Apologies if you’ve just eaten: the true story behind BBC’s new drama Rillington Place is not going to be easy on your stomach. That’s because John Reginald Halliday Christie – the quiet-mouthed Yorkshireman played by Tim Roth – was one of the UK’s most prolific serial killers of the 20th Century, preying on young women throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
Here are all your questions and (really really horrible) answers about the London murderer – without spoilers for the next two episodes (we’ve put them on the next page).
And just a warning: it’s all downright awful.
How many people did John Christie kill?
Christie killed at least eight women from 1943 to 1953. However, it’s possible he had many more victims.
During the Second World War, the Yorkshireman was a special police constable and was in the perfect position to get away with more murders. Plus, several of Christie’s trophies from each killing were never matched to a victim.
Like other serial killers, he liked to keep an item that reminded him of each murder. And Christie’s trophy? A clump of his victim’s pubic hair. However, a few of these hairs have never been matched to a body.
We warned you it was going to be grim.
The real John Christie
How did John Christie kill his victims?
He strangled them. According to Christie’s account, he strangled Ruth Fuerst, his first known victim, during sex at his house, 10 Rillington Place in 1943.
Christie’s modus operandi means he’s often referred to as The Rillington Place Strangler, but he didn’t only choke his victims – Christie also used gas. For instance, he invited Muriel Eady, his second victim, to his flat, telling her he had a “special mixture” that would cure her bronchitis.
He told Eady to inhale the mixture from a tube leading to a jar. The jar contained Friar’s Balsam, an alcoholic solution used in some perfumes. And while she was inhaling this, Christie inserted another tube into the jar – one connected to a gas pipe. Eady soon passed out from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Christie then raped Eady’s unconscious body, strangling her until she died. He would then murder at least another six women over the next nine years using the same techniques.
It made for quite a disturbing scene in the 1971 film 10 Rillington Place, starring Richard Attenborough.
Indeed, Tim Roth – who plays Christie – told Radio Times: “we did shoot some very difficult stuff, and I’m not sure all of it made it to the final cut. It’s one thing to read a scene on the page, but it’s another thing to see it on screen once you’ve shot it.”
Where did John Christie hide his victims’ bodies?
Rather than dumping them away from his ground floor flat, Christie liked to keep the bodies close to him – a characteristic common to many necrophiliacs.
He buried his first victim under the floorboards in the living room before moving her to a hole in the garden. He would go on to bury his second victim, Muriel Eady, next to her.
He also hid three of his victims in a concealed alcove behind a cupboard in the kitchen.
In one of Christie’s many accounts of the murder of 24-year-old Rita Nelson (his sixth known victim) in 1953, he gassed and strangled her in a kitchen chair before heading to bed. The next morning he went to the kitchen and enjoyed a cup of tea with Nelson’s corpse still in the chair. Only after finishing his mug did Christie hide the body in the alcove.
What was John Christie like as a child?
Christie’s childhood was fairly uneventful – unlike many serial killers he didn’t spend his time killing family pets. But there were some warning signs for what he would grow into.
Christie was the sixth of seven children in his Yorkshire-based family, and his dominating five elder sisters undermined his confidence. Christie also said his father would often “give him a good hiding” (which, granted, wasn’t uncommon at the time).
At the age of eight, Christie saw the open coffin of his grandfather, an experience he found powerful – the man who once scared him was now only a body. He said after this he was never scared by a corpse and they always held a “fascination” over him.
But here’s what’s really surprising: despite being a loner at school, the young Christie excelled at maths (he had an IQ of 128 – a score that puts him in the smartest 5% in the UK). He was also a choir boy and a King’s Scout, the highest rank in the boy scouts.
Why did John Christie kill?
Well, that’s quite a question. But here’s one possible explanation for you: on reaching puberty, he was teased about sex. Rumours surfaced after his first sexual experience at age 16 or 17 and he soon picked up nicknames like “Can’t-Do-It-Christie”.
It was from this point many psychologists say Christie formed a hatred and dread of women and he was only able to perform sexually when he was in complete control. Christie later said “all my life I’ve had this fear of appearing ridiculous as a lover.”
Samantha Morton as Ethel Christie
When did John Christie marry Ethel Simpson?
Christie married Ethel Simpson aged 21, just after the First World War. The two of them lived in Sheffield for the first part of their marriage.
What was his marriage to Ethel Christie like?
Would it surprise you if we said it wasn’t too happy? It was a sexually dysfunctional relationship as Christie often suffered from impotence (which some say she teased him about) and friends and neighbours gossiped that she only stayed with him out of fear. They separated after four years, and Christie moved to London.
However, nine years later, in 1933, Christie got back in touch with his wife from prison. The two reconciled, but the relationship soon suffered difficulties when Ethel suffered a miscarriage. Four years after reconciling, Christie and his wife moved into the ground floor apartment of 10 Rillington Place in the Ladbroke Grove neighbourhood of Notting Hill.
Christie continued to seek out prostitutes to relieve his increasingly violent sexual urges. He also had several affairs, including one with a woman at the police station that he worked at – Christie was beaten after her husband found out.
Did his wife Ethel help John Christie kill?
We’re not sure how loyal his wife was or exactly how much she knew about the murders. However, it’s highly unlikely she’s innocent as she backed up the lies Christie would tell to cover up the killings (see next page to avoid any spoilers).
The full extent she helped will forever be a mystery, but that won’t stop dramas from guessing.
Why did John Christie speak so quietly?
Christie joined the army aged 17 and a half, just after the Battle of The Somme. He was sent to France a few months before the war ended and was caught in a mustard gas attack.
Christie claimed this blinded him and prevented him from speaking for three and a half years – however, this might well be another one of his lies.
Did he commit other crimes before the murders?
Oh yes, he was convicted of six crimes before moving into Rillington Place. Although his first offences included stealing from the post office that he worked at, he soon ended up in prison for violent crimes such as hitting a prostitute over the head with a cricket bat.
Finally, he was convicted of stealing a car from a priest and was imprisoned for three months in late 1933. It’s then he reconciled with Ethel.
Want to find out more about John Christie? Read more on the next page (but prepare yourself for spoilers for episodes two and three of Rillington Place).
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