How the Tragic Death of Violet Sharpe Inspired a Classic Mystery

Mariah Fredericks—author of the gripping new historical mystery The Lindbergh Nanny—is on the site today discussing how one of Agatha Christie's most famous books was inspired by the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping.

Most mystery fans are aware that Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express was inspired by the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping. In the classic mystery, Poirot investigates the murder of Samuel Ratchett. Years ago, Ratchett was behind the kidnapping of “Little Daisy Armstrong,” but he escaped punishment. As Poirot discovers, everyone on the train has a connection to the tragedy. Dramatically, members of the Armstrong family are revealed among the passengers, as well as former staff members. This was no doubt pragmatic on Christie’s part; a family can only have so many relatives. But her plot hinged not just on the loss of the kidnapped child, but the suicide of a servant suspected in the crime. 

Christie may have become fascinated by the case not so much because of the fame of the Lindbergh’s name, but the nationality of their staff. All three employees—the baby’s nurse and a married couple who served as cook and caretaker—were British. Betty Gow was from Glasgow, Olly and Elsie Whateley from Birmingham. Furthermore, the Lindberghs lived primarily at Anne’s mother’s Englewood estate, where there were roughly thirty more servants; several of them British as well. 

As in Murder on the Orient Express, the police strongly suspected someone on the inside was working with the kidnappers. Suspicion fell heavily on the staff of the Lindbergh and Morrow households. The investigation targeted two women in particular: baby nurse Betty Gow and table maid Violet Sharpe. Betty Gow was the last person to see the baby. She’d recently started dating a young man with a sketchy employment history. At nearly thirty, she was seen as vulnerable to manipulation. Had she handed over Charlie to her boyfriend, hoping the ransom money would enable him to marry her? But Betty held up well under questioning and the Lindberghs stood by her. 

Violet Sharpe came under suspicion for different reasons. She had gone out on a date the night of the kidnapping, and the police were eager to find out what she had done—and with whom. But Violet was snappish and uncooperative. She gave vague responses or changed her answers from interview to interview. First she said she had gone to the movies, but could not remember what she had seen. Then she admitted going to a road house, but insisted she drank only coffee. Later she admitted she had a cocktail. She had gone out on a date that night—who was the man? She said she didn’t remember his name.  

After the baby’s body was found, the interrogations intensified, taking their toll on the fragile young woman. Violet wrote to a friend in England, “I hope you will forgive me for not writing before but really have had so much trouble here over the Lindbergh baby. We have all been questioned by the Police… You have no idea what I have been through when the Police had me questioning. I fainted 2 in 2 hours so you can guess how weak I was.”

She concluded with, “Gee, life is getting so sad I really don’t think there is much to live for anymore.” 

On the day the police arrived to take her to the station for further questioning, Violet Sharpe committed suicide by swallowing cyanide.

The kidnapping was heavily reported on in the UK, with many newspapers focused on the ordeals of the English and Scottish staff. Christie would certainly have been aware of not just the kidnapping, but the ordeal faced by Betty Gow and Violet Sharpe. Letters they sent home in 1932 found their way into the press. Friends and relatives gave statements on their behalf. Details about their private lives were revealed—and in some cases, made up. There were stories of a secret marriage, an affair with another member of staff, an abortion. For much of June 1932, poor Violet’s suicide dominated the headlines. 

VIOLET SHARPE SENSATION! 

DEATH OF VIOLET SHARPE!

VIOLET SHARPE MARRIED! 

Understandably, popular opinion held that Violet had been “hounded” to death by a brutal and overzealous police force. Had Violet been worked over? Given the third degree? Violet’s sister, Edna, who had also worked for the Morrows before returning to England, demanded answers. Violet’s treatment by the New Jersey police was the subject of questions in the British House of Commons. Mr. Seymour Cocks asked Anthony Eden, then Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, whether he would request an inquiry “in view of the general feeling in both countries that this poor girl has been bullied to death to cover the incompetence of the police.” The British Acting Consul General in New York was asked to make a full report on the matter. The conclusion: “No violence or Third Degree Methods” had been used. Small comfort perhaps to the Sharpe family.

Murder on the Orient Express was published nearly two years after the kidnapping in the winter of 1934. The New York Times Book Review opined, “Although both the murder plot and the solution verge upon the impossible, Agatha Christie has contrived to make them appear quite convincing…and what more than that can a mystery addict desire?” 

But perhaps the last word should belong to Henry Johnson, Betty Gow’s boyfriend, whose life was also derailed when he became a suspect in America’s most famous kidnapping. Of Violet he said, “There is no reason to suspect her either. She had bad luck. In the first place she was ill. Secondly, the Inquiries turned times on her private affairs, in which she was naturally reserved. She took poison in a fit of depression. That is all there is say about it.” 

 

 

About The Lindbergh Nanny by Mariah Fredericks:

When the most famous toddler in America, Charles Lindbergh, Jr., is kidnapped from his family home in New Jersey in 1932, the case makes international headlines. Already celebrated for his flight across the Atlantic, his father, Charles, Sr., is the country’s golden boy, with his wealthy, lovely wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, by his side. But there’s someone else in their household―Betty Gow, a formerly obscure young woman, now known around the world by another name: the Lindbergh Nanny.

A Scottish immigrant deciphering the rules of her new homeland and its East Coast elite, Betty finds Colonel Lindbergh eccentric and often odd, Mrs. Lindbergh kind yet nervous, and Charlie simply a darling. Far from home and bruised from a love affair gone horribly wrong, Betty finds comfort in caring for the child, and warms to the attentions of handsome sailor Henrik, sometimes known as Red. Then, Charlie disappears.

Suddenly a suspect in the eyes of both the media and the public, Betty must find the truth about what really happened that night, in order to clear her own name―and to find justice for the child she loves.

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