Home » Episodes » Episode 54 – Berkshire, England & Princeton, NJ (There’s a Brain in the Basement)

We’ve got a fun episode for you today! First, Emily heads to Berkshire County, England to talk about the time that Agatha Christie disappeared for 11 days. Then, Rachel goes to Princeton, New Jersey to share the gritty details about Einstein’s brain mapping — against his wishes!

Trigger Warning: Suicidal Ideation

Story 1: Agatha Christie’s Disappearance

I’m going to give you some stats about a famous person and see if you know who it is…

This author is best known for writing 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections, as well as the world’s longest-running play – The Mousetrap. This person’s books have sold over a billion copies in the English language and a billion in translation. The author was born in Torquay, Devon, South West England in 1890. One of their books is the world’s bestselling crime novel. That book is called…. And Then There Were None. If you haven’t guessed it yet, that probably gave it away. The author I’m referring to is Agatha Christie.

And today I am going to tell you about the way that she mysteriously disappeared at the height of her career – and all the theories about what happened, from murder to suicide to kidnapping.

It all started in October 1912, she was introduced to Archibald “Archie” Christie at a dance given by Lord and Lady Clifford at Ugbrooke, about 12 miles from Torquay. The son of a barrister in the Indian Civil Service, Archie was an army officer and the couple quickly fell in love. Three months after their first meeting, Archie proposed marriage, and Agatha accepted.

They were planning the wedding and all that jazz when 1914 rolled around and Archie got told he was shipping out to fight in WWI. The two got married on Christmas Eve 1914 at Emmanuel Church, Clifton, Bristol, close to the home of his mother and stepfather, while Archie was on home leave. While Archie was away, Agatha decided to spend her time writing and she penned her first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in 1916.

Agatha Christie, the queen of crime chemistry | Feature | Chemistry World
Agatha Christie

Eventually, Archie came home from war and the two had a child, Rosalind, while Agatha kept writing. Her second novel, The Secret Adversary, earned her £50 (approximately equivalent to £2,800 in 2019). But her third novel, Murder on the Links, sold well. It took a few years, but she was becoming more and more famous and had no trouble selling her work. Baaad bitch.

Now, I’m sincerely hoping that we have this kind of luck because by 1922, the Christies were famous enough (thanks to Agatha) that they were asked to join an around-the-world promotional tour for the British Empire Exhibition. This was a massive multi-year event. I don’t even know how to really describe it – they had a stadium and transportation systems and concert halls and all kinds of things on 215 acres of land. The purpose was for the  British Empire to ‘…enable all who owe allegiance to the British flag to meet on common ground and learn to know each other.”

Apparently, 17 million people from around the world came – and part of how they got the message out before the age of the internet, people (including Agatha) traveled for 10 months to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Canada to promote the event. Lucky dogs!

When they returned to England, Archie resumed work in the city, and Christie continued to work hard at her writing. After living in a series of apartments in London, they bought a house in Sunningdale, Berkshire, which they renamed Styles after the mansion in Christie’s first detective novel. Sounds like a pretty charmed life!

Then, 1926 hit – and it was not a good year. First, Christie’s mother, Clarissa Miller, died in April. And Agatha was extremely close to her mom so she fell into a deep depression after her mother passed. Of course, in a truly shitty move, Archie opted not to comfort and care for his grieving wife, but instead … sleep around! How thoughtful. Finally, in early late November Archie asked for a divorce, he had officially met someone new that he wanted to be with forever… but for realzies this time.

Then, on December 3, 1926, shortly after 9:30 p.m., Agatha kissed her daughter Rosalind goodbye and walked out of her home. Then she climbed into her Morris Cowley and drove off into the night. 

What happened to Agatha Christie? A real-life mystery

The next day, the police found her car. And as The Times reported on Dec. 6 “The novelist’s car was found abandoned near Guildford on the edge of a chalk pit, the front wheels actually overhanging the edge.”

But there was no sign of Agatha herself or any evidence that there had been an accident so to speak. Almost like the car wasn’t put I park correctly and rolled into the hedge. Inside her car… nothing but a couple of items of clothes and an attaché case with some paperwork in it.

There were very few clues for the police to go off of… On top of the bizarre discovery of her car, there was also a series of letters that Christie had left to her secretary, her brother-in-law, and her husband.

Her husband refused to share his letter, saying that it was just too personal. If I had to guess, it probably said, “you’re a cheating bastard and I’m leaving you.” And he was a well-to-do Colonel of the army that couldn’t bear to have his good name run through the mud. The secretary said that her letter was a schedule – probably for how to take care of Rosalind – and Christie’s brother-in-law told police that his letter said she had gone to a spa in Yorkshire.

Now, this seemed to be a decent clue, but the police were thinking something was amiss because of the way that her car was found.  Plus, even though one of her friends was like “She was perfectly happy, her career was taking off!” Her husband was like SHE WAS HAVING A MENTAL BREAKDOWN.

So, the police’s first thought? Suicide. So they searched a local pond called “the Silent Pool” which is where the car was found. Now locals had a bunch of legends about this place. Some said that near this lake birds won’t sing and others say that the lake is treacherously bottomless and sucked people to its depths. But they searched the lake and found nothing…

This is when all of England went… a little bit bonkers. If I’m being honest. 

When the World's Most Famous Mystery Writer Vanished - The New York Times

First, there was the theory that she had been driven out of her own house by terror. One paper stated that she was spooked by her house because it was the path at the end of a lane that had been the scene of a murder-suicide of a husband and wife.

Then, a rumor started to fly around that it was all a big publicity stunt… She was a crime author after all. Luckily her secretary came to rescue her good name and the good name of all crime-related creators… and was like, “That’s ridiculous! Miss Christie is a lady she would never do something like that.“

So people started searching. And when you’re a famous author and you’re missing, the search parties get pretty big. It is said that between 10,000 and 15,000 people helped search for Agatha Christie. They brought bloodhounds and retrievers and police dogs with them… one article even stated: “common mongrels” were included, which I think means they just brought any dog they could find anywhere in hopes that it would help them find Agatha. This was also the first known instance of them using airplanes to try to find a missing person.

One day during the search people found a bunch of items that seemed suspicious. They found bottles labeled “poison” and “opium”… they found a torn-up postcard, a fur-lined woman’s coat, a loaf of bread, and two children’s books. So obviously… all of the things a woman on a nervous breakdown rampage could possibly need. You know, “hysteria.”

Now here’s when it gets a little more interesting, because like I said when you’re a famous author and word gets around that you’re missing people start to pay attention. And none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the man who wrote Sherlock Holmes, got all up in their business and decided to help. And his way of helping was enlisting the help of a medium to read the situation. He gave the medium one of Agatha’s gloves, I guess and asked her to feel for the author’s presence. They even had a séance near where her car was found. It was all inconclusive, apparently.

The original Gone Girl: Agatha Christie's mysterious disappearance | The  Independent | The Independent
Possible looks like Christie may have taken on while “on the run”

Pretty soon the rumors went from “oh this lady lost her marbles and completed suicide” to “maybe she is on the lam or in hiding!” In fact, one newspaper reported that “the police have information which they refused to divulge and leads us to believe that Mrs. Christie had no intention of returning when she left home.“ They speculated that she was maybe in London, probably disguised as a man. Apparently, they reported that Colonel Christie made a careful investigation of his own wardrobe to check to make sure if any of his clothes were missing.

Then… On December 14, eleven days after she went missing, Agatha Christie was found. And she was at… The SPA IN YORKSHIRE. A.k.a. exactly where she told the brother-in-law she was going to be.

Apparently, the reason why they didn’t initially discover her at the spa was that, in addition to not checking the one spot she told them she would be at, she had checked in under the name “Mrs. Tressa Neele“. The police asked her husband why she would’ve used that name and he was like *shrug noises* Here’s the thing… Miss Neele was Archie’s mistress, so…

No why did they ask her husband if he knew the name Tressa Neele instead of just asking Agatha what it meant…? Well first of all it was the 20s and so they probably didn’t think she could think for herself, but also when they found her, she had no memory of what happened – or who she even was!

Apparently, while she was at the spa she didn’t do anything that aroused suspicion. She went to the dances they had and watched the entertainment… Just living her best life at the spa, but then one of the hotel’s banjo players recognized her and tipped off the police.

Of course, when they arrived Agatha took her sweet time coming down from the room, saying she needed to change into her eveningwear first… and then when she did come down her husband said that she had a stony look on her face as if she did not even recognize him at all. (Which I’m like.. is that because she had amnesia or because she hates you..?”)

Colonel Christie informed reporters that she literally has a complete loss of memory and did not know who she even was. He also shared that she couldn’t remember how she got to the spa, though eventually, they came to believe that after crashing her car she boarded a train, and then when she got to the town she checked into the hotel without luggage, used the name of her husband’s mistress and went on her merry way.

After Colonel Christie gathered his wife from the spa, he took her back to London, and apparently, there were hundreds of people at kings cross train station waiting for the couple’s arrival to try to get a glimpse of her. She was a star! Basically, if it was a publicity stunt, it WORKED.

Unfortunately, we may never truly know why all of this happened or how it exactly went down. Agatha herself has only spoken about it one time in an interview with The Daily Mail. She said:

“I felt terribly miserable. That I could go on no longer.So, I left home that night in a state of high nervous strain with the intention of doing something desperate. When I reached a point on the road which I thought was near the quarry I turn the car off the road down the hill toward it I left the wheel and let the car run the car struck something with the jerk and pulled up suddenly I was flying against the steering wheel and my head hit something.”

Agatha Christie

Beyond that, she pretty much dismisses it and won’t talk about it.

In the end, some people believe that she was suicidal. Others believe it was a fugue state brought on by all of the trauma and depression she was experiencing. Others thought it was just her trying to get back at her philandering husband.

Luckily for us, she got back to feeling like herself and picked up her writer’s pen once again and continued penning brilliant crime novels for another 50 years. She did not take her husband Archie Christie along with her, however, and she sued him for divorce approximately two years later.

Story 2: Brain-Napping Einstein

Our journey begins at the end of Albert Einstein’s life. That’s right – THE Albert Einstein. Smart guy, won a Nobel Prize, crazy hair, E=Mc2, you get it. On April 18, 1955, the brilliant physicist died of an aneurysm at Princeton Hospital, in Princeton, NJ.

Einstein's Brain Unlocks Some Mysteries Of The Mind : NPR

Albert Einstein was 76 years old when he died, so he had written down specific instructions about what he wanted to happen to his body after death. He wanted to be cremated, and then, he wanted his ashes to be scattered secretly. He didn’t want any fanboys getting a hold of his brain and doing weird things with it.

Enter: Fan Boy/Pathologist Thomas Harvey. He happened to be working at Princeton Hospital at the time of Einstein’s death and was all “ooooohhhhh a genius’s brain!!!!!” Thomas decides to do an autopsy, and without checking with anyone, assumes that the autopsy is for the purpose of studying Einstein’s brain. 

I hope you can all see where this is going. HE STOLE THE BRAIN. Literally, straight up out of Einstein’s head. And this guy must have been at least a little persuasive, because a few days later, Thomas Harvey somehow convinced Hans Albert, Einstein’s son, to give a retroactive go-ahead for him to take the brain since Thomas had originally done so without the permission of the family. He’s all, “trust me, it’s for science.” 

Thomas Harvey - IMDb
Thomas Harvey, pathologist (NOT brain surgeon)

Then, adding insult to injury, Thomas gave the eyeballs he also removed from Einstein’s body to Henry Abrams, who had been Einstein’s eye doctor. His eyeballs are still located in a safety deposit box in New York City. EWWWWWW!

For obvious reasons, Thomas Harvey got fired from the hospital, so he packed up his brain and his belongings and moved to Philadelphia. There, he carved Einstein’s brain into 240 pieces and preserved them, dividing them up between two jars, and stored them in his basement. You know… for science.

Also, Thomas Harvey wasn’t a brain specialist. He could diagnose disease, injury, etc. through an autopsy, but there is no way he could study the brain in the specific ways he was telling everyone that he could. He kept trying to get more qualified researchers to study the brain, but mostly it was reporters who were interested in the brain in the basement. Any time Thomas was questioned about when his research would be finished, he would say, “I’m only one year away!” Spoiler alert: he’d give that same answer for the next 4 decades.

Okay, I’m going to take a quick detour to preface this next part of the story with, I get it. Emily, you know that I’m not a person who enjoys clutter. I like for everything to have a place, yes? I’ve gotten a little more flexible with this since having children, but overall, I still like things pretty organized. And apparently, so did Mrs. Harvey. She’s all, “listen, Tommy, you’d better get this brain out of my basement or I’m going to throw it in the garbage.” I find this incredibly relatable. 

So, Thomas took the brain to the Midwest. I’m pretty sure he and his wife got divorced, but I didn’t read that explicitly, so I like the idea of him running away with the brain saying, “whelp, I’m going to be traveling for work for a while!” Regardless, he started working as a medical supervisor at a biological testing lab in Wichita, Kansas. And he kept the brain safe. In a cider box. Under a beer cooler. THIS MAN WAS IN CHARGE OF SUPERVISING OTHERS.

But he kept on keeping on, moving to Missouri, where he practiced medicine and studied the brain in his free time. In 1988, tragedy befell this fucking weirdo when he failed a 3-day competency exam. Seriously, would you want this guy being your doctor?!!?!

So he moved back to Kansas, this time in Lawrence. He started working for a factory, as an assembly-line worker. He moved into an apartment, and he made a buddy – beat-poet William Burroughs. These bros would have a couple of drinks, and Thomas would spew some bullshit about how he would ship pieces of Einstein’s brain all over the world to different researchers. And William would tell his friends that he could have a piece of Albert Einstein whenever he wanted.

You. Can’t. Make. This. Shit. Up.

FINALLY, in 1985, Thomas Harvey and some other science guys published a study about Einstein’s brain. Essentially, they say that he had A LOT of two types of cells: neurons and glia. There were five other studies, some of them recently published, saying that Einstein’s cell structure was pretty unique.

But other scientists, specifically Terence Hines, who is a psychology professor at Pace University, say that that’s all bullshit. He basically said the control group wasn’t the right age group, and also their brains were fresh, and Einstein’s brain had been chilling in a basement for about 3 decades. Also, the studies didn’t account for bias, because it is super clear which brain parts are Einstein’s and which brain parts are not Einstein’s.

Essentially, Thomas Harvey and his brood of science bros were trying to find something that made Einstein’s brain worthy of brain-napping, so they were desperately comparing his brain to others. But there was really no way of knowing if any subtle differences in Einstein’s brain had anything to do with intelligence… or if it was just that his brain looked different than theirs in certain ways. And again, this brain wasn’t studied for 30 years after Albert Einstein passed.

What Happened To Einstein's Brain After His Death? - HistoryExtra
Thomas Harvey with a piece of Einstein’s brain

Finally, in the early ‘90s, Thomas Harvey headed back to Princeton. He ended up giving Einstein’s brain back to the pathology lab… the same one he had stolen the brain from over forty years earlier. At least, most of the brain ended up there. Probably some pieces are still floating around with Thomas Harvey’s friends or family, and some parts of Einstein’s brain are on display at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.

The whole thing is super messed up, because after all of that bull-shit “research,” there is no conclusive evidence that something in Einstein’s brain made him such a genius. And at the end of the day, his brain became a phenomenon for fanboys… exactly the thing he was trying to avoid. 

And that is the story of Albert Einstein’s brain-napping by Thomas Harvey.


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