Poisoned By Celebrity

Friday, August 27th, 2010

In his work as a doctor in a prison, Theodore Dalrymple came across a number of poisoners, who tended to be more interesting as a group than other murderers. Dalrymple shares the story of one famous English poisoner:

A man called Graham Young poisoned several people, some to death and others only to near-death, in the 1960s and 70s in England without any pecuniary motive, indeed without any obvious motive at all, starting when he was thirteen or fourteen years of age. Among his victims (who did not die) were his father and his sister. It is probable that he poisoned his step-mother (who was devoted to him) to death.

His sister, Winifred Young, who was eight years older than he, and whom he had tried to poison, wrote a book about him, published in 1973 entitled Obsessive Poisoner. It is a remarkable book in several ways, and not only because there can have been few memoirs by people who survived attempted poisonings. It is a valuable document of social history, for it implicitly records a period of great cultural change, not only in Britain but I suspect throughout the world.

Graham Young was born in 1947, to parents of the aspiring lower middle class. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was very young, and his father re-married in 1950, to the woman whom he was almost certainly to poison to death nearly twelve years later.

From an early age, Graham Young showed marked peculiarities. He did not make friends easily, or at all, and in so far as he sought out the company of other human beings it was of people considerably older than himself. He was almost emotionless, apart from a love of dogs. He was highly intelligent and looked down on people who were less intelligent than he, which was most people, but, while good at his schoolwork, was not perseverent in subjects that did not interest him. From about the age of eleven he displayed an obsessive interest in two subjects: the Nazis and poisons. He talked about them incessantly. One of his great heroes was Dr William Palmer, who was known as the Prince of Poisoners, who is suspected of having poisoned a great many of his close relations and friends in the 1850s for financial reasons.

He put belladonna in his sister’s tea in 1961, which she was prepared, out of an inability to imagine evil of her brother, to believe was an accident.

Their stepmother died in 1962 of symptoms that, in retrospect, were compatible with thallium poisoning. He put thallium in a sandwich that her brother-in-law ate at the post-funeral collation.

At the same time, Graham Young administered antimony to his father and to a friend of his, so-called, at school, as well as his ‘favourite’ aunt. With horrible cunning, he sought to console them as they suffered from what he had given them, as he had consoled his dying stepmother.

The penny finally dropped, he was arrested, tried aged 14 for attempted murder (unfortunately, his stepmother had been cremated and her ashes were not available for forensic examination, so he could not be charged with murder itself), and sent — as a psychopath — to Broadmoor, an institution for the criminally insane.

What shines through his sister’s narrative is the complete absence of motive for his crimes, and indeed the ordinary and even banal goodness of everyone by whom he was surrounded. Whatever else might be said, it could certainly not be said that his background had anything to do with what he did. His father was a steady, hardworking man, without obvious character defects, not very interesting or exciting perhaps, who for years did overtime in order to pay off the mortgage on his house — which he did, in fact, in 12 years — to secure the future of his children. He was the very archetype of the reliable, modest, industrious, law-abiding citizen upon whom the maintenance of civilisation partly, but importantly, depends.

Furthermore, the goodness of the author herself is obvious, precisely because she is herself so unaware of it. Not only was she reluctant to believe evil of her brother, but even when that evil became manifest to her she did not cast him into outer darkness. Her love, the ordinary love of a sister for a brother, exceeded her condemnation of him: which did not mean, however, that she sought any legal exculpation for him, or made any excuses for him. She loved him as a brother, but as a citizen she knew that he had to be punished and the public protected from him.

It is worth pointing out here that this morally sophisticated attitude was not that of an exceptionally-educated person: she was a secretary, without tertiary education. In other words, her moral sophistication was absorbed from the general culture, not from explicit teaching.

(Incidentally, but not coincidentally, her book was extremely well-written, far, far better written than many people with postgraduate degrees could write such a book today).

Graham Young spent ten years in Broadmoor, before being released in 1972. Between the time of his arrival and his departure the whole ethos of society had changed. He arrived shortly after a man died there in his eighties, having been sent to the institution (for a crime which could hardly have been more serious than Young’s) more than seventy years before. But, despite the fact that two psychiatrists at the time of his trial had asserted that it was unlikely that his perverse interest in poisons would ever decline, he persuaded his psychiatrist at Broadmoor, by then probably seeing himself in the role of Graham’s St George against the dragon of society, that he was ‘cured.’ And this, despite the fact that a patient at the institution in the meantime had almost certainly been poisoned to death with cyanide distilled from laurel leaves in the hospital grounds (though admittedly, this had not been proved to be Young’s handiwork) and that — beyond doubt — he had attempted to poison the tea of nearly a hundred fellow-inmates. By now, it seems, the need to think well of humanity in general trumped altogether the disinterested and objective examination of particular instances of it.

So Graham Young was released. He was sent to a government rehabilitation centre. Within two months, he was buying dangerous poisons again. But no one who dealt with him was informed of his background or his previous history, not even the probation officers whom he was told to visit every two weeks. Was he not cured? Did not the director of Broadmoor say that, if they thought there was any risk at all, they would not have released him in the first place? It would therefore be unfair to him, unduly prejudicial, to let people — anyone — know what he had been up to all those years ago.

A job was found for Graham Young in a photographic factory. His employers knew that he had had ‘mental problems’ that accounted for his lack of an employment history, but they took the laudably unprejudiced view that everyone deserved a chance, and that no one’s past should be held against him. The employers were not told that he had been a poisoner or an inmate of an institute for the criminally insane for ten years, and so when members of their staff began to suffer mysterious symptoms shortly after his arrival, they did not connect him with them.

So many of the staff, in fact, began to suffer from such symptoms as nausea and polyneuritis that the public health authorities were called in. The most likely explanation seemed to be a virus, especially as the factory was searched high and low for heavy metals that might equally have caused the symptoms, and none was found. Two of the staff died, and it was largely because Graham Young himself asked the local doctors at a meeting that they convened in the factory whether they did not think that the illness from which the deceased had died might not be thallium poisoning that he was first suspected and then arrested.

Stores clerks are not normally expected to be knowledgeable about toxicology, but so eager was he to prove his superiority over the doctors in public that he over-reached himself. Phials of thallium were found among his possessions in his lodgings.

Two things struck me about the narrative, apart from the literacy and goodness of his sister. The first was the deeply old-fashioned stoicism and devotion to duty of the staff of the company for which he worked.

Many of them were made desperately ill by his addition of poison to their tea (he again used two poisons, as he had when he was fourteen years old, antimony and thallium which, because they caused rather different symptomatology, confused the public health doctors), but despite being hardly able to walk or to hold anything down, they insisted that they would soon be all right, and continued to try to work. Above all, they did not want to make a fuss, until some of them were admitted as emergencies to hospital.

The other thing that struck me was the obvious and sometimes openly expressed desire of Graham Young to achieve celebrity by his poisonings. He wanted to be known and remembered as the greatest poisoner in history; he took great pleasure in the publicity that he received, and he was more concerned with the newspaper coverage of his first trial than with the medical condition of his blameless father whom he had poisoned.

He lived at a time of a fundamental shift in our culture. On the one hand he was very old-fashioned; he dressed conservatively, always in a shirt and tie, and with a handkerchief in the breast pocket of his suit. In writing to his future employers to accept the job they had offered him, he ended his letter as follows:

I shall endeavour to justify your faith in me by performing my duties in an efficient and competent manner.

Until Monday morning, I am,

Yours faithfully,

Graham Young

This is the language of an era soon to be as bygone as that, say, of the Etruscans.

On the other hand, he matured at the time when the cult of celebrity, for celebrity’s sake, was fast gaining ground. It was a new form of celebrity, disconnected from any solid form of achievement, of which an ability to attract publicity became the sine qua non. Graham Young was highly intelligent, without the character to stick at anything to achieve something solid, but with a burning desire to be acknowledged as superior, important and outstanding.

When trying to explain why he could not get close to people, he once said to his sister (and she ends her book with these words), ‘You see, there’s a terrible coldness inside me.’ Could a spread of that coldness not help to explain our contemporary preoccupation with celebrity?

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