Inspired Agatha Christie

Sometimes real life crimes are just as strange as fiction. 

postimage
  • camera-icon
  • Photo Credit: Jeremy Horvatin / Unsplash

The Queen of Crime’s prim English world seems like a genteel, well-mannered place of afternoon teas and croquet on the lawn. In reality, just as in Agatha Christie’s fiction, politeness, and tradition were often veils behind which evil lurked.

The Rugeley Poisoner

Palmer's diary
  • camera-icon
  • Palmer's diary that records John Cook's death on November 21.

    Photo Credit: Public Domain

Charles Dickens described Dr. William Palmer as “the greatest villain that ever stood in the Old Bailey”. It’s easy to see why. As well as being convicted of poisoning a friend, John Cook, the medical practitioner from Rugeley in the English Midlands was also suspected of using the same method to kill his wife, mother-in-law, brother, and four of his children. All this cold-hearted murder, just so he could claim life insurance or inheritances to fund his gambling addiction. The trial in 1854 caused a sensation in Victorian England (Sherlock Holmes mentions Palmer as proof that when a doctor goes bad he becomes the deadliest of criminals) and memories of it were still fresh when Agatha Christie wrote her first book The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1918). The novel, which introduces Poirot to the world, uses the Rugeley case for its framework and characterizations and features Palmer’s preferred poison, strychnine.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

By Agatha Christie

The Steinheil Affair

Marguerite Steinheil
  • camera-icon
  • Marguerite Steinheil.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Marguerite Steinheil leaped to fame in France after the French President, Felix Faure allegedly died while making love with her. More notoriety would follow in 1908 when her husband and mother were found dead from strangulation at the family home. Initially a suspect, Marguerite attempted to shift the blame by framing a servant. When that failed, she blamed the son of the housekeeper, but he had an alibi. Eventually put on trial, Steinheil was acquitted for lack of evidence and later moved to England where she married an army officer and lived a quiet life. The case would become the basis for Christie’s third novel, The Murder at the Links, set in the French seaside resort of Deauville and featuring the vampish (and possibly deadly) French cabaret singer, Isabel Duveen.

The Murder at the Links

By Agatha Christie

Death of Billie Carleton

Billie Carleton
  • camera-icon
  • Billie Carleton in 1918.

    Photo Credit: Public Domain

It’s a true-life story that would seem more at home in the hardboiled world of Raymond Chandler than that of the classic country house English mystery. In 1918 Billie Carleton was a star of the West End stage. She was good-looking, high-living with a habit of wearing see-thru gowns and an addiction to hard drugs. After a night of partying with her pal Reggie De Veulle, an actor with a penchant for crossing-dressing and a side-line in blackmail, Carleton was found dead in a luxurious suite at London’s Savoy Hotel. The autopsy ruled the cause of death was a cocaine overdose. With its combination of wealth, sex, sleaze, and celebrity the affair was, unsurprisingly, a newspaper sensation. Christie worked it into a short story, "The Affair of the Victory Ball."

Related: 10 Classic Mystery Novels Everyone Should Read

Poirot's Early Cases by Agatha Christie

Poirot's Early Cases

By Agatha Christie

The Lindbergh Kidnapping

Informational poster on the Lindbergh kidnapping
  • camera-icon
  • Photo Credit: Public Domain

HL Mencken called the 1932 abduction and murder of the infant son of aviators Charles and Anne Lindbergh “the biggest story since The Resurrection” and he was barely exaggerating. This was a horrific tale that shocked the world and the subsequent trial, conviction, and execution of New Jersey carpenter, Richard Hauptmann, on evidence that was at best circumstantial kept the affair in the public consciousness for years afterward (Indeed, books are still being written about it today).  Christie used the details of the Lindbergh kidnapping when describing the snatching of baby Daisy Armstrong in her most celebrated novel, Murder on the Orient Express (1934)

whodunits

Murder on the Orient Express

By Agatha Christie

The Tragic Death of Dennis O’Neil

Dennis O’Neil was a 12-year-old Welsh boy. In 1944 he and his brother, Terry were taken into care by the local authorities. The two boys were soon placed in the foster care of a farmer, Reginald Gough, and his wife Esther who lived in a remote part of Shropshire. A year later a doctor was called to the farm after Dennis “suffered a fit”. He found the boy dead from cardiac arrest, undernourished, and showing the signs of many prolonged and brutal beatings. Terry too was barely alive, half-starved, cut, and bruised. The Goughs stood trial for criminal neglect and manslaughter. Both served prison time. Christie was horrified by this barbaric tale of cruelty and used it as the basis for her massively successful play about childhood mistreatment and revenge, The Mousetrap.

The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie

The Mousetrap

By Agatha Christie

Dr Crippen

Hawley Crippen
  • camera-icon
  • Dr. Hawley Crippen.

    Photo Credit: Public Domain

Dr. Hawley Crippen was a London-based American homeopath. In 1910 he murdered his wife, Cora, buried her body in the basement, and then moved his mistress, Ethel Le Neve, into the house. When Cora’s friends alerted police to her absence, Crippen and Le Neve attempted to flee to the US on board a Trans-Atlantic liner. They were apprehended in Canada thanks to a new-fangled invention—the radio. Crippen was brought back to England, tried, and hanged. The case would form the Eva Kane subplot in Christie’s 1952 Hercule Poirot mystery Mrs. McGinty’s Dead.

Mrs. McGinty's Dead by Agatha Christie

Mrs. McGinty’s Dead

By Agatha Christie

The Great Train Robbery

Train Robber's Bridge
  • camera-icon
  • Train Robber's Bridge, the scene of the Great Train Robbery.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1963 a well-organized gang of hardened London criminals held up a Royal Mail train just north of the British capital and made off with £2.4 million ($2.96)  (worth £56 million ($69 million) today). Carried out with military precision, the heist was one of the biggest in history. The getaway driver was Roy James, a professional thief who used his ill-gotten gains to finance his burgeoning career as an auto racing driver. James was a success on the track winning multiple trophies in an automobile he’d bought with the proceeds of a robbery at Heathrow airport. He couldn’t outpace the law, however, and was jailed for eleven years for his part in the Great Train Robbery. Christie’s 1965 Miss Marple mystery At Bertram’s Hotel features Ladislaus Malinowski, a racing driver who was part of the gang that carried out the “Irish Mail Train Robbery”.

at bertram's hotel

At Bertram's Hotel

By Agatha Christie

Featured image: Jeremy Horvatin / Unsplash