The media hoo-rah surrounding South Carolina governor Mark Sanford's recent "disappearance" brought to my mind some far stranger voluntary disappearances, most of them involving the very same thing that supposedly drove Gov. Sanford into the arms of his Argentine mistress: True love. Or, in some cases, the lack of it.
Agatha Christie remains not only the most successful mystery author of all time, but the top-selling author of all time. Yet upon her death in 1976, a puzzling incident in Mrs. Christie’s own past was still unexplained. This incident helped make her a household name and almost ruined her life.
Born in 1890 to a wealthy Devon family, Agatha Miller had a comfortable and refined childhood in seaside Torquay with her two older siblings, Madge and Monty. Their Engish mother, Clara, taught Agatha herself because she believed formal education ruined the brain. Agatha learned to read at age 5, a remarkable feat as she was dyslexic.
Prominent authors, including Henry James and Rudyard Kipling, were guests at the Miller home. Agatha and Madge both wrote a great deal from a young age.
Their American father, Frederick, died when Agatha was eleven. A year later, Madge married a Manchester merchant named James Watts. The Miller and Watts families forged close ties. Agatha and James’ little sister Nan became close, lifelong friends. Years later, Nan would play a key role in Agatha's disappearance.
Agatha grew up to be an attractive, dignified redhead. Though extreme shyness hampered her dream of becoming an opera singer, she was popular with the boys. Shortly after her coming-out season in Cairo, she became engaged to a young man she had met in Torquay - her second fiance. That engagement was promptly broken when she met, at 22, a young lieutenant named Archibald Christie. Her mother wasn’t enthused about the match. Archie was serious and reserved, Agatha deeply emotional and romantic. They married on Christmas Eve, 1914. Agatha lived with her mother and volunteered as a Red Cross nurse during WWI while Archibald was away with the Army. He became a colonel during the war.
It was during this time that Agatha decided to try her hand at writing mystery fiction. Only a dozen years later, she had achieved enviable success as an author, and was living in a 12-bedroom Berkshire home christened Styles (after her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, published in 1920). She was not yet a celebrity, but was very popular with fans of detective fiction. Her income was on a par with that of Archie, who worked as a financial adviser in London. This might have caused some friction between the two, especially as Agatha insisted on managing her own money. Archie was not entirely happy about this, nor about the small amount of weight his wife retained after the birth of their daughter, Rosalind, in 1919. Outwardly, though, the pair seemed settled and content.
Agatha Christie’s life might have been nearly perfect in 1926, had it not been for the sudden death of her mother, followed closely by Archibald’s confession that he was in love with a young typist named Nancy Neele. Agatha had always been a fairly compliant wife, and in requesting a divorce Archie seemed to anticipate that she would give in without a struggle. He was wrong. Agatha dug in her heels. After she refused to grant the divorce, he reluctantly consented to a trial reconciliation. He used the next several months to wear her down, all the while flagrantly continuing his affair with Nancy Neele.
On the weekend of December 2, 1926, Archie informed his wife that he wasn’t going to go on with their trial reconciliation. He wanted his divorce immediately so he could marry Nancy. He would be attending a weekend houseparty with Nancy whether she liked it or not.
Agatha waited, but Colonel Christie did not return home on the night of December 3.
On the icy morning of December 4, Agatha's Morris car was found a short distance from Styles, coated in frost and dangling over a chalk pit at Newlands Corner. The ignition was still on, Agatha's fur coat flung across the seat, but there were no signs of the owner. Agatha had abruptly left Styles the previous night without telling her 7-year-old daughter or the servants where she was going. Newspapers across the country seized on the irony-laden story of a mystery novelist’s disappearance, and it dominated the headlines for weeks.
On Monday morning, huge search parties were launched. Police considered suicide most likely. Only Deputy Chief Constable Kenward of the Surrey Constabulary was certain that Agatha had been murdered. At any rate, searchers were looking for a body, not a live woman. Divers probed the Silent Pool, a “bottomless” lake that had appeared in one of Mrs. Christie’s novels.
December 12 saw the intensive “Great Sunday Hunt”, when thousands of people (including another mystery novelist, Dorothy L. Sayers) converged on Newlands Corner to make absolutely certain that Agatha’s body was not somewhere on the Surrey Downs.
Meanwhile, Archie told the Daily News that his wife had talked about staging her own disappearance on several occasions. The paper published pictures of Agatha wearing several potential disguises.
Archibald Christie was not considered a suspect at first, but when his affair and the circumstances of his departure from Styles became public, watchful eyes settled on him. He had initially denied having a mistress.Virtually overnight he changed from upstanding financier and war veteran to a shady adulterer and possible wife-killer.
Renowned crime writer Edgar Wallace offered the opinion, in the Daily News, that Agatha Christie’s disappearance was a revenge scheme against someone who had wronged her. Wallace wrote, “Her intention seems to have been to spite an unknown person who would be distressed by her disappearance.” He thought she might be found in London. He ruled out memory loss because he considered it “impossible” for anyone to reach a specific designation while amnesiac.
Then police received a phone call, not from a kidnapper or the discoverer of a corpse, but from a waiter. The head waiter of the elegant Hydropathic Hotel at Harrogate, Yorkshire, 250 miles away from Styles, was reasonably certain that one of the hotel’s guests was Agatha Christie. She had registered under the name Theresa Neele. Members of the Hydro Hotel’s band corroborated the sighting. The police were willing to follow any lead at this point, so after a preliminary investigation they dispatched Archibald Christie to the Hydro to see if he could identify his missing wife among the guests.
He waited in the Hydro Hotel dining room and, sure enough, his wife appeared. She had just finished a game of billiards and was about to change for dinner. She entered the dining room shortly afterward in a pink gown. For the past several days, this vivacious and talkative “Mrs. Theresa Neele” from South Africa had been a hit with the Hydro’s guests. According to some sources, she informed guests that she had lost a child and needed a rest. During the day she took long walks and did crossword puzzles. She was also seen reading the papers, which featured screaming headlines about the disappearance of Agatha Christie.
Strangely, Agatha had registered at the Hydro nearly 24 hours after leaving Styles. Where had she been in the interval?
Archie snuck Agatha out of the Hydro to avoid the press. She was taken straight to Abney Hall, home of the Watts family. Archie released a single statement to the press, explaining that his wife had suffered some sort of amnesiac episode. He did not attempt to account for the first 24 hours of her disappearance, and no further details were released to the public. When Agatha returned to Styles several days later, Archie did not rejoin her.
Here is where established fact ended and speculation began. Some locals complained that Mrs. Christie’s “publicity stunt” had cost taxpayers several thousand pounds. The Daily News demanded an “authentic explanation” from Agatha to “thousands of public who joined in cost of search and cannot understand the loss of memory theory”. She did not respond. Archie refused to pay 25 pounds he was fined for the cost of the search.
Yet no one could refute the explanation that Agatha had experienced a strange fugue state. Two doctors, a neurologist and a general practitioner, had confirmed it. In her autobiography, Agatha described the episode simply as a “nervous breakdown”. She refused to discuss it in interviews right up until her death in 1976. She did what she could to stifle gossip, though. In 1928, for example, her lawyer intervened in a libel case in which a Mr. Mitchell-Hedges had referred to Agatha's “foolish hoax on the police”. He produced a medical certificate stating that Agatha had, in fact, suffered amnesia. Aside from this, Agatha remained mum on the incident.
The publicity stunt explanation offered up by the press seems outlandish. Agatha’s books were already selling well, after all, and if she had decided to get her name into the headlines with a vanishing, it would almost certainly not have been based on the traumatic breakdown of her marriage. Agatha was a very shy, reticent woman who liked to keep her private affairs private.
At first glance, a psychogenic fugue episode seems possible. During a psychogenic fugue, a normal, healthy person vanishes and reappears hundreds or even thousands of miles from home with no memory of how or why he ended up there, and science is at a loss to explain precisely why this happens. Sometimes the lost memories resurface, but more often they remain buried in the subconscious mind, leaving the sufferer of the fugue episode just as perplexed by his behaviour as everyone else.
Fugue states can also be a symptom of Associative Identity Disorder (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder), a condition in which the personality is so fragmented by early childhood conflict or trauma that numerous individual personalities emerge and manifest themselves at various times. Periods when an alternate personality is “in control” of the body are experienced as fugue states by the original (core) personality. Controversial as this disorder has always been, it continues to be diagnosed in psychiatric patients, most them female. Could Agatha Christie have been a “multiple”? Unlikely. Throughout her life, she didn’t exhibit any other signs of Dissociative Identity Disorder, and her early childhood had been a relatively happy and unfettered one.
An isolated fugue episode brought on by stress seems still more unlikely, because Mrs. Christie did read the papers whle staying at the Hydro. She saw photos of herself and read headlines about her own disappearance. This should have been sufficient to bring her out of an amnesiac fog.
Still, Christie’s biographers have more or less concurred that she had a mental breakdown followed by an amnesiac episode. It has been assumed that her use of the surname Neele was subconscious retribution against her husband.
Janet Morgan, Agatha Christie’s official biographer, theorized that Agatha lost control of her car at Newlands Corner and suffered a concussion in the accident. The problem with this explanation is that her car showed no signs of having been in an accident.
Then there was the matter of her clothes and money. Agatha left Styles on the night of December 3 wearing a plain skirt and sweater under her fur coat, and she carried very little money. By the time she reached the Hydro Hotel, though, she had a fashionable wardrobe that even included a purse with a zipper, a new device that some of the Hydro’s staff had never before seen.
Last but not least, Mrs. Christie had registered with the surname of her husband’s mistress. All in all, she seemed possessed of every faculty. Agatha even took out an ad in the The Times of London, asking friends of Theresa Neele, “late of South Africa”, to send any letters to a Harrogate postal address. Her behaviour at the Hydro did not in any way hint at memory loss.
There was also the statement that Archie’s brother Cameron made to the police. For some inexplicable reason, he said, Agatha had mailed him a letter explaining that she would be at a Yorkshire spa for a few days. It was postmarked in London at 9:45 a.m. the day after her disappearance. Perhaps believing that Cameron was just trying to save his brother’s neck, the police paid little attention to this odd bit of information. Anyway, the letter was never presented to them because Cameron Christie had misplaced it.
Acquaintances had reported that Agatha seemed unsettled in the weeks preceding her disappearance. She ate little, moved her furniture around compulsively, and wasn’t sleeping well. She was suffering from neuralgia and earaches. Since her mother’s death she had experienced difficulty in writing. Archie Christie was not terribly supportive after Clara Miller’s death, either. He remained in London while his wife mourned in Torquay. To top things off, he chose to divulge his love affair on Rosalind’s seventh birthday, while Agatha was still taking care of her mother’s estate. She had lost her first family, and now it appeared she was about to lose her second. There were other difficulties in Agatha’s life, too. For years she and Madge had been financially supporting their older brother Monty, a disabled veteran of the Boer and Great Wars. Monty was a handful. He shot at animals and the occasional visitor from his bedroom window for sport, persuaded Madge to invest in a never-launched cargo boat, and so exasperated his mother that she banished him from her home. He could certainly have contributed to Agatha’s depression and anxiety in 1926.
Part II: The Solution