The Real Mystery of the BBC’s “Body on the Moor”

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About a month ago, this detailed feature dealing with a “Body on the Moor” appeared on the BBC’s news site. In the normal course of events, it would have stayed on the front page for a few days before disappearing forever, but for a reason or reasons I’m unaware of, it’s now reappeared.

As you’ll learn for yourself if you read this strange article, it deals with the discovery of a body on the Chew Track, close to the infamous Saddleworth Moor. The identity of the dead man remains unknown to us, despite the fact that we know a great deal of information about him, while the main thrust of the BBC article, as I see it, is that this man died of strychnine poisoning. This is an almost unheard-of cause of death in modern Britain, as the article informs us, but for me, the greatest mystery of all concerns some blatant contradictions in this investigation that no one else seems to have noticed or remarked upon, despite the length of the time that this sensational, eye-catching piece has been in front of us all on the BBC news site.

As you’ll see, the feature begins with a cyclist by the name of Stuart Crowther speaking of his discovery of this unknown man’s body. We’re told that the Chew Track is very steep and runs between two reservoirs, and that Stuart Crowther found the body on a small patch of grass beneath what are known as “Rob’s Rocks”. The cyclist said “His head was uphill and his legs were straight downhill – perfectly straight. His arms were across his chest” and he added “It just seemed odd he was lying so parallel to the path”.

Just after this, the feature tells us that a Mountain Rescue volunteer thought the man might have suffered from a heart attack, but Detective Sergeant John Coleman of Greater Manchester Police, who is leading the investigation into the dead man’s identity, thought there was something more deliberate about the man’s positioning, saying “It appeared to me that the male had sat down and had taken the conscious decision to lie backwards.”

There is self-evidently something very unusual about a dead man being found in such a place and in the highly noteworthy pose remarked upon by the man who discovered him. The policeman leading the enquiry is quoted as saying that the dead man had taken the conscious decision to lie backwards, which is fair enough, but I find myself pondering an almost insoluble problem when we come to consider precisely how this man died.

The BBC’s feature quotes Dr Hilary Hamnett from the University of Glasgow. Dr Hamnett is a forensic toxicologist who tells us that strychnine poisoning is very rare, but the part that interests and baffles me most is when she tells us that strychnine is “in the top ten of unpleasant poisons in terms of ways to die”, because of the convulsions it causes.

By an unhappy coincidence, I was hospitalised in early March after apparently suffering from a viral infection that left me unable to sit or stand, and vomiting blood. Strictly speaking, I suppose, I wasn’t poisoned, but the experience was so deeply unpleasant that there were times when I wanted to die. The moment I felt sick, I immediately turned onto my side in what I would guess was an automatic reaction to stop me choking, so I’m left wondering how on Earth a man could consume something as vile as strychnine, yet manage to lie perfectly still in an almost serene, symmetrical pose that additionally left his body parallel to a nearby path.

Not only that, but Dr Hamnett informs us strychnine poisoning causes convulsions, so I fail to see how a man who has met his death in this awful manner could possibly be found in such a pose. I am not a forensic specialist of any kind, merely a rational observer, so it seems to me that the chances of dying from strychnine poisoning while lying on your back on a steep slope, to be discovered later not only with your legs straight and your body parallel to the nearby path, but also with your arms on your chest, are remote in the extreme.

It seems to me that the most likely explanation, if I’m correct about all the information I’ve reproduced above, is that another person arranged this man’s body immediately after he died, most likely in accordance with the stated wishes of the dead man. The presence of another person at this scene is perfectly possible, as no known person observed the dead man’s final hours, while the existence of another person would go a long way towards explaining some of the other mysteries in this apparently baffling case.

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”

Marcus Aurelius.

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6 Responses to The Real Mystery of the BBC’s “Body on the Moor”

  1. Dr Dan H. says:

    You might want to contact the police with that idea, Dennis. I would think that a really big dose of strychnine would kill someone more quickly than a lower but still lethal dose, but Wikipedia claims a time from ingestion to death of two to three hours, whereas the Merck Veterinary Manual says 1 to 2 hours.

    Both sources point out that ALL skeletal muscle is overstimulated and paralysed, and as the extensor muscles are generally stronger than the flexor muscles, this gives a limb extended posture. Rigor mortis is also rapid in onset.

    The Journal of Critical Care details the case of a man who deliberately ate some strychnine powder along with a lot of wine, and survived the experience. He presented to hospital one hour after eating the strychnine powder looking pretty normal, and deteriorated rapidly thereafter, going into cardiac and respiratory arrest a few minutes after arrival. He was intubated and ventilated, and cardiac output returned after a while; there then followed more intrusive treatment.

    He was more or less recovered after five days, released after ten after psychiatric assessment.

    However, the point here is this: our mystery man will, having taken his lethal dose of strychnine, been sitting around for at least three quarters of an hour waiting for the poison to work without any symptoms and then will have spent the next couple of hours at least in the process of dying.

    So, if we assume that he took the poison when he got to the place he died and did so at about five in the evening, then he would have then spent the next two to three hours dying horribly. As rigor mortis is rapid with this poison, the mystery second person would have had to have been with him, or nearby for this time, and would have thus been re-arranging the body at eight or nine o’clock at night.

    So, the question is, who did the man meet up with that day, and did anyone see someone coming back off the hill with a torch that night? The body was found by the side of a service track to a reservoir, a right of way also but pretty much the only route navigable by night in the area unless you knew the place intimately. Even then, where did our putative helper then go?

    I agree, though, there was a second person involved in the death that night.

    Liked by 1 person

    • eternalidol says:

      Hello Dan,

      I posted a link to what I’d written on my Facebook page and the overwhelming consensus of opinion was that there was no second person involved. However, having read what you’ve got to say about the timescales involved, I’m more and more suspicious about this, because when you take into account the horrific death, the sloping ground and the length of time it takes for someone to die, I find it increasingly hard to believe that this man’s death posture and its setting, parallel to a path, came about purely by accident.

      Of course, it’s possible that all this was an accident and that no one else was involved, while I cannot see how I can be the first or indeed the only person to have read the BBC’s account and found it badly wanting. This man’s identity is currently a mystery, but the BBC article stresses from the start that there was something strange about this man’s posture when he was found; if it’s consistent with opisthotonus or the severe arching of the neck and spine that’s a key symptom of strychnine poisoning, then I can’t help wondering why the BBC haven’t said so.

      Reading through this account again, it’s undeniably baffling, but I’m increasingly sure that someone else was present as this man met his protracted death. I’m familiar with the principle of Occam’s Razor, but from a personal point of view, just about every aspect of this sad tale makes more sense if we include the presence of another person that day and night. I think it’s entirely feasible and also inevitable.

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  2. Dan H. says:

    An animal or person poisoned with strychnine undergoes a lot of uncontrollable muscular spasms, which most notably contract the muscles of the back backwards, so that the person is suspended just on heels and back of head. Animals poisoned with strychnine have (according to the Merck manual) a characteristic “sawhorse” sort of appearance, with the back and legs locked outstretched.

    Now, imagine our man took the lethal dose and lay down to die on a slope. If he once deviates from lying exactly on the fall line of the slope, he’s going to roll further away from this line, and the poison-induced convulsions are going to throw him around quite a bit. He will end up rolling down the slope as he dies, and would likely wind up lying on the roadway. There ought to be tarmac fragments embedded in his skin from his death there.

    Whoever was with him might, after he’d finally died, have dragged him to the roadside to lay him out in a more dignified sort of manner; the arms crossed over the chest do strongly suggest this. Strychnine victims (at least animals) do not reportedly have flexed limbs, and this chap, unless he had very strong biceps, would not have had flexed arms. Strychnine or more precisely the convulsions it induces cause rapid rigor mortis, so the second man would need to be around to pose the body very shortly after he died.

    Your conclusion is inescapable: this man either didn’t die alone, or was visited around or just after death, to pose him in a more dignified manner. That raises the question of why on earth the second man did nothing to assist our mystery man? Strychnine is a horrific way to die, and the place of death can be reached by an ambulance. Why wasn’t this man helped?

    The putative second person is most unlikely to have been a random passer-by. Who on earth comes upon a horribly-dying man, or a recently-dead one and re-arranges their body? The dead man was 6’1″ tall, and that indicates a fair weight of body; shifting that much weight isn’t an easy task and whoever moved the body likely dragged it rather than carrying a muscle-locked corpse.

    There will have been marks of where this man died before his body was moved to where it was found; he will have died very close by. There will also be marks on his body and shoes from convulsions where he died, and obvious drag marks somewhere; this needs checking.

    Liked by 1 person

    • eternalidol says:

      Dan, you express bewilderment at the idea of someone looking on and not helping as this man died an awful, protracted death. I can only say that it is easy for me to imagine circumstances in which a second person might be present without calling for help, but only that second person – if they exist – or God knows what the truth of the matter is.

      As far as I’m aware, real mountains don’t exist in England, only in Scotland and Wales. The dead man repeatedly asked about the way to the top of this ‘mountain’, so it seems to me that this place had some poetic or religious appeal to him, rather than a purely practical one. He met his maker alone, apparently, under cover of darkness, while it further seems to me that there’s some quasi-religious or Biblical aspect to his body being just off the beaten track; somewhere, we’re told that God sees even the fall of a sparrow, while the idea of this man being found exactly parallel to the path with his arms on his chest (which suggests the shape of a cross) reinforces the idea I have that dying in this place in this manner was of the utmost importance to him.

      Again, this is purely informed guess work on my part, but before he went to the mountain, it seems he had a jaunty swagger to his movements and gait, which further suggests to me the disposition of someone actually looking forward to meeting his maker. Everything I’ve read tells me that poisoning by strychnine is a dreadful way to die, so I can only assume that as this appears to have been a voluntary act, it was done to purge the man of a sense of overwhelming guilt for something he’d done or perhaps had failed to do. Yet again, I would guess that the putative second person at the scene was fully aware of all this and however reluctantly, acted in accordance with the last wishes of the dead man.

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  3. eternalidol says:

    I accept that my view that a second person was present is nothing more than a theory or an informed opinion – the idea of a mysterious, untraced witness has belatedly reminded me of the so-called Babushka Lady, someone I could read about for hours because every aspect of her is so infuriating and baffling.

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  4. Dan H. says:

    This dead man has now been identified.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-38757699

    His name is David Lytton, 67, from London. He flew into London Heathrow from Lahore, Pakistan two days before his body was discovered (which presumably explains the source of the strychnine, much more easily obtained in Pakistan than in Britain).

    An inquest will be held in March of this year.

    Liked by 1 person

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