Graham Young: Why was this serial poisoner set loose to strike again?

As someone hoping to enter a career in psychology, I often praise the important work undertaken by mental health professionals in conducting effective mental health interventions. These interventions not only save the lives of mentally ill people, but sometimes they even save the lives of others, too. The work conducted by forensic psychologists often involves the screening of criminals to assess underlying reasons for criminality, risk factors, and eventually the success of interventions in rehabilitating individuals for life outside prison. This is a process which can carry dire consequences if it is rushed or neglected, and one such example is the case of serial killer Graham Young.

Graham Young was born in London in 1947, and throughout his life, tragedy seemed to follow him at an alarming rate. Three months after his birth, Graham’s mother succumbed to tuberculosis and due to his father’s immense grief, Graham had to go and live with his Aunt, while his sister Winnifred went to live with their grandparents for the first two years of his life. This is obviously not an ideal start to any childhood, but I wish I could say that that was where the troubles ceased. Were that the case, this would perhaps not be a story as dark as it unfortunately became; although it remains to be seen whether a ‘normal’ childhood would have prevented Graham’s later disturbance.

Upon his father’s remarriage to a woman named Molly, Graham and Winnifred returned to live with them, though it’s said that Graham was not at all pleased at being separated from the aunt who had become like a mother to him. Although he often exhibited affection for his new stepmother, he would then carry around a plasticine voodoo doll full of pins at school, claiming it to represent Molly. He would also talk openly about how much better he felt his life would be if his biological mother had survived, and leave out drawings for Molly to find of gravestones bearing her name, ‘in hateful memory’.

Graham’s attachment issues spiralled into self-isolation, and throughout his early years, he struggled to socialise normally with other children or adults, instead withdrawing into himself and developing worrisome interests. Once he was of school age, Graham started to read, but he wasn’t exactly reading fairy tales. His preferred material was that of true crime and the occult, particularly tales of the poisoner, Dr Crippen. While an interest in the macabre is hardly a sign of being a serial killer (if it were, you and I both would be locked up,) his obsession with these topics and his glee at seeking out information on them was beyond concerning, especially for his young age.

This occult fascination was only advanced. He would claim to be very informed on witchcraft, and led other local children in bizarre, cult-like activities, including a reported sacrifice of a neighbourhood cat. Only one cat was confirmed to have been slain by Graham, although many went missing at this time, suggesting that the child may have been extensively experimenting with killing animals. Many avid true crime fans will know that this is one of the biggest red flags in childhood for a serial killer in the making. In case you were beginning to doubt whether he was really all that bad, though, Graham also expressed sympathies towards Adolf Hitler, calling the man “misunderstood” and creating swastikas to wear on his clothing.

His only interests appeared to be chemistry, forensics, and toxicology at school, which were only narrowly covered in the curriculum; prompting his father to buy him his first chemistry set. Obviously, with a socially inept, murderer obsessed, cat killing Nazi sympathiser for a child, he was likely grasping at straws with his parenting, thinking that he should encourage his son’s intelligence and that maybe he would be a pharmacist one day.

Admittedly, this plan backfired on a catastrophic level. By the time he was 13, Graham was so well informed on chemistry and toxicology that he was able to expertly fool the local chemists into providing him with increasingly dangerous chemicals, including antimony and arsenic, for ‘study’ purposes. Hearing this detail of the story, I’m sure we can all agree that safety restrictions in 2022 aren’t so inconvenient after all. I’d rather have to show my ID to buy an energy drink than live with the knowledge that a 13-year-old can walk into a Cohen’s chemist and leave with enough Arsenic to take out their secondary school football team.

It was not long until Graham put these chemicals to use. He seemed to want a live subject to test their effects, and he settled on a boy who some said was his only school friend, Christopher. Chris began to experience painful stomach problems and episodes of vomiting, which would return as soon as they disappeared, baffling doctors and causing him to miss extended school periods. While at school, Graham would monitor his friend’s symptoms and write them down in a journal, alongside the dosage of each poison that he had been putting in the boy’s teacup during lunch. Graham – though strange in his nature – was never suspected of harming his friend.

It’s likely though that his curiosities weren’t sated by Christopher, to who he had only limited access. He soon moved on to drugging his family instead, who he could more easily monitor, and by 1961 Winnifred had begun to experience similar problems to young Chris. When other members of the family also fell ill, his father began to question whether Graham was harming the family with his chemistry kit by accident, but this was of course denied, and the man had no reason to question him due to the fact that Graham himself had fallen ill on several occasions. Whether Graham had poisoned himself by accident, on purpose to avoid detection, or out of scientific curiosity at the effects on himself, we do not know. Regardless, it was eventually discovered by doctors that Winnifred’s symptoms were the result of Belladonna poisoning, and even this didn’t stop the young chemist from experimenting on his household. He now turned his attention to his stepmother Molly, who he poisoned extensively with Antemone to the point that she actually developed a tolerance to the stuff.

However, on April 21st, 1962, Fred Young found his wife writhing in agony in their back garden, where she died shortly thereafter. Graham had decided to switch her dosage to Thallium the night before and was found watching her in fascination as she died, later writing about the event in his journal with the cold, detached perspective of a scientist testing on a guinea pig (a term which he used to describe his ‘patients.’) Her cause of death was falsely determined as a prolapse of the spine, by coroners baffled with how this seemingly healthy woman had become so suddenly and fatally ill.

After her funeral, several members of Young’s extended family reported becoming ill with stomach cramps and vomiting, and Fred was the worst of them all. The implication of this is of course that Graham had set eyes on this large gathering of grieving family members and observed what to him was a guinea pig hutch, lacing several teacups with poisons of his own making. After his father’s condition worsened, though, he was admitted to the hospital in a state of severe pain and diagnosed after testing with antimony poisoning.

Victims of Graham Young, including his surviving sister Winifred (central)

Even this did not cause him to implicate his son in Molly’s death. The pieces only fell together when Graham’s school teacher found chemicals and homemade poisons stashed in his desk, which had likely been used to poison Christopher. (Just a note, that this might be one of the worst attempts at hiding a murder weapon I personally have ever heard of).

After the police were called to the school, a psychiatrist soon uncovered the obvious simply by talking to Graham – now aged 14 – and discovering his expert-level knowledge of poisons and toxicology. He admitted with a cold pride to poisoning his family members as well as his school friend and was arrested in May 1962.

Graham was assessed by a psychologist and diagnosed with schizophrenia, as well as several personality disorders. He was therefore sentenced to a minimum of 15 years in Broadmoor maximum security hospital; making him the youngest resident there at the time, and the youngest since 1885. (As it turns out, 14-year-olds rarely go on elaborate poisoning sprees). Unfortunately, though, he would not be charged for the murder of Molly until much later, due to her being cremated at Graham’s earlier suggestion, destroying the evidence of thallium in her system.

I wish I could say that that was the end, but while incarcerated Graham’s obsession with poisoning didn’t stop. Within weeks of being imprisoned, a fellow prisoner – John Berridge – had died of cyanide poisoning, which Graham claimed he had extracted from plant leaves. Although rather unnerved at the similarity to Graham’s style, prison authorities dismissed this as a false confession and ruled the death a suicide. He was allowed to remain in the general population and even – bafflingly – work in the kitchens. That went about as well as you could expect. Graham extracted a sodium compound from painting materials, which he added to the contents of a tea urn; potent enough to have caused a mass poisoning if it hadn’t been discovered.

Even after reporting to a psychiatrist that he intended to kill one person for every year he had been in Broadmoor, however, Graham was declared ‘cured’ of his homicidal tendencies and released in February 1971.

Personally, I’d love to have a brief conversation with that psychiatrist about how, sometimes, things can and should be taken literally.

Graham did not serve his full sentence. Upon his early release on account of good behaviour – which I suppose an attempted mass poisoning did not count against – Graham Young was granted a fresh start to life by the Home Office, who did not require that his previous crimes be disclosed to any new employers he might acquire on the outside world. Now age 23, he took up home in a hostel, and took great enjoyment in revisiting the scenes of his former crimes; a fact which greatly disturbed his sister Winifred as he attempted to rekindle their sibling relationship. (His father unsurprisingly wanted nothing to do with him at first).

Graham however was far from reformed. He had learned exactly how to behave as though he was to his psychologist by the end of his shortened sentence, but no rehabilitation had succeeded in reality It was at his new home that he began experimenting with chemicals once more, and he had the perfect target, someone who he had near-constant access to for both experimentation and monitoring. His roommate Trevor Sparkes soon fell ill with agonizing, ongoing cramps which refused to let up and which painkillers could not touch. He was in constant pain and misery, and tragically took his own life as a result, another indirect victim of Graham.

The killer soon found work at John Hadland labs, whereas I previously mentioned – his colleagues were left uninformed about his status as a murderer; only that he’d had a stay at Broadmore hospital. He soon became popular due to his friendly disposition and his willingness to take responsibility for the tea round for everybody. This is where his infamous nickname comes into play.

Soon enough, co-workers began falling ill with the same symptoms previously described. They initially attributed this ailment to a stomach bug that had been going around their town, but strangely, his boss Bob Egle made a full recovery upon going home to get better, only to become violently ill again once he returned to work. He was soon admitted to the hospital due to suspected pneumonia, but it became clear that this diagnosis was incorrect when his skin began to peel from his body, leading to his transfer to a specialist hospital. He tragically died in agony in the hospital for nervous disease in London, on the 7th of July in 1971.

Bob Egle was unfortunately not Graham’s final victim. As the lab employees became increasingly sick and attendance figures fell, people scrambled to find the source of this strange illness. It was at first considered consistent with the ‘Bovingdon Bug’ in general circulation, though suspicions then turned to possible leakage of chemicals used in the labs. They had no idea that the source was one of their own colleagues, lacing their teacups with poison. A total of 70 employees were poisoned in total, but thankfully, most made a full recovery. Fred Biggs was not so lucky.

Upon being admitted to the hospital, Biggs very slowly succumbed to his illness and passed away on the 19th of November 1971, an agonising death much like Egle’s. Wickedly, Graham reported in his journal that he was impatient with how long the man had taken to die. He seemed to exhibit no signs of empathy for the suffering he caused.

It was this second death at the company which prompted an investigation by a health inspector, and Graham could not contain his narcissism long enough to evade suspicion. Publicly, he challenged the inspector regarding the safety of chemicals kept on-site such as Thallium, and his detailed knowledge of the heavy metal element alarmed the man enough to report him to the police. It did not take long for police to find his large collection of chemical poisons, and diaries detailing not only ‘observations’ of his recent victims, but the exact dosages prescribed to him.

Graham was arrested while visiting his own father’s home, carrying Thallium on his person, on the 21st November 1971; where he verbally admitted to his crimes. Although his previous convictions could not be entered into evidence, the jury still found him unanimously guilty, and he was convicted of murder on the 29th of June 1972 and handed four life sentences. Graham was then given a chance to repent, when he was asked whether he felt any remorse. His answer, in suitably dramatic fashion: “What I feel is the emptiness of my soul.”

Graham Young following his arrest.

Graham Young was imprisoned in Parkhurst Prison, a maximum-security facility on the Isle of Wight reserved for serious criminals with severe mental conditions. In an unusual twist of fate, he became friends with notorious Moor’s Murderer, Ian Brady. Brady – himself considered a vicious monster – described him as “genuinely asexual, excited only by power, clinical experimentation, observation and death.” They were often seen in each other’s company, bonding over their shared fascination with the Third Reich. (Anyone who can describe Nazi ideology with a look of admiration in their eyes is, by all accounts, not out of place in a maximum-security prison.)

Ultimately, Graham Young would only serve a fraction of his natural life in custody. He died at Parkhurst Prison on the 1st of August 1990, aged only 42. Although his official cause of death was heart failure, Ian Brady always believed that as he had grown tired of prison life, he may have poisoned himself as a means of taking back control of his own life one more time. He did live to see himself immortalized as a wax figure in Madame Tussaud’s controversial ‘Chamber of Horrors’ exhibit, alongside a figure of the famous poisoner who had ‘inspired’ him as a child, Dr Crippen.

Throughout this case, there are failings on the part of psychologists and prison staff, enabling the level of harm ultimately caused. Had staff more carefully evaluated a proven violent criminal and taken his admissions seriously, several more victims may have been saved. While his eery threats were reported, it was a system of turning one’s head and getting offenders out of the prison system as soon as possible which ultimately let a murderer roam free. It was the decision to expunge his record that left his place of work completely unaware that they were letting a serial poisoner loose with lethal chemicals. And it was the decision of countless medical professionals to unanimously sign release papers early which demonstrates the enormous power they hold; almost equivalent to the power held by Young himself, when he was creating his poisons, holding the essence of life and death in his hands.

Fred Young, father of Graham Young.

In memory of the deceased victims of Graham Young: Molly Young, John Berridge, Trevor Sparkes, Bob Egle and Fred Biggs.

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