Transcript: 123. Murderous Mother-in-Law, Styllou Christofi |England

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It was a mild summer’s night in London on the 28th of July 1954. John Young’s dog was restless, and needed to go outside. John opened the backdoor so his dog could have a run in the backyard of the Hampstead home. It was late and John didn’t expect his neighbours to be awake. He was surprised when he noticed the flames in Stavros’ and Hella’s backyard. It was close to midnight and a concerned John rushed to the fence to see what was going on. He peeped over and saw the arm of a ‘tailor’s dummy’ in the fire, and assumed they were burning household junk. Hella worked in at a fashion boutique, so it wouldn’t be odd for her to have a mannequin at home.

As John turned to go back into his house, he saw a lady coming out of the neighbour’s house, walking towards the fire. He recognised her to be Stavros’ mom, who was visiting from Cyprus. The lady stoked the fire with a steady hand, minding it attentively, and to John, it looked like she had the situation under control. By this time John’s wife, Thomasina was also awake and had noticed the fire. John told her what he saw and they both went back to bed.

The next morning John went out and walk passed the house again. This time, there was a humdrum of police officers and other neighbours mulling in the front. When he heard that someone had died, he realised what he had witnessed.

This is a story of the pride, jealousy and hatred of one cold-hearted woman, who would stop at nothing to get her own way.

>>Intro Music

Styllou Pantopiou Christofi [Steel-lou – as in Mary-Lou – Pan-topi-oo Christ-to-fee] was born in the rural north of Cyprus in 1900. She grew up in a village of farmers near Rizokarpasou and was barely literate. She moved to the coastal town of Famagusta, when she was  she married a local man. They did not have a lot of money, in fact, her husband’s family was one of the poorest families in the village.

Their only source of income was from a small olive grove that had been in the family for many years. Education was not a priority in rural villages and Styllou never learnt to read or write. It was a harsh environment where violence was considered the best way of handling disputes. Styllou was a headstrong and stubborn woman, who imposed her point of view onto others. If people didn’t agree with her, she let them have it.

The young couple lived with the husband’s mother and had a son they called Stavros. The two women of the house did not get along. In rural Cyprus, there was a strong matriarchal culture.  Grandmothers were seen as the ultimate authority, but Styllou refused to take a back-seat to her mother-in-law. By all reports, her mother-in-law would also not back down. There was a constant power struggle between the women and everyone knew they hated each other.  

When he reached his teens, Stavros, did not want to live his life out in the small village. He moved to the city of Nicosia we worked as a waiter. Even though World War II was raging through Europe, many young Cypriots migrated to London in the late 1930s and early 1940s. They were familiar with the culture and customs, seeing as Cyprus was a British protectorate at the time.

Stavros yearned to get away and diligently saved money from his waiter job so he could go to the UK too. In 1941 he was able to make his way to the city lights of London. Many Cypriot-expats worked and lived in West End and Camden, in the textile industry or as manual labourers. It didn’t take Stavros long to find work in a restaurant. The handsome young man with the olive complexion and warm smile was able to land a job in London’s top-end eateries.

During this time Stavros met the beautiful Hella Bleicher, a German model. She managed to leave Germany before the war broke out and felt lucky to have a shot at a somewhat ‘normal’ life in England. Stavros and Hella fell in love, and the handsome couple had the world at their feet. They got married in 1942 and had three children together.

In 1953 the Christofis family occupied two stories of a large home at 11 South Hill Park, Hampstead. Stavros was working as a wine sommelier at Café de Paris in London’s West End where he regaled celebrities. Café de Paris is the very same spot where Marlene Dietrich made her concert debut in 1954. Wealthy patrons of London’s West End theatre scene also frequented the iconic restaurant.

Hella worked in a boutique on St George’s street, called Fashion Ways, and always took pride in her appearance. Stavros and Hella were happy and had a good balance in their family life. They each had time with the kids, time at work and time together. They went for family walks on Hampstead Heath where all the kids learnt to ride their bicycles. Theirs was a harmonious, happy home with loving parents.

Back in Cyprus, Stavros’ mum, Styllou, decided it was time to be a part of her son’s life again. She was ready to forgive Stavros. In her eyes he had insulted her by marrying Hella. Firstly, Hella was foreign, secondly she was not religious and last but not least: they did not seek her blessing before they got married.

Styllou had never Stavros’ and Hella’s children before. At the time Nicholas 11 years old, Peter 10 and Stella 9. Like many of fellow Cypriots, Styllou saw an opportunity to work in England, save money, then return to Cyprus and buy a plot of land.

Styllou left her island home for the first time in her life, and travelled to London, ready for a new beginning, living in her son’s home with his family. At the time, the London and rural Cyprus could not have been more different from each other, and the illiterate grandmother was in for a culture shock.

From the get-go, the situation was strained. Stavros had not seen his mother in 12 years, and she reverted to treating him like a boy. She made no secret of the fact that she did not like her son’s wife of more than 10 years. She disapproved of their lifestyle and their parenting decisions, which were vastly different to life as she knew it, in a small Mediterranean village.

Stavros and Hella’s children were born and raised in England to their Cypriot father and German mother. They spoke English at home, went to English schools had English friends. The family assimilated well in their parents’ adoptive country.

Styllou resented Stavros for raising his children in another culture. She wanted them to be brought up according to the Cypriot traditions and – at the very least – speak Greek as their home language. The language barrier brought a lot of frustration and Styllou blamed Stavros for casting aside his roots. Hella could not do much right according to her mother-in-law either. Her housekeeping, child-rearing and cooking skills were constantly under fire. The fact that Stavros had no intention of ever returning to Cyprus infuriated his mother. She blamed Hella for this decision. In Styllou’s opinion, all immigrants should eventually return to their country of origin. This difficult grandmother was outspoken about her feelings, and when her message got lost in translation, she would throw a class-A tantrum.

The house at South Hill Park was no longer a happy home. Styllou had been there for an entire year, causing nothing but tension and trouble. Hella had become depressed and sought any excuse to take the children outside, anywhere but home. Her friends and neighbours all noticed the effect her fault-finding mother-in-law had on her. On three separate occasions Styllou had moved out for a while, but she always came back.

In July, she had been staying with them continuously for four months. The situation was toxic, it was obviously NOT working out. Stavros and Hella felt that his mother had overstayed her welcome, and planned to ask her to leave for good, perhaps call it a day and move back to Cyprus. They knew the stubborn and unaccommodating Styllou would not like their request, so it was decided that Hella would take the children to Germany to visit her family. They intended to leave on the 12th of August. Stavros would spend some time alone with his mother and then politely broach the topic of her departure. However, Styllou learned about this plan and decided that she wasn’t going anywhere. In her mind, the only solution was to get rid of the other woman in her son’s life: his wife, Hella. If Hella were out of the picture, Styllou could raise her grandchildren; in whichever way, she wanted to. And she would also have Stavros all to herself.

On the evening of 28 July 1954, Stavros had left for work at 8pm to start his shift at Café de Paris. A former neighbour, Robert Cooper, who used to live upstairs from the Christofis, came around at 9:35pm. After he moved out he had visited  a couple of times. On this night, and only stayed for about five minutes. He did not see Styllou and Hella was alive and well when he left. Once Robert was gone, the 36-year-old Hella put the children to sleep and went about the house tidying up and getting ready for bed herself.

At 1am, Styllou woke up and saw that the entire garden was engulfed in flames. With urgent concern for her grandchildren’s well-being, she ran into the road, and tried to get help. It was the middle of the night, and not many people were around. Styllou flagged down a couple driving near Hampstead station. She hardly spoke any English but managed to get the message across. She shouted:

“Please come. Fire burning. Children sleeping.”

The couple, restauranteurs Henry and Fanny Burstoff, followed the anxious grandmother into the home. They were a bit confused, when they walked into the hallway, seeing as though there was no fire inside the house. The woman told them to be quiet, because the ‘babies’ were sleeping. So, at least the children were safe, but what was the problem then? The woman rushed off into another room and Fanny noticed someone lying in the garden. It was obvious that the person was no longer alive, as there was a lot of blood around the head and the body was badly burnt.

Harry Burstoff used the Christofis’ phone to call the police, who arrived shortly after. While they were waiting, the Burstoffs tried to make sense of the scene. They asked Styllou if the body outside was her son. She replied:

“No, my son marry German girl he like. Plenty clothes, plenty shoes. Babies going to Germany.”

Sergeant Maurice Stevens found Hella’s body in the backyard, and immediately suspected that something sinister had taken place. He attempted to get more information from the woman who had raised the alarm, but she kept saying:

“I no speak. I no understand.”

A second police officer arrived at the scene within the hour, at 1:45am. The officers figured out that there were three children sleeping upstairs and that their mother had been killed. They managed to communicate to the grandmother that she should go upstairs and sit with the children while they processed the scene.

Investigators found the badly burnt body of Hella Christofis in the backyard of her home. She was naked, except for a pair of shorts and the doctor who attended the scene mentioned a strong smell of paraffin. There was also quite a bit of water, showing that someone tried to put out the fire. However, neither the doctor, nor the pathologist believed that the fire had caused the victim’s death. Around her neck were strangulation marks, and she had suffered a big blow to the head. Her hair was drenched in blood. She had been struck with a heavy, round but linear object. She had also suffered a broken nose.

Police called Stavros at work and requested he came home immediately. Stavros arrived at 3:30am, and learnt that his wife had died. A couple of hours before, everything was fine, but in the small hours of the morning, his life was in ruins. Hella was gone and his mother was trying to explain what had happened. Life as he knew it, would never be the same again.

Investigators commanded Stavros, who was in shock, to act as an interpreter between them and his mother. One can only imagine the hell he must have gone through: he came home to find his wife murdered and his mother was the prime suspect. He asked the questions, then told police officers what her reply was, they wrote it down and Styllou, who could not read or write, made a mark on the statement as a signature.

Inside the home, they found evidence of the violent event that preceded the fire. On the kitchen floor was a half-cleaned up bloodstain. Rags and newspaper soaked in paraffin attested to the fact that the backyard fire was intentionally lit. Pieces of the scarf used to strangle Hella was recovered from the trash. In order to remove the noose around Hella’s neck, it was cut into smaller pieces. Later the same day, the pathologist informed investigators that there were no carbon particles in the victim’s lungs, proving that she was already dead when the fire was lit.

Stavros pointed out that the French doors leading to the garden could not lock properly. Hella had come up with a plan to jam a garden fork beneath the handle, so no one could open it from outside. She was security conscious, as Stavros worked nights and she wanted to keep the children safe. When police arrived at the scene, this make-shift lock was found inside the house next to the door, on the floor.

They found Hella’s wedding ring in Styllou’s bedroom, wrapped in newspaper and hidden behind a vase. Styllou could not explain why the ring was there. She claimed that she found it on the stairs and thought it was a curtain ring. However, no curtains in the house had curtain rings, only hooks. Styllou pretended to be confused and explained in her broken English that she had been asleep upstairs when the smell of smoke woke her up. According to Styllou she ran downstairs and saw Hella lying in the back garden.

“Hella burning. Throw water, touch her face. Not move. Run out, get help.”

According to Styllou, she saw two assailants leaving the house, one was carrying a suitcase. The front door was open, and the men ran away when they saw Styllou.

When the Christofis neighbour, John Young, saw the commotion at number 11, he approached police to tell them what he saw the night before. He said that he saw Styllou standing by the fire, sometime between 11:30 and 11:45. He would never have thought that she was actually trying to cremate the mother of her grandchildren. She was not in a hasty panic but was calmly executing a sinister plan. In contradiction of this, another witness, Isabella Bold, came forward and claimed she heard two male voices shouting in the backyard around midnight. That was closer to Styllou’s version of events, but none of the other neighbours could corroborate this testimony. In all likelihood, Ms Bold heard the other neighbour, John Young talking to his wife, reporting to her what he had seen.

If one stops to consider Styllou’s story for a minute, the obvious question to ask is: who would have wanted to kill Hella? If the story of the two men were true – what motive would they have had for murdering a mother of three who worked at a fashion boutique? Her boss, Eric Porter, said that she had worked for him since July 1953. Hella was a great asset to the business. She was always smiling and happy and it was obvious that she loved her husband and their children.

Styllou Christofi was taken into custody and charged with the murder of her daughter in law.

At a preliminary hearing, Stavros testified that his mother and his wife did not get along. He claimed that Hella had suggested to Styllou that she went back to Cyprus and Styllou said that if that is how Hella felt, she would leave. In court, when asked about his wife’s ring, Stavros had to admit that Hella’s wedding ring of more than 10 years fit tightly on her finger and would not have slipped off by accident.

Chief Medical Officer at Halloway prison, Dr Thomas Christie noted that she was deranged and hysterical, and sometimes she sat on the bed in her cell screaming all night. Yet the doctor deemed her fit to stand trial. Dr Christie found that Styllou Christofi was suffering from ‘delusional disorder’. He described his diagnosis as such:

“The clinical picture then, is that of a non-systematised delusional mental disorder. This is a recognized disease of the mind. The fear that her grandchildren would not be brought up properly induced a defect of reason due to the above disease of the mind, whereby however much she may have been capable of appreciating the nature and quality of the acts she was doing, at the time of the acts the defect of reason was such that she was incapable of knowing that what she was doing was wrong. In my opinion, Styllou Pantopiou Christofi is insane, but is medically fit to plead and to stand trial.”

Styllou felt that Hella was taking her grandchildren to Germany to get them away from Stavros and also away from her. In her mind, she was saving her son and his children. She also told Dr Christie about another son of hers in Cyprus. According to all other sources, Stavros was Styllou’s only son. So whether this was true, or if something got lost in translation OR if the story was constructed to gain sympathy, we’ll never know. Either way, Styllou complained that her other son in Cyprus had married a promiscuous woman who was not a good mother. According to Styllou, she offered to help, but was asked to leave. It pained her, as she felt she was abandoning her grandchildren, leaving them with ‘no moral protection.’ This situation played itself out once more, when she arrived in London.

Using crime scene evidence, the prosecution was able to prove what happened to Hella that night. She was in the kitchen, washing herself in the basin when Styllou approached her from behind. Styllou, armed with a cast-iron ash plate from the stove, proceeded to hit Hella over the head. Hella dropped to the floor, unconscious. The hate-fuelled mother-in-law grabbed her grandson’s scarf from the kitchen table and strangled her daughter-in-law. Making sure Hella was no longer alive, Styllou plucked her wedding ring off her finger and kept it aside. She undressed Hella and placed her blood-soaked clothes in a washing pail. Then the calculating Styllou dragged Hella’s lifeless body out to the back garden where she covered her in paraffin-soaked newspaper and set her alight.

Styllou’s shoes were drenched with paraffin, proving that she was standing next to the body, while dousing it with accelerant and lighting the fire. More damning: her bracelet, ring and shoes had Hella’s blood on it. The first officers at the scene also noted that, contrary to her story that she was in bed when she noticed the fire, the bed was made and had not been slept in.

Crown Prosecutor, Christmas Humphreys stated:

“So this is a murderess who is remarkably tidy in clearing away the evidence of the murder.”

Styllou’s defence encouraged her to plead insanity, seeing as she had been diagnosed with

‘delusional disorder’. But she refused to plead insane in a court of law, even if it meant she would avoid facing a death sentence. The problem was that a lot was lost in translation. After she was formally charged, she was appointed an official interpreter and Stavros didn’t have to do it anymore. Her interpreter spoke Greek, yes, but her rural Cypriot dialect made communication, especially with the finer details of the case problematic. A second interpreter who was more familiar with the dialect was brought in to assist as well. To get the point across, the interpreters told Styllou she had to say she was ‘crazy’. Coming from a small town, that is the last thing anyone would ever admit to. She said:

“I am a poor woman, of no education, but I am not a madwoman. Never! Never! Never!”

Whether she ever wholly understood, her diagnosis is unclear.

Her trial kicked off at the end of October 1954, at the Old Bailey in London. Crown Prosecutor Humphreys was quick with derogatory statements about Styllou, highlighting the fact that she came from a vastly different world to that of inner-city London. He mocked her intellectual ability and at times, was blatantly xenophobic. This was his description of her:

“…a stupid woman of peasant type, [who] really believed that after washing a floor she could eliminate bloodstains, and that with a small tin of paraffin she could burn a body that it could not be recognized.”

Styllou stuck to her story that she was asleep when two assailants broke into the house and killed Hella. She was presented with the facts: there were no signs of forced entry. In fact, the garden fork used to secure the French doors was found inside, no one could have opened the doors from the outside. Prosecution also informed her that John Young saw her stoking the fire, and asked what she had to say about that. Through her interpreter Styllou replied:

“From this story, I know nothing more.”

Crown Prosecution laid her motive: she was jealous of Hella’s youth and appearance. Bear in mind, Styllou was only 16 years older than her daughter-in-law, yet she appeared to be much older. In Styllou’s own words she said that she was ‘not wanted and was being sent home to Cyprus’.

After deliberating for only two hours, the jury found guilty of the murder of her daughter-in-law. On the 28th of October, Styllou Christofi was sentenced to death by hanging.

There was a feeble attempt to appeal Styllou’s death sentence. Several Labour MPs argued that, if she was deemed to be insane, how could she be expected to choose her plea? The question arose: would an insane person understand the benefit of pleading insanity? One MP said:

“The mere fact … she did not claim insanity, shows … she is not of sound mind.”

They felt that she should be sent to a mental institution, rather than the gallows. However, the court appointed three independent psychologists to assess Styllou and all of them found her to be completely sane. They agreed that justice was served and an execution date was set.

On the day of her execution, she requested that a Greek Orthodox cross on the wall of the execution chamber, and prison authorities complied. The cross remained there until the room was demolished in 1967.

When Halloway Prison was refurbished in 1971, Styllou’s remains were exhumed. Along with the remains of fellow executes Ruth Ellis, Edith Thompson, Amelia Shah and Annie Walters, Styllou was buried in a mass grave in Brookwood. It was unmarked until 1993 when a plaque with the names of the five women was placed on the grave.

Styllou Christofi’s life was ended on the 15th of December 1954, by the prolific executioner, Albert Pierrepoint. A report of her execution noted that she was calm when she walked herself to the scaffold, accepting her fate. At the age of 54, she was the oldest woman to be executed in England in the 20th century. She was buried in an unmarked grave at Halloway Prison. Albert Pierrepoint wrote of Styllou in his autobiography. He recalled all the media attention garnered by the Ruth Ellis case, the last woman to be executed in England, only five months after Styllou. As an interesting side-note, the two women only lived a short distance from each other in Hampstead. Pierpoint compared the two cases:

A “blonde night-club hostess” was much more alluring than “a grey-haired and bewildered grandmother who spoke no English.”

No one put up much of a fight to spare Styllou Christofi’s life. Her own son, Stavros, only went to see his mother in prison once, and afterwards, broke off all contact with her. He said:

“I cannot find it in my heart to forgive my mother. The word ‘mother’ has become a mockery to me.”

Styllou did not take any responsibility for her actions, nor did she consider the grief she had caused her son and her grandchildren. She blamed Stavros for her predicament, because he testified against her. From her prison cell, she dictated many letters to Stavros, like this one:

“I hope that you are all right as well as your children. I hope that you will always be with God’s help. It doesn’t alter what’s going to happen to me. You have tried too hard to hang me, to put around my neck the noose, so that you may rest. I am not obliging you to come and see me, my son. For my fortune, there is my family in the streets in Cyprus crying for me. If you saw their letters, you would be moved and cry as we do. My brothers say that if the sea were earth they would come on foot to see me. Kiss the children for me.”

Stavros did not buy into the guilt trip and refused to reply to any of her letters. He eventually re-married and started a family with his second wife. He tried to rebuild his life, but the events of that July night in 1954 left a scar that would never heal. His son from the second marriage, Toby, appeared in an episode of BBC’s Murder, Mystery and my Family. He always wondered if justice was served and if his grandmother was indeed the killer. If she was, did she receive a fair trial? He was concerned that prejudice played a role: she was an uneducated foreigner accused of a brutal murder.

Newspaper pieces at the time were not very forgiving of Styllou. One headline read: “Stupid murder by a stupid woman.” Another article calls her an “illiterate Greek peasant woman” who despised the fact that her son gave most of his attention to his wife. Styllou Christofi was dubbed ‘the mother-in-law from hell’.

Be that as it may, it revisiting the case, it became evident that the judge did take Styllou’s situation into account. She was given more than one interpreter and received a fair trial. In the end, it was the evidence at the Christofis’ home that incriminated her more than anything else.

A story from Styllou’s past, never heard at court, surfaced, that proved she was indeed capable of murder. Toby Christofis visited his grandmother’s homeland of Cyprus and met with a local barrister and crime author Stephanos Evangelide (Ee-van-ga-leedee). He learnt that Styllou had been in trouble with the law before.

On 29 September 1924, Styllou was one of a group of women who confronted and assaulted her own mother-in-law. They barged into the victim’s home and hit her with anything they could find lying around. Styllou took things to the next level, when she picked up a burning wooden torch. The other women held the victim down while Styllou rammed a flaming torch down her mother-in-law’s throat, killing her in the most violent way thinkable.

Styllou did not serve time for this crime, however. The women were known to bicker, and the perception was that the victim drove Styllou to commit this desperate act. After years of emotional abuse, she snapped, and she was not judged for her brutal retaliation.

Historian and crime author, Philip Jones insular small Cypriot towns like the one Styllou hailed from, had their own ways of dealing with conflict. If a disagreement turned violent, no one batted an eye. It was the way it was, nothing more to it.

Stephanos Evangelide theorised that there was more to the story. He delved deeper into the history of the Christofis family and discovered another chilling incident. Styllou’s mother-in-law, Maria Christofi, and her lover had murdered her husband back in 1911. The family decided to punish her for disgracing them and acted, with Styllou, her sister-in-law and a neighbour stepping in to execute vigilante justice. Styllou’s mother-in-law had harmed the family’s name and she had to be punished. A study conducted by the magazine ‘Fempower’ gives some context to the situation. This quoted directly:

“Honour is a complex and important term in the Cypriot culture. Reputation and a good standing in the community are of fundamental importance. “Honour” is the excuse for much of the violence in Cypriot society, although it is not named as such, particularly within the family. Honour is invoked in the case of socially “unacceptable” behaviour.”

Murdering one’s husband with the help of your lover certainly classified as ‘socially unacceptable behaviour’. And this is probably why Styllou was acquitted of killing her mother-in-law.

In Cyprus, Styllou is known as the ‘Cypriot Fonissa’, meaning ‘The Cypriot Killer’. This name stems from a novel by Alexandros Papadiamantis, where the main character is a widow who had lived a tortured life full of misery. She believed the birth of girls brought nothing but hardship and even killed her own, newborn granddaughter. The book is every bit the Greek tragedy that Styllou Christofi’s life turned out to be.

After the trial in Famagusta, Styllou’s husband left her and had to raise Stavros by herself. As soon as Stavros could go, he did so too. Living with Stavros and Hella, she envied their closeness as a married couple. She disapproved of their lifestyle and appreciation of the finer things in life. She may have been a victim of xenophobia during her trial, but she held the same attitude towards Hella, who was always a ‘foreigner’ to her. When Hella planned on taking the grandchildren away, even just for a holiday, Styllou decided to take action, eliminating her problem in the most wicked of ways.

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