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

The 50-Year Journey to Solve the Murder of Harvard Student Jane Britton

Jane Britton
Jane Britton
Middlesex District Attorney File [PDF] // Public Domain

On the morning of January 7, 1969, anthropology graduate students at Harvard University gathered to take their general examinations—one last hurdle they’d have to jump before beginning their doctoral theses. One student, however, was missing: 23-year-old Jane Britton.

It wasn't like Britton to miss a test, especially one this important. Her parents, a Radcliffe College vice president and a medieval history scholar, had raised her to take her education seriously, and she had graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe College in 1967. At Harvard, she served as a teaching assistant, helped discover the remains of a Neolithic community during an archaeological dig in Iran, and dazzled everyone with her quick wit. In short, she was more than a model student.

Her classmate and boyfriend, James Humphries, called her—but she didn’t answer. So he set off for her fourth-floor apartment at 6 University Road and knocked on her door just after noon.

Again, no answer.

Humphries’s knocking was loud enough to draw Britton’s neighbor and fellow anthropology student Donald Mitchell from his nearby apartment, and the two men decided to enter Britton’s unlocked residence.

They found her lying facedown on her bed in a blue nightgown, her body partially obscured by blankets and a fur coat. Mitchell uncovered her head, realized she was caked in blood, and promptly called the Cambridge police, who, upon arrival, asked medical examiner Dr. Arthur McGovern to come to Britton’s apartment as well.

McGovern soon confirmed the worst: Britton was dead. It was obvious that she had been the victim of a brutal murder, but there was no murder weapon in sight. With no weapon, no eyewitnesses, and the public demanding answers, detectives embarked on an arduous and baffling hunt for the truth—one that would last half a century.

The Night Of

The night before her murder, Britton and Humphries joined some classmates for dinner at the Acropolis Restaurant and ice skating at Cambridge Common. She and Humphries retired to her apartment for hot cocoa around 10:30 p.m., and, when Humphries left an hour later, Britton visited the Mitchells to retrieve her cat, Fuzzy, and enjoy a glass of sherry before returning to her own apartment at about 12:30 a.m.

Though Donald Mitchell and his wife, Jill, hadn’t seen or heard anything suspicious, two other residents had [PDF]: A neighbor heard noises on Britton’s fire escape that night, and someone else reported seeing a 6-foot-tall, 170-pound man running in the street below at 1:30 a.m. Unfortunately, neither of these testimonies gave authorities much to investigate, and they couldn’t even be certain that the murderer had in fact used the fire escape to gain access into Britton’s apartment—they saw no evidence of forced entry, and her front door had been unlocked.

As police continued their inspection of Jane's apartment, Dr. George Katsas autopsied Britton’s body at Watson Funeral Home and determined her cause of death to be “the result of multiple blunt injuries of the head with fractures of the skull and contusions and lacerations of the brain.” It was later confirmed that Britton had also been the victim of sexual assault, and a toxicology report proved that since the sherry had never entered her bloodstream, she must have died within an hour of having returned to her apartment that night.

The fact that Britton’s door was unlocked caused something of a public outcry, because it wasn’t the first time that someone had been killed in the building. Just six years earlier, Boston University student Beverly Samans had been stabbed to death in her apartment by Albert DeSalvo, better known as the Boston Strangler. After Britton’s murder, The Harvard Crimson reported that the front doors of the “littered and dingy” building didn’t even have locks, and that Britton’s apartment door was often left unlocked not out of negligence, but because it was “almost impossible to lock.” Students had allegedly complained about the lousy security in the past, though a university representative denied those claims.

A Trail of Dead Ends

Meanwhile, police were considering the possibility that someone from the university had committed the crime. They started questioning members of Harvard’s anthropology department, some of whom were Britton’s companions on the dig in Iran during the previous summer.

While canvassing the crime scene, police had found traces of red ochre—a powder-like clay—sprinkled both on Britton’s body and around her apartment. Since red ochre was once used in ancient Persian burial rites, investigators were looking for a suspect likely to have an in-depth knowledge of the subject.

It wasn’t the only reason that Jane's former companions seemed like a promising place to start: According to some media reports published in the wake of the murder, there had also been hostility among the nine participants. But, as the interrogations failed to produce any viable suspects, investigators were forced to conclude that the media reports had been exaggerated.

“There were complaints about too much tuna fish,” Professor C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky told The New York Times when asked to address the rumors. Hardly a compelling motive for cold-blooded murder. The perplexing presence of red ochre turned out to be insignificant, too—it was later determined to be nothing more than residue from Britton’s paintings.

With a bone-dry suspect pool, police focused instead on evidence from the crime scene. Though they had managed to find traces of semen left behind by the killer during the sexual assault, the existing technology wasn't advanced enough for them to use that DNA to locate a match. They also discovered that a sharp stone—perhaps sharp enough to kill— Britton had received as an archaeological souvenir from the Mitchells had gone missing from her residence.

Then, just two days after Britton’s body was found, Cambridge Chief of Police James F. Reagan announced a black-out on any further news of the investigation until he himself decided to release more information, citing inaccuracies in media coverage of the crime. He wouldn’t elaborate, but he did give one last parting update: They had located the sharp stone.

As for any other details—where they found it, for example, or if it happened to be smeared with blood—Reagan didn’t say. The public was left to assume that the potential murder weapon was yet another dead end.

Remembering Janie

In the absence of any official updates, people looked back on Britton’s life both to honor her memory and search for some clue they might have missed. She was a bright, spirited young woman who rode horses, played the piano, and decorated her apartment walls with drawings of animals.

“She could interact with a lot of different types of people very well,” Jill Mitchell told The New York Times. “She had manners, yet was very down to earth.” While Britton's varied hobbies and active social life made her a well-rounded, well-liked young woman, she was also exceptionally focused on her career goals: She specialized in Near Eastern archaeology, and planned to become an archaeologist after graduation.

Some considered the many accounts of Britton’s all-around winning personality proof that her assailant must have been a complete stranger.

“The police have a mass of material and I think it will all lead to the conclusion that no one would want to kill Janie,” her friend Ingrid Kirsch said.

Others, however, simply generated the kind of ugly gossip that so often rears its head during tragedies. One popular conspiracy theory suggested that Britton’s murder was connected to her alleged involvement in the counterculture movement of the time.

“She knew a lot of odd people in Cambridge—the hangers-on and acid heads who you would not call young wholesome Harvard and Radcliffe types,” an unnamed friend, who had known Britton in 1966, told The New York Times. “She went to a lot of their parties and was very kind to them.”

But time wore on without any news from the police department, and eventually, even the foundationless rumors petered out.

The murder of Jane Britton became another cold case. Her parents passed away—her mother, Ruth, in 1978, and her father, J. Boyd, in 2002—without knowing the truth about their daughter's tragic death.

A Belated Breakthrough

Then, in 2017, several public requests for the district attorney’s office to publicly release the case file prompted investigators to pore over the materials once again, and they decided to test the DNA sample using the latest forensic technology.

Incredibly, they found a match: Michael Sumpter, a convicted murder and rapist who had died in 2001. Without new DNA from Sumpter to verify their findings, they turned to the next closest thing—a DNA sample from his brother, whom they located through services like Ancestry.com.

The sample from Sumpter’s brother matched the original sample, ruled out 99.92 percent of the male population, and proved within reason that Michael Sumpter was in fact responsible for the rape and murder of Jane Britton.

According to the Middlesex district attorney’s office, Sumpter was no stranger to Cambridge. He lived there as a child, worked just a mile from Britton’s apartment in 1967, and was convicted of assaulting a woman in the area three years after Britton’s murder.

In November 2018, Middlesex district attorney Marian Ryan confirmed that, after nearly 50 years, Britton’s case was closed.

“A half-century of mystery and speculation has clouded the brutal crime that shattered Jane’s promising young life and our family,” Britton’s brother, Reverend Boyd Britton, said in a statement [PDF]. “The DNA evidence match may be all we ever have as a conclusion. Learning to understand and forgive remains a challenge.”

When Ohio Outlawed Seduction

Lee Tracey/BIPs/Getty Images
Lee Tracey/BIPs/Getty Images

"Hot for Teacher" may have been a major hit for Van Halen back in 1984, but the very idea of a personal relationship between teacher and student—regardless of age—was nothing to sing about for Ohio lawmakers back in the 19th century. On April 22, 1886, the Buckeye State passed a law that made it illegal for any man over the age of 21 to put the moves on a woman he was instructing. Those who dared try would face the possibility of spending up to a decade in the clink.

To be clear, while the statute quite rightly made it illegal for an adult male teacher to engage in an inappropriate relationship with one of his young students, the wide latitude of the law went far beyond that, stating:

A male person over twenty-one years of age, who is superintendent, tutor or teacher in a private, parochial or public school, or seminary or other public institution, or instructor of any female in music, dancing, roller skating, athletic exercise, or any branch of learning, who has sexual intercourse, at any time or place, with any female, with her consent, while under his instruction during the term of his engagement as superintendent, tutor or instructor, shall be imprisoned in the penitentiary not more than ten years nor less than two.

Translate that to today's standards and what it means is that, even if you're an unmarried thirty-something looking for Mr. Right, you'd be wise to keep your hands off your personal trainer, lest he be arrested for reciprocating your romantic interests. (And yes, the same goes for your roller skating instructor.)

But Ohio was hardly the first state to pass such a law. In Virginia, dangling the prospect of marriage as a way to get some nookie was a no-no with "any unmarried female of previous chaste character" and again punishable by up to 10 years in prison. (The lawmakers were generous enough to note that the "chastity of the female shall be presumed, in the absence of evidence to the contrary.") New York instituted a similar law in 1848, but considered the crime a misdemeanor (whereas Virginia classified it as a felony).

Georgia, too, had a seduction law, which reads very Jackie Collins-esque with phrases like "induce her to yield to his lustful embraces" and "allow him to have carnal knowledge of her." Any man charged with the crime had one of two choices: take his chances in court and risk spending two to 20 years in prison—or marry the gal! The written law noted that, "The prosecution may be stopped at any time by the marriage of the parties, or a bona fide and continuing offer to marry on the part of the seducer." Which was certainly one way to snag a husband!

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