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The Agatha Christie Novel Linked to Real Murders

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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

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10 Hush-Hush Facts About L.A. Confidential
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On this day 20 years ago, a rising star director, a writer who thought he’d never get the gig, and a remarkable cast got together to make a film about the corrupt underbelly of 1950s Los Angeles, and the men and women who littered its landscape. This was L.A. Confidential, a film so complex that its creator (legendary crime writer James Ellroy) thought it was “unadaptable.” In the end, it was one of the most acclaimed movies of the 1990s, a film noir classic that made its leading actors into even bigger stars, and which remains an instantly watchable masterpiece to this day. Here are 10 facts about how it got made.

1. THE SCRIPTING PROCESS WAS TOUGH.

Writer-director Curtis Hanson had been a longtime James Ellroy fan when he finally read L.A. Confidential, and the characters in that particular Ellroy novel really spoke to him, so he began working on a script. Meanwhile, Brian Helgeland—originally contracted to write an unproduced Viking film for Warner Bros.—was also a huge Ellroy fan, and lobbied hard for the studio to give him the scripting job. When he learned that Hanson already had it, the two met, and bonded over their mutual admiration of Ellroy’s prose. Their passion for the material was clear, but it took two years to get the script done, with a number of obstacles.

"He would turn down other jobs; I would be doing drafts for free,” Helgeland said. “Whenever there was a day when I didn't want to get up anymore, Curtis tipped the bed and rolled me out on the floor."

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY INTENDED AS A MINISERIES.

When executive producer David Wolper first read Ellroy’s novel, he saw the dense, complex story as the perfect fodder for a television miniseries, and was promptly turned down by all the major networks at the time.

3. JAMES ELLROY DIDN’T THINK THE BOOK COULD BE ADAPTED.

Though Wolper was intrigued by the idea of telling the story onscreen, Ellroy and his agent laughed at the thought. The author felt his massive book would never fit on any screen.

“It was big, it was bad, it was bereft of sympathetic characters,” Ellroy said. “It was unconstrainable, uncontainable, and unadaptable.”

4. CURTIS HANSON SOLD THE FILM WITH CLASSIC LOS ANGELES IMAGES.

To get the film made, Hanson had to convince New Regency Pictures head Arnon Milchan that it was worth producing. To do this, he essentially put together a collage of classic Los Angeles imagery, from memorable locations to movie stars, including the famous image of Robert Mitchum leaving jail after his arrest for using marijuana.

"Now you've seen the image of L.A. that was sold to get everybody to come here. Let's peel back the image and see where our characters live,” Hanson said.

Milchan was sold.

5. KEVIN SPACEY WAS ON HANSON’S WISH LIST FOR YEARS.

Though the other stars of the film were largely discoveries of the moment, Kevin Spacey was apparently someone Hanson wanted to work with for years. Spacey described Hanson as a director “who’d been trying for years and years and years to get me cast in films he made, and the studio always rejected me.” After Spacey won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects, Hanson called the actor and said, “I think I’ve got the role, and I think they’re not gonna say no this time.”

6. SPACEY’S CHARACTER IS BASED ON DEAN MARTIN.

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Though he cast relative unknowns in Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, Hanson wanted an American movie star for the role of Jack Vincennes, and decided on Kevin Spacey. In an effort to convince Spacey to take the role, Hanson invited him to dine at L.A.’s famous Formosa Cafe (where scenes in the film are actually set). While at the cafe, Spacey asked a vital question:

“If it was really 1952, and you were really making this movie, who would you cast as Jack Vincennes?” Hanson said “Dean Martin.”

At that point, Spacey looked up at the gallery of movie star photos which line the cafe, and realized Martin’s photo was right above him.

“To this day, I don’t know whether he sat us in that booth on purpose, but there was Dino looking down at me,” Spacey said.

After his meeting with Hanson, Spacey watched Martin’s performances in Some Came Running (1958) and Rio Bravo (1959), and realized that both films featured characters who mask vulnerability with a layer of cool. That was the genesis of Jack Vincennes.

7. HANSON CHOSE MUCH OF THE MUSIC BEFORE FILMING.

To help set the tone for his period drama, Hanson began selecting music of the early 1950s even before filming began, so he could play it on set as the actors went to work. Among his most interesting choices: When Jack Vincennes sits in a bar, staring at the money he’s just been bribed with, Dean Martin’s “Powder Your Face With Sunshine (Smile! Smile! Smile!)” plays, a reference to both the character’s melancholy, and to Spacey and Hanson’s decision to base the character on Martin.

8. THE CINEMATOGRAPHY WAS INSPIRED BY ROBERT FRANK PHOTOGRAPHS.

To emphasize realism and period accuracy, cinematographer Dante Spinotti thought less about the moving image, and more about still photographs. In particular, he used photographer Robert Frank’s 1958 collection "The Americans" as a tool, and relied less on artificial light and more on environmental light sources like desk lamps.

"I tried to compose shots as if I were using a still camera,” Spinotti said. “I was constantly asking myself, 'Where would I be if I were holding a Leica?' This is one reason I suggested shooting in the Super 35 widescreen format; I wanted to use spherical lenses, which for me have a look and feel similar to still-photo work.”

9. THE FINAL STORY TWIST IS NOT IN THE BOOK.

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[SPOILER ALERT] In the film, Jack Vincennes, Ed Exley, and Bud White are all chasing a mysterious crime lord known as “Rollo Tomasi,” who turns out to be their own LAPD colleague, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). Though Vincennes, Exley, and White are all native to Ellroy’s novel, the Tomasi name is entirely an invention of the film.

10. ELLROY APPROVED OF THE MOVIE.

To adapt L.A. Confidential for the screen, Hanson and Helgeland condensed Ellroy’s original novel, boiling the story down to a three-person narrative and ditching other subplots so they could get to the heart of the three cops at the center of the movie. Ellroy, in the end, was pleased with their choices.

“They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main theme, which is that everything in Los Angeles during this era of boosterism and yahooism was two-sided and two-faced and put out for cosmetic purposes,” Ellroy said. “The script is very much about the [characters'] evolution as men and their lives of duress. Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny. I've long held that hard-boiled crime fiction is the history of bad white men doing bad things in the name of authority. They stated that case plain.”

Additional Sources:
Inside the Actors Studio: Kevin Spacey (2000)

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The Time a Wrestling Fan Tried to Shoot Bobby Heenan in the Ring
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For a man who didn't wrestle much, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan wound up becoming more famous than a lot of the men flexing in the squared circle. The onscreen manager of several notable grapplers, including André the Giant and “Ravishing” Rick Rude, Heenan died on Sunday at the age of 73. His passing has led to several tributes recalling his memorable moments, from dressing up in a weasel suit to hosting a short-lived talk show on TNT.

While Heenan’s “heel” persona was considered great entertainment, there was a night back in 1975 when he did his job a little too well. As a result, an irate fan tried to assassinate him in the ring.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Heenan was appearing at the International Amphitheater in Chicago as part of the now-defunct AWA wrestling promotion when his performance began to grate on the nerves of an unnamed attendee seated on the floor. Eyewitnesses described the man as friendly up until wrestlers Verne Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel started their bout with Heenan at ringside in Bockwinkel’s corner.

“Get Heenan out of there,” the fan screamed, possibly concerned his character would interfere in a fair contest. Heenan, known as “Pretty Boy” at the time, began to distract the referee, awarding an advantage to his wrestler. When the official began waving his arms to signal Heenan to stop interrupting, the fan apparently took it as the match being over and awarded in Bockwinkel’s favor. He drew a gun and began firing.

The man got off two shots, hitting three bystanders with one bullet and two more with the other before running out of the arena. (No fatalities were reported.) Security swarmed the scene, getting medical attention for the injured and escorting both Heenan and the wrestlers to the back.

According to Heenan, the shooter was never identified by anyone, and he was brazen enough to continue attending wrestling cards at the arena. ("Chicago really took that 'no snitching' thing to heart back then," according to Uproxx.)

Heenan went on to spend another 30 years in the business getting yelled at and hit with chairs, but was never again forced to dodge a bullet.

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