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I've been wanting to make a video series, for some time, that shares my lifelong interest in the many mysteries and curiousities that tend to accompany the lives of writers, artists and other creatives. As a writer myself, I am fascinated by the creative process, but often, I find, the volatile energies that artists and writers release, when they explore the limits of the creative mind, can lead to many bizarre situations, mysterious creations and frightening, unfathomable mysteries. As the first example of the unexplainable mysteries, as relates to writers, here my list of the top seven writers who died mysterious deaths.
1. AGATHA CHRISTIE
Agatha Christie was an English writer and one of the most popular crime novelists of the early 20th Century. She is still widely read and respected, mostly for her 66 detective novels and her invention of such immortal and legendary fictional detectives as Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. There are many who say the modern detective story was invented by Christie. Although she was preceded by other literary pioneers of the detective genre, such as Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, many of the conventions of the modern sleuth story borrow heavily from the structure and formulae that Christie, alone, invented. Though she helped redefine & recreate the mystery genre, one of the greatest mysteries, associated with Agatha Christie, has nothing to do with her writing, but with own mysterious disapearance and presumed death, in 1926.
On December 4th, 1926, Christie's car was found, abandoned, with the hood open and the lights on, parked next to a lake called Silent Pool, in Surrey. She had left her house, the previous evening, and, given the fact that she had left most of her personal possessions in the car, and the very suspicious circumstances, the Surrey Police were called in. Unable to find Christie anywhere near the vehicle or the lake, they issued a missing person report, in the hopes of getting clues from the public. However, because Christie had already become a famous author, ever since the publication of her wildly popular first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in 1920, there was a greater public reaction to the missing person's report, than the police had ever imagined possible. More than 500 policemen across England, joined in the search, dredging Silent Pool, scouting the area with bloudhounds and scanning the countryside with airplanes. It was said that more than 15,000 volunteers were involved in the search.
Many people, who followed Christie's mystery writing, began to form their own conclusions, believing that Christie's husband, Archie, who was known to have a tumultous relationship with her, and was even rumoured to be having an affair, was somehow behind her disappearance. After 11 days, many more people were considering this theory, that she may have been murdered. Amazingly, and a bit anti-climactically, Christie was found, eventually, staying at a luxury spa resort in Harrowgate, which was more than 200 miles from where her car was found. One of the chambermaids had recognized her, from the missing person's reports and had tipped her off to the police. She had checked in, on December 4th, under the name of "Mrs. Teresa Neele" (Neele being the surname of her husband's mistress) and had told everyone at the hotel she was a bereaved mother. A journalist, who had guessed Christie's location and arrived soon before the police went up to the supposed Mrs. Neele and addressed her as "Mrs. Christie." She acknowledged her identity to the journalist, but told him she had lost her memory and had been suffering from Amnesia. Later, the cops arrived with the press and her husband Archie. Although she first mistook Archie for her brother, she eventually seemed to recognize him and seemed able to convince him that she had lost her memorie and wandered here, in a disoriented state.
Christie never fully explained the reason for this baffling incident, but many theories have sprung up, and people have been trying to solve the mystery, ever since she was found, in 1926.
One theory is that it was an elaborate publicity stunt, given that her latest novel, "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" was on the best-seller's list for a very long time, and her name was certainly on everyone's tongue, worldwide, for more than a week, as a result of her disappearance. Another theory was that Agatha had cooked up this elaborate situation in order to shame and punish her husband, Archie, who had just expressed his desire to divorce Christie, and move in with his mistress, on December 3rd, the night before Christie disappeared. By staging her own death, her husband had felt the pressure of the police and the public, who certainly learned about his undutiful and adulterous behavior, as a result of the publicity surrounding her disappearance. On the other hand, many people believed her story of Amnesia, given her car was high up and over an embankment, when found, as if she had hit something, in the dark, and possibly suffered a blow to the head. Although it is hard to explain how she found her way to a cab or a train, in order to make it to Harrowgate, in such an impaired state, in the middle of the night. One final theory is that she had suffered what is known as a "Fugue State," which is a form of nervous breakdown, that can happen to people who are going through a lot of stress. Christies mother had recently died, she had suffered a long and difficult illness, and it is theorized this final betrayal and demand for divorce, by Archie, had pushed her over the edge and caused her to detach from reality. This would explain why she left her belongings behind, in her deranged state of mind.
But, given Christie never offered an explanation, even unto her death, it is still a complete mystery why Agatha Christie disappeared, in this way. I'm inclined to think she was so emotionally disturbed, that she formulated this elaborate way to embarass Archie, based on the fact she so quickly admitted her true identity, when first confronted by the journalist. I have trouble believing she really did have amnesia. But I'm still unsure. What do you think? Although Christie lived a long and distinguished life, beyond 1926, I still wanted to include it in this list, simply because it was, and still is, a mystery which even Poirot would have trouble with.
2. MAXIM GORKY
Maxim Gorky was born Alexei Maximovich Peshkov. I've always believed my mother chose my first two names based on this author's birth name, but since she's denied it, I can only assume it was subconscious or a coincidence. Maxim Gorky was a Russian writer, who lived from 1868 to 1936. He was part of the great literary movement of Russian Realism, which is still highly lauded, around the world. He was a close friend of other famous Realist writers of the period Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov and even published his memoirs about his experiences with these two close friends, soon after their deaths.
In addition to being a writer, Gorky was active in the socialist movement which lead to the Russian Revolution, in 1917. He seemed to have embraced socialism because of his powerful hatred for the tyranny of the Russian Tsars and his personal experience, travelling among the peasants and witnessing their suffering. In the early 1900s, he had been a popular writer, in Tsarist Russia, and had used his popularity to shame the Tsarist government and support groups that pushed for reform and social justice. His activism led to his being exiled to the island of Capri, in Italy, in 1906, and it was not until Tsarism was about to fall that Gorky returned to Russia. His apartment, in Petrograd, even served as a headquarter for local Bolsheviks, during World War I. When the Soviet state was formed, purporting to be the true state of the people, Gorky felt his vision of an ideal, just society had come to pass.
However, by 1921, the reality of the oppressive Soviet state began to dawn on Gorky. Stalin had taken over and was indiscrimnately executing anybody who showed even the slightest hint of disloyalty or rebelliousness. Gorky often wrote in local publications, denouncing the undemocratic and violent methods of the Bolsheviks. When Gorky's friend and fellow writer, Nikolay Gumilev, was executed for his suspected Monarchist sympathy, this seems to have scared Gorky into fleeing to Italy, once again, to live a life in exile.
By 1932, however, Italy had become fascist, under Mussolini, and so, in spite of his probably misgivings, Gorky accepted a personal invitation, by Stalin, to return to Russia. Being a popular propaganda figure -- given he was still hailed as a writer of the revolution -- it was valuable for Stailin to have Gorky in his country. He was given a mansion and treated with great honour, by Soviet officials, as well as by Stalin, himself, who often visited him and viewed his public readings. Although he had once renounced the Bolsheviks, Gorky, perhaps out of fear, now seemed to "tow the party line" and seemed to have kept a low profile, perhaps hoping he'd be left alone, to continue his writing, in peace. In spite of his previous hatred for violent tactics, he seemed resigned to the increasing horrors perpetrated by Stalin's ever-growing paranoia and tyranny.
However, as Stalinist oppression ramped up to a fever pitch, Gorky's fortunes inevitably took a deadly turn. His son died under suspicious circumstances, in 1934, and Gorky himself, turned up dead in his villa, a few years afterwards. The official Soviet story was that he had been ill and died of natural causes. But rumors spread, in Soviet Russia, that he had been poisoned by Stalin.
This theory that Stalin had him poisoned or murdered in some such way were later backed up by the fact that a trial, taking place in Russia, in 1938, led to the testimony of an eyewitness, who claims that Gorky was killed by NKVD agents(the precursor to the KGB). Gorky was still revered as a great Soviet writer, and his coffin was even carried by Stalin and the powerful Molotov, during his funeral. I personally am inclined to suspect that Gorky's son might have done what his father didn't dare do, and might have voiced discontent of some kind with the state and so was gotten rid of. Perhaps this crime against his blood made Gorky's old sense of justice come to the surface, and so Stalin decided to get rid of him, before he destroys the illusion of the "hero writer of the revolution", which was such a valuable propagand tool. But, what do you think? Do you know more about this case and what might have been the real story behind Gorky's death? If you think you might, leave a comment and share your story with the rest of us.
3. IAN MACKINTOSH
Ian Mackintosh was a writer of popular thriller novels and a screenwriter for British television. His most popular novels and television work, was generally set in the world of British espionage and was famous for being the first and only body of work that seemed to accurately portray the British secret services. Many people wondered if Mackintosh, himself, might have been in the secret service, given that his portrayal of the intelligence operative's lives seemed to be so authentic and laced with arcane intelligence jargon, known as "spookspeak" in British intelligence circles.
Mackintosh wrote spy novels in the late sixties, and later went on to create the cult TV classic "The Sandbaggers", which aired on British station ITV, in the late 70s. It was mostly the accuracy portrayed in "The Sandbaggers" which led many to believe Mackintosh was a genuine insider, given their seeming indepth knowledge of spy tactics, the history of various spy agencies and the detailed logistics of intelligence work. Nothing had ever been seen, in television, and many people in the industy, nowadays, have said that Mackintosh's work was the only television show to even come close to reflect what real intelligence work is like. So, how did Mackintosh come by this seemingly authentic knowledge? Many of the show's fans have speculated that Mackintosh may have been recruited into the British Intelligence Community during his time with the British Navy, stationed near the Baltic Sea at a time when British Intelligence frequently used those seaways in order to infiltrate into the Soviet sphere of influence. Although he was asked many times, if he was actually a spy, Mackintosh would always simply reply with enigmatic phrases like "might have been," never actually answering the question.
Besides that mystery, however, the true puzzle, surrounding Ian Mackintosh has to do with his unexplained death, in 1979. Him and his girlfriend, Susan Insole, and a friend named Graham Barber were flying a light plane over the Gulf of Alaska, when they seemed to run into some trouble. They sent out a distress signal, which was picked up by the US Coast Guard, but the search and rescue teams were never able to find any evidence of a wreck and the three were never heard from again.
Although it may seem like a simple case of a plane crashing in the inhospitable waters off Alaska, the fact of Mackintosh's suspected affiliation with the intelligence community has put his death into question. One theory suggests that he was shot down by American planes, as a result of his spy activities, and that the flight over Alaska might have been reconnosance activity. In this case, the story of a distress signal might have been a cover up. Another theory states that Mackintosh might have used this ruse to facilitate a defection to the USSR, given that Alaska was a hot-bed for Soviet spy activity, in the late 70s. Some of these theories seem to be given credence by the strange behavior of the pilot, during the fated flight. The pilot, quite outside of normal protocol, didn't submit a flight plan and the plane had made a mysterious, unscheduled stop at a disused World War II airfield. Years later, an official of the US State Department even admitted that he felt the crash had been staged. The seemingly endless theories also include the possibility that Mackintosh merely staged his own death, in order to avoid persecution by USSR agents and various terrorist organizations, known to have crossed swords with the British Intelligence community, such as the Black September, or even his own agency, who might have resented his sharing details about the intelligence community with the public, at large, through his books and his tevelision series. This is the theory I am leaning towards, as it certainly explains why he brought his girlfriend along with him, as well as his best friend, to keep him company in his new life. Although, because the bodies were never found and because we all know that planting misinformation is a major tactic of any intelligence agency, it really is hard to guess what might have happened to Mackintosh. What do you think is the most likely theory?
4. AMBROSE BIERCE
Ambrose Bierce was an American journalist, writer and satirist, who was famous, in the late 1890s and early 1900s. His sardonic and cynical view of human nature gave him the nickname "Bitter Bierce" but he was seen as a comical and acidically witty critic of human nature. He's best known for his short story "An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge" and his satirical lexicon, "The Devil's Dictionary."
Bierce was a young man during the American Civil War and enlisted in the Union Army, where he eventually became a First Leiutenant and a topographical engineer, making maps of likely battlefields. After the war, he established a career as a journalist, where his painfully honest and caustic style started many controversies, when he'd criticize prominent politicians and business moguls.
By the turn of the century, Bierce had become a well respected author and continued to write short fiction and poetry, well into his old age. However, in 1913, at age 71, he felt a need to travel to Washington DC, to visit his old battlegrounds. Working his way south, he eventually came near the Mexican border, where a revolution was in full swing, led by the Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa. Amazingly, Bierce convinced Villa's army to take him along, as an observer, and he actually observed the bloody battle of Tierra Blanca.
Bierce is known to have followed the army down to the town of Chihuahua, but after that point, nothing was ever heard form him again. Many theories were proposed, after his mysterious disappearance, given that Bierce was such a well-known and respected journalist, of the day. It seems to be the prevailing theory that he was executed by Villa's army, because they suspected he was an American spy. This theory seems to be borne out by the fact that eyewitnesses claim to have seen him executed by firing squard and claim to have found his ID, with his name on it, among his effects, after his death. Couple that with the fact that Bierce was known to be acidic, argumentative and prone to have a big mouth and the idea that he could have angered his proud, well-armed travelling companions seems likely. But there were theories that Bierce had wanted to retire, in Latin America, as he had often claimed that was where he wished to live, eventually. This theory is given some credence by the fact his final letter, sent to a friend, said that he would love to die at the hands of Mexican revolutionaries, because it would be a fittingly dramatic death, and he said a final goodbye, to his friend, just in case that happens. Of course, it is thought it did happen. This indicates that he knew that he was going to disappear, which implies he was either setting up his alibi or was using Villa's men in order to commit suicide. A kind of variation of the "suicide by cop." Some of his friends believed he had made up the whole story of Pancho Villa to cover up a simple suicide, by gun, at his favorite place -- the Grand Canyon. A few people even believe the stories that adventurers brought back from South America, claiming they met an old American, living with a native tribe, who worshipped him like a God, and believe this is what became of Bierce, who was known to write about highly supernatural topics, and probably would have loved to wind up in such a situation, retired with South American natives.
I am inclined to think he was killed by Villa's army, given there are two known eyewitness accounts, which is better than the other stories. But the friends that think he committed suicide by gun, and simply made up this more dramatic cover story argued he was very weak, asthmatic and unlikely to keep up with a revolutionary army, which seems to go against that theory. So, it is hard to know what the truth actually is. What do you think happened to Bierce? There seem to be no end to theories, but I've yet to read of any evidence, that seems to give a clear answer.
5. EDGAR ALLEN POE
This is perhaps the strangest one of them all. As we all know, Edgar Allen Poe was one of the first truly iconic American fiction writers. He is known as the creator of the mystery genre and the horror genre, and is famous for truly legendary works of early American literature, such as Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Telltale Heart and the epic poem, The Raven. His work influenced a great many future greats, in the writing world, like Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle.
Poe lived with tragedy, from his earliest years. His father left his family in 1810, just one year after Poe's birth. And, just a year later, Poe's mother died. Being orphaned, as a toddler, he was taken care of by a couple named John and Frances Allan. He lived with them until he was a young adult, although they never formally adopted him. Poe later conflicted with his father, who had a rocky relationship with him. Poe eventually fled his quarrelsome family and joined the army. Not long after leaving the army, he started a career in writing.
Poe became a sensation, when he poem "The Raven" was published in the Evening Mirror, in 1845. Although it is probably the most famous thing he ever wrote, reprinted 10 times, within the first month of its publication, Poe only received $9 for the rights to it. Poe also lost many potentially lucrative job offers, in publishing and federal government, because of his drinking and his tendency to miss appointments, because of it. Poe tried to create a periodical called the Broadway Journal, but it went out of business. And just a year later, in 1847, he wife, Virginia, died. These final misfortunes drove Poe even further into drink and he became an alcoholic recluse, during the last years of his life, living in what is now known as Poe Cottage, in the Bronx.
Then, on October 3rd, 1849, Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore. He was apparently delirious, in great distress and in need of medical assistance. He was taken to the Washington Medical College, but the reason for his sudden madness was never found. He died in October 7th, 1849. Although the doctors attributed his condition to his known alcoholism, there were many strange circumstances that have made people suspicious of his death, ever since it was first published in the newspapers. For one, Poe was out of his mind, and unable to speak rationally. Because of this, he was never able to explain his odd condition to anybody, leaving it open to anyone's guess, concerning what happened to him. Strangely, he was found wearing clothes that did not belong to him and repeatedly shouted out the name "Reynolds" during his feverish delirium. This would seem to indicate some kind of foul play, rather than simply alcohol-induced madness. But people have postulated everything from schitzophrenia to epilepsy, to rabies, to explain his sudden descent into insanity. But this still doesn't explain why he was wearing strange clothes, seemed to have been beaten and repeatedly called out "Reynolds." Some have theorized Poe was a drug addict, and it was drug abuse that drove him insane. This is based on the dark and frightening nature of most of his work and based, in part, by rumors that were spread, after his death, by a hated rival named Rufus Griswold. Some people even postulate that Griswold, consumed by his hatred of Poe, murdered Poe or arranged for him to be assaulted, and so caused his death. Griswold did, in fact, publish this heartless and suspicious message, soon after Poe's death "Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it." Such an unnecessarily harsh public pronouncement, so soon after the man's death would seem to lend credence to that theory. But many commentators of the day said Poe was accidentally killed by ruffians who were engaging in a practice called "Cooping" This was a corrupt practice of the 1800s, where random people were pulled off the street and forced to vote for a particular candidate, often several times and were beaten if they refused. It was known, apparently, that cooping was happening in Baltimore at the time. But the theories are endless, anywhere from a nervous breakdown, brought on by the many miseries of Poe's life to retribution from the Devil, who dragged Poe into Hell as a punishment for the many evils and dark themes, that often populated his best works.
What do you think happened to Edgar Allan Poe? There are too many theories for me to come to a conclusion and too little information. But if you know more, I'd love to hear about it. One thing is sure, Poe's death was suitably mysterious, for a writer who would later be anointed as the Father of the Detective genre. Even the greatest detective superheroes, which have been borne out of Poe's invention of the genre, would have trouble sorting out this mystery.
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