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Mystery on the Moor

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 Peak District.

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.