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Graham Young

Crime Files
Graham Young

Graham Frederick Young was born in Neasden, North London, on 7 September 1947, to Fred and Bessie Young. Unfortunately, his mother developed pleurisy during pregnancy, and died of tuberculosis three months after her son’s birth. Fred Young was devastated by her death, and the infant was put into the care of his aunt Winnie, while his elder sister, Winifred, was taken in by her grandparents. The young Graham spent the first two years of his life with his aunt and her husband, Jack, and became very close to them. When his father remarried in 1950, and reunited the family again in St. Albans, with his new wife, Molly, Graham showed visible signs of distress at being separated from his aunt. He went on to become a rather peculiar child, solitary in his habits, and made no effort to socialise with others his own age. When he was old enough to read, he favoured sensationalist non-fiction accounts of murders, and Dr. Crippen, the infamous poisoner, was a particular favourite. By the time he reached his teens he had developed an unhealthy fascination with Adolf Hitler, and took to wearing swastikas, extolling the virtues of a “misunderstood” Hitler to anyone who would listen. He also read widely on the occult, claiming knowledge of Wiccans and local covens, trying to involve local children in bizarre occult ceremonies, which involved sacrificing a cat on one occasion. The subsequent disappearance of a number of local cats, around the same time, may have pointed to a more regular occurrence of these sacrificial ceremonies. Academically, his only interests were chemistry, forensic science and toxicology, but the limited school coverage of these subjects forced him to advance his studies through extra-curricular reading. His father encouraged him, buying Young a chemistry set, which absorbed his attention for hours at a time. By the age of 13, Young’s comprehensive knowledge of toxicology enabled him to convince local chemists that he was, in fact, 17, and he procured a dangerous quantity of the poisons antimony, digitalis and arsenic for ‘study’ purposes, as well as quantities of the heavy metal, thallium. Keen to put his knowledge of poisons to the test, his first victim was fellow science pupil, Christopher Williams, who suffered an extended period of vomiting, painful cramps and headaches, due to the judicious administration, by Young, of a cocktail of poisons that left medical experts baffled. Williams was lucky to survive, probably because Young couldn’t fully satisfy his scientific curiosity: monitoring the illness of his victim when he was sick at home wasn’t feasible. So he decided to focus on a group to whom he had unlimited access: his own family.


Born 7 September 1947The Victims 21 April 1962 - Molly Young, 37 June 1962 - John Berridge (never charged) 7 July 1971 - Bob Egle, 59 19 November 1971 - Fred Biggs, 60Arrested 23 May 1962Committed June 1962Released 4 February 1971Arrested 21 November 1971Trial 19 June 1972Convicted 29 June 1972Died 1 August 1990

The Arrest

Subsequent forensic enquiries revealed the thallium poisoning: the first recorded case of deliberate poisoning by this heavy metal ever recorded. Young’s poison conviction was soon unearthed, as were his collection of poisons, and meticulous diaries recording explicit dosages administered to individuals, and their reactions to the dosage over time.Young was arrested in Sheerness, Kent, on 21 November 1971, where he had been visiting his father. A quantity of thallium was found on his person. Under interrogation, he admitted verbally to the poisonings, but refused to sign a written admission of guilt. He clearly relished the notoriety that his day in court would afford him.

The Crimes

When the family began to show intermittent signs of poisoning during the early part of 1961, Young’s father initially suspected that Young might be inadvertently harming the family by the careless use of his chemistry set at home, but Young denied the accusation. The potential for deliberate poisoning was never considered, especially as Young had also been ill on a number of occasions. It remains unclear whether this was by design (to avoid detection), thorough scientific interest in his own reaction, or just carelessness of exactly which teacups he had poisoned.When Young’s elder sister, Winifred, was found by doctors to have been poisoned by Belladonna in November 1961, Young’s father again suspected him, but took no action. Molly Young, his stepmother, became the concerted focus of Young’s attentions, gradually becoming more ill until finally, on 21 April 1962, she was found by her husband writhing in agony, in the back garden of their home, with Young looking on in fascination. She was rushed to hospital, where she died later that night. Her cause of death was determined as a prolapse of a spinal bone and she was cremated (not surprisingly at Young’s suggestion), with no further action taken at the time. It was later discovered that she had developed a tolerance to the antimony with which Young was slowly poisoning her, and he switched to thallium the night before her death to speed up the process. There were even reports of further nausea and vomiting attacks at her funeral: clearly the death of his stepmother had not dulled Young’s scientific curiosity.Following Molly’s death, Fred Young’s attacks of vomiting and cramping became more frequent and increasingly severe, and he was also admitted to hospital, where he was diagnosed with antimony poisoning. He was lucky to have survived his son’s experimentation, but could not countenance his son’s responsibility: that role fell to Young’s school chemistry teacher, who contacted the police when he discovered poisons, and copious material about poisoners, in Young’s school desk.Young was sent to a police psychiatrist, where his encyclopaedic knowledge of poisons soon became apparent, and arrested on 23 May 1962. He admitted the poisoning of his father, sister and school friend, Williams, but no murder charges were brought against him for the murder of his stepmother, as any evidence had been destroyed at the time of her cremation. Still only 14, he was committed to Broadmoor maximum-security hospital, the youngest inmate since 1885, for a minimum period of 15 years.Incarceration barely dampened his enthusiasm for experimentation, and within weeks the death of an inmate, John Berridge, by cyanide poisoning, had prison authorities baffled. Young claimed to have extracted cyanide from laurel bush leaves, but his confession was not taken seriously, and Berridge’s death was recorded as suicide. On other occasions, staff and inmates’ drinks were found to have been tampered with, including the introduction of an abrasive sodium compound, commonly called ‘sugar soap’, used for preparing painted walls, into a tea urn that could have caused mass poisoning had it not been discovered. He continued to read widely about poisoning, although he began to keep his obsession increasingly well hidden, when authorities made it clear that appearing less obsessed would speed up his release.By the late 1960’s Young’s doctors seemed oblivious to his continued fatal fascination and recommended, in June 1970, that he be released as he had been ‘cured’. Young celebrated by informing a psychiatric nurse that he intended to kill one person for every year he had been in Broadmoor; the comment was recorded on his file but, amazingly, never influenced the decision to release him.When Young was released on 4 February 1971, now aged 23, he went to stay in a hostel but had contact with his sister, Winifred, who had moved to Hemel Hempstead following her marriage. Despite having been poisoned by him, she was more forgiving than her father, who initially wanted nothing to do with his son. She was concerned by his fixation with his crimes: he took great delight in visiting the scenes of his past crimes, thriving on the reaction of his old neighbours in Neasden when they recognised who he was.He made trips to London, where he stocked up on the antimony, thallium, and other poisons required for his experiments, and a fellow hostel resident, 34-year-old Trevor Sparkes, was soon exhibiting the familiar cramps and sickness associated with any proximity to Young. Another man he befriended experienced such agony that he took his own life, although no connection to Young was established at the time.Young found work as a store man at John Hadland Laboratories, a photographic supply firm in Bovingdon, Hertfordshire, where his new employers were aware of his Broadmoor stay, but not his history as a poisoner.  They might have had some reservations, given the easy availability of poisons such as thallium, routinely used in photographic processes, but Young had, in any case, already secured his poison supplies from unsuspecting London pharmacists. His willingness to make tea and coffee for his co-workers raised no concerns, so when Young’s boss, 59-year-old Bob Egle, began to experience severe cramps and dizziness, it was attributed to a virus thought to be doing the rounds, known locally as the ‘Bovingdon Bug’, which had afflicted a number of local schoolchildren. Other Hadland workers complained of similar cramps, but none were ever as severe as Egle’s who, curiously, seemed to recover when off work ill, but instantly became sicker than ever on his return to work. He was eventually admitted to hospital where he died, in agony, on 7 July 1971. His cause of death was recorded as pneumonia.In September 1971, 60-year-old Fred Biggs began to suffer similar symptoms to Egle, and general absenteeism at Hadland increased dramatically, with employees suffering a variety of unusual and debilitating ailments, including the usual cramps, hair loss and sexual dysfunction. Various sources were considered, including water contamination, radioactive fallout and leakage of the chemicals used at the firm itself, but no real progress was made towards the cause.Biggs was eventually admitted to the London Hospital for Nervous Diseases, but took a long time to die, a cause of some frustration to Young, who recorded his displeasure in his diary. But he eventually succumbed, on 19 November 1971, in excruciating pain.This second death raised great concern within the firm: by this stage about 70 employees had recorded similar symptoms and there were fears for personal safety. The doctor on site tried to reassure staff, by insisting that health and safety rules were being strictly adhered to, and was taken aback when Young challenged him in front of colleagues, quizzing him on why thallium poisoning had not been considered as a cause, considering that it was used in the photographic process. The doctor was surprised at the in-depth toxicological knowledge espoused by Young, and brought it to the attention of the management, who in turn alerted the police.

The Aftermath

When the jury were informed of his previous conviction, and his release as a “cured” mental patient only months before the crimes took place, they recommended an urgent review of the law regarding the public sale of poisons.The Home Secretary also announced an immediate review of the control, treatment, assessment and release of mentally unstable prisoners, despite the fact that Young had been regarded as legally sane during his trial. The Aarvold Report, published in January 1973, led to the reform of the way these prisoners were monitored upon release, and resulted in the creation of the Advisory Board for Restricted Patients.When asked whether he felt any remorse over his sadistic killings, he is said to have replied: “What I feel is the emptiness of my soul.”Young was incarcerated at the maximum-security Parkhurst prison, on the Isle of Wight, the home of Britain’s most serious criminals, usually reserved for those with severe mental conditions. Here he befriended Moors Murderer, Ian Brady, who became infatuated with the 24-year-old Young, although the attraction was not reciprocated. Brady described Young as genuinely asexual, excited only by power, clinical experimentation, observation and death. They spent considerable time together, playing chess and bonding over their fascination with Nazi Germany; Young regularly sported a Hitler moustache.Young was thrilled when a waxwork of himself was added to the Madame Tussaud’s ‘Chamber of Horrors’, alongside his boyhood hero, Dr. Crippen.Young died in his cell at Parkhurst on 1 August 1990, aged 42. The official cause of death was heart failure, although there remains conjecture that fellow inmates, who, with the exception of Brady, were always extremely wary of Young, may have poisoned him or, alternately, that he grew tired of prison life and poisoned himself, in one final gesture of control.Young’s worldwide notoriety brought the effectiveness of thallium as a deadly poison into focus for the first time: it was used extensively as a coating on US missiles fired during the first Gulf War, to devastating effect.In 1995, a black comedy about Young’s life, entitled ‘The Young Poisoner's Handbook’ was released in cinemas.In November 2005, a 16-year old Japanese schoolgirl was arrested for poisoning her mother with thallium. She claimed to be fascinated by Young, having seen the 1995 film, and kept an online blog, similar to Young’s diary, recording dosage and reactions.

The Trial

Young’s trial commenced on 19 June 1972, at St Albans Crown Court. He was charged with two counts of murder, two counts of attempted murder, and two counts of administering poison. Young pleaded not guilty, and seemed confident that he would be acquitted, as his previous conviction could not be entered into evidence, and he felt it would be impossible to identify him as the only person with the means to poison Egle and Biggs.He was delighted at the media hype that surrounded his trial, and did his best to appear sinister, in an attempt to unnerve the jury and assembled gallery, but was reportedly less than thrilled with the sobriquet ‘The Teacup Poisoner’, which he felt too parochial, belittling his skill and knowledge. He thought 'World Poisoner' more appropriate.He hadn’t reckoned with the advances made in forensic science in the decade since the death of his stepmother, however, and the effect that the reading of tracts of his diary, in which he cold-bloodedly lists the effects of his poisons, would have on the jury: he was found guilty on all charges on 29 June 1972, receiving four life sentences.