John Reginald Halliday Christie
8 April 1899
|Died||15 July 1953 (aged 54)|
|Cause of death||Execution by hanging|
|Resting place||HMP Pentonville, London, England, UK|
|Other names||The Rillington Place Strangler|
Span of crimes
|24 August 1943 – 6 March 1953|
|31 March 1953|
John Reginald Halliday Christie (8 April 1899 – 15 July 1953), known to his family and friends as Reg Christie, was an English serial killer and necrophile from Halifax, who was active during the 1940s and early 1950s. He murdered at least eight people – including his wife, Ethel – by strangling them in his flat at 10 Rillington Place, Notting Hill, London. Christie moved out of Rillington Place during March 1953; soon afterward the bodies of three of his victims were discovered hidden in a wallpaper-covered alcove in the kitchen. Two further bodies were discovered in the garden, and his wife's body was found beneath the floorboards of the front room. Christie was arrested and convicted of his wife's murder, for which he was hanged.
Two of Christie's victims were Beryl Evans and her baby daughter Geraldine, who, along with Beryl's husband, Timothy Evans, were tenants at 10 Rillington Place during 1948–49. This case sparked huge controversy after Evans was charged with both murders, found guilty of the murder of his daughter and hanged in 1950. Christie was a major prosecution witness; when his own crimes were discovered three years later, serious doubts were raised about the integrity of Evans' conviction. Christie himself subsequently admitted killing Beryl, but not Geraldine; it is now generally accepted that Christie murdered both Beryl and Geraldine and that police mishandling of the original inquiry allowed Christie to escape detection and enabled him to murder four more women. The High Court quashed Evans's conviction during the 2000s, accepting that Evans did not murder either his wife or his child.
John Christie was born in Northowram near Halifax in the West Riding of Yorkshire. He was the sixth in a family of seven children. Christie 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. He was also alternately coddled and bullied by his mother and older sisters.
During his later life, Christie's childhood peers described him as "a queer lad" who "kept himself to himself" and "was not very popular". On 24 March 1911, his grandfather David Halliday died aged 75 in Christie's house after a long illness. Christie later said that seeing his grandfather's body laid out on a trestle table gave him a feeling of power and well-being; a man he had once feared was now only a corpse.
At the age of 11, Christie won a scholarship to Halifax Secondary School, where his favourite subject was mathematics, particularly algebra. He was also good at History and Woodwork. It was later found he had an IQ of 128. He sang in the church choir and was a Boy Scout. He also attended "Boothtown Council School" (also known as Boothtown Board School") in Northowram. After leaving school on 22 April 1913, he began a job as an assistant cinema projectionist.
Christie had a lifelong problem with impotence; his first attempts at sex were failures, and he was branded "Reggie-No-Dick" and "Can't-Do-It-Christie" throughout adolescence. (Nevertheless, a post-mortem report confirmed Christie's genitals were physically normal.) His difficulties with sex remained throughout his life, and most of the time he could only perform with prostitutes.
In September 1916, Christie enlisted in the army; he was called up on 12 April 1917 to join the 52nd Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment, to serve as an infantryman. In April 1918, the regiment was despatched to France, where Christie was seconded to the Duke of Wellington's (West Riding) Regiment as a signalman. That June, he was injured in a mustard gas attack and spent a month in a military hospital in Calais. Christie claimed this attack left him permanently unable to speak loudly. Later in life, he also claimed the attack had rendered him blind and mute for three and a half years. His period of muteness was, he claimed, the reason for his inability to talk much louder than a whisper for the rest of his life. 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.
Christie married Ethel Simpson, who was also from Halifax, at Halifax Register Office on 10 May 1920. His problems with impotence remained, and he continued to visit prostitutes. Early in the marriage Ethel suffered a miscarriage. They separated after four years of marriage. Ethel worked at the "Garside Engineering Co" on Ironbridge Road in Bradford, and later worked at the "English Electrical Co" on Thornton Road in Bradford until 1928. In 1928, Ethel and her siblings, moved from Halifax and Bradford, to Sheffield. In 1923, Christie moved to London; he spent the next decade in and out of prison, while Ethel remained in Halifax, Bradford and Sheffield with her relatives. He was released from prison in January 1934, when the couple reunited and moved to Rillington Place.
During the first decade of his marriage to Ethel, Christie was convicted of several criminal offences. He started work as a postman on 10 January 1921 in Halifax, and his first conviction was for stealing postal orders on 20 February and 26 March, for which he received three months' imprisonment on 12 April 1921. He served his sentence in HM Prison Manchester and was released on 27 June. He was then convicted on 15 January 1923 of obtaining money on false pretences and of violent conduct, for which, respectively, he was bound over and put on 12 months' probation. He committed two further crimes of larceny during 1924, and received consecutive sentences of three and six months' imprisonment on 22 September 1924 in HM Prison Wandsworth. On 13 May 1929, after working for over two years as a lorry driver Christie was convicted of assaulting Maud Cole, with whom he was living in Battersea, and was sentenced to six months' hard labour; Christie had hit Cole over the head with a cricket bat, which the magistrate described as a "murderous attack" for which he was again sent to HM Prison Wandsworth. Finally, he was convicted of stealing a car and was re-imprisoned in HM Prison Wandsworth for three months on 1 November 1933.
Christie and Ethel were reconciled in 1934 after this release from prison. He ended his recourse to petty crime but continued to seek out prostitutes. In 1937, Christie and his wife moved into the top-floor flat of 10 Rillington Place in Notting Hill, then a rather run-down area of London. They moved into the ground-floor flat in December 1938. The house was a three-storey brick end-terrace, built in the 1870s during a period of intensive speculative building in the area that resulted in much jerry-built property, and which had declined into poorly-maintained and unimproved multi-occupancy rentals. Number 10 was of a common design: the ground and first floors each contained a bedroom and living room, with a kitchen/scullery in the adjacent extension but the second-floor flat had two rooms only: a kitchen/living room and a bedroom. Living conditions were "squalid" – the building's occupants shared one outside lavatory, 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.
After three years of working as a foreman at the Commodore Cinema in King Street, Hammersmith, at the beginning of the Second World War 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 called Gladys Jones 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.
Christie committed his murders over a ten-year period between 1943 and 1953, usually by strangling his victims after he had rendered them unconscious with domestic gas; some he raped as they lay unconscious.
The first person Christie admitted to killing was Ruth Fuerst, a 21-year-old Austrian munitions worker who supplemented her income by occasionally engaging in prostitution. Christie claimed to have met Fuerst while she was soliciting clients in a snack bar in Ladbroke Grove. According to his own statements, on 24 August 1943, he invited Fuerst to his home to engage in sex (his wife was visiting relatives at the time). Afterwards, Christie impulsively strangled her on his bed with a length of rope. He initially stowed Fuerst's body beneath the floorboards of his living room, then buried it in the back garden the following evening.
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 an Acton radio factory. There he met his second victim, colleague Muriel Amelia Eady. On 7 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 1940s was coal gas, which had a carbon monoxide content of 15 %. Christie raped and strangled her before burying her alongside Fuerst.
During Easter of 1948, Timothy Evans and his wife Beryl moved into the top-floor flat at Rillington Place, where Beryl gave birth that October to their daughter, Geraldine. In late 1949, Evans informed police that his wife was dead. A police search of 10 Rillington Place failed to find her body, but a later search revealed the bodies of Beryl, Geraldine, and a 16-week male foetus in an outdoor wash-house. Beryl's body had been wrapped twice, in a blanket and then a table cloth. The post-mortem revealed that both mother and daughter had been strangled and that Beryl had been physically assaulted before her death, shown by facial bruising. Evans at first claimed that Christie had killed his wife in a botched abortion operation, but police questioning eventually produced a confession. The alleged confession may have been fabricated by the police, 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: he denied Evans's accusations and gave detailed evidence about the quarrels between him and his wife. The jury found Evans guilty despite the revelation of Christie's criminal record of theft and violence. Evans was originally due to be hanged on 31 January, but appealed. After his appeal on 20 February had failed, Evans was hanged at Pentonville Prison on 9 March 1950. Christie lost the job he had held for four years at the Post Office Savings Bank due to the disclosure of his criminal convictions at the trial.
The police made several mistakes in the handling of the case, especially in overlooking the remains of Christie's previous murder victims in the garden at Rillington Place; one femur was later found propping up a fence. The garden of the property was very small, about 16 by 14 feet (4.9 by 4.3 m), and the fence was parallel 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 placing his wife's remains in the drains, but the three policemen conducting the search did not go into the wash-house. The garden was apparently examined but was not excavated at this point. Christie later admitted that his dog had unearthed Eady's skull in the garden shortly after these police searches; he threw the skull into an abandoned bombed-out house in nearby St. Marks Road. 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. Several police searches of the property showed a complete lack of expertise in handling forensic evidence and were quite superficial, at best. Had the searches been conducted effectively, the investigation would have exposed Christie as a murderer, and the lives of Evans and four women 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 by Evans in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, on 30 November 1949, that he 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 either a manhole or a drain at the front of the house, but a police search failed to find any remains there. That should have prompted a thorough search of the house, wash-house and garden, but no further action was taken until later, when the two bodies were found in the wash-house. 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-house. Such information should have been kept from him so as to force him to tell police where the bodies had been concealed. The several apparent "confessions" contain questionable words and phrases in high-register language such as "terrific argument" which seem out of place for a distressed, uneducated, working-class young man such as Evans and bear no relation to what he probably said. These were almost certainly inventions made much later by the police, Ludovic Kennedy commented, much after the truth about Christie had emerged.
The police accepted all of Christie's statements as factual without major scrutiny, and he was the crucial witness at the trial of Evans. As Kennedy wrote, the police accepted the former war reserve policeman Christie as one of their own, and largely took what he said on face value without any further investigation. Bearing in mind Christie had criminal convictions for theft and malicious wounding (while Evans did not have any previous convictions for violence), the reliance on his testimony was questionable. It is significant that Christie had claimed to be an abortionist prior to his meeting the Evanses, having said so to a colleague in 1947. He also repeated this claim after the Evans trial to women he spoke to in cafes, whom he possibly regarded as future potential victims. Such an approach aligns with Christie's modus operandi of offering help to women so as to gain their confidence and lure them back to his flat, as demonstrated in Eady's case.
Nearly three years passed without major incident for Christie after Evans's trial. Christie 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 at 10 Rillington Place. The tenants were predominantly black immigrants from the West Indies; this horrified the Christies, who held racist attitudes towards their neighbours 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, but quite possibly to prevent anyone from uncovering the human remains buried there.
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, he sold Ethel's wedding ring, watch, and furniture. Every week Christie 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 he 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. She was six months pregnant at the time of her murder. 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 MacLennan, that he had not seen her. 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 Eady; he 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 repeatedly 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 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 Christie had murdered each of his final victims by ligature strangulation, he placed a vest or other cloth-like material between their legs before wrapping their semi-naked bodies in blankets (in a similar manner to the way in which Beryl's body had been wrapped), before stowing their bodies in a small alcove behind the back kitchen wall. He later covered the entrance to this alcove with wallpaper.
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 0d (£7.65 or about £215 as of 2019). 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.
Christie was placed under arrest and at first only admitted to the murders of the women in the alcove and his wife during police questioning. When informed about the skeletons buried in the back garden, Christie admitted responsibility for their deaths as well. He later confessed to the murder of Beryl Evans, which Timothy Evans had originally been charged with during the police investigation in 1949, although for the most part he denied killing Geraldine. On one occasion following his trial, Christie indicated that he may have been responsible for her death as well, having said so to a hospital orderly. It is speculated that Christie would not have wanted to readily admit his guilt in Geraldine's death in order not to lose respect from the jury, and for his own safety from his fellow inmates.
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. Dr. Matheson, a doctor at Brixton Prison who evaluated Christie, was called as a witness by the prosecution. He testified that Christie had a hysterical personality but was not insane. The jury rejected Christie's plea, and after deliberating for 85 minutes found him guilty. Christie did not appeal against his conviction.
Christie was hanged on 15 July 1953 at Pentonville Prison. His executioner was Albert Pierrepoint, who had previously 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 the execution, the body was buried in the precincts of the prison.
Based on the pubic hair that Christie collected, 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.
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.
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 that Christie had been in a perfect position, as a special police constable during the war, to have committed many more murders than have been discovered. On the other hand, historian Jonathan Oates considers it unlikely Christie had any further victims, arguing he would not have deviated from his standard method of killing in his place of residence.
Following Christie's conviction there was substantial controversy concerning the earlier trial of Timothy Evans, who had been convicted mainly on the evidence of Christie, who lived in the same property in which Evans had allegedly carried out his crimes. Christie confessed to Beryl's murder and although he neither confessed to, nor was charged with, Geraldine's murder, he was widely considered guilty of both murders 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 and a miscarriage of justice had occurred. 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 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's innocence, along with newspaper campaigns and books being published making similar claims. The 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's 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's 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, which Christie would have been averse to as it increased the risk that his own murders would be discovered. Brabin also noted that the uncertainty involved in the case would have prevented a jury from being satisfied beyond reasonable doubt of Evans's guilt had he been re-tried. These conclusions were used by the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, to recommend a posthumous pardon for Evans, which was granted, as he had been tried and executed for the murder of his daughter. Jenkins announced the granting of Evans's pardon to the House of Commons on 18 October 1966. It allowed authorities to return Evans's 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. The controversy in Evans's case and other controversial cases contributed to the 1965 suspension, and subsequent abolition, of capital punishment in the United Kingdom for murder.
In January 2003, the Home Office awarded Evans's half-sister, Mary Westlake, and his sister, Eileen Ashby, ex-gratia payments as compensation for the miscarriage of justice in his 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.