Sunday, August 22, 2010

A dose of illness

Today marks twenty years since the death of one Britain’s strangest murderers, Graham Young, a man so obsessed with poisons that he killed and harmed people simply for the sake of experiment. And, while poisoning them, he kept a detailed diary of doses administered and their effects. More recently, a Japanese teenager, inspired by Young, nearly killed her mother, and blogged about the process.

Young was born in North London, in 1947, but his mother died a few months later. After a couple of years with his aunt, the toddler was reunited with his father and new wife Molly. He grew up a peculiar child, according to biographies, anti-social, and reading a lot of sensationalist fiction. As a teenager, he became very focused on chemistry and toxicology, and repeatedly managed to acquire small amounts of poisons from local chemists, ostensibly for school experiments. A fellow school pupil, said to be Young’s first victim, was lucky not to die from a cocktail of poisons he’d administered.

Thereafter, it seems, Young focused on his own family so as to be able better to observe the effects of his poisoning. His elder sister, Winifred, was found to have suffered from belladonna poisoning in 1961, but no action against Graham was taken. The following year Molly, his stepmother, died. Though poisoning was not given as cause of death at the time, it was established later that Graham had been administering antimony over time, and then killed her with thallium. Indeed, he had been poisoning all the family, including himself.

After the death of Molly, Young was sent to a psychiatrist, and then was finally arrested in May 1962. He confessed to attempted murders of his father, sister and friend, though the murder of his stepmother could not be proved because the body had been cremated. He was sentenced to 15 years in Broadmoor Hospital, an institution for mentally unstable criminals, and released after nine.

On his release, in February 1971, Young found work as a store man with a photographic supply firm which used thallium (his references having excluded the cause of his incarceration at Broadmoor). Soon, the foreman grew ill and died, and also a sickness swept through his workplace which was mistakenly blamed on a virus. A second work colleague died before an investigation led to Young’s arrest in November 1971.

Police found thallium in Young’s possession, and a diary in his flat under the bed. Entitled ‘A Student’s and Officer’s Casebook’, it was hand-written in loose-leaf pages, with the names of victims denoted by their initials. It contained a careful record of the doses he had administered, their effects on his victims, and whether he was going to allow them to live or die. At Young’s trial, he pleaded not guilty and claimed the diary was fiction; nevertheless, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. He died in his cell at Parkhurst prison on 22 August 1990 aged only 42.

Several books have been written about Young: Obsessive Poisoner, by his sister Winifred; and St. Albans Poisoner: Life and Crimes of Graham Young by Anthony Holden. A 1995 film - The Young Poisoner’s Handbook - was based on Young’s story. And there is no shortage of information on the internet: Wikipedia, Crime & Investigation Network, or TruTV.

Here are several (undated) extracts from Young’s diary:

‘I have administered a fatal dose of the special compound. . . it seems a shame to condemn such a likeable man to such a horrible end. . . he is doomed to premature decease.’

‘F is now seriously ill. He has developed paralysis and blindness. Even if the blindness is reverse, 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.

‘It looks like I might be detected. . . I shall have to destroy myself.’

‘Di irritated me yesterday, so I packed her off home with a dose of illness.’

Five years ago this month, and across the other side of the world, a Japanese teenage girl began poisoning her mother, not for any grudge against her, but because she wanted to experiment with thallium. The mother was hospitalised, and in October 2005, the girl was arrested. The family said they did not want her charged, but a family court sent her to reform school. According to a BBC report, based on Japanese newspaper accounts, the girl had been inspired by a book about Young, and had herself kept a blog diary about her mother’s condition.

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