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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

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This Just In
Police Recover Nearly 100 Artifacts Stolen From John Lennon’s Estate
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Keystone Features / Stringer / Getty Images

A collection of artifacts stolen from John Lennon’s estate, including diaries, glasses, and handwritten music, has been recovered by German police, the Associated Press reports. After arresting the first suspect, law enforcement is now working to apprehend a second person of interest in the case.

The nearly 100 items went missing from the New York home of the late Beatles star’s widow Yoko Ono in 2006. Years later, German police were tipped off to their whereabouts when a bankruptcy administrator came across the haul in the storage facility of a Berlin auction house. The three leather-bound diaries that were recovered are dated 1975, 1979, and 1980. One entry refers to Lennon’s famous nude photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz, and another was written the morning of December 8, 1980, hours before he was shot and killed. In addition to the journals, police retrieved two pairs of his iconic glasses, a 1965 recording of a Beatles concert, a 1952 school book, contract documents for the copyright of the song “I’m the Greatest”, handwritten scores for "Woman" and "Just Like Starting Over”, and a cigarette case.

German authorities flew to New York to have Ono verify the items' authenticity. "She was very emotional and we noticed clearly how much these things mean to her,” prosecutor Susann Wettley told AP. When the objects will be returned to Ono is still unclear.

The first suspect, a 58-year-old German businessman from Turkey, was arrested Monday, November 21, following a raid of his house and vehicles. The second suspect is one of Ono's former chauffeurs who has a past conviction related to the theft. Police officers are hoping to extradite him from his current home in Turkey before moving forward with the case.

[h/t AP]

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History
How a London Tragedy Led to the Creation of 911
Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

In trouble? Pick up the phone and call 911. According to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), 240 million 911 calls are made each year. But if it weren’t for a house fire and a group of angry Brits, the system might not exist today.

Though 911 is an American staple, its origins are in England. In 1935, there was no such thing as an emergency phone number, and phone calls were dependent on operators who connected people to exchanges or emergency services when necessary. England did have emergency fire call points, but they didn’t use telephone technology—instead, they relied on the telegraph, which was used to send a signal to fire departments from special boxes [PDF]. There were police call points, too, but they were generally unstandardized and inefficient, since police didn’t have a way to receive emergency calls while on their beats. Instead, officers would check in during their rounds at special police boxes, like the one you probably recognize from Doctor Who.

But all that changed after November 10, 1935, when a fire broke out at the home of a prominent London surgeon, Philip Franklin, at 27 Wimpole Street. As the blaze tore through the building, five women sleeping on the upper floors—Franklin’s wife and niece, as well as three servants—became trapped. A neighbor, Norman MacDonald, heard their screams and promptly picked up the phone to dial the operator. Nobody answered.

“It seemed entirely futile to continue holding on and listening to ringing tone, which awakened no response,” he later wrote. A neighbor went to a fire call point and firefighters soon arrived, but they were unable to save the five women.

27 Wimpole Street, London, as it looks today
27 Wimpole Street, London, as it looks today
Eden, Janine and Jim, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The tragedy sparked a national inquiry—and outrage. Two years later, London unveiled a new service: the emergency number 999. Officials thought it would be best to choose a number that was easy to find by touch on a rotary dial, and rejected a number of other options, like 111, that might be triggered by equipment malfunctions. (It wasn’t unusual for lines rubbing together and other technical glitches to trigger a 111 call; 222 was already in use by a local exchange, while 000 would have just contacted the operator after the first zero.)

The new number wasn’t immediately embraced. Of over 1000 calls made the first week, nearly 7 percent were pranks. And some members of Parliament objected, saying it would be easier to just install an emergency button on phones instead.

A New York City police officer takes an emergency call from his car in the 1960s
A New York City police officer takes an emergency call from his car in the 1960s
John Pratt/Keystone Features/Getty Images

The United States had a similar system of police telephones and signal boxes, but like the UK it lacked the technology to quickly and effectively call authorities during emergencies. In the 1950s, the National Association of Fire Chiefs, inspired by the UK’s system, requested a national emergency number, and by 1967 the FTC was meeting with AT&T, the nation’s largest telephone company, to hash out a plan.

The first 911 call in the United States—a test call made from a mayor’s office—was made in Haleyville, Alabama in 1968 [PDF]. The numbers 911 reportedly made the grade because they weren’t in use for any existing phone exchange, and were catchy and easily remembered.

As the service rolled out nationwide, police and fire departments struggled to keep up with call volume. Despite the success of the program, New York police, in particular, reported being strained and having to hire more officers.

It took a long time to implement the system. Only 50 percent of the United States had 911 service as of 1987, according to NENA. Today, coverage is still not universal, although it’s close: 96 percent of the country is currently covered.

The evolution of telephone technology has brought new challenges, however: The FCC estimates that a full 70 percent of calls now come from cell phones—and given the mobility of mobile phones, that’s a challenge for dispatchers and phone companies. The 911 system was built for landlines, and cell phone GPS systems don’t always transmit data quickly or accurately. Plus, the proliferation of cell phones has led to a spike in accidental butt dials, which tie up the line and can prevent real emergencies from getting the attention they need. Still, we've come a long way from the days of sending telegraph messages inside boxes.

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