Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Graham Young, the St. Albans Poisoner

A Picture of Evil

Graham Young in police custody
Graham Young in police custody

Once in custody, Young admitted to the poisonings under interrogation, and even boasted of committing "the perfect murder" of his stepmother back in 1962, knowing he could still deny everything in court. He laughed mockingly when he was asked for a written statement admitting his guilt.

Yet for all his grotesque arrogance, he soon told police "the charade is over," and was clearly resigned to his fate. That didn't mean, however, that he wouldn't have his day in court. He planned to wring every ounce of notoriety from the case, in pursuit of his ambition to become the most infamous poisoner of all time.

St. Albans Crown Court
St. Albans Crown Court

Graham Young's trial took place at St. Albans Crown Court in June 1972. On the defense stand, he eloquently argued the toss with the prosecuting counsel, relishing the ultimate intellectual challenge of escaping justice.

"He was very proud of being the first person to use thallium in a poisoning case in Britain," remembers Peter Goodman, Young's defense lawyer, "For him the whole thing was one big chemistry experiment, and I suppose the trial was an experiment in seeing if he could use his knowledge to argue his way out of it.

"He was clearly a very intelligent fellow," says Susan Nowak, who was in court to report on the trial for The Watford Observer. "but he also came across as incredibly creepy. You didn't want to make eye contact with him because he just had this unnerving aura about him."

Graham Young media photo
Graham Young media photo

Young clearly enjoyed conveying such a chilling impression. When the press asked for a picture of the defendant, he insisted they use one in which he looked particularly cold-eyed and sinister. As it happened, the glowering photograph actually came about by accident. Holden explains that Young was scowling because he thought he had been cheated out of some money by the coin-operated photo booth where the picture was taken.

It's hard to believe that Young seriously held out much hope of being acquitted, but that doesn't account for the supreme arrogance of a man who regarded himself as far more intelligent than virtually everyone he encountered. While awaiting trial he wrote to his cousin Sandra insisting "I stand a good chance of acquittal, for the prosecution case has a number of inherent weaknesses. A strong point in my favor is that I am NOT guilty of the charges."

Young's initial confidence was based on the assumption that the prosecution wouldn't be able to prove beyond doubt that only he could have administered the poisons. Since Bob Egle had been cremated, he assumed proof of thallium poisoning would be impossible, while he had made a point of offering Fred Biggs some thallium grains to help him kill bugs in his garden, knowing he could later claim that Biggs had misused them. As for the diary relating to the victims, he claimed they were figments of his imagination on which he planned to base a novel. Even a confession couldn't stand in his way. Despite having verbally admitted his crimes to police on his initial arrest, he claimed in court that he had simply told police what he thought they wanted to hear, in order to be allowed food and clothing.

He reckoned without advances in forensic science that had been made since 1962 when Molly Young's cremation meant her murder could not be proved. Experts succeeded in finding traces of thallium in Bob Egle's ashes, Fred Biggs" wife confirmed that he never used Young's thallium on his garden, and as for that claim about the diary, once read out in court, the diary entries sounded distinctly non-fictional. Excerpts included the following:

"F (Fred) 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."

On Diana Smart: "Di irritated me yesterday, so I packed her off home with a dose of illness."

On an unidentified delivery driver: "In a way it seems a shame to condemn such a likeable man to such a horrible end, but I have made my decision."

Luckily for the driver concerned, there wasn't a delivery that week...

His entries also revealed a plan to murder David Tilson in his hospital bed, after Young's initial doses had failed to finish him off. Young intended to visit Tilson and offer him a swig from a hip flask of brandy, which he knew Tilson would probably accept but also not tell the nurses about, since drinking was against hospital rules. Needless to say the patient would have found himself intoxicated in more lethal ways than he expected. Tilson's relatively late admission to hospital, and subsequent month off recuperating, apparently saved his life. He eventually made a full recovery.

Adding all this evidence to the thallium and antimony found in Young's room, and a phial in Young's jacket which he had intended to use as his "exit dose" if he was caught, the prosecution had a strong case. Young had taunted police that they could not convict him without demonstrating a motive, but with such powerful evidence of murder, they didn't need to show a clear motive.

Young was convicted of two murders, two attempted murders, and two counts of administering poison. He was sentenced to four counts of life imprisonment alongside two five-year sentences, and although he had told warders he would break his own neck on the dock railings if convicted, he failed to live up to his promise.

There was still a sensation in the courtroom, however, when Young's background was revealed after the guilty verdict. There were gasps of disbelief when it was announced that Young had done this kind of thing before, and had been released from a secure mental institution mere months previously.

"You looked at the jury," remembers Susan Nowak, "and the blood drained from their faces when they heard about his previous convictions. The verdict had not been a foregone conclusion, and they were probably thinking "what if we'd let this maniac out onto the street?""