Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Graham Young, the St. Albans Poisoner

Mystery Illness

Map of England with North London locator
Map of England with North London locator
 

During the summer of 1961, a strange virus seemed to be spreading through a small family home in a northern suburb of London, England.

Since February, 37-year-old Molly Young had suffered vomiting, diarrhea and excruciating stomach pain, which she initially dismissed as bilious attacks. Before long her husband Fred, 44, was also suffering, with similar stomach cramps debilitating him for days at a time. Then Fred's eldest daughter Winifred, 22, was violently ill on a couple of occasions that summer. Shortly afterwards, her brother Graham Young was violently sick at home.

It even seemed as if the mystery bug had spread beyond their household - a couple of Graham's school friends had also been off school ill a couple of times with similar painful symptoms.

In November 1961 the plot thickened. Winifred Young was served a cup of tea by her brother one morning, but found its taste so sour she took only one mouthful before she threw it away. While on the train to work an hour later, she began to hallucinate, had to be helped out of the station and was eventually taken to hospital, where doctors came to the conclusion that she had somehow been infected with the rare poison belladonna. She told her father Fred, who developed a theory. His 14-year-old son Graham had been crazy about chemistry for some years, and had even been banned from using chemicals in the house after abortive experiments set fire to furniture in his room. Could the boy have inadvertently contaminated his family's food?

He confronted his son, but Graham blamed Winifred, who he claimed had been using the family's teacups to mix shampoo.

Unconvinced, Fred searched Graham's room, but found nothing incriminating. Nevertheless, he warned his son to be more careful in future when "messing about with those bloody chemicals."

The family had been concerned about Graham for a while. He was just...different, utterly unlike other boys his age. Since the age of 9 or 10, when he started stealing his stepmother Molly's perfume and nail varnish remover to analyze its contents and sniff the vapors, he'd been obsessed with chemistry and poisons. If a member of the family took a headache tablet or some cough medicine, he would take great pleasure in telling them the exact scientific names for all the ingredients, and seemed especially keen on telling them in detail what agonies would befall them if they took a very large dose.

Still, a boy's got to have a hobby, so when Graham scraped through his "11 plus" exams (which determined in those days whether a child would go to a grammar school for more academically minded children, or a "secondary modern" for those of a more practical bent), his father bought him a chemistry set as a reward. He wasn't to know that by this stage of his son's self-education, it was equivalent to giving a Cordon Bleu chef a couple of pots and a beginner's cook book.

With the help of library books, Graham had already gained the expertise of a chemistry post-graduate. Yet his do-it-yourself chemistry experiments seemed to be a touch more extreme than you might expect even from the most inquisitive schoolboy. He had graduated from nail varnish remover to inhaling from a bottle of ether to get high. He carried a bottle of acid around with him which once burnt a hole in his school blazer. On other occasions he would extract gunpowder from fireworks to make small bombs. He blew up his neighbor's wall and a nearby hut, but managed to escape blame for the incidents.

Although Fred Young had never been particularly close to his son, even he couldn't entertain the idea that his own flesh and blood could be deliberately poisoning the family.

If he'd known how his wife's symptoms would suddenly worsen a few months later, he might have had second thoughts.

 

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