The Agatha Christie Novel Linked to Real Murders

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Arsenic, cyanide, even nicotine: No toxic substance escaped the attention of Agatha Christie, the celebrated mystery writer of over five dozen novels. While her fictional victims were always subject to being stabbed, shot, or pushed off a cliff, the primary method of disposal was poison. Slipped into nightcaps, eye drops, even seeping from wallpaper, a variety of fatal chemicals provided her characters with mysterious ailments and puzzling clues that made for ideal murder material.

Christie’s assured handling of poisons came from first-hand experience with pharmaceuticals. She had volunteered to become an apothecary’s assistant at a hospital during both World Wars, acquiring a vast knowledge of drugs she then utilized in her detective fiction. With few exceptions, her descriptions of dosages, reactions, and mortality rates were rivaled only in specialist texts.

While this attention to detail was normally celebrated, there was one instance when a hysterical news media—and even Christie herself—became alarmed that she may have taken things too far.

The book in question was The Pale Horse, a novel about a group of contract killers using thallium, a heavy metal discovered in 1861 but largely obscure until Christie wrote about itThe real-life murderer was Graham Young, who was sentenced to life in prison for using thallium to poison an untold number of people, killing three. His experiments began in 1961, while he was just 14 years old. The Pale Horse, the first and only time Christie used thallium as a plot device, was published the same year.

At Young’s trial, pathologist Hugh Molesworth-Johnson said Christie’s descriptions of the drug were so accurate they rivaled the reference books of his profession, and the news media began to speculate about whether the boy had been influenced by the work. Had Christie's fiction turned into Young’s horrific fact?

graham young mug shot

Graham Young was said to be a peculiar little boy. Living in the London suburb of Neasden with his father, stepmother, and sister, Young largely kept to himself. He spent long hours in the library poring over medical texts and writing poetry. When he was 11, his father gave him a chemistry set as a reward for his fine grades.

His closest friend at school was a child named Christopher Williams. One day, Young offered Williams some cake. Williams became sick to his stomach but gradually recovered. Young kept notes on his symptoms.

As psychologists (and police) would later find out, his “friend” Williams had been Young's first human subject. Previously, he’d poisoned mice, insects, and plants with a variety of toxic substances easily acquired with his allowance and over the counter: antimony, belladonna, and thallium. The latter was a particularly malevolent chemical: odorless and tasteless, it’s treated by the body as potassium and creates significant damage in nerve cells. Numbness of the hands, slurred speech, and lethargy are common symptoms. In ingestion cases, small doses can build to lethal levels within two to three weeks. Victims who succumbed to it were often thought to have suffered from encephalitis or epilepsy.

When Young decided his stepmother, Molly, should get a dose, she may have become the first person in Britain to be intentionally poisoned with thallium. Young also slipped antimony—an emetic that causes copious vomiting—and other poisons to his father and sister. All three fell extremely ill. The family physician was at a loss until Young—by this point, a somewhat arrogant poisoner—brought some to school to show off. When the doctor learned from a teacher that Young was in possession of it, he had the boy's relatives tested.

All recovered save for his stepmother, who died. Young told psychiatrists the poisons had given him a sense of power.

“It grew on me like a drug habit,” he said, “except it was not me taking the drug.”

At the age of 14, Young was sentenced to Broadmoor, an asylum for the criminally insane, and was not expected to be released until near his 30th birthday. Doctors who evaluated the budding killer insisted he wouldn't hesitate to poison again at the earliest possible opportunity.

Eight years later, a different team of psychiatrists pronounced Young cured, despite the fact he was fond of growing nightshade—another poison—on prison property and once poured toilet detergent into the coffee of the nursing staff. Having entered incarceration a boy, he was released in 1971 as a fully-grown man of 23. Probation officers helped him land an interview for a job as a warehouse worker 30 miles north of London at the John Hadland Photographic Instrumentation company.   

His would-be boss, Godfrey Foster, asked about the fact that this was his first job. Young replied he had suffered a nervous breakdown following the death of his stepmother. Foster phoned Young's psychiatrist to confirm the story; he was assured Young was fine. No mention was made of the fact that Young had poisoned his entire family and been imprisoned at Broadmoor, and no one seemed concerned that thallium happened to be a component in photographic lens manufacturing.

Young started work at Hadland in May 1971. Though they did manufacture lenses, no thallium (which can affect refraction in glass) was kept on the premises—a bit of irony perhaps only Young could have enjoyed at the time. However, he had no problem obtaining it at local drugstores.

Within a month of Young’s arrival, employees at Hadland began to fall ill. His supervisor, Bob Egle, got sick just before he was scheduled to take a vacation. He went ahead with his plans and began to feel better almost immediately, though he made no connection between his convalescence and the fact that Young was no longer serving him tea from a cart at work.

When he returned, his fingers grew numb and he began to stagger. After eight days in the hospital, he died of what doctors believed to be bronchopneumonia.

By this point, several other Hadland employees were feeling unwell. So many people began calling in sick that senior employee Fred Biggs agreed to come in on a Saturday. He sipped tea made by Young, and died 12 days later.

The epidemic led workers to believe Hadland was a toxic environment, possibly irradiated. Executives had a physician and a medical officer for the area come in and declare it safe. During one group meeting, the physician tried to calm everyone’s nerves. Young stood up and began peppering him with questions about the potential for heavy metal poisoning, particularly thallium.

The doctor thought Young was strange. His behavior compelled Hadland's investigators to reach out to the authorities, who examined his background and discovered Young had poisoned his household. Police searched his rented room and found a diary that offered explicit details of who he had poisoned, by how much, and their symptoms. Though Egle had been cremated by this time, forensic specialists were able to test his remains for thallium. The ashes were positive.

Young was sentenced to life in prison in 1972. During his well-publicized trial, much was made of Christie’s use of thallium in The Pale Horse and its relative rarity as a murder weapon. A month after his sentencing, Christie, then 81, expressed concern she could have given Young ideas. Her husband, Sir Max Mallowan, told reporters he wondered if “this fellow read her book and learned anything from it.” The Daily Mail published a list of similarities between Young’s victims and Christie’s descriptions. They could hardly resist the implication that the author had created a literal monster.

During Young’s 1972 trial, a pathologist testified that Christie’s book was the only source outside of reference books where such specific and accurate information about thallium could be found. Young himself never made any conclusive statement about The Pale Horse; it’s possible his knowledge came from studying medical texts during his library days as an adolescent.

Young, however, couldn't seem to escape his curious connection with Christie. When a nurse was reading the book in 1977 and recognized symptoms of thallium poisoning in a patient being treated in her ward, Scotland Yard suggested that doctors interview Young because he was undeniably an expert on the substance—and happened to be serving his life sentence right next door to the hospital, in Wormwood Scrubs Jail. It wasn't necessary, though; tests confirmed thallium. The patient was treated using a compound known as Prussian Blue, which binds to the metal and excretes it. She survived. Young died in 1990 of a heart attack at the age of 42.

It was not quite the end of thallium as a source of misery. In 2005, a 16-year-old in Shizuoka, Japan, used it to try to poison her mother, who fell gravely ill. While in the hospital, the girl—whose name was withheld from media—attempted to poison her again. She eventually confessed, with a judge sending her to reform school.

During their investigation, authorities discovered a blog that documented her mother’s systemic reactions. Among the other works cited in her journal: a biography about Young, and The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie.  

Additional Sources: A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie

Making a Murderer is Making Viewers Curious About Brain Fingerprinting

Netflix
Netflix

After making its premiere in December 2015, the 10-part Netflix docuseries Making a Murderer helped usher in a new genre in streaming entertainment: true crime binge-watching. Viewers were gripped by the story of Steven Avery, a junkyard owner accused of murdering freelance photographer Teresa Halbach in 2005, and the dubious testimony of Avery's 16-year-old nephew—and alleged co-conspirator—Brendan Dassey. Avery had been convicted of a separate crime once before and served 18 years in prison before DNA exonerated him. Holes in the state of Wisconsin’s argument in the Halbach case abound, and grassroots efforts sprung up to argue that Avery had once again been wrongly convicted.

In episode two of season two, which launched on Netflix last week, Avery’s new defense attorney, Kathleen Zellner, asks Avery to submit to a curious examination informally known as “brain fingerprinting.” Wearing a head-mounted sensor that looks a little like the Cerebro helmet donned by Professor X in the X-Men comics and films, Avery is exposed to details of the crime only the perpetrator would know. The sensor can purportedly pick up the electrical signals in the brain of someone experiencing a wave of recognition, indicating they might be the guilty party.

In an otherwise grounded show, this felt like an excerpt from a science-fiction series. Is brain fingerprinting really reliable?

The forensics community isn’t really sure.

The test, which was developed by Lawrence Farwell, Ph.D. and first used in an active criminal investigation in 1999, looks for the P300 response—a surge of electrical activity in the brain roughly 300 milliseconds after a person sees something familiar to them, usually a written detail or image. Instead of looking for a physiological response in a polygraph, or “lie detector” test, Farwell’s method confines its reading to the brain via an EEG wave.

Farwell states that the test, which he calls Farwell Brain Fingerprinting, has never resulted in a false-positive or false-negative result. He says research supervised by the FBI, the U.S. Navy, and the CIA has confirmed its accuracy, and Farwell has published papers about the technique in scientific journals. In a case described on Farwell’s website, convicted murderer Terry Harrington was exonerated after he passed a brain fingerprint test and an eyewitness subsequently recanted her incriminating testimony. Farwell even offers a $100,000 bounty to anyone who can beat the test, a prize he says has yet to be claimed.

Critics of Farwell’s technique say his peer-reviewed studies have been limited to just 30 participants total, a small sample size. One study comparing the P300 response to the polygraph found some guilty subjects passed the brain fingerprint test simply by not paying attention to the images meant to trigger a response. Additionally, there have been relatively few tests conducted on truly guilty parties with psychopathic or mentally ill pathologies.

In short: There just isn't enough data to show that brain fingerprinting is as accurate as Farwell claims—or that it should be admissable in court. As for Avery: He passed his test with flying colors.

[h/t Digital Spy]

11 Terrifying Urban Legends That Turned Out to Be True

iStock
iStock

Urban legends—those unsubstantiated stories of terror that allow us to use our imaginations to fill in increasingly horrifying details with each retelling—have been with us forever. While the internet has made dissemination of them easier, humans have been goading one another with spooky anecdotes for centuries. Psychologists believe we respond to these tales because we have a morbid fascination with the disgusting; we also can’t help but enjoy gossip. Put those two things together and it makes for an irresistible mix.

Urban legends often come with a dose of skepticism. (No, a killer with a hook hand has never terrorized necking couples.) But sometimes, these stories turn out to be true. Have a look—preferably under the covers and with a flashlight—at these 11 terrifying tales that actually happened.

1. RATS IN THE TOILET BOWL

Two rats try to swim in a toilet bowl
iStock

You stagger into the bathroom at 3 a.m. to relieve yourself. Groggy with sleep, you lift the lid and position yourself over the toilet. You hear splashing. Turning on the light, you see a rat looking back at you from the bowl. You’re never the same again.

Urban legends about animals in sewers have been a staple of scary stories, particularly the one about baby alligators being flushed down toilets and then growing to adult size in waste channels. Most often told about New York. (Not true. While alligators and crocodiles have been found in New York, they’re generally released and found above ground, and it’s thought that New York is too cold for them to survive for very long.) But finding a rodent in your toilet, inches from very vulnerable areas of your body, is a particular kind of domestic terror—and one that happens to be possible.

Drain plumbing for toilets is typically three inches in diameter or more, plenty of space for a rat to climb up. The animals are attracted to sewage lines due to undigested food in feces and can travel through pipes before emerging through an opening and into your bathroom. And yes, rats can be somewhat testy when they complete their journey. One aquatic rodent bit the rump of a female victim in Petersburg, Virginia in 1999. In Seattle, the issue is common enough that public officials have given advice on what to do in case you encounter one (close the lid and flush).

2. THE LEGEND OF POLYBIUS

An arcade game joystick sits next to buttons
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Vintage video gamers have long traded stories about a coin-operated arcade game circa early 1980s Portland that had strange effects on its players. The game, titled Polybius, was alleged to have prompted feelings of disorientation, amnesia, game addiction, and even suicide. The machine’s cabinet was said to be painted entirely black, and it was rumored that stern-looking men would sometimes visit arcades to collect information from the machine before disappearing. Was it a CIA experiment spun off from MK Ultra, the psychoactive drug study conducted on unsuspecting subjects?

While the entire story doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, individual pieces are actually based in fact. Brian Dunning, host of the Skeptoid podcast, did some investigative work and found that a 12-year-old named Brian Mauro had become sickened during a 28-hour marathon video game contest in Portland in 1981. (He apparently drank too much soda and experienced stomach discomfort.) Just a few days later, Portland-area arcades were raided by federal agents, who seized cabinets that were being used for gambling. Coupled with the existence of a real arcade game named Poly-Play, these memories seemed to amalgamate into the Polybius legend.

3. CANDYMAN

A woman takes a photo of herself in a medicine cabinet mirror
jay~dee, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Released in 1992, Candyman—based on a short story by Clive Barker—remains a potent horror tale of the revenge undertaken by a black artist (Tony Todd) murdered in the 1890s for having a relationship with a white woman. While it’s not likely you’ll be able to invoke him by saying his name several times in a mirror, the pants-soiling idea of having a killer burst through a medicine cabinet is actually based in fact.

In 1987 the Chicago Reader published a story about Ruth McCoy, a woman living in a Chicago housing project, who made a frantic call to 911 insisting she was being attacked in her apartment. Responders eventually found her dead of gunshot wounds. Investigators determined that her assailants had gained access to her unit by breaking through the connecting wall in the adjoining apartment and climbing in through her medicine cabinet. The complex was built that way intentionally, so that plumbers investigating leaks could simply remove the cabinet to check the pipes. It became a frequent mode of entry for burglars—and in McCoy’s case, her killers.

4. CROPSEY

A man casts a shadow in the woods
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For years, kids living in and around Staten Island raised goosebumps by relating the tale of “Cropsey,” a boogeyman who lived in the woods and made a nocturnal habit of disemboweling children. Parents no doubt eased their kids’ fears by telling them no such monster existed.

But he did. In 1987, Andre Rand was put on trial and convicted for a child abduction. Rand, it turned out, may have been connected to a rash of child disappearances in the 1970s. He had once worked at Willowbrook, a defunct mental institution. While he denies involvement in other cases, it’s clear Rand’s activities had a heavy influence in the word-of-mouth stories that followed.

5. THE LEAPING LAWYER

Buildings stretch into the sky
iStock

Sooner or later, Toronto residents hear the tale of a lawyer who had a peculiar fondness for running full-bore into his office windows to demonstrate how strong they were. This practice caught up with him eventually, as he crashed into a window and went sailing to his death. This hobby was actually practiced by Garry Hoy, a senior partner in an area law firm with an office on the 24th floor. On July 9, 1993, Hoy made his signature tackle against the window to impress some visiting law students. The pane finally broke and sent him plummeting to his death. In a eulogy, managing partner Peter Lauwers called Hoy “one of the best and brightest” at the firm.

6. THE BODY UNDER THE BED

A hand appears from underneath a bed
iStock

Vacationing couples. Newlyweds. Disneyland guests. All have been the subject of an urban legend involving hotel occupants who fall blissfully to sleep, only to wake up to an awful stench coming from either under the bed or inside the mattress. Closer inspection reveals that a dead body has been stashed away. Presumably, not anyone who has died of natural causes.

This traveling tale has been confirmed multiple times over. At least a dozen newspaper stories have detailed hotel rooms that have doubled as body disposal sites. While the smell is usually apparent right away, at least one couple slept on a mattress containing a body in Atlantic City in 1999. Cases in Colorado, Florida, and Virginia have also been reported.

In 2010, guests at a Budget Lodge in Memphis were horrified to discover they had been sleeping above the body of Sony Millbrook, a missing person. Fabric softener had been stuffed in the ceiling tiles to try and mask the smell. At least three other occupants had also rented the room since Millbrook’s disappearance. A court eventually convicted Millbrook’s boyfriend, LaKeith Moody, of the crime.

7. THE MAINE HERMIT

A person's shadow is visible in a camping tent
iStock

For decades, people who vacationed in central Maine’s North Pond area were puzzled by items that would go missing. Batteries and food from cabins, flashlights from camping tents. Rumors spread that a permanent fixture of the area would forage for sustenance and supplies.

They were right. For 27 years, Christopher Knight lived alone in the woods, keeping tabs on the hikers, canoeists, and other temporary residents of the grounds. When he was confronted by a game warden in 2013, Knight admitted he was responsible for an average of around 40 robberies a year. Despite the likely protestations of family and friends who dismissed tales of a hermit lurking somewhere in the woods, his identification proved that someone had been watching—and waiting—for nearly three decades.

8. THE FAKE COP TRICK

Lights are visible on a police car at night
iStock

You may have had an overly concerned parent or friend warn you of people impersonating police officers, using that veneer of authority to attack victims who have let their guard down. While there aren’t many who are in full patrol uniform or traveling in marked vehicles, there have been many documented cases of assailants posing as law enforcement—at least two this past summer alone. In Bloomington, Illinois, a man used flashing lights to get a vehicle to pull over. After walking up to the vehicle, the man tried—unsuccessfully—to overpower the driver before they managed to get away. In Fayetteville, Georgia, a man donned a uniform and pulled over a teenage boy on a bike, forcing him to empty his pockets. Talking to (real) police later, the boy told them a second car had pulled up with a man matching the description of someone who had been caught impersonating an officer two weeks prior.

9. THE LEGEND OF THE BUNNY MAN

A man in a bunny mask sits at a table
iStock

If you lived in or around Virginia in the 1970s, you were probably exposed to the story of the Bunny Man. In the tale, an escaped mental patient takes to gutting bunnies and hanging them from a bridge underpass. Later, the maniac is said to have graduated to gutting and hanging teens in a similar manner. Locals were cautioned to never be caught near the underpass, which is now known to most people as “Bunny Man Bridge,” on Halloween night.

This story likely spawned from the very real presence of a roving madman in the area. In October 1970, a couple reported seeing a man dressed in a white suit and wearing bunny ears who began yelling at them that they were on private property. To punctuate his point, he threw a hatchet at their windscreen, apparently shattering it. There was a second sighting of Bunny Man two weeks later, when a security guard spotted a hatchet-wielding man chipping away at a porch railing. Police tried, unsuccessfully, to locate the man. While he didn’t disembowel anyone, the thought of an adult wielding both a hatchet and a pair of rabbit ears somehow manages to be just as disturbing.

10. CHARLIE NO-FACE

A man walks along a road near trees
iStock

Imagine finding yourself outside and alone in the dark on a residential street. You hear footsteps approaching. Suddenly, a man with a misshapen face appears. You run, terrified beyond words. You spread the story of the man with no face throughout Pennsylvania.

“Charlie No-Face” (also called the Green Man) was actually a man named Ray Robinson, and he was no figment of anyone’s imagination. Born in 1910, Robinson was disfigured as the result of an electrical accident at the age of 8. He touched active wires, which effectively maimed him. Knowing his appearance could be disconcerting, Robinson took to taking strolls after dark. He often walked a path along Route 351 in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. While his intentions were honorable, encountering Robinson in the dead of night inevitably led to spreading stories about a boogeyman haunting the town. Robinson died in 1985.

11. THE ALL-TOO-REAL CORPSE DECORATION

A toe tag is seen on a corpse in a morgue
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Notorious outlaw Elmer McCurdy took on a second life following his death. In 1911, the embalmed corpse of McCurdy became a grim sideshow attraction throughout Texas, with people eager to see the famed criminal on display in funeral parlors and carnivals. Though it’s hard to document all of his travels, he eventually wound up in Long Beach, California, where someone apparently mistook him for a prop. McCurdy was hung in a funhouse at the Nu-Pike Amusement Park, his humanity discovered only after a crew member on The Six Million-Dollar Man—which was filming there in 1976—tried to adjust him, dislodging his very real arm. The following year, his corpse was put to proper rest. 

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