Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John Christie

The Christies

At the same nondescript three-story house in a cul-de-sac in London's Notting Hill, North Kensington, two different murderers were arrested and prosecuted. Both were executed for their crimes, and some people think that justice was done, while others believe that one innocent man went to the gallows, set up by the other who got away with murder. At least, he got away with that one. Until he confessed, that is. But the other man had confessed, too. Who was the real killer?

The authors who most strongly represent opposite sides of this tale are John Eddowes in his The Two Killers of Rillington Place and Ludovic Kennedy in Ten Rillington Place. Eddowes believes that neither man is innocent and Kennedy is certain that one of them is.

John Christie and wife
John Christie and wife

The most famous of these suspects was John Reginald Halliday Christie. In 1938, he had moved into the ground floor flat of Ten Rillington Place (now Ruston Close) with his wife, Ethel, and their dog and cat, which gave them exclusive use of the back garden. The small Victorian house was the end house, located against a factory wall. From there, they could hear the trains and see factory chimneys spouting smoke. Grit lay on the windowsills and the paint was flaking off in front. Two other flats as small as theirs occupied the upper floors. One outhouse in the garden served for all three, as there was no bathroom on the premises. There was also a common washhouse, although it was not always in working order.

Christie, 40, was a quiet, inconspicuous man. His hair was a reddish-ginger color and his eyes were pale blue. He had an enormous forehead. Christie's wife was plump, big-boned, sentimental and passive. People who knew them believed she was afraid of Christie and did whatever he said. The Christies considered themselves to be better than their neighbors, and so they maintained their privacy. They seemed a quiet, pleasant couple, just two ordinary people who were devoted to each other, and to their dog and cat.

Originally from Yorkshire, Christie was rather high-strung and he generally relieved stress by gardening. His father had been a severe man who whipped his children whenever he felt like it. He also made them take long walks in a marching style. While his father withdrew from his son's frailty, Christie's mother held him close. He was her favorite. She emasculated him with overprotection. His four older sisters reinforced this feminine influence, but they dominated him. Christie retreated inside himself, although he learned to exaggerate symptoms of poor health to attract attention. He also developed a horror of dirt.

Christie never made friends in any lasting way, although he did well in school and got along. He participated in church activities, including becoming part of the choir. He also played sports and became a scoutmaster. He liked putting on his uniform.

When he was eight, his maternal grandfather died. Christie was asked if he wanted to see the body, which was laid out for a wake. He said that he did and when he went to look at the man who previously had frightened him, he felt pleasure at the lack of tension he now felt. This experience fascinated him. He began to play in the graveyard and seemed especially taken with the broken vault that housed children's coffins. He liked to look inside the cracks.

Sexually, he was inhibited. He had first been disturbed at the age of ten by seeing one of his older sister's legs, up to the knee — a sister he resented.

"There was nothing unusual in this, for it is often through their sisters that small boys first find themselves physically disturbed by the opposite sex. But in Christie's case it exaggerated an already tense situation. He had always resented his sisters' bossing him about, and now, to add salt to his wounds, he found himself physically attracted to them. He both loved and hated them because they aroused his masculinity and then stifled it; and this went on day after day, month after month, year after year. There must have been many occasions when he thought of his grandfather and wished them all dead." (Kennedy)

Ludovic Kennedy makes the case that Christie developed a deep hatred of women, especially those who tempted him, because he knew he could not satisfy them. He also feared them and these feelings merged into a repressed murderous rage. While with other boys, he boasted that girls liked him, but he soon earned the nicknames 'Can't-Make-It-Christie' and 'Reggie-No-Dick' when his early attempts at lovemaking failed.

Leaving school at the age of fifteen, he worked as a projectionist in a movie theater. Then World War I arrived and he entered the service as a signalman, becoming quite good at detailed work. He saw action once when a mustard gas shell knocked him unconscious and temporarily blinded him (although Kennedy points out that there is no record of this blindness in existence). He also lost his voice and remained silent for over three years. Physicians determined this to be a hysterical reaction rather than a real physical malady. Quite simply, he was afraid. After that, he exaggerated his illness to avoid unpleasant situations.

He left the army and returned to his job. Then he became a clerk. In 1920, he married Ethel Simpson Waddington, despite being mostly speechless.

His sexual difficulties continued and Ethel did nothing to help matters. Christie had frequented prostitutes since the age of nineteen. Although these women made no demands, they nevertheless humiliated him by reminding him of his inability with regular women. Yet even after he was married, he did not stop patronizing them.

Early in their marriage, Christie became a postman. He stole some postal orders and was sent to prison for three months. After returning home, his voice returned during a temper tantrum inspired by his father. Then he lost it again. After six months of silence, he once again was able to speak.

At the age of 25, he was put on probation at the post office for charges of violence. Also, stories circulated that he was frequenting prostitutes. He left his wife and went to London. She remained in Sheffield and got a job as a typist.

Four years later, Christie was in prison again, this time for nine months on two charges of theft. Afterward, he went through a series of jobs, and lived with a prostitute. He hit her over the head with a cricket bat and returned to prison for another six months. He was suspected of violence against other women, but lack of evidence prohibited an arrest. His life was still without direction when he got out. Thus, a few years later, he was arrested again when he stole a car from a priest who had tried to help him. He then asked Ethel to come and live with him after he came out of prison.

After being separated for almost ten years, Ethel rejoined her husband in London in 1933. She was 35 and lonely, but she had no idea what kind of person she was about to move in with. She agreed to become his wife again.

Christie in uniform
Christie in uniform

Soon Christie was hit by a car and had to be hospitalized. (Kennedy indicates that this incident happened as soon as he arrived in London, but in any case it had the same effect.) This began a long stage of hypochondria. Christie stayed home a lot, with the excuse of his many ailments, and visited two doctors for a total of one hundred seventy-three times over the course of fifteen years.

At this time, political events that set the stage for World War II had created some turmoil in London and Christie signed up as a volunteer member of the War Reserve Police. They made no inquiries about his past record, which would surely have barred him from service, and he received his uniform as a Special Constable for Harrow Road Police Station. He remained there for four years, probably the happiest of his life. Finally having some sense of purpose, he became almost fanatical about upholding the law, and he eventually acquired the nickname, 'the Himmler of Rillington Place.'

He enjoyed the authority he had and loved wearing his uniform. He also used the position to follow women, the notes of which he kept for many years. To watch his neighbors, he bored a peephole into his kitchen door, and he ran down every transgressor, no matter how petty the crime. In effect, he took himself too seriously. Christie kept this position for four years.

Thoroughly self-involved, he began to take advantage of his wife's frequent visits to her relatives, and he found women who responded to his advances. It was during this time that he developed a taste for peculiar sexual activities.

He developed a relationship with a woman who worked at the police station and whose husband was in the war overseas. While Ethel was away, Christie was to be found at this woman's house. When the husband unexpectedly returned, he found evidence enough of his wife's infidelity to file for divorce, naming Christie as co-respondent. He also caught Christie in his house, gave him a severe beating and threw him out.

It was afterward that Christie began inviting women to his own home.

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