John Thomas Straffen – England’s longest-serving prisoner – was the first patient to escape from Broadmoor Hospital. He killed within hours. Prior to this, at his home in Bath, he was dismissed as an imbecile, a loner, a ‘child trapped in an adult's body’. On the afternoon of Sunday July 15, 1951, John Straffen strangled 8-year-old Brenda Goddard as she picked flowers. Three weeks later he committed a similar murder before inadvertently confessing to the police. Faced with a serial killer with a mental age of 10, Straffen was admitted to Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital. But on April 29, 1951, having spent only six months at the institute, he escaped during a meticulously planned bid for freedom that should have been impossible. During his six hours on the run, he murdered 5-year-old Linda Bowyer in an attempt to ‘annoy’ the police. Winston Churchill, then Prime Minister, and his beleaguered government personally intervened to make sure that Straffen would never walk free. But was Straffen insane? Benefitting from previously unpublished documents, including classified government papers, author Gordon Lowe paints a vivid picture of a man whose crimes shocked a nation.
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Escape from Broadmoor
The Trials and Strangulations of John Thomas Straffen
By Gordon Lowe
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Gordon Lowe
All rights reserved.
If John Thomas Straffen had not escaped from Broadmoor Institution on 29 April 1952, then the day might have been remembered for its beautiful weather. For the first time that year the residents in the village of Crowthorne, at the bottom of the hill from Broadmoor's twenty foot-high redbrick walls, were opening their windows and back doors to air their houses and hear the birds singing outside, while others decided to risk afternoon tea in the garden under a warm sun and blue sky. Daffodils were out on the lawns and primroses grew in clusters on the banks of country lanes. The woods were full of bluebells and children were coming out of school to play on their bikes in the streets. Spring breeds expectancy, but no one could have expected what was in store that afternoon.
Mrs Spencer in Crowthorne was telephoning through an order for dog food and had been promised delivery in the afternoon; seven miles away Mrs Sims in the village of Farley Hill was busying herself setting out a tray of tea things in anticipation of her sister-in-law arriving; and Mrs Loyalty Kenyon in Farley Hill House was halfway through her regular afternoon rest, safe in the knowledge that her two children were in the capable hands of their German nanny; the three of them were already playing a game of hide and seek in the garden among the shrubs and trees bordering the lawn. Mrs Miles in Wokingham was getting the car out of the garage to make a trip into Farley Hill to collect clothes for the Women's Institute. Mr Taylor was starting his afternoon in the office, worried whether the local cricket pitch needed watering; he decided to make an inspection first thing after work. Mr Sims, who was working on an estate near Farley Hill, had warned his wife he would be half-an-hour late back after work because he was going to deliver a load of wood to his father, so there was a chance he'd miss tea with her and his sister at Pillar Box Cottage.
Linda Bowyer, aged 5, in her school on Farley Hill high street, could hardly wait for school to be over to get on her bike with the other children. She knew it was a good day because they'd been let out into the school playground during the dinner hour and this hadn't been possible for ages because of the weather. Even though Broadmoor Institution was seven miles away, east of Farley Hill, she still knew it by name. The other children called it a loony bin, and she called it a loony bin, but she didn't really know what that meant. It was a place you put mad people, she knew that much, and so she thought it must be a bin for mad people.
But a black cloud was about to cast its shadow over all of them – and for one it would shut out the sun forever.
The black cloud was John Thomas Straffen. At that moment he was lying spreadeagled over the slate roof of an outbuilding behind the main wall of Broadmoor. His thick-soled working boots had slipped as he groped his way up the roof. As he found his feet, the door of the main building behind opened. He prayed it wasn't Mr Cash, the work party attendant, but it was John's co-patient Whitcombe.
'Mr Cash wants to know when you're coming back in?' Whitcombe shouted loud enough for Mr Cash to hear inside the building. He couldn't stop himself smiling at the sight of John in three layers of clothing slipping and sliding around the roof like a beached whale.
'Tell him I'm shaking my duster,' John shouted back. 'Back in a jiff.'
Whitcombe shut the door with a bang. John continued his ascent and clutched the top of the wall, levering himself onto the top to take a nervous peek over the side. He blinked at the road winding down the hill that he had last seen from the back of the police car which brought him into Broadmoor six months ago.
Like a passenger contemplating jumping over the ship's side, common sense told him to give up and go back down the roof. It looked an awful long way down. What John had shouted back to Whitcombe just then was the truth. He was shaking his duster, or had been until he jumped onto the disinfectant drums under the wall and hauled himself onto the shed roof – but he'd never be back.
He'd never be back because if you escaped from Broadmoor they didn't send you back. He told everyone that but no one knew where he'd got it from. He wanted to escape to show them he could be free and not harm anyone. That would show them he hadn't done the two Bath murders. They'd say, 'Look, he got out of the place and didn't hurt a fly.'
He looked over the edge of the wall again and saw a fire hydrant cover that might break his fall. Then again, it might break his legs, he didn't know whether to aim for that or the grass bank.
John swung off the top of the wall, clutching the stone ledge with his hands and allowing his feet to dangle under him in space. Then he closed his eyes and let go.CHAPTER 2
Eight months previously, at 2.30 p.m. on the afternoon of Sunday 15 July 1951, John Straffen left his family home in their crowded flat in Bath to make his weekly visit to the cinema. But instead of following his usual route across the city to the Forum Cinema, he turned in the opposite direction up Lansdown Road towards Camden Crescent. He was dressed in a striped blue suit with an open necked, white shirt and made light work of the climb up the steep hill, moving with a long, gangling stride, mouth slack and eyes fixed on the pavement ahead, without any attempt to look at or acknowledge the couples and families making their way to Victoria Park or Parade Gardens to cool off on the hot afternoon.
John enjoyed his Sundays. It was a day off from the labours of the market garden just outside the city in Bathampton where he'd worked steadily for the last few weeks, a day when he could get up late, have a good roast lunch cooked by his mother – her best meal of the week – and then the afternoon on his own at the matinée performance of whatever was on at the cinema. It didn't really matter what the film was, but he preferred a good adventure like a western or Robin Hood, and that meant usually the Forum or Odeon cinemas, the two largest cinemas in Bath almost facing each other across Southgate Street. In fact they were so near each other that if the queue to get in looked too long at one, then he would simply cross the street to join the other, whatever the film.
Sometimes he'd see one film at the Forum and then watch the other at the Odeon, even if the programme had already started or was in the middle of the supporting film. They knew him at both cinemas and had stopped trying to work out what he wanted. He was such a frequent customer the usherettes during the intervals would let him have an ice-cream even if he'd forgotten his money.
But this Sunday hadn't gone well. John hadn't felt like getting up and his mother had said that until he was up, with his bed made, he wouldn't get any lunch or be allowed out to the cinema. He said she could keep her lunch, but she knew he didn't mean it because he wouldn't miss Sunday lunch for anything. But not going to the pictures – that was different. This was his Sunday afternoon and now he was 21 she couldn't stop him. So he got up and made his bed, muttering and cursing, but not too loud in case his father heard and gave him a beating.
What John did was to leave the flat at 2 p.m. as usual and walk out into the Paragon but, instead of crossing the road and going down Broad Street towards the cinemas, he made a sharp right in the opposite direction up Lansdown, and sped up a bit so that no one from the flat would see him.
He had friends up the hill on Lansdown he could meet and moan to about being told to make his bed, friends who understood this and saw it wasn't fair.
And there was another thing that wasn't fair. Last week he'd been seen by the doctor who had to assess him now he was 21 and still on licence from the offenders' institute. The doctor said he could stay at home and get on with his job but they'd have to keep an eye on him and reassess him. So if he did anything stupid then the police could put him back inside and that wasn't fair.
It was always the police – they were out to get him even when he did things right.
The friends he could have a bit of a moan at lived behind Camden Crescent among the trees in a den they called The Private. No one knew about The Private – not even his mother, it was that secret. He'd never told her or anyone about The Private.
There were a couple of children playing outside Belvedere halfway up Lansdown, but when he stopped to smile at them, they stuck their tongues out at him and said rude things. Anyway, he didn't know them and they didn't seem very nice.
People shouldn't be rude to him, that wasn't very nice either. At the Hortham Colony, the institute near Bristol where he'd been sent for pinching things, they'd told him what to do. The police who put him in there told him what to do. He hadn't always made his bed at Hortham and Mr Beaver had thrown his weight around telling him what to do and said he wouldn't have lunch unless he made his bed. Now his mother was acting like Mr Beaver.
A couple of hundred yards up from Belvedere he turned right into Camden Crescent, one of Bath's half-moon Regency crescents and, head down and mouth open, he forked left to walk behind the crescent towards The Private.
Suddenly he wasn't alone. A girl was stooped over the grass to the left of the path, picking something out of the grass.
John stopped. He said hello and smiled at her. She smiled back, not like the rude ones outside Belvedere. 'What are you doing?' he asked.
'Picking flowers,' she replied, and stuck out a small bunch of white flowers to show him.
'What's your name?' he asked.
'Brenda,' she said, and went on picking flowers.
'Are you allowed to pick the flowers, Brenda?' asked John.
'They're wild,' she said.
Then she ignored him and he wondered if he was being rude. 'Do you have to make your bed?' he asked.
When this didn't produce an answer he said, 'I can show you where there's better flowers higher up, if you like.'
At this she looked up, more interested, and nodded. She was so nice he could see people might be upset if anything happened to her, especially the police. He took her by the hand and walked along to the copse. Nobody had seen them and nobody told them to stop. At the copse he lifted her over the wall and climbed over himself.
'Where are the flowers?' she asked.
'I'll show you,' he said and they walked along under the high wall at the back of the copse, where the flowers grew in a white carpet under the trees.
The girl started to pick them, and as she did so he bent down behind her, wrapped his fingers around her neck and squeezed until she flopped and didn't move. She didn't make any noise, and he'd expected her to make some sort of noise. So he took her by the shoulders and banged her head on a stone at the foot of the wall to make sure. Then leaving her exactly where she fell, he jumped back over the wall and started walking down the back of Camden Crescent.
As he passed the spot where he'd met the girl he looked at his watch and decided there was still time to get to the film. Back in the street he paused a moment to take out his handkerchief and brush off some of the burrs and pollen that had stuck to his trousers, before taking the long route up to Lansdown Crescent and then down into Bath.
He was a bit early for the film and sat near the front with an icecream. There was no one else much around in the 1/6 rows at the front. He thought about how long it would take the police to find the girl and how long it would take them to try to find who did it. He'd waste their time now instead of them wasting his.
All in all it hadn't been a bad Sunday. He'd got his lunch and he'd get the film.
The title of the feature film that afternoon was Shockproof.CHAPTER 3
Mrs Doris Pullen looked out of her window in the basement flat at 1 Camden Crescent at just after 2 p.m. that Sunday afternoon for her daughter, expecting to see her playing in the garden. Brenda was usually out there with her dolls in the pram, but sometimes she'd play at the back of the garden beside Rough Lane. Anyway, she'd have to come back in soon because it was Sunday school at 3 p.m. down at Hay Hill and she'd have to start getting ready.
Today had been a normal Sunday for the Pullen family. Doris and her husband Alf had taken Brenda down to the eleven o'clock service at Christ Church, Julian Road, and sat near the back like they always did. Alf had only been demobbed from the army for a couple of years and didn't hold much with church or anything to do with religion. 'Men in frocks' he called the clergy, and if there was a God why did He let them do all those awful things in the war. Doris said that might or might not be the case but they had a duty to Brenda to bring her up properly, and that included church on Sunday morning and Sunday school in the afternoon. Christ Church was Brenda's infants' school round the back of the church and it wouldn't look good if they didn't show up on Sundays. When Brenda was old enough – she was only six now – then she could decide for herself.
Brenda was not their real daughter. They were her foster parents while her widowed mother Connie Goddard lived and worked at the Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases in Bath. But they loved Brenda as if she was their own. She was a lovely girl, with sandy hair tied up in ribbons in long ringlets; she could play by herself for hours with her dolls and prams. They knew her at the hospital as well when she came in and out to visit her mother. Although the family kept to themselves, the neighbours knew Brenda by sight playing in the house or garden.
If Brenda did play outside the garden in Rough Lane, it would be with her friend Ruth, but neither of them went up to the copse, known locally as The Private, further along the back of the crescent. For children of Brenda's age, The Private looked like a fairy castle up on the hill, surrounded by a high wall and full of secrets among the thick foliage and trees enjoyed by the older and tougher children.
Mrs Pullen now went out into the garden, looked and then called over the wall, but she still couldn't see Brenda. She called but couldn't hear her. They had a rule that Brenda didn't wander far from the garden gate onto Rough Lane unless she was with Ruth and then they could play together in the grass above the lane. It was safe enough from the road at the front of the crescent, and one of the reasons the Pullens had rented the flat was to give Brenda somewhere secure to play.
Next she went back into the house to check Brenda hadn't somehow gone in to see Alf, which was unlikely as he invariably went to sleep after Sunday lunch and a cup of tea, thankful not to be involved with Sunday school. When Brenda wasn't there either her stomach started to knot. She instinctively knew something was wrong; Brenda just wasn't the sort of girl to go off on her own.
Mrs Pullen woke her husband and walked back to the rear of the garden, while he went out into the front of Camden Crescent to look there. Even now she didn't think of going up to the copse to look. She didn't really know anything about The Private; Brenda had never mentioned it, and the copse didn't start until a long way down the crescent at No. 14 anyway. It was eerily quiet now at the back, with all the children who might usually play there having their lunch or getting ready for Sunday school. It would have helped if there had been someone to ask, even if they hadn't seen Brenda.
But there was someone. As she walked back through the garden gate for a second time, praying that Alf might have found out something at the front, Mrs Pullen caught site of a man in a blue suit striding across the road in front of Camden Crescent. He bent down a moment to brush something off his trousers and then turned up Lansdown Road towards St Stephen's Church. Striding was the wrong word, because he wasn't quite co-ordinated and he seemed to be looking down at the ground and running his hand through his fair hair. Then he turned the corner and was gone, as quickly as he'd appeared.
Up until three o'clock Mrs Pullen was as much concerned about Brenda missing Sunday school as anything else but, after calling on the neighbours, including Ruth and her parents, with no success they wasted no more time. Mr Pullen went out to the telephone box at 3.30 p.m. to ring the police.
Excerpted from Escape from Broadmoor by Gordon Lowe. Copyright © 2013 Gordon Lowe. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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