Crowthorne, Bovingdon, Sheerness, St. Albans, Hemel Hempstead, Newport on the Isle of Wight. All small English towns in leafy, quiet places, all forever linked by the dark legacy of one man; Graham Young. One of the most notorious serial poisoners in English history and feared even by other convicts, Young’s trail of terror links them all.
After poisoning friends and family Young spent nine years at Broadmoor, a maximum-security hospital for the criminally-insane near the town of Crowthorne. Released in 1971 after convincing psychiatrists he was a safe bet, Young found work at the John Hadlands photographic laboratory in Bovingdon.
The so-called ‘Bovingdon Bug’ killed two of Young’s co-workers, almost killed several more and left over seventy suffering unexplained illness. Arrested in Sheerness while visiting his father, Young faced trial at St. Albans Crown Court. It wasn’t his first visit.
Convicted of the Hadlands murders in 1972, he spent most of his life at the maximum-security Parkhurst prison near Newport on the Isle of Wight. Young’s sister Winifred (also one of his early victims) was living in Hemel Hempstead when Young (then newly released from Broadmoor) began his killing spree at Hadlands.
Young was born on 7 September 1947, Young’s mother Bessie had died only months after his birth. Young had spent the next two years living in St. Albans with his aunt and uncle. Being separated from them distressed him greatly, his father reuniting the family in the London suburb of Neasden when he married Young’s step-mother Molly in 1949. Perhaps not coincidentally, Molly was almost certainly her step-son’s first murder. By his own admission Fred Young never truly understood his son, but it wouldn’t be long before alarm bells started ringing.
There’s always something particularly chilling about poisoners, something cold-blooded, reptilian and venomous. Masters (and frequently mistresses) of murder by stealth, they slither into people’s lives like snakes leaving death in their wake. To a poisoner the so-called ‘perfect murder’ isn’t the one that goes unsolved, but the one that goes undetected. In general (though not always) they seem a particularly remorseless, cold-hearted breed.
Granted, some poisoners are simply incompetent. Intending to injure or incapacitate they over-estimate a dosage or perhaps their victim has a pre-existing health problem or allergy that even they don’t know exists. Others act out of anger or as a prank that goes too far. Those poisoners kill by ignorance and stupidity, not design. Graham Young killed entirely by design, sometimes only coincidence or blind luck prevented him killing even more.
Unfortunately most are very calculating, knowing exactly what they are doing and doing it anyway. To deliberately offer poisoned food or drink to an unsuspecting victim and watch them take it usually demands a particularly cold-blooded attitude. It’s highly likely that for every poisoner caught many more slip the net. Seemingly entirely lacking empathy or conscience Graham Young was such a man and particularly dangerous.
Small wonder that before Britain effectively abolished its death penalty in the 1960’s the authorities kept an unwritten rule especially for them. In Britain hanging usually happened within weeks of sentencing, not years or months as in the United States. The law mandated a minimum of only ‘three clear Sundays’ between sentencing and execution. The time was short, just enough for lawyers to attend the Court of Criminal Appeal and petition the Home Secretary for clemency.
Condemned poisoners who lost their appeal almost never received clemency. A failed appeal almost invariably meant a short walk to a long drop. The unwritten rule wasn’t acknowledged officially and has never been officially admitted. It can’t be acknowledged without probably starting an endless line of appeals and lawsuits, but it was there nevertheless. Had Young been at Hadlands ten years earlier he would almost certainly have kept a date with the hangman.
Most murder is a personal affair. Over 90% of victims know either their killer or whoever ordered their death. It’s a rule of thumb supported by decades of statistics, perhaps helping to explain Britain’s average conviction rate for murder also being over 90%. Even if deliberate poisoning is detected the apparent absence of motive gives the serial poisoner a head start unless they betray themselves. Graham Young fit that description perfectly.
Young was undoubtedly a textbook psychopath rather than a sadist or greedy enough to kill for material gain. In Young’s amoral opinion his crimes were not crimes at all, merely scientific experiments. Human beings were merely his test subjects, lab rats to be used and discarded. After extracting as much data (and enjoyment) as he could Young disposed of them and chose his next unwitting guinea pig.
Young had no financial or material gain from poisoning his own relatives and work colleagues, his motives were even darker than that. He enjoyed the power of life and death over his victims. When caught after his first poisoning spree Young rather pathetically remarked:
“I am missing my antimony. I am missing the power it gives me.”
To Young his victims were somehow privileged to be unwitting, unwilling assistants to a scientific genius. In Young’s own mind he was actually entitled to see how his concoctions worked on human subjects. In short Young was truly devoid of compassion or remorse, as heartless as any murderer has ever been.
His ‘experiments’ started in the early 1960’s when he was only a boy. Poisons were far more readily available in Britain before Young’s case came to light. In fact, Young’s crimes forced significant changes in British laws governing sale and possession of poisons. Like any scientist he needed lab rats. Being a novice he naturally chose the people most easily available, his own family.
Not only could he experiment at will, Young could also watch and record his experiments, keeping detailed notes that, ironically, later helped convict him. He listed the ingredients, doses inflicted and damage done as though conducting some twisted medical trial. When he wasn’t dosing his relatives with arsenic, antimony, digitalis, thallium or combinations thereof, he had more obvious (and far less deadly) habits causing first concern and then outright suspicion.
Not many children turn up at school wearing a swastika armband, performing Nazi salutes and collecting books on Nazism. Few children openly regard Adolf Hitler as being a misunderstood genius. Not many sign letters with ‘Your friendly neighbourhood Frankenstein’ either. Even fewer borrow every book on poisons and poisoning in their local library, befriend local chemists and use forged prescriptions to buy poisons at their local drugstore. Serial poisoners might be far more easily-caught (and society considerably safer) if they were all so easily spotted.
Young managed all that while still in his early teens. His first victims were stepmother Molly, father Fred, sister Winifred and school-friend John Williams. Molly died an agonising death. The others survived, but not for lack of trying on Young’s part. To Young, Williams was simply a footnote in his career. Some angry children might break another child’s favourite toy or perhaps lash out at them. Young slipped a combination of poisons into his food just because Williams had annoyed him.
His family were simply guinea pigs in his experiments. After yet another unexplained illness in the Young household (amid relatives suspecting the extent of Young’s psychological problems) the police were involved. What they found astounded all involved and earned Young nine years in Broadmoor, a maximum-security hospital for the criminally insane.
First his step-mother died. Nothing suspicious in itself, people die every day for entirely natural reasons. Then his father was unexpectedly taken ill and almost died. Then his sister became ill and then Williams. All these unexplained illnesses had one common factor: Graham Young. He had means and opportunity, although nobody had yet figured out his motive. His plot finally unravelled courtesy of an alert science teacher at his school who discovered Young possessed poisons no 13-year-old should.
It transpired that Young was friendly with local chemists who encouraged his scientific interest without knowing his real motives, readily filling the forged prescriptions he gave them. They didn’t know Young’s numerous prescriptions for lethal poisons were forged until Young’s arrest on 23 May 1962. Nor did they know he was only 13. His manipulative ways and knowledge of poisons left them thinking he was several years older.
Police looking at Young as a suspect soon found a very plausible motive. They discovered his library habits and his collections of chemistry textbooks and Nazi memorabilia. Finding his collection of poisons (any of which could have caused the symptoms found in his victims) made him their prime and only suspect.
The case was a sensation. A teenager who’d poisoned his own family simply to see what happened. Despite his youth Young had collected large amounts of several lethal poisons without arousing undue suspicion. Even his having borrowed the local library’s entire stock of toxicology and chemistry textbooks at such a tender age hadn’t aroused suspicion.
Having admitted poisoning sister Winifred with atropine and father John and school-friend Christopher Williams with a combination of poisons, Young was convicted in late-1962. He was never charged with murdering step-mother Molly who had died of unexplained illness on 23 April 1962. Insufficient evidence remained to try him for Molly’s murder although Young’s father had found him standing beside her deathbed, staring in absolute fascination.as she lay dying.
Once caught Young readily admitted his guilt and was confined to Broadmoor indefinitely. His confinement might have given his ego some small gratification. He stood out as Broadmoor’s youngest inmate since 1885. Justice Melford Stevenson handed down a stiff sentence with a chilling and accurate warning:
“Such people are always dangerous and are adept at concealing their mad compulsion which may never be fully cured.”
Young’s compulsion certainly hadn’t been cured. In fact he remains under suspicion for murdering another inmate while at Broadmoor itself. When John Berridge died of cyanide poisoning Broadmoor’s staff seemed clueless. Broadmoor being a maximum-security institution no patient (especially a known serial poisoner) should have been able to obtain the poison. Unable to explain where Berridge had obtained it they saw no warning signs when another inmate pointed out the laurel bushes near the hospital. Helpful to a fault, that inmate also remarked on how easily cyanide can be distilled from laurel leaves.
Unsurprisingly that inmate was Graham Young, the known serial poisoner with a comprehensive knowledge of all manner of toxins. Berridge’s death was ruled a suicide, a ruling that became debatable when sister Winifred later pointed out Graham’s letters regularly complained about Berridge’s many annoying habits, especially his snoring. Young’s cure, id it was his, was as lethal as it was effective.
It wasn’t that staff themselves were unaware of his dark leanings. In fact they had almost suffered them personally when bleach was found in their coffee. ‘Sugar soap,’ an abrasive sodium-based preparation used to paint walls was found in a communal tea urn. Both were discovered before anybody was killed or injured, but staff started to joke with patients:
“Unless you behave, I’ll let Graham make your coffee.”
That Young saw no official punishment was no surprise. Unlike conventional hospitals Broadmoor inmates observe the convict code similar to any other penal facility. Somebody tipped off staff to the presence of poison, but nobody was prepared to name the poisoner. Had staff not found the sugar soap over ninety staff and inmates could have been fatally poisoned. It was said that the convict code was enforced against the poisoner as well, other inmates punishing Young with a vicious beating.
Prescient though it was Justice Stevenson’s recommendation was ignored. Stevenson had ordered a minimum fifteen years and that Young not be released without the Home Secretary’s personal approval. Young wanted to restart his criminal career and so became a model prisoner, impressing staff as a result. In June 1970 psychiatrist Dr. Edgar Unwin, entirely taken in by Young’s apparent reformation, recommended his early release.
In 1971 the Home Secretary, noting that Young’s crimes carried an average of seven or eight years, gave that approval. The next year Broadmoor’s doctors agreed and Young was released. He wasn’t anywhere near cured and employees at Hadlands would pay the price.
On 4 February 1971, after nine years at Broadmoor and still aged only 23, Young re-entered society. While staying in a hostel and attending a training college two of the hostel’s residents mysteriously died, one after drinking a glass of wine offered him by Young. The other suffered such dreadful illness and pain that, unable to stand it any longer, he took his own life. Again, Young wasn’t put under suspicion (or scrutiny) until much later.
Amazingly given his previous offences, authorities found work for him at Hadlands. Even worse his new employers were not informed of his previous history and he’d secured a glowing recommendation from the college. On his application form Young sugar-coated his confinement by stating he’d had a mental breakdown, but not specifying what kind. As Young’s letter to Hadlands official Geoffrey Foster put it:
“May I take this opportunity of expressing my gratitude to you for offering me this position notwithstanding my previous infirmity as communicated to you by the placing officer.”
As cunning as he was Young probably knew that Broadmoor wouldn’t have told Hadlands exactly what that ‘previous infirmity’ was. Had they done so Mr. Foster probably wouldn’t have let him near any laboratory, photographic or otherwise. With hindsight Young’s application was a masterpiece of manipulation painting a picture of a troubled young man trying to make his way in the world as best he could.
Young’s application even claimed he’d ‘Previously studied chemistry, organic and inorganic, pharmacology and toxicology over the past ten years and had ‘Some knowledge of chemicals.’ His knowledge of chemistry came from concocting poisons, his toxicology expertise from poisoning friends and family and his pharmacological experience involved using ether and chloroform recreationally. None of which he mentioned during the interview process. His new employers didn’t ask too many questions and that oversight had fatal consequences.
Starting at the bottom, Young was a general warehouse helper and gofer. Also, in the tradition of many British workplaces, it was his job to make the tea and coffee. He didn’t mind making very good tea and coffee, often sweetened with a little more than sugar. Within weeks of his arrival Hadlands employees began experiencing unexplained, sudden and violent illness. Diana Smart had a good working relationship with Young or so she thought until she mildly irritated him. Then he poisoned her tea and almost killed her.
Chief storekeeper Bob Egle also thought he got along well with the new boy. Egle would be one of many employees who suffered what they began calling the ‘Bovingdon Bug.’ He also died from it on 7 July 1971. The other was Fred Biggs who died in similar fashion on 19 November. Young, still meticulously recording his pseudo-scientific findings, actually managed something vaguely resembling remorse at murdering Biggs. One diary entry stated:
“F (Fred Biggs) is now seriously ill. He has developed paralysis and blindness. Even if the blindness is reversed, organic brain disease would render him a husk. From my point of view his death would be a relief. It would remove one more casualty from an already crowded field of battle.”
Not only were Young’s ‘case notes’ utterly pitiless, he could be incredibly casual. Referring to the dose that could have killed Diana Smart he wrote:
“Di irritated me yesterday, so I packed her off home with a dose of illness.”.
Diana Smart, David Tilson, Jethro Batt and Ronald Hewitt all nearly died. Some 70 other employees suffered similar illnesses during the few months that Young worked at Hadlands. A climate of fear began spreading through the company. What was going on? Why were so many people suffering and what from? Who would be next to catch the ‘Bovingdon Bug’?
Young finally overplayed his hand through his own ego. Either he thought he was so clever he could mingle freely with investigators without being caught or he secretly wanted to be caught and become infamous. After all, Young regarded himself as some kind of artist and artists want their handiwork appreciated. Either way, he started drawing first attention and then suspicion. By the time Egle and Biggs had died and around 70 other employees had been taken ill the police were involved.
In 1962 Young’s chemistry teacher had acted on his suspicions and Young had been caught quickly. In 1971 Young had soon aroused the suspicions of Iain Anderson, the firm’s medical officer. Anderson soon caught on to Young’s boasting about his knowledge of drugs and poisons. He quickly realised the ‘Bovington Bug’ had coincided with Young’s arrival.
Anderson also noted Young repeatedly offering unsolicited (and suspiciously-accurate) opinions on whether sick employees would survive and for how long. Like everyone else at Hadlands, Anderson knew almost nothing of Young’s previous history, but still quietly alerted police. In Anderson’s opinion a serial poisoner was hiding in plain sight among the workforce. In retrospect it couldn’t have been much plainer, Young had even attended Robert Egle’s funeral as the company representative.
Further suspicion was aroused when police visited Hadlands. Young, far from seeming nervous or keeping his distance, was chatty and helpful. He even offered opinions on whether Biggs and Egle had died from the nervous disorder Guillan-Barre Syndrome or thallium poisoning. Guillan-Barre Syndrome’s symptoms are similar to thallium poisoning, but warehouse gofers and teaboys seldom know that. Detectives took a great (and very discreet) interest in one who did.
Like their colleagues a decade before detectives soon decided Young’s overly helpful demeanor and unusual knowledge made him their prime suspect. Thallium poisoning was certainly possible, but wasn’t considered until Young mentioned it. Detectives checked Young’s background in more detail than his employers had done. Like their predecessors a decade earlier they couldn’t have been more horrified. On 21 September 1971 Young was arrested.
Young’s psychiatric history and criminal past were first to be exposed. Police then searched his home. Inside they found a new collection of books on drugs, poisons and poisoning, illegally-purchased drugs and poisons. Among them was a large amount of thallium sulphate.
The symptoms of thallium poisoning matched very closely those of Young’s alleged victims. Most incriminating was Young’s diary meticulously recording names, dates, poisons, their effects and whether he would permit victims to live or die. It makes for some truly chilling reading.
Science had advanced considerably since the suspicious death of Molly Young way back in 1962. Despite having been cremated Fred Biggs’s ashes still contained 9 milligrams of thallium, easily a lethal dose. Like so many murderers Young hadn’t been quite as clever as he thought. For all his studying he hadn’t known thallium (a heavy metal poison) is one of very few poisons not destroyed by a crematorium furnace. Arsenic (also a heavy metal poison) is in fact roasted in furnaces to extract it from arsenic ore.
Young took his arrest in his stride which made detectives instantly suspect he had another trick up his sleeve. They were half-right. The trick wasn’t up his sleeve, but in his pocket they found a lethal dose of thallium that Young later called his ‘exit dose.’ Rather than face trial and life in a prison or psychiatric hospital Young had planned to exert control for the last time, cheating the law and his victims in the process. Detectives quickly confiscated the phial and checked him thoroughly for anything else, finding nothing.
Young’s trial was another sensation, although not to Young himself. Newspapers nicknamed him the ‘Teacup Poisoner’ and he was greatly offended. Young felt his homicidal talents and ‘scientific’ skills deserved something far grander, grousing endlessly to all and sundry about not being called the ‘World Poisoner.’ Even though he knew he’d never be released, Young’s bruised ego troubled him more than life imprisonment or his needless murders. His murders troubled him not in the slightest.
‘Teacup Poisoner’ or ‘World Poisoner’, it made no difference. His trial at St. Albans Crown Court began on 19 September 1972 and lasted ten days The evidence made conviction a foregone conclusion and a life sentence the only possible outcome. Despite this Young pleaded not guilty, claiming his diary was merely research notes for a novel. Unlike Young’s victims the jury got to see him as he really was.
Convicted, Young received four life sentences and two five-year sentences. He would never be released again. The jury also added another item to their verdict, calling for a thorough overhaul of regulations governing the sale, purchase and possession of poisons.
During and after the trial Broadmoor’s doctors were lambasted both for releasing him and concealing his previous crimes from his new employers. Their status worsened even more when his Broadmoor file was examined. It was discovered that when his release was recommended Young had a bizarre ‘celebration’ in mind. He’d promised to a psychiatric that he would poison one person for every year he’d been incarcerated. Even with that threat on file Young was still released.
Had they warned Hadlands in advance Young would likely have been stopped far sooner. Had he been detained permanently Hadlands’ staff would have been protected entirely. Rules governing release from psychiatric institutions were sharply reformed after Young’s case. Laws governing sale and possession of poisons were tightened considerably, making it much harder to obtain such substances even for legitimate use.
Staff and inmates at Broadmoor would still have been at considerable risk especially if Young was behind the attempted poisonings during his time there. While confined Young finally admitted murdering step-mother Molly in 1962 knowing there was insufficient evidence to convict him. Had Young been convicted in 1962 and old enough to hang he probably would have. The ‘friendly neighbourhood Frankenstein’ would have been stopped in his tracks and the ‘Teacup Poisoner’ would have never existed. His victims, on the other hand, would have continued existing in safety.
Only hours after the trial Home Secretary Reginald Maudling announced not one but two inquiries into both Young’s early release and the general handling of psychiatric in-patients. The inquiries (perhaps both long-overdue) would have far-reaching consequences for those detained under the Mental Health Act. Home Secretary between June1970 and July 1972, Maudling could have stopped Young’s release, something he probably hoped would be forgotten if he was seen to take prompt action.
The trial jury’s call for extensive changes to poison purchases had similar consequences for anyone looking to obtain substances like thallium legitimately or otherwise. Anyone wanting to emulate the Teacup Poisoner would have to work harder to obtain their weapons of choice. It’s still possible, but the reforms after Young’s conviction make it far harder.
It wasn’t all bad for those involved in Young’s early release, though it may have seemed so. Distinguished former judge Justice Gerald Sparrow came to their defence. Writing a chapter on Young in ‘Poison! The World’s Greatest True Murder cases’ Judge Sparrow remarked:
“I think that everyone from the Home Secretary and his advisers to the Hadlands Director, the staff at the training centre, and the Broadmoor doctors were taken for a ride by a psychopath of exceptional cunning and address, capable of ingratiating himself with the able, experienced and compassionate men who were deceived by cleverly contrived symptoms of sanity and a balanced, moderate approach which Graham Young could invoke at will.”
In short those releasing him were clever and they clearly had the best intentions. Young himself was cleverer, and didn’t. It was perhaps an oversight that Hadlands hadn’t asked too many questions about his background, but they would have received few official answers even if they had. That Hadlands were not told of his crimes wasn’t an oversight, it was policy.
It was felt at the time that anyone leaving a psychiatric facility would experience the greatest difficulty even finding a job let alone keeping one. Public prejudice against the mentally-ill, a general idea that they are capable of anything if allowed within striking distance, was as widespread then as it is now. On that basis Young’s previous history was to some extent withheld. That policy too drew criticism, its critics feeling that patient confidentiality should never outweigh public safety.
Despite decades behind bars Young found few friends in prison. Other convicts were said to fear him, believing (probably rightly, in Young’s case at least) that he would harm anybody given the opportunity. Nobody would eat or drink anything Young had even been near, insisting the communal tea urn be emptied and cleaned thoroughly if Young was even seen near it. Given Young attempted mass poisoning at Broadmoor tea urn this is probably no surprise.
Almost his only friend was another notorious psychopath, the ‘Moors Murderer’ Ian Brady. Brady, as friendless and reviled as any convict could be, found in Young a kindred spirit and the pair played chess together frequently. It was almost the only kinship either man had with anybody, sharing their common fascination with Hitler and Nazism. Armed robber and bareknuckle fighter Roy ‘Pretty Boy’ Shaw also spent some time with Young, but he was one of very few who did.
Hadlands survived Young’s ‘experiments,’ remaining in business until the 1990’s. Young himself died with an irony as bitter as any poison. After nearly 30 years Young died at Parkhurst of myocardial infarction on 1 August 1990. With irony as bitter as any poison, one of Britain’s most heartless criminals died of a heart attack. Hadlands (though not all of its workforce) had out-lived Graham Young. Young’s legacy lives on through increased safeguards against criminals like him.
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