Agatha Christie's 1926 Disappearance

Agatha Christie has gone missing.
English crime writer Agatha Christie (1890 - 1976) and her daughter, Rosalind, (right), are featured in a newspaper article reporting the mysterious disappearance of the novelist. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Celebrated British mystery writer Agatha Christie was herself the subject of a perplexing mystery when she vanished for eleven days in December 1926. Her disappearance prompted an international media frenzy and a massive search that involved hundreds of police officers. Although the scandalous incident was front-page news in its day, Christie refused to discuss it for the remainder of her life, even in her posthumously-published autobiography.

The true account of what happened to Christie between December 3 and December 14, 1926 became the subject of great speculation over the years; only recently have additional details about Agatha Christie’s mysterious disappearance surfaced.

The Young Agatha Miller Christie

Born on September 15, 1890 in Devon, England, Agatha Miller was the third child of an American father and a British mother. Raised in an upper middle-class household, Agatha was a bright and sensitive child who began writing short stories as a teenager.

As a young woman, Agatha enjoyed her share of suitors. In December 1914, after breaking off her engagement with another young man, Agatha married handsome, dashing Royal Air Force pilot Archibald Christie.

While Archie was away during World War I, Agatha lived with her mother. She worked at the local hospital, first as a volunteer nurse, and later as a dispensing pharmacist.

From her work at the pharmacy, Christie learned a great deal about drugs and poisons; this knowledge would serve her well in her career as a mystery novelist. She began work on her first novel—a murder mystery—during this time period.

After the war, Agatha and her husband moved to London, where their daughter Rosalind was born on August 5, 1919.

Agatha Christie produced four novels over the next five years. Each seemed more popular than the last, earning her a substantial amount of money.

Yet it seemed the more money Agatha made, the more she and Archie argued. Proud of having worked so hard to earn her own money, Agatha was reluctant to share it with her husband.

Life in the Country

In January 1924, the Christies moved with their daughter to a rented home in the country, 30 miles outside of London. Agatha's fifth novel was published in June 1925, even as she was finishing up her sixth. Her success allowed the couple to purchase a large home, which they christened "Styles."

Archie, in the meantime, had taken up golf and become a member of a golf club not far from the Christie home. Unfortunately for Agatha, he had also taken up with an attractive brunette golfer he had met at the club. Typist Nancy Neele seemed to be everything Agatha was not—vivacious, carefree, and an avid golfer.

Before long, everyone seemed to know about the affair—everyone, that is, except Agatha.

Further straining the Christie marriage, Archie had grown increasingly resentful of his wife's burgeoning fame and success, which overshadowed his own business career.

Archie compounded their marital troubles by continually criticizing Agatha for having gained weight since the birth of their daughter.

Painful Losses for Agatha

Oblivious to the affair, Agatha became friendly with Nancy Neele, inviting her to spend some weekends at their home during the early months of 1926. Neele, who shared several common friends with the Christies, accepted—much to Archie's dismay.

On April 5, 1926, Agatha's mother, with whom she was especially close, died of bronchitis at the age of 72. Devastated, Agatha looked to Archie for consolation, but he was little comfort. Archie took off on a business trip shortly after his mother-in-law's death.

Agatha felt lonelier than ever by the summer of 1926, when Archie began staying in London every weekend, claiming that he was too busy with work to come home.

In August, Archie admitted that he had fallen in love with Nancy Neele and had been having an affair with her for 18 months. Agatha was crushed. Although Archie stayed on for a few more months, he finally decided to leave for good, storming off after arguing with Agatha on the morning of December 3, 1926.

The Lady Vanishes

Later that evening, a distraught Agatha stayed up after putting her daughter to bed. If she was hoping for Archie to come home, she soon realized he would not. The 36-year-old author was despondent.

At 11:00 p.m., Agatha Christie put on her coat and hat, and walked out of her house without a word, leaving Rosalind in the care of servants.

Christie's car was found the following morning at the bottom of a hill at Newlands Corner in Surrey, 14 miles from her home. Inside the car were a fur coat, some pieces of women's apparel, and Agatha Christie's driver's license. It appeared that the car had been allowed to roll down the hill intentionally, as the brake was not engaged.

After tracing the vehicle, police went to Christie's house, where servants had stayed up all night anxiously awaiting her return. Archie, who was staying with his mistress at the home of a friend, was summoned and returned to Styles.

Upon entering his house, Archie Christie found a letter addressed to him from his wife. He quickly read it, then immediately burned it.

The Search for Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie's disappearance sparked a media frenzy. The story became front-page news throughout Great Britain and even made headlines in the New York Times. Soon, hundreds of policemen became involved in the search, along with thousands of citizen volunteers.

The area adjacent to where the car had been found was thoroughly searched for any sign of the missing author. Officials dragged a nearby pond in search of a body.

Several mystery writers of the day weighed in with their opinions. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame brought one of Christie's gloves to a medium in an unsuccessful attempt find out what had happened to her.

Theories ranged from murder to suicide, and included the possibility that Christie had staged her own disappearance as a deliberate hoax. Archie gave an ill-advised interview to a newspaper in which he said that his wife had once told him that if she ever wanted to disappear, she knew just how to do it. (This statement would later come back to haunt the Christies.)

Police questioned Christie's friends, servants, and family members. They soon learned that Archie had been with his mistress at the time of his wife's disappearance, a fact that he had tried to hide from authorities. He became a suspect in his wife's disappearance and possible murder.

Archie was brought in for further questioning by the police after they learned from household staff that he had burned a letter from his wife. He refused to disclose the contents of the letter, claiming it was a "personal matter."

A Break in the Case

On Monday, December 13, the chief constable of Surrey received an intriguing message from the police in Harrogate, an exclusive, northern spa town 200 miles from where Christie's car had been found.

Two local musicians had gone to the police to report that a guest at the Hydro Hotel, where they were currently playing, bore a striking resemblance to the newspaper photos they had seen of Agatha Christie.

The woman, who claimed to be from South Africa, had checked in under the name "Mrs. Teresa Neele" on the evening of Saturday, December 4th, carrying very little luggage. (A few of the townspeople later admitted they knew that the guest was actually Agatha Christie, but because the spa town catered to the rich and famous, locals were accustomed to being discreet.)

Mrs. Neele had frequented the hotel's ballroom to listen to music and had even gotten up once to dance the Charleston. She had also paid a visit to the local library and checked out mostly mystery novels.

Hotel guests informed police that the woman had told them she had recently suffered some loss of memory following the death of her baby daughter.

Christie Is Found

On the morning of Tuesday, December 14, Archie boarded a train for Harrogate, where he quickly identified "Mrs. Neele" as his wife Agatha.

Agatha and Archie presented a united front to the press, insisting that Agatha had suffered amnesia and could not recall anything about how she had gotten to Harrogate.

Members of the press—as well as the public—were highly skeptical, but the Christies would not back down from their story. Archie released a public statement from two physicians, both claiming that Mrs. Christie had experienced a loss of memory.

The Real Story

(Many of the following details had been kept private by the family for decades, but in recent years, some relatives disclosed them to biographers researching the disappearance.)

Following an awkward reunion at the hotel, Agatha confessed to her husband what she had done. She had plotted the entire escapade for the purpose of punishing him. Angered, Archie was even more upset to learn that his own sister, Nan, had helped to plan and carry out the deception.

Agatha had pushed her car down the hill at Newlands Corner, and then taken a train to London to meet up with her sister-in-law, who had become a close friend of Agatha’s. Nan gave Agatha money for clothing and saw her off when she boarded a train for Harrogate on December 4th.

Agatha had also sent a letter to her sister's husband, James Watts, on December 4, telling him of her plans to visit a spa in Yorkshire. Since Harrogate was the most famous spa in Yorkshire, Agatha felt sure her brother-in-law would figure out where she was, and tell authorities.

He did not, and the search dragged on and on, much longer than Agatha had anticipated. She was horrified by all the publicity.

Aftermath

Agatha, reunited with her daughter, retreated from public view and stayed with her sister for a time.

She gave her one and only interview on the disappearance to the Daily Mail in February 1928. Agatha claimed in the interview that she had developed amnesia after hitting her head during a suicide attempt in her car. She would never discuss it publicly again.

Agatha went abroad, then returned to her beloved novel-writing. Sales of her books seemed to benefit from the author's bizarre disappearance.

The Christies ultimately divorced in April 1928. Archie married Nancy Neele in November of that year and the couple stayed happily married until her death in 1958.

Agatha Christie would go on to an illustrious career as one of the most successful mystery writers of all time. She was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1971.

Christie married archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan in 1930. Theirs was a happy marriage, lasting until Christie's death in 1976 at the age of 85.