On December 3, 1926, British mystery author Agatha Christie (1890-1976) disappeared from her home. Her car was found abandoned several miles away, with some of her clothes and identification scattered around inside. There were no signs of foul play, but newspapers immediately reported that the car was believed to have been deliberately run down Newlands corner with its brakes off. Agatha had written several confusing letters before vanishing. One, to her brother-in-law, said she was simply going for a vacation in Yorkshire; another, to the local chief constable, said she feared for her life. A quarter-mile from where her car was found was a lake called Silent Pool which Agatha used for inspiration for one of her character’s deaths. The police organized fifteen thousand volunteers to search the surrounding countryside.
Her husband, Colonel Archie Christie, told reporters that she was suffering from a nervous breakdown, but suspicion was immediately raised that perhaps the Colonel had done away with his wife, like one of the plots in his wife’s mystery novels. Rumors of his infidelity spurred the gossip—and caused police to tap his phone. For eleven days, the nation was riveted as the newspapers speculated about what had happened to the author of The Mystery of Roger Ackroyd. When she was eventually discovered at a spa in Harrogate she claimed to been suffering from temporary amnesia. What led Agatha Christie to leave her home that cold December night? Even today, her biographers differ on what exactly happened during those two weeks in December 1926.
By the date of her disappearance, Agatha Christie had published more than ten novels and short stories, each more successful than the last. Her first book The Mysterious Affair at Styles was finally accepted for publication in 1919, and with it, the world was introduced to Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. 1926 should have been the greatest year of Agatha’s life, because it was the year that tour-de-force The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published. But instead, it turned into her annus horribilis.
1926 was the year that Agatha’s mother, Clara, died. If that wasn’t bad enough, Agatha was soon hit by another bombshell. Just prior to taking an Italian holiday, her husband Archie told Agatha that after twelve years of marriage, he had fallen in love with another woman, Nancy Neele, and wanted a divorce. Agatha pleaded with Archie to give their marriage another chance, and he reluctantly agreed.
On that fateful day in December, Archie had told Agatha he was going to spend the weekend with some friends and would not be coming home. At 9:45 that Friday night, she told her secretary that she was going out, got into the car and drove to Newland Downs, where she left the car. From there, she walked back into town and caught the train to London. In London, she went shopping for a winter coat and posted a letter to Archie’s brother Campbell, telling him that she was going to a spa in Yorkshire. Then she took a train to Harrogate and checked into the Hydro spa under the name of Theresa Neele.
Meanwhile, the police continued looking for her. As time went on, and the police were convinced that it was foul play, the newspaper reports got bigger. Even though Archie’s brother Campbell finally told the police that Agatha had said that she was at a spa in Yorkshire, nobody believed him. Eventually, reporters discovered that Archie had spent the weekend in the country with friends—and in the company of a mysterious woman.
Still hiding out at the spa, Agatha placed an advertisement in the London Times that said Mrs. Theresa Neele was interested in getting in touch with her relatives and they could find her at the Hydro in Harrogate. It wasn’t until several of the spa’s patrons noticed the resemblance between their fellow guest Mrs. Neele and the pictures of Agatha in the paper that the mystery was solved. Archie arrived at the Hydro in Harrogate and issued a statement that Agatha was suffering from amnesia.
When the press got wind of the fact that Mrs. Agatha Christie was not dead in a ditch but had been enjoying herself for eleven days at spa in Yorkshire, they were livid. If anyone remembers the outcry after the Runaway Bride in Georgia was found, can imagine what it must have been like in England at the time. The press was immediately suspicious of the Christie’s story that Agatha had amnesia, temporary or otherwise. Not even several statements from doctors who apparently examined Agatha swayed the press and the public.
So what really happened? Was it an elaborate publicity stunt to increase sales of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd? Or was it less obvious, that Agatha had simply had an emotional breakdown, and tried a last desperate attempt to save her marriage that backfired? I’m inclined to agree with the latter theory. Christie seems to have been in a fugue state while she was in Harrogate; one part of her mind was aware of what was going on in the newspapers, but another part of her clearly thought she was Mrs. Neele. No one who was thinking rationally would have come up with such a scheme. If Agatha had been plotting one of her novels, she wouldn’t have left so many holes in the plan.
Any chance that Agatha had of repairing her marriage to Archie ended after the incident. The embarrassment and humiliation of being considered a suspect was too much for Archie. The Christies were divorced, and Archie married Nancy Neele. Agatha Christie also remarried, to an archeologist named Max Mallowan, who was fifteen years younger than she. Until her death in 1976, she refused ever to discuss what happened that unhappy December fifty years earlier.
Elizabeth Kerri Mahon loves to write about Scandalous Women & the men that loved them. Her first book, Scandalous Women, was published by Perigee Books in March 2011. Visit her at scandalouswoman.blogspot.com.