Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Graham Young, the St. Albans Poisoner

'The Mad Professor'

Graham Young was born September 7, 1947, to Margaret Young, but his mother had developed pleurisy during pregnancy, and although the child was perfectly healthy, Margaret died of tuberculosis only three months after her son's birth. Her husband Fred, a machine setter, was devastated by her death, and found it difficult to cope with bringing up his daughter Winifred, then aged 8, as well as the new baby. Graham went to live with his Aunt Winnie, who lived nearby, while his sister was taken in by her grandmother. Graham became very close to Winnie and her husband Jack, and hated any separation from them.

Then when he was two and a half Graham's father married again, to Molly, and the family was reunited with their new stepmother in a house on London's busy North Circular Road.

Although we may speculate about the effect these early upheavals may have had on the boy, for reasons that are still fairly unfathomable, Graham Young soon showed signs that he was a very unusual child indeed.

Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen
Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen

It's perfectly normal for children to idolize certain individuals, be they famous sportsmen or celebrities, or even older friends or family members. But Graham Young chose some unlikely figures as his boyhood role models. He voraciously read books about murderers such as Dr. Crippen, and he would pore over a book called "Sixty Famous Trials," his favorite chapter of which told the story of William Palmer, the Victorian doctor who poisoned his wife and several others with antimony.

Antimony
Antimony
 

As well as these rather unsavory heroes, by the age of 12 the boy would tell anyone who would listen about his admiration for Adolf Hitler, and how the Nazi leader was a much maligned figure. Soon after that he began boasting about his interest in the occult, and claimed to be part of a local coven run by a man he had met in the local library.

Adolph Hitler
Adolph Hitler

He was a solitary child, with few friends. Most of his schoolmates kept their distance, finding him "creepy," and teachers were hardly any keener on him, disturbed by his habit of wearing an old swastika badge to school, at a time when World War II was still all too fresh in the memory for many.

He showed little interest in most school subjects, with the notable exception of chemistry, and particularly toxicology, or the study of poisons, for which he displayed a fascination bordering on obsession. That said, he was mainly self-taught, spending long hours in the library reading books on poisons and forensic science.

Those children who did briefly play with young Graham told of how he would try to get them to sniff ether with him, and also involve them in his occult ceremonies, on one occasion sacrificing a neighborhood cat. In fact around that time several such feline residents of the area went missing, suggesting this was by no means a unique incident.

Although Winifred Young writes in her book "Obsessive Poisoner" that Graham grew to enjoy a close and affectionate relationship with his stepmother, Molly, the boy himself often told classmates how much he hated her. He would show them a small plasticine voodoo doll he had made, full of pins, which he carried around claiming it represented his stepmother. Later he would tell psychiatrists that he often dreamed of how much happier his life might have been if only his real mother had lived. Part of this resentment may have simply been down to the fact that Molly was a strict parent to Graham, and after she confiscated a dead mouse he had poisoned, he drew a picture of a tombstone, on which were written the words "In Hateful Memory of Molly Young, RIP." He then deliberately left it out where she would see it.

Yet Molly Young was not the first subject chosen for Graham's first life-endangering "experiments" with poison. His interest in chemistry had helped him befriend a fellow science enthusiast, a boy named Christopher Williams, who was also a neighbor of the Young family. The pair would often eat their packed lunches together at school, and sometimes swap sandwiches. Before long Williams began to suffer regular bouts of sickness, headaches and painful cramps. His mother didn't know what to think, wondering whether this might simply be a case of childish play-acting. Doctors could only suggest that his symptoms, since they involved headaches and vomiting, were those of severe migraine. The possibility of one of his school friends poisoning him would surely have seemed far-fetched even if it had crossed their minds, since the pair were only 13 and not old enough to obtain poisons.

What they didn't account for was the exceptional cunning of Christopher's new friend. After talking knowledgeably about poisons and convincing two separate local chemists that he was aged 17 and needed them for study, Graham Young had obtained enough antimony, arsenic, digitalis and thallium to kill 300 people.

Still, he was relatively restrained in the doses he gave to Williams, and they even appeared to have a motive in some cases. For instance, on one occasion Williams told Young he was taking a girl they both liked out on a date to a TV show recording that Friday evening. Conveniently for Young, Williams was violently ill that day, and Graham went in his place. Still, even though the pair had once had a playground fight in which Young vowed "I'll kill you for this," Williams never suspected that his friend's obsession with poisons had anything to do with his recurring illness. Besides, Graham did a good impression of concern, and watched his friend's extreme discomfort with great fascination, expressing his sympathies, while also predicting the likely next step his illness would take. With friends like that, who needs enemies?

Other pupils of the John Kelly Secondary School were more wary of the cold, eccentric Young. They nicknamed him "the mad professor," a label that was not intended to be affectionate, but which Young seemed to like. Clive Creager, a friend of William, recalled the macabre drawings Young would show him. "I would be hanging from some gallows over a vat of acid," he told Anthony Holden, author of "The St. Albans Poisoner," "with syringes marked 'poison' sticking into me. He was evil and I was afraid of him."

Mercifully for the likes of Creager and Williams, though, Graham found his school friends ultimately unsatisfactory as human guinea pigs, since he couldn't keep tabs on their symptoms once they were absent from school due to illness. So he reserved his most daring and dangerous experiments for a group of patients whose progress he could observe at closer quarters -- his own family.

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