Mystery Novelist Agatha Christie's Unexplained Disappearance
| LAST UPDATE 11/23/2021
Outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare, author Agatha Christie left readers with 80 publications and a mystery not even the Police could solve. An enigma herself, she disappeared without rhyme or reason.
Born Ready for Books
Born on a September evening in 1890, Agatha Christie's love for books grew almost faster than she did. By the age of 5, she taught herself to read, signaling to her family that an in-home library was in their future.
Decades later, almost 4 billion copies of her novels had sold across the globe. Agatha is known as one of the best-selling novelists of all time. Her murder-mystery novels' legacy left behind some of the most recognizable characters in British literature, including Miss Marple and Poirot.
A Mystery of Her Own
The mystery author set the Guinness World Record for Best Selling Novelist of all time. Many people know of her work, but not many know that Agatha was involved in a mystery of her own when she disappeared from her home in the Winter of 1926. No one knew how, why, or where she was.
It's a story that unfolds like a book you can't put down. Agatha Christie up and vanished without a trace, sending her family, the media, and the world into a frenzy. As word hit front-page news of newspapers around the globe, many wondered, where was Christie?
The First Chapter
As many mysteries go, exemplified in Christie's novels, the first to be questioned about disappearances are usually the family and friends of the absent. So, it made sense when her husband was the first to be interrogated. Agatha met British Army officer Archibald "Archie" Christie at an Army ball and began their whirlwind romance.
The pair married on Christmas Eve in 1914 and quickly settled down in Berkshire, England. Just 4 years later, the couple welcomed their daughter Rosalind. Archie was deployed to France during WWI, keeping him away for a couple of years. Upon his homecoming, Agatha learned that he had been having an affair with his secretary, Theresa Neele, for years.
A Crumbling Relationship
Archie didn't necessarily try to hide the affair from Agatha. Once she found out, it caused a fight that was meant to stay behind closed doors but soon became one of the most bizarre mysteries in modern history. In September 1926, Archie asked for a divorce, and strong-willed Agatha refused, continuing their nightly arguments.
On the evening of December 3, 1926, Archie left his wife and daughter at home, setting out for a weekend venture with his friends. Around 9:30 pm the same night, Agatha kissed 7-year-old Rosalind goodnight, then left their Berkshire home. Rosalind didn't know it at the time, but she would be the last person to see her Mother.
It was out of character for Agatha to leave her daughter home alone. So, the Christie family began to worry when she didn't return the next day. Agatha's secretary called the Police to report her missing with no other choice, and they understood that the situation needed the utmost sensitivity.
The Police were on high alert, as they understood this could very well be the biggest case they've ever had. The idea of a mystery author gone missing was a concept they had to handle carefully. They knew the media and press would have a field day with the opportunity to turn the situation into something it possibly wasn't.
The Hunt Began
Police kicked into high gear as a search commenced in one of the largest missing person cases Britain had ever seen. The hunt included 1,000 Police officers, 15,000 volunteers, and airplanes were involved for the first time in history. Berkshire newspapers, soon followed by more across the country, published tip line numbers.
William Joynson-Hicks, The Home Secretary, urged Police to make faster progress in finding Agatha, as the world was becoming vastly concerned and uneasy. With every available officer in the surrounding areas on the ground, days of silence and minimal leads, one crucial piece of evidence was found.
Clue 1: Agatha's Car
The Christie family was in a frenzy as 48-hours had passed with no sign of her. At 8:00 am on December 6, Agatha's 2-seater Morrie Cowley was found with nothing but her jacket on the seat. According to reports, “The novelist’s car was found abandoned…on the edge of a chalk pit, the front wheels actually hanging over the edge..."
"...Only a thick hedge growth prevented [the car] from plunging into the pit.” Authorities found it strange that her jacket was lying on the passenger seat, as it was a cold British Winter. This was a clear sign of two things: either something had gone terribly wrong, or something bad was on the horizon.
Discovery of the abandoned car blasted across international headlines. The same day her car was found, Agatha's disappearance became front-page news in the New York Times. With the headlines reaching far and wide, the pressure was amplified for the Police to crack the mystery. And the press quickly got on board...
Tabloids speculated that Agatha died under suspicious circumstances, took her own life, or used it as a publicity stunt to promote her new book. Famous authors cut in saying that Christie's 6th novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was selling so well that it wouldn't have made sense for any of these theories to be true.
Clue 2: A Letter
Rumors even began to spread that Christie had been murdered by her husband, Colonel Archibald Christie, a former First World War pilot and known casanova. It was at this time, on December 8th, that Archie's brother came forward with new evidence claiming that Agatha sent him a personalized letter.
The New York Times wrote, “The missing woman had been heard from. The brother of Colonel Archibald Christie...had received a letter written since her disappearance, in which the novelist said that she had been in ill health and was going to a Yorkshire spa for rest and treatment.” A spa weekend. Mystery solved? Not even close.
Agatha's Dog Joins The Search
The letter alone was not enough to cease the search. There were still too many questions left unanswered. Why would she leave her car in such a dangerous position? Why leave her jacket in the middle of Winter? Why leave Rosalind? All of the facts and clues the Police had, left them more confused than when the search began.
Almost every person joined the search. Even fellow novelists tried to break down the story to make sense of it. Police sent 6 trained bloodhounds, Airedale terriers, retrievers, Alsatian Police dogs, and even Agatha's beloved dog to search for her. Her pet "Wined pitifully" given the task, signaling that everyone was right to worry.
Novelists Joined the Hunt
Attempting to think like Christie, novelist Arthur Conan Doyle, best known as the author who created Sherlock Holmes, tried to help as much as he could. A believer of the supernatural, he brought a glove of Agatha's to a spirit medium, hoping it would help in some way, but unfortunately, it didn't help.
Another friend and fellow novelist, Dorothy L. Sayers, creator of Detective Lord Peter Wimsey, traveled out to the site where Agatha's car was found to help search for clues. Unfortunately, she found nothing aside from theories and speculations. The writers tried not to lose hope for the sake of their mystery-writing comrade.
Agatha's Haunted House
Many theorized that Agatha took her own life since being in a depressive state after the loss of her Mother. Others thought the entire ordeal was a clever hoax to promote her upcoming book. A friend of Agatha's told a newspaper that Christie feared her house was haunted. Could the house itself have done something to Agatha?
The paper wrote: The house "stands in a lonely lane...which has a reputation for being haunted. The lane has been the scene of the murder of a woman and the suicide of a man, and its tragic associations were felt by Mrs. Christie. ‘If I do not leave Sunningdale soon, Sunningdale will be the end of me,’ she once said to a friend."
The Mysterious Silent Pool
The Police tried to ignore the rumors spread in the papers, as they were even more baffled now than before. With so many searches taking place and so little information being found, they felt they had no other choice but to begin operating with the assumption that Agatha had, indeed, taken her own life.
They were drawn to small clues elsewhere, working off the only information they had. They swept the nearby spring, commonly called Silent Pool. The spring had an unnerving history of folklore, as it was said that 2 kids silently drowned there in previous years. Their search turned up nothing, until...they found something.
Clue 3: Breadcrumbs
It somehow took until December 11th, 8 days after her disappearance, for a crucial detail of the mystery to unfold. It turned out that before Agatha went out into the night, she left 3 letters behind. The 1st letter was for Archie. He refused to turn it over to Police, saying it was just a letter from his wife and nothing more.
The 2nd letter was for Agatha's brother-in-law, mentioned earlier. He refused to turn over the letter too, saying there was nothing of importance in it. Both Archie and his brother burned their letters, ridding of the evidence and making the Police much more suspicious of them. There was 1 letter and 1 crucial clue left.
Agatha's Last Words
Agatha left the 3rd letter for her secretary and good friend, who quickly turned the letter over to the Police to aid in the investigation. Pesky tabloids spread rumors that the letter said the likes of, "I must get away. I cannot stay here in Sunningdale much longer.” Berkshire media was treating the case like a Christie novel.
The Police later stated the letter contained only normal instructions such as canceling upcoming meetings. Another dead end. The Police were losing momentum, but Christie's friends and fans would not stand for stillness in her case. Just as all hope was becoming lost, the dead-end burst wide open.
A Tip Line Call
While people went to all lengths to find Agatha, some turned to help from the spiritual realms while others speculated foul play and stories of imagination to the nth degree. In the late hours of December 15th, the Police received a promising call on the tip line that would change everything.
Up North in Harrogate, a 4-hour drive away from Sunningdale, a banjo player named Bob Tappin said he spotted Agatha at an Old Swan Hotel party. The hotel was well known for attracting UK's wealthiest guests for spa weekends. Possibly a stretch, but Police had to take that chance in hopes of ending the already 12-day search.
Agatha Is Found
Police began their search at the Old Swan Hotel and found Agatha at last! They learned that she had made a reservation under Archie's secretary's name, Mrs. Theresa Neele. She was hiding out under her husband's mistress name, only something a renowned mystery author would think to do.
The Police concluded that Agatha Christie had left home and traveled to London, crashing her car en route. She then boarded a train to Harrogate, and upon arriving at the spa town, she checked in to the hotel with nearly no luggage. Archie was then called to collect Agatha immediately, but when he arrived, she was not herself.
She Didn't Recognize Him
When Archie approached Agatha at the hotel, she had no idea who he was. According to witnesses, she stared at him blankly as if he was a stranger and was in "No hurry to leave" with him when he asked. Finally, she agreed to accompany him, but not before leaving him in the lobby while she changed into an evening gown.
Finding Agatha created more questions than it found answers. It strangely turned out that no one, including Christie, knew what happened. She was fully convinced that she was not herself at the time, but in fact, was Mrs. Neele. She seemed to have completely lost herself, her memory, and her ability to tell fact from fiction.
No Memory or Explanation
When Agatha realized she couldn't remember why she was at the hotel and couldn't recall who she was, the only thing she confidently knew was that Theresa Neele was her real name and identity. Confused, Archie told reporters, "The doctors told me such an action was compatible with that of a person suffering from loss of memory."
Biographer Andrew Norman hypothesized that Agatha may have been in a "fugue state" or psychogenic trance, a rare condition brought on by trauma or depression. He stated, "Her adoption of a new personality...and her failure to recognize herself in newspaper photographs were signs that she had fallen into psychogenic amnesia."
Return to Sunningdale
To those who aided in Agatha's search and followed the story in the papers, it felt as if her discovery was the largest headline in history. Hundreds of people gathered at London's King's Cross Station waiting to witness Agatha's historically confusing but equally as exciting return to Berkshire.
The platform was filled with cheer and applause as Agatha arrived home. But, just because she was found, did not mean the mystery of why she went missing in the first place was solved. There were still massive amounts of unanswered questions. This grey area would follow Christie for the rest of her life.
She Seemed To Be Okay
To the public eye, it seemed that Agatha was in a generally stable state. She was being treated by medical professionals, but detectives continued to question what had happened during those 11 days. One of Christie's friends reported, “It was the unspoken subject. Agatha refused to talk about it. To anyone. It was a real no-go.”
Unsolved questions surrounding the car crash, letters, and memory loss led to more questions than answers. Archie did not seem to be able to give light to the mystery at all. When he spoke with reporters, he couldn't tell them anything useful about Agatha's disappearance. Why wasn't Archie doing more to help his wife?
The Grey Area Got Darker
In interviews with reporters, Archie offered nearly nothing of help. The New York Times reported on details that weren't as relevant, "His wife had no idea of how she got to Harrogate and he could throw no light on the source of the money wherewith Mrs. Christie, judging by her purchases at Harrogate, seemed well supplied."
With the media focusing on the lesser details, such as where Christie got the finances to stay at the hotel, attention to the real questions floundered. No one knew anything, including Agatha, or so everyone thought. It turned out that there was one small detail that she seemed to remember vividly.
Agatha Finally Spoke Out
Agatha rarely spoke of her disappearance in the following months, years, and decades after her reappearance. Yet, after the dust had settled, she was able to give her version of the story. This, unfortunately, puzzled many people even more.
Agatha blamed the entire disappearance on "A dreamlike state" and the birth of a new identity. In an interview, she told a reporter, all she remembered was that "For 24 hours I wandered in a dream, and then found myself in Harrogate as a well-contented and perfectly happy woman who believed she had just come from South Africa.”
She Tried to Explain
Agatha spoke about the topic once more, giving information that left society speechless. She interviewed with the Daily Mail in 1928, which has now been regarded as her only "real" time speaking about her disappearance. She shared that she kissed Rosalind goodnight on the December night in question, then got into her car and drove past the spring.
“There came into my mind the thought of driving into it,” Agatha explained. “However, as my daughter was with me in the car, I dismissed the idea at once.” No one knew what to think of the information she declared or how to handle the situation. Was Rosalind with her or at home? What actually happened? Luckily she kept talking.
Agatha's Desperate Moment
"I felt that I could go on no longer," Agatha told the interviewer, “I left home that night in a state of high nervous strain with the intention of doing something desperate. When I reached a point on the road which I thought was near a quarry, I turned the car off the road...I left the wheel and let the car run," She continued.
"The car struck something with a jerk and pulled up suddenly. I was flung against the steering wheel, and my head hit something. Up to this moment, I was Mrs. Christie." The interviewer and most of the world did not know what to make of this information, as not much fact had been shared. Naturally, theories began to spread yet again.
Because Agatha never publicly spoke about her disappearance again, the author left abundant room for the world to finish the story for her. With 11 mysterious days left unknown, many ran with the chance to end her story their way. Some theorized she intended to end her life but was frightened, making up the memory-loss story.
Others theorized that Agatha suffered from a "fugue state" or "A period of out-of-body amnesia induced by stress." After more news and information came to the surface, those theories would actually prove to be plausible. The former being more unlikely, but still plausible.
The End of the Christie's
15 Months after mysteriously disappearing and reappearing, the page turned on the next chapter of Christie's story. She made the headlines again, but for a different reason. Agatha filed for divorce in 1928. She made a full recovery and once again, picked up her novelist's pen and continued to write under her married name.
So, what happened to Archie? Well, before his divorce was even finalized, he married his mistress, Theresa Neele. As for Agatha, who was finally free from her unenjoyable marriage, what was next for the now-even-more-so universally known author? Well...
Agatha's Last Chapter
2 Years later, Agatha met Max Mallowan, a well-known archaeologist and gentleman that she had met during a trip to Iraq. They were married by 1930, just 6 months after meeting. They were happily married for the rest of Agatha’s life until she peacefully passed away of natural causes on January 12, 1976, at the age of 85.
Agatha was buried at a plot she chose with Max 10 years before her passing. Buried with her were the answers to the conundrum of the author's disappearance and most substantial enigma. Like many of her novels, this story was left behind as another Christie mystery to be mulled over by society for the years to come.
Once An Author Always An Author
After her divorce and before she passed, Agatha wrote more detective novels. She's remembered by Radhika Jones, editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, as "[Capturing] something elemental about mysteries: that motive and opportunity may suffice for a crime, but the satisfying part is the detective’s revelation of whodunit, how and why."
Her puzzling disappearance was never mentioned in her final novel, Sleeping Murder: Miss Marple’s Last Case, published after her passing in 1976. A few years later, in 1979, a film titled Agatha starring Vanessa Redgrave and Dustin Hoffman, was created. Christie certainly set the bar high in British literature.
Her Memory Lives On
From teaching herself to read at 5-years-old to publishing 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections, Agatha Christie arguably paved the way for captivating stories that kept people engaged from cover to cover. Janet Morgan, her biographer, remembers Christie as being "Amused by life, by human beings, and by how they behaved."
As Agatha once said, “Nothing turns out quite in the way that you thought it would when you are sketching out notes for the first chapter or walking about muttering to yourself and seeing a story unroll.” Her story may have ended in 1976, but her memory and intriguing tales will continue to live on for millennia to come.