Rethinking Agatha Christie

The strange and offensive history of Ten Little Indians

By Sudie Hofmann

Illustrator: Michael Duffy

A bright yellow flyer hung on the wall of a local high school promoting a school-sponsored play. A bottle of poison and a rope appeared near the title of the play, Ten Little Indians. The subtitle read And Then There Were None.

I found it surprising that this controversial play was being performed in St. Cloud, Minn., a community where indigenous issues—such as the use of American Indian mascots and team nicknames—have been at the forefront of social justice activism for more than a decade.

When I found the flyer, I shared it with the Coalition Against Cultural Genocide (CACG), a local network of community activists with whom I have been active on the mascot issue for many years. We quickly conducted research on the history of the play and decided to present it to the school administration.

An Internet search provided us with a cover of the original 1939 Christie book, titled Ten Little Niggers. The cover featured a “black” doll or golliwog (originally spelled golliwogg), hanging from a noose. Golliwogs, according to Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia website are “grotesque creatures, with very dark, often jet black skin, large white-rimmed eyes, red or white clown lips, and wild frizzy hair.” They made their appearance in the children’s book series by Florence Kate Upton, which was published in England beginning in 1895. In the books, golliwogs, looking much like caricatures of black faced minstrels, haunted a toy store where they terrorized two Dutch dolls, Peg and Sarah Jane.

I decided to dig deeper into the history of Christie’s book and play. The history is complicated and often cloaked in legend and misinformation. The origin of Christie’s title is based on a song and chorus written in 1849 by a Philadelphia songwriter, Septimus Winner. His original rhyme,”Old John Brown,” contained the refrain “one little, two little, three, little Indians.” In 1866, Winner expanded the song and retitled it “Ten Little Indians.” This version is replete with references to American Indians “out upon a spree,” “dead drunk,” in canoes, living in “wigwams” with “daddy Injun” and “mommy squaw.” In 1869, Frank Green and Marc Mason created a minstrel tune, based on the song, for tenor G. W. “Pony” Moore to perform in St. James Hall in Picadilly. Its popularity with young children eventually established it as a nursery rhyme.

The rhyme metamorphosed in England, the United States, and Germany into Ten Little NiggersTen Little IndiansThe End of Ten Little Negroes, and And Then There Were None. The lines of the rhyme vary from decade to decade, and country to country. The 1943 theatrical version of Christie’s book, Ten Little Niggers, was based on a popular version of the rhyme in England at the time. The play, like the book, is set on Nigger Island, a name given to it because it resembled, “a man’s head—a man with Negroid lips,” according to Charles Osbourne in The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie. The play employs the use of the children’s nursery rhyme in which individuals die by different means. A few stanzas include:

Ten little Nigger boys going out to dine;

One choked his little self and then there were nine.

Seven little Nigger boys gathering up sticks; One chopped himself in half and then there were six.

Two little Nigger boys playing with a gun; One shot the other and then there was one.

One little Nigger boy left all alone;

He went and hanged himself and then there were none.

When the book version of Ten Little Niggers was published in the United States in 1940 by Dodd, Mead, its title was changed to And Then There Were None, presumably in an effort to avoid offending African Americans. However, the title changed again to Ten Little Indians when Pocket Books published it in 1964. The play has subsequently been produced in some U.S. communities as Ten Little Injuns and more recently, playbills have indicated that the Indians referred to in the play are East Indians, as was the case in the local high school production mentioned earlier. Although the Christie title has changed over the last 66 years, its focus has always been about eliminating a specific group of people of color.

The subtitle or alternative title, And Then There Were None, presents another aspect of embedded racism, which is that of genocide. Rarely is the connection made from this ideological message of the title of the play to centuries of racism, colonization, and genocide. “And then there were none” has often been the intended goal of many colonial governments as well as that of U.S. government policies.

As I continued my research, I found that the play has problems reaching beyond the title. Some versions of Act III include the line “Nigger in a woodpile,” which is a phrase used to cast suspicion on a particular character in the play. It was included in versions of the play published as recently as 2003.

In spring 2003 I began corresponding with the staff at Samuel French Inc. the publishing house holding exclusive U.S. rights for the play. I suggested some changes that could be made in the play, all of which involved the removal of references to people of color. As I suspected, only the Christie Estate, managed by Chorion PLC in London, could approve the changes.

I began to contemplate how I could approach the school and initiate a dialogue about the issues this play presents for a school currently experiencing racial tensions. The shifting demographics of the school, which included Somali and Ethiopian students, brought out the worst in some parents and students. Confederate flags appeared on belt buckles and swastikas were created with black markers on upper arms, all carefully out of the sight of teachers. Physical altercations on and near the school campus precipitated the need for several open parent meetings that produced few results.

I thought this could be a place to begin the discussion and link it to the issues of xenophobia, racism, and stereotypes in the play. The school did not return my phone calls and declined my offers of providing videos from Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project and making teacher education students available for small-group discussions.

When the Coalition Against Cultural Genocide reviewed my research, members of the group presented copies to the administration of the area high school and they forwarded them to the members of the student-directed play. Students, in turn, contacted a local newspaper with claims that their free-speech rights were being infringed upon by local activists. The wire services picked up the story and the Wall Street Journal saw fit to poke fun at our concerns in its “Tony and Tacky” column that week. The column did not include even a fragment of our research or critique.

Eventually, the cast and crew of the show made several slight modifications: They reduced the type size of the title in the playbill and included a disclaimer from the director, pointing out that no attempt was being made to intentionally offend anyone with the production. But they also chose to print every line of the nursery rhyme in the playbill.

Within a month of the controversy at the high school, a local university began promoting its spring student production of Ten Little Indians. Once again CAAG shared its research with the director of the play. Something very different happened this time. Initially, the director made no commitments to CACG beyond agreeing to study the information provided to her. She shared the information with the cast and crew and subsequently invited members of CACG to one of their meetings. Although there was dissent within the group, they decided, with the permission of Samuel French Inc. to delete the “woodpile” line, replace “Ten Little Indians” with “Ten Little Devon Boys” (referencing the fictitious Indian island off the coast of Devon that is the scene of Christie’s play), and use nondescript styrofoam figurines on the mantelpiece in place of the American Indian figurines that are tipped over after each murder in the play. (Christie’s play includes all the various forms of murder/suicide used in the nursery rhyme and the famous dramatic effect of statuettes tipping over was restaged in this manner.)

And Then There Were Some Changes

In August 2004 I received a copy of the 2004 edition of And Then There Were None from Samuel French Inc. A letter accompanying the play detailed the changes, which likely came about due to activism and public pressure. The play is now officially licensed as And Then There Were None and the Act III reference to a “nigger in the woodpile” has been changed to “guilty party.” The fictitious Indian Island has been changed to Soldier Island. The opening paragraph of the play states that, “a cluster of statuettes—ten little soldier boys—sits on the mantelpiece of a weird country house on an island off the coast of Devon. A nursery rhyme embossed above them tells how each little boy met his death, until there was none.” I immediately contacted Samuel French, Inc. upon receiving the letter and inquired about the reasons for the changes. Their only response was that the “Christie Estate chooses to make these changes at this time.” Nonethe-less, after nearly seven decades, the play no longer uses images of people of color as a “creative” staging approach.

A review of the 2004 book version of Ten Little Indians, now published by St. Martin’s Griffin as And Then There Were None, reveals that editorial revision is still needed. Page 57 includes the statement “natives don’t mind dying.” Anti-Semitism is also expressed on pages 5, 6, and 124, when a Mr. Morris is referred to as “little Jew” and “Jewboy” with “thick Semitic lips.”

Schools might attempt to produce the play under the former title, blow off the dust from the “Indian” statuettes stored in a school closet, and use the original nursery rhyme. It would not be difficult to anticipate this happening, given the considerable resistance to changing American Indian school mascots and nicknames in local communities. But this would violate agreements with Samuel French Inc.

Helping Schools Understand the Changes

Given the enormous popularity of And Then There Were None in U.S. high schools and universities, it is likely that schools will need effective ways to educate students about the reasons for the changes that have been made in the play. Below are some possible discussion points for generating critical thinking about the controversies surrounding this play.

  • Discuss the problematic nature of Ten Little Indians after considering issues of race, xenophobia, privilege, and power. Study definitions of genocide and talk about current issues of race in the community or possible racial tensions in the school.
  • Practice owning up to the racism inherent in many “classic” works.
  • Address the violence throughout the play and consider whether issues of suicide, depression, guns, and murder are appropriate for school-sponsored events.

Educational communities owe it to themselves to genuinely address the stated goals of diversity within the school. Presenting community concerns regarding racism by using counterproductive communication techniques, such as rolling one’s eyes or dismissing the voices of people of color by trivializing their perceptions and analyses, provides a powerful racist lesson in the hidden curriculum.

De-emphasizing approaches that shame or blame students can help minimize defensiveness and help them to make better choices for school productions. Informed problem-solving, using input from local communities of color might just be one of the most important learning experiences in a student’s career.


“The Golliwog Caricature”
By David Pilgrim (2002).
Ferris State University, Jim Crow
Museum of Racial Memorabilia Website:

The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie
By Charles Osbourne
(Contemporary Books, 1982), 421 pp.

Sudie Hofmann ( teaches at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota.