2024-04-14 11:28:44


Imagine walking through a fog so thick you can’t see your feet underneath you. One that stings your eyes no matter how many times you blink, and burns your throat every time you take a breath. You feel your way through deserted streets by inching your hand along brick walls. Glass shatters–you have no idea where, or why. The scent of rotten eggs gets into your clothing. Into your skin. The whole world is yellow.

Such a fog–“The Great Smog,” as it came to be known–descended on London, England in early December, 1952. That year, brutal cold forced Londoners to burn tons of a cheap fuel source called “nutty slack”–a dirty, low-grade fuel, heavily advertised by the government in the weeks leading up to the smog. Unique weather conditions trapped the airborne soot over the city, sealing the residents in a bubble of toxic, polluted air from December 5th through the 9th.

During those five long days, hospitals were flooded with coughing, wheezing, suffocating patients. About four thousand Londoners died during the Smog itself. The following year, when analysts factored in delayed deaths caused by Smog-related breathing problems, the death toll rose to twelve thousand.

Today, the Smog–and the deaths it caused–are almost completely forgotten. Yet the story of another London killing, from around the same time, is still vividly remembered.

Serial killer John Reginald Christie, active in London before and after the Smog, suffocated or strangled an estimated six women, hiding their bodies around his flat at 10 Rillington Place. A small number, compared to the many thousands of people who choked to death in a Smog caused by poor government planning. Yet newspapers at the time gave enormous coverage to the Christie story–and published next to nothing about the Smog. To this day, people can recall the chilling murders that happened in Christie’s flat…but almost no one remembers the Smog.

Why did Christie’s story stick around, while the much bigger story of the Smog nearly faded away? Why were the newspapers more interested in a murderer who killed several people than an ecological crisis that killed thousands? And what does the answer tell us about how we should tell the stories that matter most?

I’m Myles McDonough, and you’re listening to the Free Ranger.

[intro music]

Welcome to The Free Ranger, a podcast about telling the stories that matter. On this podcast, we’ll be learning about storytelling from the people who turn important issues into stories: the writers, filmmakers, marketers, and other professionals who weave together the facts to create compelling narratives that make a difference. 

In this, our inaugural season, we’ll be looking at Stories of Stewardship–how people create powerful stories about our planet and its natural resources.Today’s episode focuses on telling the story of our air.

We’re thrilled to welcome Kate Winkler Dawson, senior lecturer in broadcast journalism at the University of Texas, Austin, and host of the true-crime podcast Tenfold More Wicked. Kate is the author of several books, including Death in the Air, a historical narrative exploring the Christie killings, the Great Smog, and the media’s response to the two stories. During our talk, Kate gave us her take on the Smog, the murders, and the art–and ethics–of good storytelling… 

Myles: So thank you. You mentioned your teaching career. If a student asked you, What's the key to a great story? What would you tell them?

Kate: Oh,  I think there are lots of keys to a great story. I think having a good character, having the type of narrative that resonates with people is really important, having the first--for somebody like me, who's a nonfiction writer--having of that great archive, you know, material and first-hand sources, primary sources, not depending on newspaper articles only. I think anything that you can do to build that world is important. I think the most important thing for someone like me is I have to be really, really invested in the story and the time period in order to it to feel like something that's gonna come alive off the page or through the podcast.

So I think there's sort of that basic passion...really you have to have your good old fashioned good narrative tale, you know where you have somebody at the beginning that you can set the stakes with, you're pulling for, and then things start to change for them, and you're forcing the audience to either say Meh, I didn't really like that person anyway, or pull for them, like a Harry Potter. And then there's the climax, and then at the end something changes, someone changes, an outcome changes. And that's a good story, for me at least. So I look for all of those things when I'm looking for a book or a TV show or a podcast.

Myles: Makes a lot of sense. Has your career in journalism influenced your approach to telling a story?

Kate: Well yeah, I don't think I could, I thought about not, I thought about fiction but I think it's too difficult for me. I think, uh, I've been trained for my entire life since I was 15 years old, so 30...two, forty-two years, wait, fifteen, thirty-two years that I'm a journalist and I have to tell stories objectively. And that's hard. Like in the podcast, it can be hard because people want me to come out strongly on one side or the other but it's just against my nature to do that because for all of my life I have been told and I have practiced being as unbiased as I can and to weigh both sides and so um I think you know that definitely influences the stories I tell. I want to tell stories with multiple sides. And the people who I explore or feature in my books or in my podcasts are not white knights or the evil bad guys, they're in between as most people are. So I'm not interested in someone who is purely evil and just kills for the sake of killing, but I'm also not interested in the protagonist being this sort of you know perfect icon of heroic endeavor and I just ... I like complicated and messy.

Myles: That really comes through in Death in the Air. I'm thinking obviously of the antagonist there, but you've also got your--I'll let you tell the details, but some fun journalists are walking around on the scene, a handful of detectives...everybody's got some very mixed motives back in London back in 1952.

Kate: Heh heh. Yeah, the story of Death in the Air has been interesting. 

So with Death in the Air the sort of uh cliff notes version of it is that British government in the 1940s, well really after the Blitz, you know had restricted clean coal, quote unquote "clean coal" which I think most of us know is, there's nothing clean about it. And it is clean coal is the black coal with the very low water content. And it didn't take much coal to burn to make you warm, but that got rationed because of the war. So this story takes place in 1952, where this perfect storm of events happens to create um the world's deadliest air pollution disaster, which was a fog that turned into smog that hung over London in 1952 for five days.

So it was within this group of people who are stuck in the fog along with the rest of Londoners for five days in 1952. [...] I call them the Helpers. There's a doctor, then there's a police officer, then there's a politician who eventually paves the way for you know the Clean Air Act. There's a little girl who's father might die because he had bronchitis and had to walk home in this terrible smog.  And there's this serial killer.

So all of this happens at the same time, and then this serial killer and the smog story diverge and then they come together in Parliament about seven months later. And you know I think takeaway of the story was Why are Londoners more concerned about a serial killer on the run versus a fog that's probably going to kill them again? Which is what happened, the next year. And it's you know obviously it comes down to it's easier to worry or be tantalized by clear and present danger like this looney toon serial killer on the run versus a horribly systemic issue that we have a hard time figuring out now! You can imagine how they felt seventy years ago, trying to figure it out.

Myles: Absolutely. So, yeah that comes up again and again in the text. I was reading through and was struck again and again by the newspaper headlines and how not related to the biggest thing going on at the time they all were. In your time as a journalist and telling various other stories, what have you come to think about how we can get people interested in the larger systemic stories that really do matter, like the smog and things of that nature?

Kate: Well I remember the executive producer of Sixty Minutes was a guy named Don Hewitt, brilliant guy, he was the head of 60 minutes for decades and decades and decades...he used to say "I don't care about subjects, I care about the people who care about those subjects." And that was what's brilliant about 60 minutes, a show like that, is you find the people to represent whatever emotion it is that you're trying to bring up. And in journalism we're looking for the story that is the connective tissue between the super-boring facts about sulphate-dioxide and all of the really sciency geeky stuff that I like but probably, you know, the average person might not like, and how do you translate that in a way where they walk away and say ok well I wasn't really expecting to have greater knowledge of air pollution and how horrific it is, but I really just came here for the serial killer. 

And that's ok! I mean, that's--my agent calls it a whole lot of honey with some medicine covering it up. And I'm fine--you know I try to eke out 50/50. But the reality is to get people, a lot of times, to get people to care about these types of subjects that just feel huge--like my kids glaze over when I talk about everything here terrible that was in the air that day. But I'll tell you what my kids do relate to. I said, they said, ok well what was the--When I say here are the levels: the levels were so high that the government receptacles that were used to measure the amount of pollution in their air were all broken! Because the levels were so high. And that doesn't mean anything to my kids, and it might not mean anything to other people. But I said, and then I interviewed people in London who were there, and I asked how they described it, and they almost all universally said the same thing: "It smelled like rotten eggs in a barrel." I mean that just like rancid--can you imagine? You can't get away from that!

And then Rosemary Sargent who was a little girl at the time and now she's a grandmother, said that when you would breathe in the smog walking home--it was seeping into the homes by the third or fourth day--it felt like what it must feel like to swallow little tiny bits of metal, like shavings of metal down your throat. That visceral description, that's what resonates with people. That's what does it. 

And I think telling that story really was finding Rosemary. And I'm going to give you a more example. So there's a wonderful writer Lawrence Wright, and he's a Texas writer, and he's won a gazillion awards, a Pulitzer. He says when he looks at characters he says "I always try to figure out my donkey." Which sounds like a terrible thing to say about! Cause he writes about nonfiction too. It's a terrible thing to say! But it's not. He's meaning: who's your beast of burden? Who is the person who people are going to want to get to the end of the book for? 

So when I wrote Death in the Air, if you look at the prologue, it is not about the serial killer--which is why a lot of people came to this book. It's not because they are fascinated with air pollution, it's because there's a serial killer in the title! But I didn't put him in the prologue like I think most people would. I put Rosemary in there. The little girl is in the prologue, she's climbing around a neighbor's house that had been bombed during the Blitz, and she and her brothers and the neighborhood kids liked playing hide-and-go-seek there. And she's hiding, and you know something bad is gonna happen. She's in a cold--you know, like in a coal-covered--nothing happens during hide-and-go-seek but you--there's--it's an ominous thing. This is clearly--when you put somebody at the front of a book, it's a main character. 

And so my buddy called who's a writer, and who writes about serial killers, and he said: "You've got this great serial killer and you don't even bring him in till chapter one! Why is he not in the prologue." And I said: "Because this kid is the reason why everybody wants to make it to the end of the book." And it's the truth! Every time I ask book club members Who's your favorite character? It's always Rosemary. She's 13, she doesn't smoke, she didn't choose to live there, she didn't buy the coal. She's the only one who didn't do anything wrong in this whole story! And she is the reason why you want to know what happens to her. Is she in the smog section of the story? Is she in the serial killer section of the story? I talk in the prologue about her being closest with her father. Clearly, if you're a smart reader, you know something's happening with the father. And that is what people--that was right to do that. Because by the end everybody wanted to know. She was a victim--tell me why! Everybody wanted to know what was going to happen with her.

So I think that depending--especially with something like true crime--depending on what you concentrate on, how you frame the story, is really really important. And it affects you as an author, as a brand, on the way that you treat people and the way you treat these types of stories...You know, with the science part of it, I think you do walk away knowing more about the science but also I think having an understanding of how do all these pieces fit together in the story.

Myles: That's fascinating. And that made me think to that particular point in the text where you're discussing the reason why the London crime writers as a whole weren't interested in the story around Tim and Beryl Evans--the people who were, the murder story that happened before the main one that you get into. There's...I'll just say it. There's that phrase--someone called it too "fish-and-chippy"? It's--that is such a contrast to this attitude that you're describing of how you treat the subjects of the story.

Kate: Yeah. Right. It's a yeah, it's a "fish and chips" murder, they still say that, "fish and chips" murder. Yeah, and I, so, you know, the story that you're talking about is in 1949, a couple moves into a building, a famous building, a famous now unfortunately, has been a famous building it's now been destroyed called 10 Rillington Place. And a famous address. And a couple moves in--Tim and Beryl Evans--and when they move in he is abusive. They fight a lot. They have a little girl, though. They leave the girl with the downstairs neighbors, which is an older couple, sometimes. And Beryl goes missing, and so does the little girl, Geraldine. And the husband Timothy confesses. And then he says no, wait a second, I reneg on that, I did not actually kill them. And then he confesses again, and he goes back and forth and the police lose their patience.

And so you know when this is reported he goes on trial and his neighbor who babysat for this little girl testifies against him, who was a war reserve policeman who was well-known in the community, this reserved guy. And Timothy Evans is convicted of murdering his wife and his child. They were found in the washroom house in the back of the yard, eventually, dead. And he is executed. 

And they are calling this a fish and chips murder because in a very snide way, because--what that means is that--I don't know if you've been to the UK, they'll, you can go and get an order of fish and chips and they'll give it to you in a newspaper. Whatever the local paper is, they'll just wrap it up. So fish and chips is sort of like, a throwaway piece. And when you look before this becomes a really big story, if you look, it is tiny--it's a domestic violence thing! Which brings me to the really interesting part of the story, which is when you flash forward from 1949 when he is convicted and I think he was executed in 50--you flash forward to 1953 when you have a serial killer on the run named John Reginald Christie who happened to be Timothy Evans's neighbor. And they lived in the same building. And he testified against Timothy Evans, which is what secured his execution. And now there are bodies all over the house, and in the backyard, and the police are saying "Oh, woah, there's no way that this is a coincidence. He must have--we must have killed the wrong person. He must have also killed Beryl and Geraldine, the little girl." 

And so thus has begun just decades and decades worth of debate. And actually Beryl Evans's, or was it Tim Evans's, Beryl's younger brother came out with a book about a couple of years ago that was excellent and I totally agree with everything he said. So the reason again--I'll circle back to this fish and chips murder--is it was domestic violence, which is terrible. And so when Timothy Evans went on trial, basically people just said he was a terrible person, he was abusive, he drank a lot, and he must've just snapped. So that was very very common. For historical context, after the Blitz and after the War you have people coming home, men coming home with service revolvers. They were really, really mad. There was a lot of violence, there was a lot of poverty, there was a huge economic downturn because of the war. 

So when people ask what I think ultimately happened--did John Reginald Christie kill people? Absolutely. He was a serial killer, he was terrible. Did he kill this woman and the child? I--no, I don't believe so. And neither does Beryl Evans's younger brother, he doesn't think so either. And the reason it's so interesting is, I don't think people even to this day believe that there could be two killers living in the same building. And I agree with that! I think it's odd to have two serial killers in the same building. There's no John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer living in some boarding house somewhere, I hope. That being said--one serial killer and an abusive husband who snapped one day? You could throw a rock and hit one of those in Knotting Hill in London in the 1950s. So it shocked me one little bit that that would have happened. 

But, you know, I think that again comes back to the fish and chips comment, which was--these sort of cases where a husband kills his wife and maybe his kids were so common in this time period. It is so sad. But that's--they just thought this was sort of a, kind of a base, very boring, not that interesting story. So that tells you about the times.

Myles: It does! It's almost on the level of the smog there. It's just--it happens every day.

Kate: Yeah. Yeah...happens every day, welcome to London. If you don't like it, go somewhere else.

Myles: That's crazy. This is one that I put down that I wanted to hear your answer to. So you--I think it's fair to say you love true crime. Right?

Kate: I do, yeah, I do. 

Myles: Yeah. Why--why do you love true crime?

Kate: Well, I will say this. I like certain types of true crime. There is a very wide, broad band of true crime out there, if you are somebody who is interested in that genre. And I will--and I'm not gonna disparage the side that I don't particularly care for--but I feel like we need some pretty strong reform. I think glorifying the killers and glorifying the crime is pretty gross. And I'm not interested in that. I'm not interested in you know this is the mastermind of the century and how amazing this person is. That just turns my stomach.

I'm much more interested in telling the stories of people who are survivors; who learn things; who you know, family members who never give up. And that's a common theme, and if you listen to my podcast Tenfold More Wicked, you know that I have family members in every single season. If I can't find the family of either the killer or the victim then I won't do the story. That's the connective tissue, besides of course it being true crime. 

So I like to hear stories that are told with sensitivity. I like a lot of historical context. Why does this story matter? Why was Ted Bundy significant in this time period? What did he do that was helpful? He actually was very helpful to the FBI. So there are a lot of things that I want to hear more than just how terrible he was to all of his victims. And I think that we need to have a lot more humanity in true crime. I think we need to be more careful about how we tell stories, and what stories we tell. How we treat victims.

A re-occurring scene that I write about in just about every story or podcast that I've done--it's all the same scene. There is John Reginald Christie from the book we're talking about, Death in the Air. He has killed his wife, he has murdered two women who are buried in the backyard. He has killed his wife Ethyl and buried her--pulled up the floorboards of their flat and put her under the floorboards. And there are, I think, three women who have been kind of plastered into the cupboard in the alcove of his kitchen. So there's a scene that has again occurred in many books--because I do write an awful lot about women being killed by men--where they recover the body of Ethyl Christie, his wife. They pull her out--she's sort of mummified, he wrapped her up really tightly--they unwrap her. And she is laying there for hours. They don't process the scene quickly now, and they definitely didn't in the 1950s. So it is freezing outside, and there are a dozen men at least, police officers from the Met, walking around her, stepping over her, testing temperature, poking at her, trying to figure out what to do with these bodies. Same thing with the women who were in the alcove, who were basically naked. And a re-occurring theme is just the--how disparaging that is to the victim. 

And of course it's the same thing for male victims, but we're really talking about women being exploited, and it is easy to do that with true crime. And I really, really work hard to not--and do I do it? Probably, without even knowing it, because it's really hard to not fall into that. Right? But I battle every day to make sure that I weigh the details that I really even call it entertainment but educational, enticing, you know, something that makes you learn mixed with having respect for the victim or for the crime of what happened. 

Myles: You seem to say there's a strong ethical element to storytelling of any kind, I would imagine.

Kate: Yeah, there should be. There should be. Oftentimes there aren't, with people, I think. You know? And I think part of that comes with--I have a leg up because I was trained as a journalist, you know, and I mean I've been a journalist my whole life. And so my training has always been to think about the impact you're going to have on the people who read your story, hear your story. You have to be accurate, factual--yes, tell things like in an interesting way, like you know facts that are told like fiction. But they still have to be facts, and they need to be sensitive. [...]

Myles: Absolutely, yeah. I wanted to ask you about some of the stuff that you are working on now and in the future. You've mentioned your Tenfold More Wicked podcast. You're also working on something called Wicked Words. Is that right?

Kate: Yeah, I've got two podcasts. Wicked Words just ended, and Wicked Words is about 38 weeks long, and it's me interviewing my buddies who are all crime writers. And I have a long interview with them, and we talk about a good crime story. [...] It's less of an interview and more of a me asking questions and us having a conversation kind of like you went and got coffee with your friend and said "What are you writing on?" You know, "What are you doing right now?"

The other show which is the original show's called Tenfold More Wicked, and we are in the middle of our new season right now. [...] I'm a huge, huge fan of BBC Radio documentaries. I'm a big fan of the old-school CBS Radio--like, Texas Rangers and you know the Lone Ranger, with all of the great music and the energy and the sound effects without being cheesy...and so that's what we emulate. It's supposed to be an immersive experience. [...]--people have told me, somebody messaged me the other day, and said they use like podcasts as an ASMR to fall asleep experience as well. That's ok if you fall asleep. I think it's more interesting than that, but I think their point was the sounds made them kind of feel relaxed. And that's the point.

So I have a book coming out in October that I'm excited about. It's called All That Is Wicked and you can preorder it now. And that book is based on the first season of Tenfold More Wicked. So the first season was about a guy named Edward Rulof, who was a genius in linguistics. I mean, incredibly brilliant. Spoke many, many, many languages, he was self-taught in upstate New York during the Gilded Age--and he was also a killer! He was just a terrible person. And people like Mark Twain and Boris Greely defended him, and said we don't want him executed because he's too smart. He's too smart to be executed. We could probably use his brain to improve something in life. And so thus began this huge debate about who deserves killing, essentially. 

Myles: Absolutely, yeah. No, it sounds like he was--learning about him, you might learn a lot about--as you've touched on before--people's obsession with folks who do these things, often at the expense of other stories. The stories of his victims, for instance.

Kate: Yep. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, no, I think it's easy to be drawn in by somebody like Eward Ruloff because he is very charming. It's very clear to forensic psychiatrists I spoke to and researchers in psychopathy I spoke to that he was a psychopathic individual. He checks all the boxes. 

Myles: If you could tell rising storytellers one thing about storytelling, what would you tell them?

Kate: I think for me the most important thing--and I don't know if it is for other people--but the primary sources is the most important thing. The most exciting project I've been in thus far has been the second book I did, American Sherlock, which is out now. American Sherlock is about a forensic scientist in 1920s Berkeley. And the reason that I love that book so much--I've loved every project I've done, including All That Is Wicked, but American Sherlock was really next-level because his archive was massive. So I could touch his glasses--he had five different kinds of spectacles--he had all of this evidence that now you can't touch at all but he had like bullets, he had taken a bullet out of a woman's heart and filled the hole in the heart with wax and then kept the wax impression! I have no idea why he did that, but I picked that up. 

So those are the things that narrative nonfiction writers look for. For you to be able to say, not just say to the reader Hey, I did this, aren't I great? It's more more like the lightweight glasses that he dropped a thousand times, you know? And it's being able to--I could see the thumbprints, you know, where he would take his glasses off and on. I mean, when they donated his collection, they just dumped it, nobody's touched it. And actually they dumped loaded guns that nobody knew about. So when the archivist opened it up at my request they found three or four loaded pistols and the Berkeley police department had to come and take out the firing pins! They were loaded weapons! So you know that is exciting. 

So if you're a storyteller, leaning in on newspapers of the time--which are liars, quite frankly, the older the newspaper usually the more inaccurate it is, in my opinion, what I have found--and really finding those personal letters, that kind of ephemera where you're able to bring people to life. [...] Edward Heimrich, who was the forensic scientist, he wrote a lot of people and he kept their responses, and the people who he wrote were famous, and they had archives, and they kept his responses. So I was able to actually create conversations based on those letters. That is a very exciting development for me. So I think you really are looking for factual things that give you context. 

And then I often say the young writers I work with, sometimes they just don't, they just need kind of a life experience, a different kind of life experience. You know, I have a child who has some OCD, and when I walked into Edward Oscar Heimrich's archive, I looked, I immediately looked and said "This is a guy who had OCD." Like, no doubt. The way it was organized...and what he focused in on. And I think that that is just sort of life experiences really being able to think about who is this person, and you know what kind of life did he lead? And when you are able to translate that onto the page, then all the sudden forensics and all that stuff comes alive for you, because it's in someone's hands that you now care about. 

So I think that's important is, if there's a message you want to send about how bad forensics puts people in prison, or how nefarious governments are creating air pollution and they don't care, you know, or whatever it is that you're doing, you have to find those people who are the ones who can translate that for you on the page. You know, why do I care about air pollution? Why care about a 13 year old girl and the fact that she watched her father die over a weekend because they live in London, and it's the smog?

Myles: That is fantastic. Thank you so much for joining us today, I really appreciate it.

Kate: You're welcome! Yeah, yeah you're welcome. That's great. Yeah. 

[transition music] 

While the story of the Great Smog was underplayed at the time, and is rarely remembered today, it never died completely. In the months and years after the Smog, Labour MP Norman Dodds–the politician Kate mentioned earlier–kept the story alive in Parliament. Thanks to the work of Dodds and his colleagues, a reluctant government eventually passed the Clean Air Act of 1956. This historic piece of environmental legislation would serve as inspiration for air pollution laws in other parts of the world, including the United States’ own Clean Air Act, passed in 1963.

John Reginald Christie’s story remains more well-known. To date, the events surrounding the murders at 10 Rillington Place have been turned into a BBC crime drama, an award-winning stage play, and feature-length film starring Richard Attenborough and John Hurt. 

It can be hard to communicate stories about important but complicated systematic issues, when shocking stories like the Christie murders take up so much of our attention. Getting through to people, as Kate explains, requires more than just the facts. It involves making the abstract personal–finding the characters, points-of-view, and deep, visceral sense experiences that will make a distant topic relatable, here and now.

With that in mind, take a deep breath…and enjoy the fact that you can.

This has been The Free Ranger. Thanks for listening.

[outro music]

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