Evans & Christie — Sixty years on


Sixty years ago today, serial killer John Reginald Halliday Christie was executed. He holds a special place in the halls of infamy for two very different reasons

John Reginald Halliday Christie

The first of these reasons is that he was a necrophiliac. The sexual abuse of the dead holds a particular revulsion for all right thinking people. The second reason is because of the controversy over the execution of Timothy Evans for the murder of his wife and daughter Geraldine. In 1949, Evans and Christie were both living at 10 Rillington Place in London’s Notting Hill. Evans occupied the top flat with his wife Beryl and baby daughter; Christie lived on the ground floor with his wife Ethel. There was also a tenant on the middle floor, but at the time of the murders of Mrs Evans and baby Geraldine, he was in hospital.

On November 30, 1949, Evans walked into a police station in his native Merthyr Tydfil and told an officer – coincidentally also named Evans – “I want to give myself up. I have disposed of my wife”.

Asked if he realised what he was saying, he said he did. He was then taken to see another officer – also named Evans – and made a statement.

It is fair to say that he told the police one lie after another, but they were concerned because in addition to anything that may have happened to Mrs Evans, he had mentioned the baby. The police contacted their colleagues in London who searched the premises but were unable to remove the cover of the drain where he claimed to have dumped the body.

Eventually, the bodies of both Mrs Evans and 14 month old Geraldine were found bagged up. They had been strangled.

Evans was escorted to London by train, and by the time he arrived at Notting Hill Police Station, the police were in a position to confront him with the evidence. When they did so, he confessed freely and voluntarily – a confession he would never dispute making. Afterwards he said he felt “a great relief” adding “I feel better already”.

Evans was photographed arriving at Paddington Station escorted by two police officers. This photograph is deceptive, because he was far from the frightened little man it makes him out to be.

Remanded to Brixton Prison charged with both murders, this sense of euphoria did not last, nor did his confession, and he tried to shift the entire blame onto his neighbour, Christie.

Originally he told the police he had found his wife dead; then he came up with a cock and bull story about meeting a stranger in a transport caff who had given him an abortificant, which he had given to his young wife. Finally, he claimed Christie had agreed to perform an abortion on her, that she had died during the course of the operation, and the two men had agreed to dispose of her body, on Christie’s prompting to protect him. In other words, he was a totally innocent party, a victim of circumstance. But what about the baby? Christie had told him, he said, that he had farmed her out to an unidentified couple. This was a bizarre defence indeed, even without his earlier voluntary confession, and clearly his legal team did not believe him because they were considering running an insanity defence.

At that time it was the practice when two or more murders were charged to sever the indictment. The Crown opted to proceed with the murder of the baby first, because that way there was no risk of a defence of provocation. Christie was the star witness - apart from Evans himself who was the only defence witness. In spite of attempts by Evans’ spirited counsel to blacken Christie’s character, the weight of evidence was so great that he was convicted in record time, his appeal was dismissed, and he was hanged March 9, 1950.

At this point, history would have forgotten Timothy John Evans; his name would have been a mere cypher in the annals of infamy alongside far more notorious killers such as Dr Marcel Petiot, H.H. Holmes and Mary Ann Cotton. However, on March 24, 1953, a shocking discovery was made at 10 Rillington Place: the bodies of three women; all had been strangled. Shortly, the body of Mrs Christie was found, and perhaps most shocking of all, the skeletal remains of two women were found in the back garden. They had been murdered during the Second World War while Ethel Christie had been away; painstaking research and investigations showed them to be Ruth Fuerst and Muriel Eady.

Christie was arrested March 31, 1953, without fuss by a lone police officer. He appears to have “strangled his wife” the previous December for some reason known only to him, and then to have “lost it”. He drained Ethel’s bank account, murdered his last three victims after luring them to the house, sub-let his flat illegally, and then simply wandered around the streets of the capital waiting for the inevitable.

It didn’t take long for the police and others to make the connection with “the house of horrors” and the two earlier murders, and the obvious suspicion was raised that the wrong man had been executed. To this day, thanks largely to the proselytising of Ludovic Kennedy, most people familiar with the case believe this to be so, but if one allows for the coincidence of two murderers living under the same roof, there is not much more to be said for the innocence of Timothy Evans. Nevertheless, a bandwagon was soon started, one that rolled on regardless of the facts.

Christie was tried only for the murder of his wife. His only real defence was insanity, one that was certainly plausible, but it failed and he was sentenced to death. He did not appeal, and was duly hanged 60 years ago today, but prior to that, John Scott Henderson was appointed to investigate the claim that Christie had also murdered Mrs Evans and her baby. Christie claimed he had killed Beryl Evans, but denied killing Geraldine, however, Scott Henderson concluded his confession was false, publishing first an official report and then a supplementary report in which he rebutted the inevitable criticism.

The controversy dragged on though, and in the 60s there was a thorough full judicial investigation at the High Court – the Brabin Inquiry. Along with the files from the other murders, these papers are held at Kew and have long been open to the public. They are voluminous. The Inquiry took statements from 169 people and no fewer than 79 gave oral evidence.

Brabin’s conclusion surprised everyone, it was that although Christie probably killed the baby, Evans had probably murdered his wife. Because of this, and because Evans had not been tried for the other murder, his body was dug up from Pentonville Prison and reburied in consecrated ground. In 2003, the execution of Evans was recognised by the Home Office as a miscarriage of justice, the following year, the High Court made a similar pronouncement, but neither body considered the evidence, they simply rubber stamped the claims.

Those who dealt with both cases, and those who have had the opportunity to study the original papers, often come to an entirely different conclusion. The picture that is usually painted of Evans is if not hagiographic, then totally wrong. The two men most responsible for this portrait were the lawyer Michael Eddowes and the campaigning journalist Ludovic Kennedy. Together they formed the Timothy Evans Committee, which was instrumental in bringing about the Brabin Inquiry. Kennedy’s agenda was first and foremost to use this alleged miscarriage of justice as an attack on capital punishment, but Eddowes was the man who really started the ball rolling. His book The Man on your Conscience... was published in 1955. Four decades later his son John published a devastating rebuttal: The Two Killers Of Rillington Place. For those who do not have access to the files at Kew, this is requisite reading.

Kennedy’s book is called 10 Rillington Place; he also acted as consultant on the eponymous film, which is why it is so wildly inaccurate.

An amusing document indicative of Kennedy’s mindset can be found in file CAB 143/22. It is a letter dated December 21, 1965 to F.N. Charlton from Maurice Crump of the Treasury Solicitor’s office concerning a conversation the latter had with Kennedy. Crump says: “I regret to have to record that I found Mr. Kennedy interested in things which could somehow or another be construed as consistent with Evans’s innocence to the exclusion of anything tending to prove his guilt.”

The earlier book by Michael Eddowes actually started as a joint project with Rupert Furneaux, who like his prospective co-author had originally been skeptical of the guilt of Evans, but his investigation led to the conclusion that Evans was indeed guilty, and in 1961 he published The Two Stranglers Of Rillington Place. In this book, Furneaux said a likely scenario was that Beryl Evans decided not to go through with her abortion, and Evans strangled her in the course of an argument. Unsure if she was dead, he sought assistance from Christie, who agreed to help him, perhaps empathising, or more likely fearing the police might dig up his garden for some reason and find the two bodies he had buried there. Both men were compulsive liars, so we will never now know for certain.

In his excellent study, John Eddowes says that his father was mad; his madness included a bizarre theory of the Kennedy Assassination, namely that Lee Harvey Oswald – the real and only assassin – was not really Oswald but a man who had been substituted by a Russian agent, a substitute who was so convincing that not even Oswald’s family noticed the difference. These ludicrous speculations led not only to a book on the subject but to the exhumation of Oswald’s body.

One curious anomaly that no one seems to have explored is that before Evans fled his top floor apartment, he sold his furniture to a dealer for £40.00. He was buying it on hire purchase, and it was valued at £100.00. Christie said Evans had told him he had got £60.00 for the furniture, but even today it is unimaginable that a second hand furniture dealer would pay such a price.

John Eddowes explodes the biggest myth about Evans, that he was an illiterate simpleton. When he was young, Evans missed a lot of schooling due to illness, so he lacked a good formal education, but he was street smart. While living above Christie he worked as a driver, which required a certain literacy even at that time; he also read the Daily Mirror, and as Chris Tame once said, in those days, the Mirror was a newspaper (rather than the tabloid rag it is today).

It is this that may hold the clue to the guilt of Evans, because a cutting from the Daily Mirror of the Setty case was found in his empty apartment. Stanley Setty was a dodgy car dealer who was murdered by his partner-in-crime Donald Hume. Brian Donald Hume had learned to fly as a young man; invalided out of the RAF in 1940 following both a serious accident and cerebro-spinal meningitis, he made a lot of money during the Second World War, legitimately, and later not so. Always mercurial, he stabbed Setty to death in a fit of rage and dumped his dismembered body from a light aircraft expecting to it be lost in the sea, but it was washed up in the Essex marshes, and some inspirational forensic work led to the arrest of Hume, who managed to lie himself out of the hangman’s noose at the cost of a 12 year sentence.

It was believed at the time that Setty’s torso was dumped from a vehicle; it was also theorised that Evans had intended to imitate this crime, but he was sacked from his job and had no means of disposing of his wife’s body. But what of baby Geraldine?

Donald Hume may have the answer to that. When Evans was remanded to the hospital wing of Brixton Prison, he met Hume.

On his release from prison, Hume sold his story to the Sunday Pictorial. Called I KILLED SETTY...AND GOT AWAY WITH MURDER, it was serialised in June 1958, and Hume fled abroad, but in February of the same year he spoke to the Daily Express about the Evans case. He said Evans told him that Christie had killed Beryl, and that Christie had also killed Geraldine: “It was because the kid kept on crying”. Evans had watched while Christie strangled her with a rag. Hume said he advised Evans to “Blame everyone but yourself”, which is what he did. He concluded “I am convinced that he and Christie together arranged to murder the child. IN THIS EVANS WAS GUILTY.” Could this be true? No one knows better than Michael Stone the frailty of prison confessions, and Hume – who went on to murder again – was anything but a reliable witness. And yet...

As with the Stephen Lawrence case four decades on, the police who investigated the murders of Beryl Evans and her baby daughter have come in for a great deal of unwarranted criticism, albeit for entirely different reasons.

After the bodies were found they were convinced they had their man, but they went to considerable lengths to check the claims Evans had made about Christie’s involvement. They lured him to the police station on the pretext of taking a statement, thus separating him from his wife, and made a careful search of his apartment. They found nothing but a syringe that Mrs Christie used for women’s issues.

There are other things that point towards Evans rather than Christie. Evans was a wife beater, and on one occasion he nearly defenestrated the poor woman. John Eddowes says that on the morning Christie was supposed to have strangled Beryl she went out; this was confirmed by one of the builders who were working on the premises.

Beryl and the baby were murdered three weeks before Evans walked into the police station and confessed. After selling his furniture he bought a new overcoat and spent his last days of liberty sponging off his parents. He also stole and sold Beryl’s wedding ring “after I killed my wife” as he told the police. The reader should ask himself if Christie would have left the bodies where they were in the full knowledge that they would at some point be found, and if he could have kept his cool when questioned by the police.

In spite of his already having murdered two women, the available evidence suggests that both he and especially his wife Ethel were kind to Beryl, who clearly didn’t have much of a life.

For those who may still be skeptical of the explanation of two murderers living under the same roof and killing independently, the following is offered. In his autobiography Forty Years Of Murder, the pathologist Keith Simpson pointed out that coincidences of this nature are far more common than is believed. Three of Christie’s victims, each of whom he had met in London, had been treated for venereal disease at the same Southampton hospital. On Christmas Day 1987, Sheila Jankowitz was raped by Antoni Imiela. Nineteen years later, she was murdered by someone else. On New Year’s Eve 2012, a Manchester woman got so drunk she could hardly walk, and within hours was attacked by two opportunistic sexual predators in unrelated assaults.

If one accepts the guilt of Evans, then it is clear he attempted to frame Christie. For those who ask why, the obvious retort is who else could he have blamed? And as John Eddowes pointed out, if the police had dug up the back garden, he might have had more luck than he could possibly have dreamed of.

Whatever, this is a case that will be debated forevermore; the most recent book on it was due to be published this year for the 60th anniversary of Christie’s execution, but publication was brought forward to last October. Jonathan Oates is an accredited academic who combines the discipline of a professional historian and archivist with the enthusiasm of a popular crime writer. He has also trawled through the papers at Kew.

[The above article was first published July 15, 2013.]

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