The market town of Grantham doesn't make the news all that much. Margaret Thatcher was born here, Isaac Newton went to school here and, in 1740, gingerbread biscuits were invented by the local baker, William Eggleston. Then, on the 4th of October, 1968, Beverley Gail Allitt was born, in the Lincolnshire village of Corby Glen, nine miles to the south.
In 1991, Allitt – then working as a nurse in the children's ward at Grantham and Kesteven Hospital – would kill four children, attempt to murder another three and cause grievous bodily harm to a further six.
"It's been 28 years since it happened," says 74-year-old retired Detective Superintendent Stuart Clifton, the man who put Allitt away. "And it was a case that rocked the community like no other. It was the highest profile case I ever worked on, and a case I've lived with ever since. Cases with children do that to you."
The Allitt case was unlike anything the UK had seen in over a century. In 1862, the nurse Catherine Wilson – also from Lincolnshire, and the last British woman to be hanged publicly – was put to death for the murder of one of her patients. It's believed she probably killed six others. But in 1991, when children started dying on Ward 4 of Grantham's hospital – seven-week-old Liam Taylor on the 22nd of February, Timothy Hardwick (11) on the 5th of March, Becky Phillips (two months) on the 1st of April and Claire Peck (15 months) on the 22nd of April – it was unthinkable that one of the hospital's own employees would be responsible.
"It was a difficult case for many reasons," recalls DS Clifton. "When I was brought in, I was worried that I knew nothing about medical issues. Then, in the early days of the case, there was little cooperation from the families of the victims, because, understandably, they thought the hospital had done a super job of saving the lives of the children that had survived. There was a suspicion of the police coming in and putting their size tens when they weren't wanted."
So unconvinced were parents of the hospital's culpability in the shock spate of deaths and unexplained illnesses that, when two-month-old Katie Phillips – twin sister of Becky – had to be resuscitated twice after unexplained apnoeic episodes (later determined to be caused by insulin and potassium overdoses) they asked Allitt to be Katie's godmother. It was their way of thanking the young nurse for the care she showed their daughter. "She seemed very competent, in control, and I trusted her," Mrs Phillips said while Allitt was on trial for murder, at Nottingham Crown Court, in 1993. Katie is alive today, though with severe brain damage and partial blindness.
The case only became a murder inquiry when DS Clifton and his team decided to concentrate on one surviving child, five-month-old Paul Crampton. Paul had only been admitted with a chest infection, but tests revealed he had an abnormally high insulin level in his blood: 43,147 milliunits. Tests were carried out at University Hospital in Cardiff, where it emerged that only one other person on record had ever had a higher reading – a doctor who had previously used an overdose of the drug to kill themselves. It would later be established that Allitt had given Paul three overdoses of insulin on the day he went into seizure.
Ultimately there were just too many critically ill children for suspicion of foul play not to be raised, and when 15-month-old Claire Peck died from a heart attack on the 22nd of April, Dr Nelson Porter demanded Clifton and his team were brought in. Claire was exhumed, and lignocaine – a drug used to help adults during cardiac arrest – was found in the baby's blood. This test result, the fact that Allitt had previously reported the key to the insulin cupboard missing, the fact that 25 pages of the ward's nursing log – covering the deaths and illnesses – had been torn out, as well as her being present at all of the children's deaths, meant the 22-year-old Allitt became the prime suspect. She was arrested in November of 1991.
"She was a strange girl," says DS Clifton. "I thought that from the moment I met her. She showed none of the signs of someone – a young person, at that – who was being interviewed by the police for the very first time. She'd never been in trouble before. There was no fear there. She was quietly confident. In interviews she'd talk very openly about anything – football, the weather, anything newsworthy – but the moment you'd get onto events that had taken place in the hospital, she wouldn't talk."
When Allitt was brought to trial, a picture of a deeply troubled woman began to emerge. A Home Office forensic psychiatrist described her as "this very damaged lady", and it was revealed that, from childhood onwards, Allitt would often bandage herself for injuries she hadn't sustained. Once, she feigned the symptoms of a burst appendix. She was taken to hospital and had it removed, though it was perfectly healthy, then pulled at her stitches for months after to prolong the healing.
During another stay in hospital she was caught tampering with a thermometer to give it a higher reading. On the same stay, she stabbed herself in the right breast in an attempt to inject herself with water. During her time training to be a nurse, it was said she'd leave human faeces in the fridge for "a joke". She would talk endlessly about her flat being haunted by a poltergeist. And then someone raised the possibility that Beverley Allitt might be suffering from Munchausen syndrome by proxy.
The German writer Rudolf Erich Raspe didn't so much conceive the character of Baron Munchausen for his 1785 book Munchausen's Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia, but co-opt the identity of an actual German baron, Hieronymus Karl Friedrich, Freiherr von Münchhausen. The real-life Münchhausen, who'd fought for the Russian Empire in the Russo-Turkish War of 1735–1739, was renowned within aristocratic circles for his tall tales. He'd fought a 40-foot crocodile. He'd ridden on the back of a cannonball. He even claimed he'd gone to the moon. Over time, his name – unsurprisingly – became synonymous with deception.
"Münchhausen" is most often heard these days when discussing the criminal practice of making others – almost always children – ill, in order to elicit sympathy for the abuser. The term "Munchausen syndrome" wasn't heard until 1951, when British endocrinologist and haematologist Richard Asher used the description in medical journal The Lancet, while the first use of "Munchausen syndrome by proxy" dates to 1977, when the British paediatrician Roy Meadow used it to describe the actions of one mother who'd poisoned her baby with salt, another who'd added her blood to her baby's urine sample. It's only now – thanks to interest swelled by the popularity of Netflix drama The Politician, HBO's Sharp Objects and the documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest – that the disorder is starting to be recognised as an illness.
"I don't think Beverley was ill," says DS Clifton, "unless wanting to be centre stage is an illness. There's little doubt in my mind that what Beverley was doing was causing harm to children, to discover that harm, to gain kudos for doing so. She was doing it for self-gratification. She wanted people to say she was a good nurse. Did she intend to kill the children? I find that a difficult question to answer, because when you're applying drugs to children, anyone would know that if you don't know what you're doing there's a good chance you're going to cause either death or harm. She must have known the inherent danger of what she was doing."
The formal term for Munchausen's is "factitious disorder imposed on another", but that and its colloquial name are terms that garner much controversy. There is some dispute as to the authenticity of the disorder. The UK, like Australia, currently views it as something other than a medico-legal entity. In 2004, the Supreme Court of Queensland, Australia declared "the term factitious disorder (Munchausen's Syndrome) by proxy is merely descriptive of a behaviour, not a psychiatrically identifiable illness or condition". It is, in the words of DS Clifton, "not a reason for crime, but it might be an explanation for it".
Beverley Allitt was sentenced in May of 1993 at Nottingham Crown Court. She received 13 life sentences for her crimes. The newspapers strapped their covers with the moniker "ANGEL OF DEATH", a nickname she will forever share with Nazi doctor and Auschwitz physician Josef Mengele. Upon sentencing, Mr Justice Latham told Allitt she was "a serious danger" to others and was unlikely ever to be considered safe enough to be released. She remains interred at Rampton Secure Hospital in Nottinghamshire, where reports of her impaling herself with paperclips and pouring boiling water over herself have emerged.
Beverley Allitt's crimes were heinous, and yet almost three decades on the medical community still doesn't know what causes Munchausen to develop in a person, with only rudimentary signs to spot it and no idea how it can be treated. "I don't think you can do anything in a hospital that would stop this kind of thing," says DS Clifton. "If you've got a rogue nurse, it would be very difficult to identify."
British Police: Our Toughest Cases airs Saturdays at 10PM on Quest Red and Dplay. The episode about the Beverley Allitt case airs on the 9th of November.