In 1902, an Irish-born barrister named Cecil Lincoln built a sprawling hotel in the hills above Mussoorie, India, which he named “the Savoy.” Its flamboyant Edwardian elegance soon made it one of “the” stops for travelers wealthy enough to afford such in-your-face opulence. The Savoy was also highly popular among British expats seeking a refuge from the heat, dust, and noise of the crowded towns below. So many authors frequented the hotel that its bar became known as the “Writer’s bar.” The Savoy would have been the ideal setting for an Agatha Christie tale of mysterious murder among the jet-set.
And according to some, it was.
In the summer of 1911, a 49-year-old Englishwoman named Frances Garnett-Orme came to the Savoy, along with a companion, Eva Mountstephen. Garnett-Orme had been engaged to a British Army officer who died before the wedding. This tragedy led her to become deeply involved in spiritualism (in those days, a fashionable form of self-therapy among the bereaved.) She and Mountstephen spent most of their time at the Savoy holed up in their rooms, crystal-gazing, holding seances, and the other usual activities done to contact the dearly departed.
On September 12th, 1911, Mountstephen left for Lucknow on what she described as “urgent” business. On the morning of September 19th, Garnett-Orme was found lying on her bed. Sometime during the night, she had joined the dead souls she had been so anxious to contact. An empty glass was on the nightstand near her bed. All the doors and windows were locked from inside, and there were no other signs of any disorder. The autopsy revealed she had died from a considerable dose of prussic acid.
Suicide does not seem to have been seriously considered. The dead woman had been in good spirits, and was making various plans for her future. Authorities believed Garnett-Orme was murdered, and the obvious chief suspect was the dead woman’s companion. When a woman suddenly skips town soon before her dear friend dies an unnatural death, people will talk.
Mountstephen was easily traced to Lucknow, where she was put under arrest. She was accused of poisoning the bottle of medicine Garnett-Orme sometimes took for stomach upsets. Unfortunately for the prosecution, aside from the suspicious nature of it all, there was no conclusive evidence against Mountstephen. The defense argued that the victim’s spiritualistic experiments had convinced her she had not long to live, leading her to commit suicide. Given the vague nature of the case, the court had no choice but to return an acquittal. In another odd turn of events, the doctor who performed the autopsy on Garnett-Orme died of strychnine poisoning just a few months later. His murder was never solved. As for the late Miss Garnett-Orme, the Allahabad High Court declared that her death was murder done by person or persons unknown, and that was that. Unsurprisingly, this pair of mystifying poisonings led to a drastic drop in the Savoy’s popularity for some months afterward. There are also the inevitable accounts of Garnett-Orme’s ghost still haunting the hotel.
Back to Agatha Christie. The Garnett-Orme mystery attracted the notice of Rudyard Kipling, who passed the story on to Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle, in his turn, shared the case with Christie, who, it was said, used it as inspiration for her first novel, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles.” Personally, that last statement strikes me as folklore--aside from a woman being fatally poisoned, there is little resemblance between Christie’s novel and the Garnett-Orme case--but the alleged link has kept alive the memory of this enigmatic death.
[Note: In 1912, Mountstephen applied for probate of her late friend’s will, which left her virtually all of Garnett-Orme's estate. The trial--Garnett-Orme’s relatives contested her claim--elicited some curious details. For instance, evidence was presented that Mountstephen had stolen money and jewelry from Garnett-Orme, as well as other wealthy acquaintances. It was broadly hinted that she had planted the idea in Garnett-Orme’s mind that “the spirits” were saying Frances did not have long to live. Most startling of all, there was testimony that shortly before Garnett-Orme’s death, a fellow guest at the Savoy went to the authorities declaring that Mountstephen intended to poison her “friend.” Mountstephen’s application was dismissed on the grounds of “fraud and undue influence in connection with spiritualism and crystal-gazing,” and Garnett-Orme’s brother was granted probate.]