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A PREOCCUPATION WITH DEATH
Graham Young, the Bovingdon Poisoner
Management and staff at Hadlands, a photographic instruments company in Bovingdon, were mystified – and very, very worried. It was 1971, and in June of that year Bob Egle, 59, head storeman, had been taken to hospital suffering from diarrhoea, nausea, and numbness in his fingertips, and eight days later died in hospital, apparently of broncho-pneumonia and polyneuritis.
Later, another man, Fred Biggs, 60, became ill. He was taken to hospital, complaining of stomach cramps, and soon afterwards other employees at the company fell ill, apparently with food poisoning, or what became known as the ‘Bovingdon Bug’. One man lost his hair, and all showed similar symptoms to that of Mr Egle. At least two had fallen ill after drinking tea.
One day in October, two of Hadlands’ storemen were chatting. One was Jethro Batt, 39. The other was 24 year old Graham Young, who remarked that ‘it was easy to poison someone and make it look like natural causes’. Then, with Mr Batt out of the room, Young made him a cup of coffee. Batt returned, took a mouthful and discarded the remainder, saying it tasted ‘bitter’. ‘Do you think I’m trying to poison you?’ said Young, and both men laughed.
Soon afterwards, Mr Batt was sick, and later, at home, was in such agony he told his wife he wanted to die. ‘I was desperate with pain,’ he said. Like others who had taken ill, his hair started falling out, and he suffered from hallucinations. Former Detective Sergeant Brendan Hayden, now retired, worked on the case, and recalls visiting Mr Blatt in hospital.
‘Mr Batt lived at Harlow, and he and Young worked late in the stores to miss the traffic on the way home,’ said Mr Hayden. ‘Mr Batt would drop Young off at his digs in Maynard Road, Hemel Hempstead.’ It was on one such occasion Mr Batt had drank the ‘bitter’ coffee. Both Mr Batt and another man had lost all their hair by the time they were discharged from hospital, the latter having lost over a stone and described by the consultant as looking like ‘a three-quarters plucked chicken’.
In November, Fred Biggs, fell ill again with the ‘bug’, after drinking tea. He was taken to hospital in Hemel Hempstead, where his skin began to peel off. He was examined by seven doctors before being transferred to the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, London, where he died. The feeling, among staff, was that the ‘bug’ was down to either water contamination, or radio-active contamination from the nearby former Bovingdon airfield, but the factory premises were examined by the Medical officer of Health who found nothing wrong.
With two deaths and so much illness it was hardly surprising that there was a meeting of management and staff at the company. The meeting was addressed by the firm’s G.P., Dr Anderson, who ruled out contamination by heavy metal. But someone challenged him with a question: ‘Do you not think that the symptoms are consistent with thallium poisoning?’ The questioner was Graham Young, and after the meeting, Dr Anderson spoke to Young, who boasted of his knowledge of toxicology.
The police were called and then, and only then, did the truth come out – that Graham Young, nine years before, had administered poison to his sister, father and a school friend, all of whom survived, and for which, in 1962, he was sent to Broadmoor with a recommendation that he serve at least 15 years. (He also killed his stepmother by poisoning – which he later admitted but over which he was never charged). Two psychiatrists who examined Young concluded ‘he would almost certainly continue to poison people given the chance’, whilst his file included the threat ‘to kill one person for each year I have spent in hospital’.
In fact, Young’s poisoning activities started when he was nine or ten, when he stole poisons from his school laboratory, which he administered to his friends in sandwiches and soft drinks. He also poisoned frogs and the family cat. As he said, ‘toxicology always fascinated me’. At school he was known as the ‘Mad Professor’ because of his ‘experiments’. Young served just 8 years in Broadmoor, before being released as an out-patient to a psychiatric clinic in Slough, where he attended a job-training centre. In April, 1971, he applied for a job as storekeeper at Hadlands, writing in his letter of application: ‘I previously studied chemistry and toxicology…’.
Hadland’s managing director was curious about the ‘gap’ in Young’s history (when Young was in Broadmoor). Young explained he had suffered from a nervous breakdown following the death of his mother in an accident (this was untrue). The company wrote to the Slough psychiatric clinic requesting a reference. The clinic forwarded a report on Young by Dr Udwin, of Broadmoor, which stated: ‘Young had suffered a personality disorder necessitating hospitalisation throughout the whole of his adolescence… he has made a full recovery and is fit for discharge’. It made no mention that Young had poisoned members of his family nine years before, nor of his incarceration in Broadmoor.
Police went to Young’s bedsit in Hemel Hempstead. Young was not there, but they discovered a phial of thallium and his diary, the latter containing damning evidence – his victims’ initials with a ‘log’ of events. Young was arrested at his father’s house in Sheerness, Kent. Police found the walls of his bedroom cluttered with pictures of Hitler and other Nazi leaders, and bottles and phials littered about the room. He had a phial of thallium in his jacket pocket, which he called his ‘exit dose’. He was taken to Hemel Hempstead, where the police conducted a murder investigation under Detective Chief Superintendent Ron Harvey.
An important part of such an investigation is examination of the deceased, and an order was made for the exhumation of Mr Biggs’s body. This was not possible in the case of Mr Egle, who had been cremated. Retired detective Brendan Hayden went to Loddon, in Norfolk, where police recovered the casket containing Mr Egle’s ashes. When its contents were examined, they were found to contain thallium. It would be the first time in British legal history that evidence was procured from the exhumation of cremated ashes. Similarly, the autopsy on Mr Biggs showed traces of thallium.
It now seemed certain that Young had administered substances – thallium and antimony – to his other victims at Hadlands. But how had he acquired them? From a pharmacy near Selfridges, where he produced false documentation, purporting to give him authority to be supplied with these substances. Brendan Hayden: ‘Young conned the pharmacist by stating he required the thallium for ‘qualitative and quantative’ examinations’.
The police also enquired into the death of Young’s stepmother, in 1962. Mr Hayden went to Neasden Library where Young had been a frequent visitor. Library staff recalled the young lad who read books about poisons, and having him pop out to the bakers to buy rolls. ‘They became ill’, said Mr Hayden. On the subject of books, one of Young’s victims was to recall he had once seen him reading a book called ‘Man’s Preoccupation with Death’.
In his interviews with the police, Graham Young was more than pleased to boast of his considerable knowledge of toxicology. As to poisoning his victims, he told Ch. Supt Harvey: ‘I had ceased to see them as people… they became guinea pigs’. Referring to his diary, Young said: ‘I feel rather ashamed in my action in harming J’, he wrote, meaning Jethro Batt, and ‘F is being obstinately difficult’, meaning Fred Biggs, whose death was prolonged.
On 19th June, 1972, Young appeared at St Albans Crown Court charged with murdering Mr Egle and Mr Biggs, and other counts of attempted murder and poisoning. Under the law, the jury could not be told of Young’s previous conviction, nor of his incarceration in Broadmoor. Young pleaded ‘not guilty’, saying he had no motive to poison anyone, but Prosecuting Counsel, Mr Leonard, told the court: ‘This man doesn’t need a motive to poison people beyond the sheer fascination of watching the development of symptoms’. Although Young had allegedly confessed to police, he now stated he did so only to end the interviewing process to rest and read books. Explaining the entries in his diary, Young said he was thinking of writing a novel…
It did not take the jury long to return their verdict. Young was found guilty on all counts, bar two, and sentenced to life imprisonment. His barrister, Sir Arthur Irvine, Q.C., told the court: ‘It was only possible for Graham Young to commit these offences because he was released from Broadmoor’. So it was. Young died in Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight in August, 1990, aged 42.
At Young’s trial, the St Albans jury recommended that there should be an ‘official review’ of the law governing the sale of poisons such as thallium. Nearly forty years later, could another Graham Young do the same and, if so, could he get away with murder?