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

How British Spies Used a Cupcake Recipe to Stop Terrorists

iStock.com/400tmax
iStock.com/400tmax

In 2011, Arabian Peninsula-based Al-Qaeda members published a 67-page English-language magazine called Inspire in an attempt to recruit new terrorists. Instead, they might have inspired a new generation of bakers.

In the United States and United Kingdom, intelligence agencies knew the magazine was being launched well in advance. The also knew the magazine would be digital-only and could be downloaded as a PDF by anybody with an internet connection. For months, the U.S. Cyber Command planned on attacking the publication's release, crippling it with a hail of computer viruses. "The packaging of this magazine may be slick," one counterterrorism official said, "but the contents are as vile as the authors."

Their plans, however, were blocked by the CIA, which asserted that targeting the magazine "would expose sources and methods and disrupt an important source of intelligence," according to The Telegraph. So as progress halted in the U.S., British agents cooked up their own plans.

It involved treats.

At the time of the magazine's launch, the UK Government Communications Headquarters and the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, successfully hacked the computers distributing the mag and tinkered with the text. They removed articles about Osama bin Laden and deleted a story called "What to expect in Jihad." Elsewhere, they destroyed the text by inserting garbled computer code.

One sabotaged story was an article by "The AQ Chef" called "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of your Mom," which explained how to make a pipe bomb with simple ingredients that included sugar. The new code, however, contained a sweet recipe of a different kind.

Instead of the bomb-making instructions, the article contained code leading to an article called "The Best Cupcakes in America," hosted by the Ellen DeGeneres Show website [PDF]. The page featured recipes for "sweet-toothed hipsters" and instructions for mojito-flavored cupcakes "made of white rum cake and draped in vanilla buttercream" (plus Rocky Road and Caramel Apple varieties!).

Two weeks later, the magazine's editors found the errors and fixed the edition—but, presumably, not until some bad guys discovered that "the little cupcake is big again."

10 Shocking Facts About The Black Dahlia, Hollywood’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder

In TNT’s new mystery series I Am the Night, a teen (India Eisley) and a disgraced journalist (Chris Pine) get caught up in the case of the Black Dahlia—the most notorious unsolved murder in Hollywood history.

The case has been a matter of public fascination since 1947, when aspiring actress Elizabeth Short was found dead and dismembered in southern Los Angeles. To this day, no one knows who killed the 22-year-old who came to be known as the Black Dahlia, but that certainly hasn’t stopped them from speculating. Here are 10 things we know about the cold case, based on accounts from local newspapers, the FBI, and the son of a primary suspect.

1. A mother and her toddler found Elizabeth Short's body.

On the morning of January 15, 1947, Betty Bersinger was pushing her 3-year-old daughter Anne in a stroller down the sidewalk, heading to a shoe repair shop. She paused when she noticed what she thought was a mannequin lying in the grass. But as she looked closer, she discovered it was something much more alarming: a mutilated corpse. Bersinger grabbed Anne and ran to a nearby house, where she used the telephone to call the police. Authorities arrived on the scene just a few minutes later, kick-starting what would become a years-long investigation (that many people are still trying to solve).

2. There was no blood found at the scene.

The naked body Bersinger discovered was in horrifying condition. In addition to being cut completely in half at the waist, and having her intestines removed, Short's mouth had been slashed from ear-to-ear, giving her face a ghastly, semi-smiling appearance known as a Glasgow Smile. Her body had also been washed clean before it was left to be found. Despite the severe mutilation, there was no blood at the scene, leading police to conclude that the young woman had been murdered somewhere else, drained of blood, then cleaned before the killer dumped her body.

3. The FBI identified Short with fingerprints and a proto fax machine.

In order to identify the body, the Los Angeles Police Department pulled fingerprints off the corpse, which it then sent to the FBI through a device called a Soundphoto (a forerunner to the fax machine). About an hour later, the FBI got a hit and was able to identify the victim as 22-year-old Elizabeth Short. Short's fingerprints had been entered into the system twice before: once when she applied to work in the commissary of a U.S. Army base and once when she was arrested in Santa Barbara, California on September 23, 1943 for underage drinking.

4. The Black Dahlia nickname has murky origins.

Police bulletin distributed by the Los Angeles Police Department, accessed on the official website for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation
City of Los Angeles Police Department // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

There are a number of competing theories about who exactly coined Short’s infamous moniker. Some say it was a media invention, while others claim Short’s friends had nicknamed her "Black Dahlia." But most accounts pin the inspiration on a film noir written by Raymond Chandler that hit theaters one year before the murder: The Blue Dahlia, starring Veronica Lake. Why the switch from “blue” to “black”? The FBI cites a rumor that Short wore lots of black clothing, but some reports point to her dark hair color instead.

5. Some linked the case to the Cleveland Torso Murders.

When Short’s death became national news, police officers in Cleveland felt an awful sense of déjà vu. Between 1934 and 1938, a serial killer had terrorized their city, claiming 12 victims—all of whom were grotesquely dismembered. Some theorized that the Ohio serial killer and Short's murderer could be the same person, especially since—like Short's killer—the perpetrator of what came to be known as the Cleveland Torso Murders was never caught.

6. It was also connected to a “Lipstick Murder.”

One month after Short's murder, another woman's body was discovered in Los Angeles—and the circumstances mimicked the Black Dahlia's case in a few ways. It all began with a stranger (in this case, a construction worker) stumbling upon the naked body of a dead woman in the grass. Jeanne French had dark hair like Short’s, and her face was also badly beaten. But this time, there was an unusual message scrawled on her stomach in bright red lipstick: “F**k You B.D.” Just below that were the letters “TEX.” People were quick to link the "B.D." in the gruesome murder to the Black Dahlia, but the police were wary of officially connecting the two. Like Short, French’s murder was never solved.

7. Many people confessed to the crime.

The LAPD had to rule out many suspects in the Black Dahlia investigation, including several people who turned themselves in. Though some sources quote a lower number, the Los Angeles Times puts the tally of false confessions in Short's case at more than 500. The phony claims came from housewives, clergymen, soldiers, drunk ramblers, and, much later, pranksters who weren’t even alive when Short's life was brutally taken.

8. No charges were ever filed.

Copy of Elizabeth Short's death certificate, Los Angeles County
FBI, Los Angeles County // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The FBI files on the Black Dahlia case indicate that many men were held for questioning—and some even took polygraph tests—but ultimately, no one was ever charged with Short’s murder. Still, a few names stand out ...

9. George Hodel is one of the most notorious suspects.

One of those names is George Hodel, a physician who ran a venereal disease clinic in Los Angeles in the 1940s. According to The Guardian, Hodel was on a list of six primary suspects in the Black Dahlia case, and the LAPD even bugged his home during the investigation. But Hodel—who died in 1999—gained more recent notoriety when his son, Steve Hodel, accused him of killing Short in the 2003 bestselling book Black Dahlia Avenger: The True Story.

Steve claims his father’s handwriting matches strange letters the police received, supposedly from the killer. He also uncovered photos of a woman who resembles Short in his father’s personal photo album, and believes Hodel’s medical background would explain the precise, clinical cuts on the body. But some have discounted Steve’s claims since he started linking his father to other infamous unsolved murders, including the Zodiac killings.

I Am the Night, the new TNT miniseries, centers around Hodel as a prime suspect in the Black Dahlia case.

10. Others think it was a bellhop.

Another name that's popular among Black Dahlia theorists is Leslie Dillon. He appears in the FBI case files, but gained renewed attention in 2017 when author Piu Eatwell argued his guilt in her book Black Dahlia, Red Rose. Dillon was a bellhop, writer, and mortician’s assistant who seemed to know a surprising amount of details about Short’s murder when the LAPD hauled him in for questioning. He was eventually let go—thanks to a dirty cop, according to Eatwell—but some of the detectives investigating the case never forgot him.

In 2018, Buz Williams—a retired officer with California's Long Beach Police Department and the son of Richard F. Williams, part of the LAPD’s Gangster Squad—told Rolling Stone that “My dad thought Leslie Dillon was the killer," and that other cops suspected that Dillon was, at the very least, an accomplice.

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