Escape From a Criminal Lunatic Asylum

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Broadmoor High Security Psychiatric Hospital in the village of Crowthorne in Berkshire, England as it is now known, is one of three psychiatric units for the criminally insane within the UK and it houses some of the most dangerous individuals in the country. The hospital opened in 1863 under the name Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum intended to securely hold and treat the criminally insane. In 1948, its classification changed from an institution to a hospital with the introduction of the Criminal Justice Act and just four years later it would come under fire after the escape of one of its patients.

In 1952 Broadmoor was home to convicted double child killer John Thomas Straffen who managed to escape and murder another young child in just the few hours of freedom he had before he was recaptured.

John Straffen

John Straffen in 1952 after his arrest.

Straffen is not the first killer to escape from custody and carry out further killings. Ted Bundy escaped from the county courthouse in Aspen, Colorado during one of his hearings and when recaptured and returned to Garfield County Jail he managed to escape a second time. This time he made it to Florida where he murdered two young Florida University students and injured three others before abducting and murdering 12-year-old Kimberly Leach.

John Straffen was convicted in 1951 for the murder to two young girls in Bath and sent to Broadmoor to remain indefinitely. Straffen had spent a number of years in India as a child when his father was in the armed forces and returned to the UK in 1938 when he was 8-years-old. He was a child that was always in trouble at school, he would steal things, disrupt the classroom and it was soon discovered his IQ was considerably below average.

In 1947 when he was 17-years-old he killed five chickens, an act which resulted in him being sent to a residential school near Bristol to discover the cause of his behaviour and to mend his ways. It was there that tests revealed Straffen had damage to the cerebral cortex of his brain, most likely caused by illness as a young child. The cerebral cortex is the area of the brain responsible for high-level functioning including language, memory, intelligence, and consciousness. Within the cerebral cortex is the frontal lobes of the brain, areas that when damaged can impact decision-making, impulsivity, and reasoning.

By 1951, 21-year-old Straffen had been released from the residential school and was living near Bath. On 15 July 1951, he met 6-year-old Brenda Goddard in the street and persuaded her to go with him into a nearby wood. Straffen strangled the little girl and left her body out in the open in the woods and carried on his way. Less than a month later he met 9-year-old Cicely Batstone at a cinema and again managed to persuade the little girl to go with him.  This time he took his young victim to a field on the outskirts of Bath and strangled her.

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John Straffen

When police investigated the murders of the two little girls, Straffen’s name quickly came up as a suspect due to witnesses who had seen him with Cicely Batstone. When arrested he admitted the killings and was charged with murder. At his trial he was deemed unfit to plead due to his mental health and a verdict was returned that John Thomas Straffen was insane and he was taken straight to Broadmoor.

‘Is it about the little girl I took to the pictures last night? When I left her she was dead under the hedge.’

Straffen’s escape from Broadmoor wasn’t very dramatic, in fact, on 29 April 1952 he walked out of the perimeter gates while on gardening duties and simply jumped over the wall. Once he was free he wandered aimlessly with no clear direction in mind. Whether he intended to find another victim or whether it was simply opportunistic it is unknown, but while John Straffen was wandering through the nearby village of Arborfield, he came upon 5-year-old Linda Bowyer who was riding her bike. Straffen abducted and strangled her before hitching a lift from a woman who lived in the village. He told her he wanted to go to Wokingham and she agreed to take him to a nearby bus stop where he could carry on his journey.

While getting out of her car, Straffen was spotted by two nurses from Broadmoor out on bicycles searching for him and he was soon recaptured and back behind the walls of the unit. He had been free for just four hours and in that time he had brutally taken the life of another innocent child. The body of Linda Bowyer was found the following morning and police immediately went to Broadmoor to interview Straffen in connection with her murder. During that interview, Straffen made references to ‘the little girl on the bicycle’ although he repeatedly denied he had killed her.

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Broadmoor Hospital in 1955

Straffen’s escape from Broadmoor prompted an independent inquiry and as a result, 13 escape sirens were installed in and around the local area surrounding the hospital. Areas such as Crowthorne, Wokingham, Bracknell, Camberley and Sandhurst who all knew that if these sirens sound at any time other than the routine Monday morning 10 am test, a patient who may pose a significant risk to the public had escaped. Should a patient escape these ear-piercing sirens sound for 20 long minutes and the surrounding areas go on lock-down until the patient is recaptured and safely returned to the hospital.

Only when the siren gives off its single tone ‘all-clear’ sound can the people of Berkshire continue their lives as normal. Today these systems are still in place although under review with a new more modern facility being built inside the grounds next to the current hospital.

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The escape sirens for Broadmoor Hospital

As for John Straffen, he was charged with the murder of Linda Bowyer and sent to Brixton Prison to await his trial. In July 1952 his murder trial opened with his defence team keen to call witnesses who would testify to Straffen’s mental state and capacity. Prosecution witnesses, however, rebutted this evidence claiming in their opinion Straffen did understand murder was wrong and therefore he could not be deemed insane and he was criminally responsible for his actions. Furthermore, evidence from his earlier trial for the murder of Brenda Goddard and Cicely Batstone was allowed, highlighting to the jury the past behaviour of the man in the dock. The jury agreed with the prosecution and Straffen was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.

Where to house John Straffen became somewhat of a concern being a man who had previously escaped from a secure mental institution. One month after his sentence, he was given a reprieve by the Home Secretary David Maxwell due to this mental health, commuting his sentence from death to life in prison. In the following years, Straffen spent time in Wandsworth Prison in London and Horfield Prison in Bristol before he was moved to the brand-new high-security unit at Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wright in 1966.

By 2007 Straffen had been moved again and had spent the remainder of his final years in Frankland Prison in County Durham. In November of that year, Straffen died at 77-years-old after spending a total of 55 years behind bars and holding the record for the longest serving prisoner in England.