Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Beverley Allitt: Suffer the Children

Allitt's Munchausen

Grantham College, Beverley Allitt's nursing school (Dr. Marc Feldman)
Grantham College, Beverley Allitt's nursing
school (Dr. Marc Feldman)

As a child, Allitt wore bandages and casts over wounds that she would use for attention but not allow to be examined. One of four children, she seemed happy for a while, but became overweight as an adolescent. From that time on, as the Kellerhers write, she suffered from a volatile temperament, becoming aggressive toward others and complaining of a series of physical ailments that sent her into a hospital. She had gall bladder pain, headaches, urinary infections, uncontrolled vomiting, blurred vision, minor injuries, appendicitis, back trouble, and ulcers, to name a few. In Deadlier than the Male, Manners brings out that fact that Allitt actually persuaded a doctor to remove a perfectly healthy appendix, and then failed to heal because she kept plucking at the surgical scar. She also injured herself with a hammer and glass. Doctors soon had her number, aware that she was wasting their resources, and she ended up going from one to another.

Beverley Allitt's favorite pub, The Fighting Cocks (Dr. Marc Feldman)
Beverley Allitt's favorite pub, The Fighting
Cocks (Dr. Marc Feldman)

She became a nurse, and even as she trained to be a caretaker, she did odd things that got her noticed. Manners says that when she worked in a nursing home, she was suspected of smearing feces on the walls and putting it into the refrigerator for others to find. She also missed an inordinate number of workdays for reasons of illness. Her boyfriend of two years said later that she was aggressive, manipulative and deceptive, and she would pretend that she was pregnant when she was not. She even said she'd been raped. Then she got involved with another nurse and ended her relationship with him.

When she found that her illnesses were not inspiring the positive attention they once had, she found another venue by abusing children, and her behavior exhibited what is known as Munchausen by Proxy syndrome (MHBP). First identified in 1977, the common pattern is that of an apparently devoted parent bringing her child over and over to the doctor to treat some mysterious illness that he or she cannot seem to cure. It's the mother who makes the child ill, say Betty Alt and Sandra Wells in Wicked Women, but she denies any knowledge about the source of the illness. She may "feed the child poison to induce abdominal pain, aggravate or infect existing sores, induce apnea by smothering, or twist to break bones." One mother even injected her child with fecal matter. In other words, they injure another in order to bring attention to themselves.

The MHBP mother comes across as a martyr, taking her child dutifully from one specialist to another, but there is evidence that she also tries to thwart the caregivers. Laura Berman wrote about Mary Bryk, the child of a MHBP mother who was a nurse and a physician's daughter. Mary got her start as an invalid by "falling" down a flight of stairs, but in point of fact, her mother would hit her legs with a hammer to keep her from healing. She would also open her wounds with a nail, yet all the while to others she appeared the caring mother. She warned Mary that if she ever told, she'd be locked up, which effectively scared the child into silence. When Mary finally stood up to her mother, the abuse on her stopped but started up with her younger brother.

Deborah Shurman-Kauflin says that people with this disorder "receive a sense of importance and self-worth from harming a child, then 'saving' the infant by rushing the child to medical care." If the child remains ill, the person is calm, but if the child recovers, the person gets agitated.

Philip Resnick
Philip Resnick

Psychiatrist Philip Resnick says that 85% of the time in Munchausen by proxy, the mother is the likely perpetrator and the mortality rate for these children is significant. One mother was even filmed on a hidden video-camera in her child's hospital room intentionally smothering him when he seemed to get better.

A psychiatrist visited Allitt in prison and he believed she had these disorders, as did a pediatric specialist who spoke with her twice. Neither could get her to confess what she had done. After a series of hearings, Allitt was charged with four counts of murder, eleven counts of attempted murder, and eleven counts of causing grievous bodily harm. As she awaited the trial, she rapidly lost weight and succumbed to anorexia nervosa — one more indication of her psychological problems.

After numerous delays due to her "illnesses," she went to trial at Nottingham Crown Court, where prosecutors showed the jury how she had been present at each suspicious episode, how she had craved attention most of her life, and how she had showed a cold manner while the babies suffered. They also pointed out that the mysterious attacks had stopped when she was taken off the ward, and indicated the high readings of insulin and evidence of drug injection in each of the victims. She was accused of cutting off their oxygen, either by smothering or by tampering with machines.

The pediatrics expert, Professor Roy Meadow, explained Munchausen syndrome and Munchausen by Proxy syndrome, pointing out how Allitt demonstrated symptoms of both. He also talked about her odd post-arrest behavior. When she was hospitalized in 1991, she tampered with the thermometer to produce readings that puzzled the nurses and doctors, and she apparently punctured her right breast to inject herself with water. Having seen a number of cases of the syndromes himself, Meadow indicated that such people can harm others with no awareness of how much suffering they're causing. They close themselves off to it. In his opinion, Beverley Allitt could not be cured. That meant she was a clear danger to others.

After a trial that lasted nearly two months (and in which the defendant attended only 16 days due to illness), on May 23, 1993, Allitt was convicted and given 13 life sentences for murder and attempted murder. It was the harshest sentence ever given to a woman, but according to the judge, it was in part for the victims, in part for the families, and in part for how she had brought doubt upon the integrity of a noble profession.

Going to prison didn't stop her, however. She began to injure herself again to get attention by stabbing herself with paper clips and pouring boiling water on her hand. Eventually she admitted to three of the murders and six assaults. She is one of Britain's most prolific female serial offenders.

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