15 Mysterious Facts About Agatha Christie

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With over 2 billion copies of her books in print, British novelist Agatha Christie (1890-1976) has kept countless readers up into the early morning hours. Occasionally, the mystery surrounding her personal life—including a high-profile disappearance in the 1920s—has rivaled the best of her fiction. Let's take a look at some of the verifiable details of the famed crime writer’s life and times.

1. HER MOTHER DIDN’T WANT HER TO LEARN TO READ.

Before becoming a bestselling novelist, Christie was in real danger of growing up an illiterate. Her mother was said to be against her daughter learning how to read until age eight (Christie taught herself), insisting on home schooling her and refusing to let her pursue any formal education until the age of 15, when her family dispatched her to a Paris finishing school.

2. HER FIRST NOVEL WAS WRITTEN ON A DARE.

After an adolescence spent reading books and writing stories, Christie’s sister, Madge, dared her sibling to attack a novel-length project. Christie accepted the challenge and penned The Mysterious Affair at Styles, a mystery featuring a soldier on sick leave who finds himself embroiled in a poisoning at a friend’s estate. The novel, which featured Hercule Poirot, was rejected by six publishers before being printed in 1920.

3. HERCULE POIROT WAS BASED ON A REAL PERSON.

The dapper Poirot, a mustachioed detective who took a gentleman's approach to crime-solving, might be Christie’s best-known creation. Christie was said to have been inspired when she caught sight of a Belgian man deboarding a bus in the early 1910s. He was reportedly a bit odd-looking, with a curious facial hair style and a quizzical expression. His fictional counterpart's debut in The Mysterious Affair at Styles would be the first of more than 40 appearances.

4. SHE ONCE DISAPPEARED FOR 10 DAYS.

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In 1926, Christie—who was already garnering a large and loyal fan base—left her home in London without a trace. It could’ve been the beginning of one of her sordid stories, particularly since her husband, Archie, had recently disclosed he had fallen in love with another woman and wanted a divorce. A police manhunt ensued, although it was unnecessary: Christie had simply driven out of town to a spa, possibly to get her mind off her tumultuous home life. The author made no mention of it in her later autobiography; some speculated it was a publicity stunt, while others believed the family's claim that she had experienced some kind of amnesic event.

5. SHE WASN’T BIG ON VIOLENCE.

While a murder is typically needed to set a murder mystery in motion, Christie’s preferred methodology for slaying her characters was poison: She had worked in a dispensary during war time and had an intimate knowledge of pharmaceuticals. Rarely did her protagonists carry a gun; her two most famous detectives, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, were virtual pacifists.

6. SHE HAD AN ALIAS.

Not all of Christie’s work had a mortality rate. Beginning in 1930 and continuing through 1956, she wrote six romance novels under the pen name Mary Westmacott. The pseudonym was a construct of her middle name, Mary, with Westmacott being the surname of her relatives.

7. SHE LOVED SURFING.

The image of Christie as a matronly author of mystery is the one most easily recognized by readers, but there was a time when Christie could be found catching waves. Along with her husband, Archie, Christie went on a traveling spree in 1922, starting in South Africa and winding up in Honolulu. At each step, the couple got progressively more capable riding surfboards; some historians believe they may have even been the first British surfers to learn how to ride standing up.

8. SHE DIDN’T LIKE TAKING AN AUTHOR’S PHOTO.

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Although not explicitly camera-shy—Christie took frequent photos while traveling—she appeared to dislike having her photo appear on the dust jackets of her novels and once insisted they be issued without a likeness attached. It’s likely Christie preferred not to be recognized in public.

9. SHE TOOK AN OATH OF DETECTIVE WRITING.

Founded in 1928 by writer Anthony Berkeley, the London Detection Club, or Famous Detection Club, was a social assembly of the notable crime writers in England. Members “swore” (tongue mostly in cheek) to never keep vital clues from their readers and to never use entirely fictional poisons as a plot crutch. Christie was a member in good standing, and took on the role of honorary president in 1956 on one condition: She never wanted to give any speeches.

10. SHE TRIED HER BEST TO TAKE UP SMOKING.

While it would shortly gain a reputation for killing its devotees, smoking was once so revered that it seemed unusual not to take a puff. Shortly after the end of the first world war, Christie was quoted as saying she was disappointed she couldn’t seem to adopt the habit even though she had been trying.

11. SHE WROTE A PLAY THAT MAY NEVER STOP RUNNING.

The curtain was first raised on Mousetrap in London’s West End in 1952. More than 60 years later, it’s still being performed regularly and passed the 25,000 show mark in 2012. The play—about a group of people trapped in a snowbound cabin with a murderer among them—was originally a radio story, Three Blind Mice, that was written at the behest of Queen Mary in 1947. 

12. SHE LOVED ARCHAEOLOGY. 

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After divorcing alleged cad Archie, Christie married archaeologist Max Mallowan in 1930 and joined him for regular expeditions to Syria and Iraq. In 2015, HarperCollins published Come, Tell Me How You Live, the author’s long-forgotten 1946 memoir of her experiences traveling. Although she assisted her husband on digs, she never stopped working on her writing: Their preferred method of transport was frequently the Orient Express, a fact that likely inspired her Murder on the Orient Express

13. AT LEAST ONE “VICTIM” WAS INSPIRED BY A REAL-LIFE NUISANCE.

When Mallowan married Christie, he was assistant to renowned archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley. This fact upset Woolley’s wife, who refused to let Christie stay in a Mesopotamia digging camp; Mallowan was forced to take a train into Baghdad every night to see her. Christie soon wrote Murder in Mesopotamia: The victim was the wife of an archaeology field director who was bludgeoned with an antique mace. Christie dedicated the book to the Woolleys, who never joined Mallowan on an expedition again.

14. YOU CAN RENT HER OLD HOME.

If you feel like inhabiting the same real estate as Christie is a bucket-list travel opportunity, her former home in Devonshire, England is available for rent. The centuries-old home was Christie’s summer getaway in the 1950s; portions of it are rented out to individuals or groups for $500 a night. Some furniture and a piano that once belonged to the author remain in residence. 

15. HERCULE POIROT GOT A NEW YORK TIMES OBITUARY WHEN HE “DIED.”

Like Arthur Conan Doyle before her, Christie eventually grew tired of her trademark character and set about having Hercule Poirot perish in the 1975 novel Curtain. The reaction to his demise was so fierce that The New York Times published a front-page “obituary” for the character on August 6. Christie died the following year.

10 Amazing Facts About Harriet Beecher Stowe

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Over 41 issues, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was published as a serial in the abolitionist newspaper The National Era, the first installment on June 5, 1851. It was first followed by a only small group but its audience steadily grew as the story unfolded.

“Wherever I went among the friends of the Era, I found Uncle Tom’s Cabin a theme for admiring remark,” journalist and social critic Grace Greenwood wrote in a travelogue published in the Era. “[E]verywhere I went, I saw it read with pleasant smiles and irrepressible tears.’” The story was discussed in other abolitionist publications, such as Frederick Douglass’s Paper, and helped sell $2 annual subscriptions to the Era.

The popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin exploded once it was made available in a more accessible format. Some publishers claim the book edition is the second best-selling title of the 19th century, after the Bible.

1. Harriet Beecher Stowe's father and all seven of her brothers were ministers.

Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was born on June 14, 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut. Her mother, Roxana Beecher, died five years later. Over the course of two marriages, her father, Calvinist preacher Lyman Beecher, fathered 13 children, 11 of whom survived into adulthood. He preached loudly against slavery. All seven of his sons followed him into the ministry. Henry Ward Beecher carried on his father’s abolitionist mission and according to legend sent rifles to anti-slavery settlers in Kansas and Nebraska in crates marked “Bibles.”

The women of the Beecher family were also encouraged to rise to positions of influence and rally against injustice. Eldest child Catharine Beecher co-founded the Hartford Female Seminary and Isabella Beecher Hooker was a prominent suffragist.

2. The Fugitive Slave Act—and a surprise $100 gift—inspired Uncle Tom's Cabin.

In 1832, Harriet Beecher moved to Cincinnati with her father, who assumed the presidency of Lane Theological Seminary. According to Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life by Joan D. Hedrick, the Ohio city introduced her to former slaves and African-American freemen and there she first practiced writing, in a literary group called the Semi-Colon Club.

She married Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor at Lane, and eventually relocated to Brunswick, Maine, when he went to work at Bowdoin College. By then, Stowe had published two books, Primary Geography for Children and the short story collection New England Sketches. She was also a contributor to newspapers supporting temperance and abolitionism, writing “sketches,” brief descriptive stories meant to illustrate a political point.

Following a positive response to her The Freeman’s Dream: A Parable, Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the anti-slavery paper The National Era, sent her $100 to encourage her to continue supplying the paper with material. The 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, obligating authorities in free states to re-enslave refugees, took the slavery fight northward. It also encouraged Stowe to step up her game.

“I am at present occupied upon a story which will be a much longer one than any I have ever written,” Beecher Stowe wrote in a letter to Bailey, “embracing a series of sketches which give the lights and shadows of the ‘patriarchal institution’ [of slavery], written either from observation, incidents which have occurred in the sphere of my personal knowledge, or in the knowledge of my friends.” For material, she scoured the written accounts belayed by escaped slaves.

3. Uncle Tom's Cabin made her rich and famous.

According to Henry Louis Gate Jr.’s introduction to the annotated edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin, The National Era paid Stowe $300 for 43 chapters. Before the serial’s completion, Stowe signed a contract with John P. Jewett and Co. to publish a two-volume bound book edition, and that’s when it really took off. Released on March 20, 1852, the book sold 10,000 copies in the U.S. in its first week and 300,000 in the first year. In the U.K., 1.5 million copies flew off the shelves in the first year. Stowe was paid 10 cents for each one sold. According to a London Times article published six months after the book’s release, she had already amassed $10,000 in royalties. “We believe [that this is] the largest sum of money ever received by any author, either American or European, from the sales of a single work in so short a period of time,” the Times stated.

4. She went to court to stop an unauthorized translation of Uncle Tom's Cabin ... and lost.

Immediately after Uncle Tom’s Cabin became a literary sensation, a Philadelphia-based German-language paper, Die Freie Presse, began publishing an unauthorized translation. Stowe took the publisher, F.W. Thomas, to court. American copyright laws were notoriously weak at the time, irking British writers whose work was widely pirated. As someone who overnight became America’s favorite author, Stowe had much at stake testing them.

The case put her in the Philadelphia courtroom of Justice Robert Grier, a notorious enforcer of the Fugitive Slave Act. “By the publication of Mrs. Stowe's book, the creations of the genius and imagination of the author have become as much public property as those of Homer or Cervantes,” Grier ruled. The precedent set by Stowe vs. Thomas meant that authors had the right to prevent others from printing their exact words, but almost nothing else. “All her conceptions and inventions may be used and abused by imitators, play-rights and poet-asters,” ruled Grier.

5. Beecher Stowe visited Abraham Lincoln.

Though Stowe had criticized what she saw as his slowness in emancipation and willingness to seek compromise to prevent succession, Stowe visited President Abraham Lincoln at the White House in 1862, during the early days of the Civil War. Reportedly, Lincoln greeted her with, “So this is the little woman who brought on this big Civil War,” but scholars have dismissed the quote as Stowe family legend spread after her death.

Details of their conversation are limited to vague entries in their respective diaries. Lincoln may have bantered with her over his love of open fires (“I always had one to home,” he reportedly said), while Stowe got down to business and quizzed him: “Mr. Lincoln, I want to ask you about your views on emancipation.”

6. Beecher Stowe wrote a lot of things that weren't Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Stowe wrote more than 30 books, both fiction and nonfiction, plus essays, poems, articles, and hymns.

7. The Stowes wintered in the former slave state of Florida.

The influx of wealth from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the end of the Civil War allowed the Stowes to purchase a winter home in Mandarin, Florida, in 1867. It may have seemed strange—and perilous—for a famous anti-slavery crusader to buy 30 acres in a former slave state so soon after the war, yet six years after the purchase, she wrote to a local newspaper, “In all this time I have not received even an incivility from any native Floridian.”

8. Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain were neighbors.

The Stowes’ primary residence, beginning in 1864, was a villa in the Nook Farm section of Hartford, Connecticut, a neighborhood populated by prominent citizens, including Mark Twain. The homes of Nook Farm had few fences, and doors stayed open in sunny weather, creating an air of gentility. That did not prevent Twain from writing a somewhat unflattering portrait of Stowe, as she gave way to what was probably Alzheimer’s disease, in his autobiography:

“Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe who was a near neighbor of ours in Hartford, with no fence between. In those days she made as much use of our grounds as of her own in pleasant weather. Her mind had decayed, and she was a pathetic figure. She wandered about all the day long in the care of a muscular Irishwoman, assigned to her as a guardian.”

9. Beecher Stowe outlived four of her seven children.

While continuing a lucrative and prolific writing career, Stowe birthed and cared for seven children. When she passed away in 85 in 1896, she had outlived four of them, as bad fortune seemed to follow their offspring.

Their third, Henry, drowned in a swimming accident in 1857. The fourth, Frederick, mysteriously disappeared en route to California in 1870. The fifth, Georgiana, died from septicemia, probably related to morphine in 1890. (She was an addict.) The sixth, Samuel, died from cholera in infancy in 1849. These losses informed several of Stowe’s works.

10. There are several Harriet Beecher Stowe houses you can visit.

The Harriet Beecher Stowe House of Cincinnati is where she lived after following her father to Lane. The Harriet Beecher Stowe House on the campus of Bowdoin in Brunswick, Maine, is where she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It became a restaurant from 1946 to 1998 and is now a faculty office building, but one room is open to the public and dedicated to Stowe. The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center preserves her home in Hartford. Her home in Florida is gone but is marked by a plaque.

Letters by Otto Frank, Anne Frank's Father, Are Being Digitized for the First Time

Spencer Platt, Getty Images
Spencer Platt, Getty Images

Decades after his family was ousted from their attic hiding space, Otto Frank began corresponding with a pen pal named Ryan Cooper. Throughout the 1970s, Frank and Cooper exchanged letters, with Frank offering perspectives on his time in seclusion and captivity during World War II. His daughter Anne’s famous diary was written while the family was hiding from German forces in Amsterdam.

Now, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is making those letters available digitally for the first time to commemorate what would have been Anne’s 90th birthday on June 12.

Cooper, an artist in California who was then in his 20s, struck up a pen pal relationship with Frank. In addition to garnering advice on a variety of topics, Cooper was able to learn more about the young woman whose Diary of Anne Frank went on to become one of the best-known chronicles of the war and who tragically died of typhus while being held in a concentration camp in 1945. The letters also reveal more about Otto Frank, who appeared determined to keep the memory of his daughter alive even as his own health began to deteriorate. Frank died in 1980 at the age of 91 as the family's only survivor of the war.

Cooper amassed more than 80 letters in total, including some from Miep Gies, who protected Anne’s writings until the war ended. The museum is expected to make all of it accessible online in the near future.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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