The Teacup Poisoner

Graham Young

Poison is a particularly secretive and nefarious means of murder. It is usually painful and always perplexing for the victim and caregivers who have no idea why no treatment seems to help. It requires a conscious effort on the part of the murderer who administers the means of death over a specific period of time while observing the effects of the murder weapon on the hapless victim.
Despite its popularity in the Golden Age of Rome and Renaissance Italy, it was considered by men to be a coward’s way to kill because of anonymity it allowed, while women mastered the craft thanks to the concealment it provided. It was pretty much the only method a woman at the time had to kill an enemy without hiring an assassin.
Death by poison is usually slow torture for the victim; even the most fast-acting poisons require time to work. More often exposure to a fatal dose of poison requires time and repeated application. A single dose may cause illness, but subtlety is important to avoid detection and simply dropping a lethal amount of strychnine in someone’s coffee is likely to raise the eyebrows of either the intended victim, the police, or both.
Poisoners are frequently the most demented of murderers, comparable to the lust murderers in their cruelty. Although there is normally a motive other than simply killing for the fun of it, poisoners likely take some degree of pleasure in watching their victim’s death agonies
Most frequent motives of poisoners are monetary gain, followed by the overpowering need to be rid of a hated someone, according to the FBI’s Crime Classification Manual. Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome, where a person causes someone in their care to become ill so that the person can gain attention or demonstrate heroics, is also a common motive.
Less frequently seen, but the most disturbing motive of all, is simple curiosity. Killing for the sake of killing is not unheard of, but senseless murder is probably the most cruel of all. Combine murder for its own sake with slow torture and you create pure evil.
Such is the case of British poisoner Graham Young, who killed for the sake of watching his victim die. Without doubt a psychopath, Young viewed poisoning as an academic exercise. He selected his victims, administered his poisons, and measured the results — much like a scientist conducting an experiment.
Killers like Graham Young are born, not made, although he was subjected to an unusual family situation that perhaps impacted his ability to form relationships. He was born in 1947 and never knew his mother, who died when he was but three months old. His overwrought father was unable to care for Graham and his sister, and they were farmed out to relatives.
For the first two years of his life Graham lived with his aunt and uncle and bonded with them as a normal child would to its caregivers. When his father remarried in 1950 Graham was taken from the only home he ever knew and reunited with his father and a new step-mother. The separation significantly affected the toddler who became distant and unable to play with other children.
Graham was a bright child who shunned the typical interests of his peers in favor of true crime stories. Reportedly the famous poisoner Dr. Hawley Crippen was one of his “heroes.” As a teen he became an apologist for Adolph Hitler, whom he believed was simply misunderstood.
In his early teen years Graham followed the textbook signs of a violent psychopath. His first targets were the neighborhood cats which disappeared at an alarming rate when he was around. Some reports say that Graham was also interested in necromancy and tried to induce the neighborhood children to join him in improvised occult rites. More likely Graham staged the rites, which usually involved animal sacrifice, to get pleasure from the shock and horror of the witnesses.
Perhaps it was a serendipitous event that introduced Graham to his weapon of choice, as things started to go really bad when as a young teenager Graham was given a chemistry set by his father. Graham was a natural chemist who consumed literature about the science with ravenous attention. Making friends with local pharmacists, Graham was able to circumvent British poison laws and obtained deadly amounts of poisons like arsenic, belladonna, and antimony. He quickly put the poisons to use, giving his sister a dose of belladonna in her tea as she headed off to school (November 1961). She began to suffer visual distortions and was taken to the hospital where the black nightshade poisoning was discovered. Graham’s father reportedly suspected his son, but was unable to convince himself that a young boy would deliberately try to harm a person in such a way.
A schoolmate of Graham’s was also subjected to a potentially lethal poison cocktail, leading to severe cramps, vomiting, and other nasty symptoms. His doctors were baffled by the untraceable illness. Investigators believe the only thing that saved the boy’s life was that Graham was unable to continue to administer the poison after the boy became bedridden. He eventually recovered.
By this time 14-year-old Graham had begun his deadly experiments in earnest, targeting his family. He chose inorganic heavy metals which are particularly insidious. They are just as lethal as the organics like hemlock, belladonna/nightshade, monk’s hood, etc., but metal poisons like antimony, arsenic, strychnine and thallium are slower-acting and more agonizing to the victim.
The entire Young household became ill, including Graham. Whether his own illness was to avert suspicion or was the result of poor planning isn’t known. In April 1962 Graham’s stepmother, Molly, was discovered balled up and writhing in pain in the family’s backyard. Graham’s father came upon his wife in her agony, and saw Graham standing over her observing the scene like a scientist would watch an experiment. Molly died in the hospital that night. At Graham’s suggestion she was cremated. Later he told authorities that she had developed a resistance to the antimony he was giving her so he switched to a large dose of thallium to finish her off.
(The cremation would not have hidden the poison. Neither antimony nor thallium are found in a typical human and would not be produced in the cremation process. Ashes can be subjected to spectroscopy to determine their chemical makeup, so the unexplained presence of both thallium and antimony would found.)
Within days of the funeral Graham’s father began suffering symptoms similar to his wife’s and he was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with antimony poisoning. Again he refused to accept the idea that his son was a psychopathic poisoner.
However, when a teacher in Graham’s school discovered a cache of poisons and books on poisoning in Graham’s desk, police were called in and Graham was quickly arrested. The poisons in his possession were evidence enough, but authorities were shocked at the young teen’s knowledge of poison and its effects.
In 1962 Graham was adjudicated as criminally responsible, yet mentally ill and sent to Broadmoor, Britain’s hospital for the criminally insane, where he was supposed to spend a minimum of 15 years.
Behind the walls of Broadmoor Graham continued his violent ways and claimed to have killed at least one inmate with cyanide. Strange illnesses and contaminated foods were common occurrences once Graham was admitted to the asylum.
Graham was released in 1971 and labeled as “cured.” In hindsight it is incredible that something like that could happen, but Graham was an intelligent psychopath. He knew what the doctors wanted to hear and was more than happy to say the lines.
Graham, now 23, was far from cured. Awaiting release, he told a Broadmoor nurse that he intended to kill one person for each year he had been incarcerated. The threat was noted in his file, but it had no bearing on his release — without supervision.
He quickly went to work. While living at a hostel he poisoned at least two people, one of whom eventually took his own life. Some suspect he was unable to cope with the intense, chronic pain and sickness caused by heavy metal poisoning.
Graham settled in Bovingdon, a town northwest of London, taking a job as an office assistant at a photography supply firm — a place where he would have ample access to chemicals. His employers knew he had spent some time at Broadmoor, but the place was not just a place for the criminally insane, it was a mental hospital for more benign purposes. They did not suspect that they had invited a homicidal maniac among them.
It did not take long for Graham to get down to the business at hand. His first victim was 59-year-old Bob Egle, his supervisor at the firm. Initially, when Bob came down with an illness marked by back pain and constant vomiting, his family, friends, and coworkers put it down as the “Bovingdon Bug,” a particularly virulent flu that had been circulating in the community. But had they thought more about it, they might have seen that the “bug” was confined mostly to schoolchildren, not men approaching retirement.
Bob Egle died in agony of his mysterious illness on July 19, 1971. Doctors put down Guillain-Barre Syndrome, where the immune system attacks the nerves of the body, as the cause.
Back at the photo supply firm, Graham demonstrated an unusual knowledge of medicine connected to disorders like Guillain-Barre. He knew that the syndrome effectively paralyzed the victim and respiratory arrest was a frequent cause of death. Although that caused some curiosity among his coworkers, it did not arise suspicion.
“It’s the bug again,” the employees said when 56-year-old Fred Biggs fell ill that October. Biggs felt symptoms similar to Egle’s but recovered somewhat when he went home to rest. He returned to work and gratefully accepted a cup of tea from his co-worker, Graham Young.
Biggs did not know it, but with Graham’s “help,” he had been slowly building up a toxic amount of thallium in his body — to the point where any antidote would be ineffective.
That night after work, Graham recorded a chilling note in his diary.
“I have administered a fatal dose of the special compound to F. and anticipate a report of his progress on Monday, 1st November,” he wrote.
Fred Biggs was a tough man, but there was nothing to be done for him. On Nov. 1, 1971 he was sick in bed, where he would linger for 19 agonizing days.
The time was horrible for Fred Biggs and his family, but it was irritating for Graham.
“He is surviving too long for my piece (sic) of mind,” he wrote in one journal entry.
By this time the staff at the photo supply firm had noticed that Graham was taking an excessive interest in the state of Fred Biggs’s death agony. He liked to share blow-by-blow accounts of what was happening to Fred in the hospital and took pains to point out that Fred’s illness was following a similar path to that of Bob Egle’s.
“It is better that he should die,” Graham wrote. “It will be a merciful release for him, as if he should survive he will be permanently impaired.”
On November 19, Fred Biggs died.
Absenteeism due to illness was up at the firm, and employees were concerned that something was amiss in the handling of the chemicals at the plant. Others thought that there might be a plague in the plant and that someone was a carrier. Symptoms included hair loss, sexual impotence, violent cramps, and stomach ailments.
In an effort to reassure the workers that nothing was wrong at the plant, the management invited in a medical team to examine the site and address employee concerns.
One of the first steps the team took was to gather employees together to answer their questions. Graham’s ego would eventually lead to his downfall. He dominated the Q&A, asking if the doctor thought the symptoms of the mystery illness were consistent with thallium poisoning.
Eventually Graham’s odd behavior prompted the management to go to the police who began looking into his background. He was arrested two days after Fred Biggs died.
He reveled in the media attention given to his case and remained confident that he would win acquittal. After all, Graham reasoned, there were plenty of people at the plant who had access to thallium, a common component of photographic processes.
That might have been true, but no one else at the plant had diaries admitting the administration of thallium to now-dead coworkers, nor had anyone else been incarcerated for poisoning relatives.
After a 10-day trial, Graham Young was found guilty of two counts of murder and multiple counts of attempted murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.
While in prison he developed a friendship with another prominent killer, Ian Brady, who shared Graham’s admiration for Hitler.
Young died in prison in August 1990. He was 42. The official cause of death was heart failure, but there remains speculation that he poisoned himself.