Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John Christie

The Arrest and Trial

Christie claimed that after he left Rillington Place, he fully intended to return, but ended up placing his borrowed suitcase into a locker and wandering around various London neighborhoods. On March 20, 1953, he booked a room at the King's Cross Rowton House with his real name and address. He asked for seven nights, but only stayed four. It could be that he heard about the widescale police search for him and decided it was better to find another place to stay. His name was on the front page of every newspaper. Since he was at large, he was considered a danger to unwary females.

John Christie search photo (CORBIS)
John Christie search photo
(CORBIS)

A photograph of him in a raincoat appeared, along with a complete description. At that point, Christie switched coats, buying an overcoat from another man. He gave that man his own raincoat. He later claimed that he wandered in a daze, but the fact that he had the wherewithal to contrive a bit of a disguise disputed this. He also said that he did see headlines about corpses at his house, but did not connect them with himself.

As he ran out of money, he walked around wherever he could and took naps on benches and in movie theaters. Eventually he wandered to the banks of the Thames. On that last day of March, a police officer spotted him on the Putney Embankment. By that time, Christie had been wandering for ten days. The constable asked him who he was and he gave a false name and address. Then he was asked to take off his hat, exposing the high, balding forehead said to be characteristic of Christie, and he was arrested.

On his person were his identity card, a ration book, his Union card, an ambulance badge, and oddly, an old newspaper clipping about the remand of Timothy Evans, with details about those killings.

At the Putney Police station, Christie willingly gave his statement about the murders, but only talked about four. He hinted that there was something else that he could not quite remember, possibly hedging to see if the police had yet discovered the skeletons in the garden.

Of his wife, he said that her moving around in bed awakened him. Her face was blue and she was choking. It seemed to him too late to call for assistance; he tried but failed to restore her breathing. Unable to bear her suffering, he got a stocking and strangled her. He then found a bottle that had contained Phenobarbitone tablets, that was now nearly empty. They were for his insomnia and he realized she had taken them to kill herself. She had been deeply depressed over the new tenants, whom she viewed as persecuting her (according to Christie). He left her there in the bed for two or three days, and then when he recalled that there were some loose boards in the front room and a depression in the ground beneath, he wrapped her in a blanket and placed her there to keep her near him. "I thought that was the best way to lay her to rest." He claimed he did not know what else to do — as if he did not already have two corpses out in the garden.

The other three women, too, were "not his fault." Since they were women of disrepute, he claimed they were the aggressors, with him, a man of virtue who had no choice but do what he did. In his statement, Christie reversed the order of when he met the first two, but given their relative positions in the cupboard, it's fairly clear that his memory was in error. Medical tests also indicated that Rita Nelson was the first to die.

Rita Nelson, victim
Rita Nelson, victim

Rita Nelson, 25, allegedly had demanded money from Christie in the street. (Christie says this was Kathleen Maloney, but it was Rita Nelson whom he killed first, so he seems to have gotten the names mixed up.) Eddowes says she was killed on January 2, 1953, while Kennedy places her death closer to January 19th. Since she had visited a medical office on the 12th, where she was tested and determined to be 24-weeks pregnant, Kennedy may be more accurate. She was referred to the Samaritan Hospital for Women, but never arrived. It was her landlady who reported her missing.

According to Christie's account, Nelson (or Maloney) told him she would scream and accuse him of assault if he didn't give her 30 shillings. He walked away and she followed, forcing her way into his house. She picked up a frying pan to hit him. They struggled and she fell back on a chair that happened to have a rope hanging from it. Christie blacked out and woke up to find her strangled. He left her there, had some tea, and went to bed. When he discovered her still there in the morning, he wrapped her up, diapered her, and shoved her into the cupboard. "I pulled away a small cupboard in the corner," he recalled, "and gained access to a small alcove."

Kennedy believes it is more likely that he met her in a pub, learned of her troubles, and offered to abort her. That was how he got her home.

Kathleen Maloney, victim
Kathleen Maloney,
victim

Around the same time, Christie encountered Kathleen Maloney, 26, although he recalled that it was February.* Christie had met her before. Three weeks before Christmas, he had gone with her and another prostitute to a room where he had taken photographs of the other girl in the nude.

On this night, he went into a Notting Hill café and sat at a table where Kathleen and another girl were discussing their search for flats. Kathleen was an orphan who had given birth thus far to five illegitimate children. That night, she went home with Christie and was never seen again. He later claimed that she had made advances as a way to get him to use his influence with the landlord and then threatened violence. He said he only recalled that she was on the floor and that he put her into the cupboard right away. He did not recall killing her. In fact, however, he had devised a new gas contraption. He placed her in the chair — an easy matter since she was quite drunk — and used the gas. Then he strangled her with a rope. He had intercourse with her and placed a diaper between her legs. He then went to bed. (He did not confess the sexual contact or the gassing of these women until later.)

The next morning, he made tea with the corpse still sitting in the chair. He wrapped her body in a blanket, put a pillowcase over her head, and placed her inside the alcove. Her body lay on the floor with her legs vertical against the back wall. He covered her with dirt and ashes and then closed up the cupboard.

Another woman, Mrs. Margaret Forrest, met Christie and listened to him brag about his medical expertise. She made an appointment to come and take his treatment for migraines, but failed to show up. It is likely that she was targeted as a potential victim, since Christie told her that his treatment involved gas. When she failed to meet her first appointment, he came looking for her and was quite angry. He insisted she come immediately to his house. She agreed to do so, but lost the address — fortunately for her.

Hectorina McLennan, victim
Hectorina McLennan,
victim

Christie's statement about Hectorina McLennan, 26, indicated that she and her boyfriend were hard up for a place to stay, so he had invited them to share with him. They stayed together in a barely furnished flat for several uncomfortable days. In one version of the story, Christie had asked the two people to leave. The girl returned along the next night to wait for her boyfriend and when Christie tried to get her out, they struggled. Some of her clothing got torn. She fell limp and sank to the floor, and Christie thought that some of her clothing got wrapped around her neck. He pulled her into the kitchen and sat her on a chair. She seemed to be dead, so he stashed her in the cupboard as well.

He also confessed another version. While Hectorina and her boyfriend were at the Labour Exchange, Christie showed up and invited Hectorina to come to his house that morning alone. He poured her a drink and then unfastened a clasp that released the gas. She tried to leave, but he stopped her in the hallway. "I seized hold of her by the neck and applied just sufficient pressure to make her limp. I took her back to the kitchen and I decided that it was essential to use the gas again. I made love to her, and then put her back in the chair. I killed her." He shoved her into the alcove in a sitting position. He kept her upright by hooking her brassiere to the blanket around Maloney's legs.

When Hectorina's boyfriend came looking for her, Christie denied having seen her. He invited the man in to have a look around and made him some tea, whereupon he noticed a nasty odor. However, he left without further exploration.

In Brixton prison, several psychiatrists examined Christie, and he provided many details, although not all of them accurate. The doctors were unanimous in their dislike of the man. He was "nauseating" and "sniveling." He seemed always to whisper when asked a question that he did not like, as he had at the Evans trial. He also dissociated when describing his foul deeds, talking about himself in the third person as if he were a spectator. His confessions were peppered with evasions and lies.

Christie also boasted about his nefarious deeds to other inmates, comparing himself to the infamous John George Haigh, the acid-bath killer who also had murdered six women. Christie claimed that his goal had been 12.

Once confronted with evidence, he quickly admitted to killing his first two victims, but resisted the idea that he had killed the Evans mother and child. Then he claimed that he did indeed murder Beryl Evans, but not her child. Beryl's was a mercy killing, similar to his wife. She had tried to kill herself with gas and when Christie rescued her (according to him), she begged him to help her do it. The next day he gassed and then strangled her. (He could not have done this since holding the gas close to her would have affected him as well. None of his details about rescuing her and then assisting her were supported by medical fact.) Christie claimed that Beryl offered him sex in exchange for his assistance and he tried but failed to perform.

He later said to a chaplain that he did not think he had murdered Beryl, but had gotten the impression from his attorney that for an insanity defense it would be better for him to admit to as many murders as possible.

When asked about the pubic hair collection, he said that one clump was Beryl's. Her body was exhumed for comparison, but it was evident that no hair had been cut from her. To whom this hair belonged remained a mystery, as Christie could not (or would not) recall.

He stood trial at the Old Bailey on June 22nd, 1953 on the charge of murdering his wife. It was the same court where Evans had been tried. The presiding judge was Justice Finnemore and the prosecutor attorney general Sir Lionel Heald. Derek Curtis-Bennett defended Christie, who pleaded Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity.

All of the murders were brought in by the defense to prove how insane he must have been. His own attorney called him a maniac and madman. Dr. Jack Abbott Hobson, a psychiatrist for the defense, concurred. He said Christie was a severe hysteric who may have known what he was doing at the time of each murder, but did not appreciate that it was wrong. He suffered a defect of reason that prevented him from fully appreciating the criminality and immorality of his act.

The prosecution had two distinguished professionals for rebuttal, Dr. Matheson and Dr. Desmond Curran. Matheson agreed that Christie had a hysterical personality, but that was a neurosis, not a defect of reason. To his mind, Christie was not insane. Curran found Christie to be an inadequate personality with hysterical features, and similarly detected no defect of reason.

Heald presented to the jury the account given by Christie of the murder of his own wife. He indicated that the things that Christie did to avoid detection were indicative of knowledge of wrongdoing.

Christie himself took the stand and seemed to observers to be quite agitated. He pulled at his ear, clasped and unclasped his hands, rubbed his head, stroked his cheek, and pulled at his collar. He offered a murder-by-murder description, although many of his replies to his counsel's questions were nearly inaudible. When asked why, in his lengthy confession to police, he had neglected to mention Beryl Evans, he said that he had forgotten that one. Despite having been put through giving evidence at a trial only four years earlier, it had "gone clean out" of his mind.

The prosecutor's closing argument insisted that Christie's murders would need to be compulsive to be considered insane; that is, he would have committed them even in the presence of a police officer. Christie had admitted that it was unlikely he would have done any such thing. In fact, his actions after his wife's death showed quite clearly that he knew that what he had done was wrong and that he had to hide it from people. His logic showed sanity and appreciation of the wrongfulness of his deed.

Curtiss-Bennett asked the jury to consider how abominable were this man's actions and how utterly revelatory of madness: a man who had intercourse with dying or dead women; a man who kept a collection of pubic hairs; a man living, eating, sleeping with those bodies nearby; how could he be sane?

The judge did not think that this was an adequate test of insanity. He instructed the jury to consider all of the evidence and testimony when they decided whether Christie was insane when he killed his wife. That was the only issue at hand. The fact that he was a sexual pervert did not make him insane, nor did the fact that he acted like a monster.

The trial lasted only four days, and the jury deliberated only an hour and 20 minutes. Their verdict: Guilty. He was sentenced to death.

Christie did not appeal and there appeared to be no medical grounds for reprieve. He was hanged at Pentonville Prison on July 15th, 1953.

Yet that was not the end of the case.

*Note: Kennedy reverses the order of the deaths of Kathleen Maloney and Rita Nelson, probably because Christie's confession mixed them up. Although different authors offer different descriptions of what happened, it seems difficult to know for sure, since Christie certainly lied about how he met and killed these women. He also gave several conflicting statements. What seems without doubt is that Rita Nelson was first in the cupboard and that Christie says that both women accosted him.

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