“I remember as I gazed down at the still form of my first victim, experiencing a strange, peaceful thrill.” -John Christie
Having spent the recent holiday in London, I am reminded how its dark and curious history is never very far from view. From Highgate to Dorset Street, one would be hard-pressed to find a plot of land within the city limits where someone hasn’t been killed, raped, or molested at some point in the past one thousand years. For many people, this realization may be appalling, for others intriguing—but for the rare few (cough, me, cough), it can be downright thrilling.
So, imagine my delight when I discovered I had been renting a flat in Notting Hill and sleeping right next door to the city’s original maison macabre, a location so steeped in horror and madness it was dubbed “the most notorious address in London” in the 1950’s and literally razed to the ground in order to erase its story from the memory of the British people and the prying eyes of tourists—a place once known as 10 Rillington Place.
Leaving out every morning to sightsee, I found myself walking past rows of narrow houses, lined neatly side by side, all with the exception of one particular plot which remained an open, grassy square in the midst of a dense residential area. Odd, but certainly not unheard of—that is, until the day I left to return home, and my taxi driver asked if I happened to know the story behind the mysteriously empty lot, a notion I hadn’t given much thought.
By the time we reached the airport, not only had my driver managed to top my ghost visit to the Tower of London by pointing out this infamously secret location, but he had revealed the true story of a “necrophile” serial killer whose actions brought a gruesome end to at least eight women, led to the execution of an innocent man, shocked and titillated 20th-century London, and ultimately forced Britain to amend the archaic practices of capital punishment it had embraced since the 5th-century. For a civilized nation historically concerned with keeping up appearances and overall decorum, their infamously barbaric sense of justice and lightning-quick executions have remained delightfully ironic through the ages—that is, until the early 19th-century when one clever serial killer fooled them all.
Back in the 1940’s, Notting Hill was nothing like the affluent area it is today. It was, according to a long-time local, “a massive slum, full of multi-occupied houses, crawling with rats and rubbish.” What was then 10 Rillington Place was a row of crumbling terraced buildings housing the lives of struggling families and working-class people.
One such resident was a seemingly respectable man by the name of John Reginald Christie who had served as an infantryman during the WWI and had been injured by a mustard gas attack that permanently affected his speech. But despite his condition, Christie was still able to find a job as a constable with the War Reserve Police during WWII, an opportunity he surely would have been denied if authorities had managed a proper background check. Although an ostensibly bright man with an IQ of 128 and a regular childhood as one of seven in a traditional nuclear family, Christie was a veritable wolf in sheep’s clothing.
He married Ethel Simpson in 1920, but the couple soon broke up due to his ongoing struggle with impotence, hypochondria, and a fondness for local prostitutes. Although Christie appeared relatively normal on the surface, there were sporadic signs of the madness that dwelled within. Once his wife left him, he served several stints in prison for larceny and assault when he hit his girlfriend over the head with a cricket bat in a “murderous attempt” to silence her. After his brief incarceration and six months of hard labor, he finally reconciled with Ethel in 1937 and moved into the bottom flat at 10 Rillington Place where he began his life anew, albeit in squalid conditions with one communal lavatory outside and the deafening noise of the above-ground Metropolitan line across the street.
Although the address was far from peaceful, the first outward sign of trouble began during Easter of 1948 when a young man named Timothy Evans and his wife Beryl moved into the top flat at Rillington and soon gave birth to their daughter Geraldine. Evans was known to be an illiterate man who drank heavily and often engaged in physical altercations with his wife, sometimes shouting and pushing each other in public. The couple struggled with finances, and when Beryl revealed she was pregnant with their second child, they agreed to seek an abortion. Not long thereafter, Evans reported to police that his wife had died under strange circumstances after his neighbor Christie had offered to give his wife this illegal procedure. Christie had notified Evans of Beryl’s death and warned against discovery, advising the distraught Evans to leave town a for a while and telling him he had made arrangements for baby Geraldine to be watched by a local couple.
Evans, an impressionable and a rather doltish man, agreed to this suggestion; however, when he returned from his brief stay in Wales, Christie refused to let him see his child. In fact, he would never see her again. At that point, Evans was convinced Christie was guilty of murdering his wife and possibly his baby girl as well, but he had no real proof.
In response to these accusations, the police performed a preliminary search of 10 Rillington Place and found nothing. Their ineptitude in handling these charges would soon become evident… because despite the thigh bone propping up the garden fence at Christie’s flat and the yard full of human remains, the authorities observed nothing out of the ordinary.
But when Beryl still did not turn up, a second search of the property proved fruitful, and her remains were discovered in an outdoor wash-house wrapped up in a green tablecloth next to those of her baby daughter. Both had been strangled—the baby with a man’s necktie which remained on her body. And as proof of the alleged abortion, the remains of a 16-week old male child were also uncovered. Beryl’s autopsy confirmed she was physically and sexually assaulted, a detail that ensured something positively horrific had occurred while Evans had been away.
After extensive police inquiry, Timothy Evans would spend the next few months vacillating between a muddled confession, general confusion, and an insistence that Christie had, in fact, murdered his family. Given Evans’s reduced mental capacity and Christie’s seeming respectability, the police leaned heavily on one side, eventually extracting a usable confession from Evans that would lead to his conviction and subsequent execution.
But the most damning testimony against the defendant would come from Christie himself who insisted Evans was the man who had strangled his wife and child. Despite his own criminal history of theft and violence, Christie was still a more credible witness than Evans who was quickly convicted and hanged at Pentonville Prison on March 9th, 1950.
The plot thickened when two years later, Christie’s spouse Ethel also disappeared. He concocted a series of stories to explain his wife’s absence from friends and family, stating her rheumatism kept her from writing to anyone herself and sending gifts to family in her name—but in reality, Christie had strangled Ethel in her bed and hidden her under the floorboards of their flat—an act that would consequently trigger an even stronger desire to kill over the next three months.
His use of strong disinfectants in the flat soon caused neighbors to complain of the wretched odor emanating from his residence, but no one seemed particularly suspicious. It was a slum, after all. Christie soon left his job, began to lose weight, and being unemployed, sold Ethel’s wedding ring, watch, and furniture, eventually forging her signature and emptying her bank account. He then moved out of 10 Rillington Place in 1953 and tried to fraudulently sublet the flat to another couple. The landlord soon found out and evicted the illegal tenants, allowing the current top-floor resident to use Christie’s empty kitchen.
A few days later, as the man was trying to install a wall shelf by the stove, he accidentally broke through the hollow plaster and discovered a hidden alcove where Christie had stashed the bodies of his unknown victims. Half-naked and wrapped in blankets, the remains of three women would be discovered, illuminating Christie’s grisly activity.
The details of Christie’s secret life would soon unravel. Police processed the bodies in the filthy crawl space, they found Ethel’s remains wedged under the living room floorboards, and eventually discovered the bones of two other women in the backyard as well. It was a regular house of horrors as bodies and bones were exhumed and accusations flew—it seemed Christie had been a very busy man, indeed.
A city-wide search for the killer began immediately, and London was enthralled for several days as Christie was spotted sleeping on benches and hiding out in cafés around the city, continually managing to linger just long enough to be reported but always eluding authorities.
He was finally arrested on the embankment near Putney Bridge where he surrendered without incident, eventually confessing to seven murders: the three women in from his kitchen, his wife, the two women in the yard, and the mother from upstairs—but clinging to some bizarre sense of decency, Christie insisted he did not kill the 18-month-old Geraldine. The horrors of Christie’s hidden life took shape as the confessions tumbled out, and the surrounding community gasped in a moment of communal shock.
And Christie’s details were juicy, indeed. It seemed the first woman he had killed, 21-year old Ruth Fuerst, was a part-time prostitute he had impulsively strangled during sex while his wife was away, burying her body in the back garden to evade detection.
His next victim, 32-year old Muriel Eady, was a colleague who fell into his clutches the following year when he offered to show her a remedy for her bronchitis with a “special mixture” he had concocted. Once at his flat, she inhaled a pungent solution of alcohol known as Friar’s Balsam which he had covertly mixed with carbon monoxide, rendering her unconscious. As she drifted in and out of delirium, he raped and strangled her, eventually putting her dead body outside next to his first victim. It was around this time in 1948 that Beryl and her daughter had gone missing, and although Timothy Evans had already paid the ultimate price for the crime, it became clear he may not have been the culprit after all.
Once Christie had strangled Ethel, his behavior accelerated, and he went on to kill three women in quick successsion—the first was 25-year old pregnant Rita Nelson who was also persuaded to consult Christie for an illegal abortion; the next 26-year old Kathleen Maloney, another prostitute; and finally 26-year old Hectorina McLennan—all whom had been lured back to 10 Rillington and gassed into drowsiness so they could be simultaneously raped and strangled in their delirium. Once this aspect of the crime was revealed, many labeled Christie a necrophiliac, a judgment that was carefully refuted during his trial, as he had apparently ceased fornication upon their death. After all, the man did have some decency.
Based on the femur bone which had held up a section of his fence for seven years, it became clear Christie was not particularly concerned with discovery and probably possessed the traits of a sociopath who feels little to no guilt or remorse. The evidence in the case also suggested Christie had killed more women than he chose to admit, specifically due to the mementos of pubic hair he collected from his victims in four separate tins (found along with the remains of his victims), only matched that of his wife, leaving three samples unaccounted for.
This detail lead to speculation by police of a more expansive victimology. Given his role as a special police constable during the war, Christie had been granted particular access, and it seemed highly possible he had killed in the past. No one really knew, but it didn’t much matter because Christie pled insanity and received the stiffest penalty of death for the murder of his wife on June 22nd, 1953.
Just two short weeks later, Christie was hanged at Pentonville Prison, a painful reminder to the country that an innocent man likely paved the way to the killer’s execution. Substantial controversy arose regarding the past trial of Evans who had been apparently convicted on the evidence of a serial killer and suspected of confessing under severe duress.
This questionable judgment led to an inquiry in 1965 where much of the evidence was reevaluated, leading to a posthumous pardon for Timothy Evans which then allowed his family to collect his remains and have them buried in a private grave. But on a larger scale, it led to increased debate regarding the death penalty in the UK and contributed to a suspension and subsequent abolition of capital punishment for murder that same year, a notable amendment given Britain’s attachment to such executions since the 5th century.
Due to its decrepit status and horrific history, Rillington Place was demolished in the 1970’s and replaced by a set of slim new houses with the fresh moniker of “Bartle Road,” perhaps named after the Iron Works that used to sit at the end of it. And it was next to this gruesome memory, in a decent little flat at number 16, where I enjoyed a most splendid holiday.
Over the years, the legendary status of this residence as one of the most infamous murder houses in London has spawned a 1971 movie, several books, endless geographical speculation, and a recent 2016 BBC drama depicting Christie’s psychological devolution. And while the infamous Notting Hill neighborhood has clearly improved since then, the exact spot of Christie’s morbid home remains empty—no house, no plaque—just a silent and well-preserved tribute to one of the most hellish addresses in all of London.
And the rest is history.
3 Comments Add yours
Well OMG.. This is a story that was as close to our Horror as one can get. So well written that morbid took a backseat. The one thing that will remain in my mind is the thigh bone holding up the fence. Nothing short of a bit of comedy mixed in with a grotesque nightmare story. Loved it Ms. Shulman 💕
Reblogged this on Jason's Shulman and commented:
I love this article…bringing the modern and the past together.