Senior lecturer pens nonfiction book comparing two London killers

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Hachette Book Group

In the winter of 1952, murderer John Reginald Christie prowled the streets of London as the worst incident of air pollution in the city’s history suffocated its own victims. While the world fixated on the first killer, the second curiously receded from history’s collective memory.

“Death in the Air,” a narrative nonfiction book by journalism senior lecturer Kate Winkler Dawson, addresses these two connected crises. The book will be released Oct. 17.

“The comparison lies not only in the fact that both killers used air pollution as a means of ending lives — as Christie would often disable his victims with coal gas before strangling them — but in the overarching theme of indiscriminate murder,” Dawson said.

Although this connection seems clear, the book didn’t begin as a correlation between these two killers. 

“I initially began it solely on the effects of the Great London Smog and subsequent reaction of the press,” Dawson said. While London has a history of air pollution, the Great Smog of 1952 was an unprecedented catastrophe, the result of anticyclone conditions, coal burning and poor regulations, eventually killing 12,000.

Dawson said she had a particularly emotional encounter with a woman whose father died at the hands of the smog.

“She was only 13 when it occurred,” Dawson said. “It was clear to see the considerable pain it took to dredge up these memories.”

During a two-year period of extensive research about the human effects of the smog, including combing through archival records and conducting additional interviews, Dawson found that a murderer at large during the same time period seemed more prolific, his crimes more notorious in comparison to those of the Great Smog. 

After murdering six women, including his wife, Christie was found guilty and executed in 1953. While the Great Smog induced the passage of the Clean Air Act three years later by the British Parliament, Christie’s arrest immediately spawned a barrage of sensationalist stories, his face everywhere from tabloids to televisions.

“Despite both events unfolding somewhat simultaneously, Christie’s murders became this glamorized event in the eyes of the press and even the British Parliament,” Dawson said. “In comparison, it seemed that there was very little alarm to what was considered a pollution event, a markedly different reaction.”

Kathleen McElroy, associate director of the School of Journalism, said that the reasons for one’s popularity over the other may extend beyond sensationalism.

“We study newsworthiness in class, what makes some stories seem more newsworthy and others less so,” McElroy said. “Serial killers to this day are especially attractive due to their oddity, while other stories don’t demand as much of our attention.” 

In addition, McElroy connected the element of closeness to the phenomenon.

“People are always fascinated by crime, especially when it is local,” McElroy said. “We see the same thing when there’s a tragedy on campus. It’s easier to sympathize with the human element of a tragedy that strikes closer to us.”

Despite the seemingly different magnitudes of these two tragedies, Dawson said it wasn’t a competition of calamity between the two events.

“Which story really is more important?” Dawson said. “It’s a story of indiscriminate murder; both murderers kill without reason, their only objective to end as many lives as possible.”

A previous version of this story claimed that 12,000 people died due to an influenza outbreak caused by the smog. Dawson argues in her book that this was a lie promoted by the government at the time to deflect attention off smog as the primary killer.