Strychnine is a funny word. It’s easy to say but difficult
to spell. Most people know that it’s a poison and it was widely used by
mole-catchers until 2006, when it was banned across the European Union. But
apart from moles, it hasn’t caused many deaths in recent history. Poisoning
isn’t the common method of murder it once was. It became too easy for forensic
scientists to detect, too risky for the murderer.
But someone was poisoned with strychnine in early December
last year. The police know who did it too: the same person. It was a suicide,
in other words, but it’s turned out to be a very unusual one. The dead man was
discovered lying on a hill near Saddleworth Moor in the Peak District. He was
white, aged about seventy, slightly over six feet tall, with grey hair and blue
eyes, and his large nose appeared to have once been broken.
But there was no identification on his body: no wallet, no
credit cards, no mobile phone, no letters. All he had was some train-tickets
and some money. The tickets showed that he had travelled from London to
Manchester, apparently with the sole purpose of climbing a hill and taking the
strychnine that he had carried with him in a clear plastic container. When the
police began to trace his movements, they discovered that he had spoken to the
landlord of a pub in the village of Greenfield, where walkers set off into the
He had asked the landlord for directions to the top of the
hill. The landlord had told him, but said there wouldn’t be enough daylight to
get there and back. The man thanked him and set off. What the landlord didn’t
know was that he had no intention of getting back – or at least, not on his own
legs. He came off the hill on a stretcher, dead of strychnine poisoning.
That was highly unusual, but the case has become even
stranger since the discovery of the body. The police have traced the man’s
movements using CCTV, tracking him at Manchester’s Piccadilly Station and then
back to Euston Station in London. They naturally assumed he might be a Londoner
and living in the Euston area, so the Metropolitan Police conducted enquiries
in places that an elderly man might visit: hairdressers, bookmakers, medical
clinics, and so on. They had an artist’s impression of the man as he would have
looked in life, but nobody recognized him.
Posters and media reports asking for help also failed to
turn anything up. But there was another clue about him on the plastic container
he had carried: it was a medicine container and had formerly been used for thyroxine
sodium, a drug for people with under-active thyroids. There was a label on it
with writing in both English and Urdu, the national language of Pakistan.
Strychnine isn’t illegal to buy in Pakistan. Furthermore,
forensic examinations revealed that the man had a titanium plate inserted in
his left leg to repair a serious injury. The plate was stamped with the name of
a medical manufacturer, Treu-Dynamic, which is based in Pakistan. So is the man
Pakistani or a British citizen who was living in Pakistan before he returned here
to commit suicide?
The police have sent X-rays of the titanium plate and the
man’s injured leg to hospitals in Pakistan, hoping that the surgical team who
did the work will recognize it and be able to name their former patient. If
that line of enquiry proves as fruitless as all the others, the mystery may
never be solved. Why did the man chose that particular spot to commit suicide
by such an unusual means? Strychnine poisoning is not a pleasant way to die,
but perhaps the man was punishing himself in some way.
Did he have some connection with a plane-crash on the Moor
in 1949? The police don’t think so. The Moor Murderers, Ian Brady and Myra
Hindley, buried some of their victims near the spot at which the man chose to
commit suicide, but it’s hard to see how there could be a connection with that
case. Murders and fatal accidents have happened in many places in a crowded
country like England.
But there must have been some significance in the spot he
chose. He travelled a long way to get to Manchester and he asked for directions
to the hill. He knew what he was doing: finding somewhere to die. Police work
is often routine and boring, but this investigation is one of the strangest
ever conducted by them. The mystery of the man’s identity and motives may be
with us for a long time to come.