Gaslight Killer Who Conned His Elderly Lovers Is Convicted
A schemer with an English degree used his literary know-how—and a cocktail of drugs—to fool his victims into re-writing their wills.
OXFORD, England—It’s rare to find 19th-century poetry at the heart of a callous double-murder plot, but this was no ordinary murder.
Literature helped to entwine an author, a magician, a school principal, and the son of a Baptist minister into an intense four-way bond that ultimately ended with two dead and one man convicted of murder by a jury at Oxford Crown Court on Friday.
Peter Farquhar was a Cambridge graduate, a novelist, and a lecturer, who lived in a village 20 miles from Oxford that’s dominated by a 15th-century church and rows of thatched, timber-frame cottages.
Behind drawn curtains, one of his former literature students, Ben Field, became his confidant and lover, then a tormentor, poisoner, and conman who gaslighted the 69-year-old into believing that he was losing his mind.
Field, who was in his mid-twenties at the time, was simultaneously tricking the man’s elderly neighbor, 83-year-old Ann Moore-Martin, into starting another sexual relationship that her family and police believed led to her eventual demise.
After a 10-week trial and 14 days of deliberations, Field, 28, was found guilty Friday of murdering Farquhar, but his alleged accomplice in the scheme, magician Martyn Smith, 32, was acquitted. Both men were found not guilty of plotting to murder Moore-Martin.
Smith said in a statement after the verdicts were delivered, “Always choose your friends very carefully.”
The sensational trial laid bare Field’s twisted seduction of the two senior citizens, detailing how Field was secretly dating women his own age as he kept up the charades.
He even moved into Farquhar’s house and staged an unofficial marriage ceremony with him, while in reality he was planning to use the older man’s every love and desire against him.
They had bonded over literature at Buckingham University, where Farquhar, who was deeply religious, lectured on Romantic poets and the Modernists.
Smith, another of Farquhar’s students and a close friend of Field, joined their version of the Dead Poets Society that continued off-campus over drinks and dinners.
Journals, letters, and social-media accounts of the three frustrated men revealed they were struggling to fulfill their own literary aspirations: Smith had failed to publish a book he had written, Field was desperate to prove himself as a poet, and Farquhar was unable to find a publisher for his latest work. Sales of Farquhar’s first book had been modest.
That first novel, Between Boy and Man, which was set in a prestigious private school like the one where Farquhar had been a teacher for 21 years, was about the inner conflict between the protagonist’s Christian faith and his sexual desire.
Field and Smith helped edit and publish Farquhar’s second and third works of fiction, according to local media reports. They even set about making a documentary called The Moral of the Story, which they said would celebrate Farquhar, playing on a thirst for critical acclaim that so often blights the lives of writers.
Field also appealed to Farquhar’s purer literary instincts. They exchanged poems, essays on literature, and crafted pastiches of each other’s writing in pages and pages of papers collected by the police and published during the trial. Even their arguments played out in literary form; after Field wrote a comedy roast-style piece called Truest Jest about the retired lecturer as a 2012 Christmas gift, Farquhar returned fire in 18 lines of rhyming couplets that dinged the aspiring poet as a “nonentity whom nobody reads.”
The Owl and the Pussycat, a surreal verse published in 1871 by Edward Lear, took on special meaning in their relationship. The poem is a celebrated tale of forbidden love between unlikely partners that police said had been appropriated by a graduate who was willing to turn his literary appreciation into a devastating weapon.
While he was fooling his mark into falling ever more deeply in love with him, Field was secretly poisoning Farquhar. The jury heard that he slipped hallucinogenic drugs, sedatives, and ethanol into drinks or spread them on his toast, causing him to suffer a series of falls as well as slurred speech and mental-health concerns. By then Field had moved into Farquhar’s home, replacing Smith, who had briefly lodged there. He reportedly gave him a dog named Kipling, presumably named after Rudyard Kipling, another 19th-century poet and author, who wrote The Jungle Book.
Once he was living in the house, Field confessed in court, he took to hiding everyday possessions like keys and claiming to have found them in strange places, confusing the man into believing he was losing grip on reality.
As his mind faltered and Farquhar’s fear of dying alone grew ever more acute, Field succeeded in conning tens of thousands of pounds out of him. Farquhar changed his will to include the two men, and Field believed he would eventually inherit the entire house if he carried on living there after his death.
As Farquhar told friends, he believed he had been condemned to witness his own descent into madness like Shakespeare’s King Lear.
When Farquhar died in November 2015, his life was celebrated in The Guardian by the prominent broadcaster Michael Crick and the university paid warm tribute, but there was no one close enough to raise the alarm. Field even delivered the eulogy at the funeral, referencing Farquhar’s reverence for the English poetry greats John Keats, Philip Larkin, and Geoffrey Chaucer.
His body had been discovered by his cleaner and no one had queried the assumption that the veteran English teacher had simply passed out at home in a haze of whiskey. In fact, the prosecution said, Field had plied him with alcohol, and drugged him with flurazepam. Police believe he may even have smothered him to death.
Field’s dedication to the written word extended to the extensive documentation of his twisted operation to warp Farquhar’s mind, but those papers would probably never have come to light if he had not attempted the same playbook against a second retiree—this time a woman who lived two doors down on the same street.
By the time of Farquhar’s death, Field was also in a sexual relationship with Moore-Martin, a well-respected local figure who had retired as a school principal many years before. Like her friend Farquhar, Moore-Martin was a keen churchgoer with a shared appreciation for literature. Field, who was a church warden in his father’s church, admitted in court that he had taken a role in the church and even applied to enter the clergy as part of his quest to fool his elderly lovers.
Once again Field used poetry to persuade the retiree into believing he had fallen in love. The same tried-and-tested techniques were deployed, including systematic drugging, until Moore-Martin was also conned into re-writing her will. Field flattered her into believing that he had fallen for her through epic poems, love letters and—in a new deception—he began to write messages on mirrors in the house that supposedly came from God.
But this time, there was a family member who smelled a rat.
While Field appealed to Farquhar’s desire to burnish his literary reputation, it was Moore-Martin’s fears over her own reputation that would spiral out of control once Field got his hooks into her.
Neighbors described her as an elegant and formidable woman who would have been “quite strict” during her days as a school principal. She was also a devout Catholic, who had never married, but Field had swept her off her feet, seducing her with romantic letters, poems and endless faked professions of love and devotion. He had even taken a photograph of her performing oral sex on him.
Much of the meticulous deceit perpetrated against Moore-Martin—just like Farquhar—was delivered via the written word. Field was playing to his strengths, by now he’d graduated from his English literature degree and landed a masters. The University of Buckingham even published his thesis on the enigmatic Irish poet Paul Muldoon.
As well as the love letters, poems and faux religious mirror messages, Field also wrote a fake, back-dated diary which he intended Moore-Martin to happen across. In it, he wrote about how he would struggle to carry on once his geriatric lover had passed away.
In the diary, entitled Letter to the Saints, he wrote that he would be forced to commit suicide if he ever had to abandon Moore-Martin’s home after her death, concluding “this cannot be survived.” It was designed as a none-too-subtle hint that she should leave him her house in her will.
Moore-Martin’s nieces, Anne-Marie Blake, did not know about the change in the will but she was suspicious about a man in his mid-20s falling in love with the elderly woman. When she heard that Moore-Martin had given her young lover over $30,000 to help his little brother Tom, a Cambridge student who was supposedly suffering kidney failure, those fears hardened.
“Everything was spiralling out of control and then she had a seizure,” she said.
Blake believes the 2017 seizure was triggered by an attempt to kill her aunt, but it was also the seizure that ultimately allowed her to see sense. Blake said that once her aunt was in hospital and out of Field’s control, she was able to slowly convince her that the younger man was only after her money.
That was a hollow salvation, however. “She was tortured by the lies,” Blake told The Daily Beast. “She could not believe she had fallen for such a predictable scam.”
Blake also explained in court that her aunt had felt humiliated by her mistake: “She said to me, ‘I am such an intelligent woman. How could I let this happen to myself?’”
The niece said “it seemed like the classic fraud of an elderly person so I started to set small traps to see if they were really trying to steal her money … In the end they were, and that’s when I alerted police.”
Mark Glover, the senior investigating officer on the case, told The Daily Beast that Moore-Martin’s niece had made a life-saving intervention when she went to the police to share her belief that Field was a conman. “Without a doubt, I think he'd have killed Anne in February and then moved on to the next one,” Glover said. “He could have found more victims fairly easily.”
Field’s notes suggested falling down the stairs, suicide, dehydration or death during sex were among the methods he had considered.
When Moore-Martin died in May 2017, police began to investigate Blake’s claims more seriously. Field admitted in court that he had been defrauding the former school principal after worming his way into her affections. Her niece remains convinced that Field also murdered her aunt, although officially Moore-Martin died of natural causes.
Glover said there was no doubt in his mind that the impact of Field’s betrayal contributed to Moore-Martin’s death. “The thought of it being publicly exposed absolutely destroyed her. And it was one of her last requests to Anne-Marie that it shouldn't go public, ‘Don’t tell anybody.’ … No matter what, I think Ben Field was responsible for expediting Ann's decline in health,” he said.
Farquhar and Moore-Martin who lived just two doors apart were now both dead. “It’s like I moved into Death Row,” one neighbor told The Daily Beast.
Field was soon identified as a link. The police set about trying to work out how these young men could have conned two victims of such fierce intellect.
As detectives from Thames Valley Police pieced together Field’s crimes, the literary influence grew ever more apparent. By the end of the investigation it was clear that Field had used the fantastical world conjured by the poet Edward Lear to draw in his victims.
The Owl and the Pussycat, which is about an unlikely cross-species love affair between a cat and a bird emerged as a key part of the investigation.
Pussy said to the Owl, "You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?"
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-Tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose
By the end of the tale, the creatures are celebrating their marriage. “And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand / They danced by the light of the moon.”
“Edward Lear and The Owl and the Pussycat runs through all his relationships” Glover said. “He was trying to use that as a kind of basis for their relationships.”
This poem was certainly not chosen at random; Field believed Lear’s deepest desires were being surfaced in his work much like in Farquhar’s own fiction. Among Field’s writing seized by police was an appreciation of the verse through the lens of queer theory.
“Looking at the poem from a gendered critical perspective we can see Edward Lear’s life reflected in it,” he wrote. “Living in Victorian England, the possibility for a long term homosexual relationship was almost nil. And so we turn to this poem: two creatures of different species—unable to procreate—are able to fall in love only once they have left society behind.”
Field had identified a yearning in Farquhar and was taking full advantage. To celebrate their “wedding” ceremony, Field gave him figurines of an owl and a pussycat.
When he targeted Farquhar’s friend, Moore-Martin, Field found it easy enough to refocus his interpretation. In a poem for the octogenarian, he wrote: “No nightingale’s song peals out, but that of the wise owl / A quiet howl sung from exile by the Bong Tree.”
Perhaps Field was just getting lazy and reused the same poem as a shortcut. He certainly seemed keen to accelerate a process that he had carefully honed while taking advantage of Farquhar. The messages “from God” on the mirror—a trick he never attempted on his first victim—became ever more direct until the supposed deity wrote in block capitals: “BEN LOVES YOU.” Field photographed these messages and stored them with his papers.
Text messages show that Martyn Smith was aware of the mirror writing, although he said in court that he believed it to be part of some kind of innocent game between a couple who he said he believed were in a genuine relationship. As well as being a failed novelist, Smith was a comically bad magician. One show was such a disaster that the local newspaper wrote a story about the audience storming out and demanding refunds.
During the trial, which was chronicled in great detail by Britain’s Press Association, Field said he had told Smith about the messages because he thought it would appeal to his background in magic. “He knew I was doing this thing making messages appear but I didn’t tell him my real motives,” he said. “I was creating spooky experiences and I thought he might be interested.”
When he was arrested Smith was working on a Ph.D on the golden age of magic and late Victorian literature.
For the detectives building the case that would culminate in a 10-week trial, the scholarly clues presented a challenge that was virtually unique outside the world of literary crime fiction.
“I certainly had to Google a few names and things like that to try and figure out where it came from,” said Glover, modestly. “I'll be the worst person ever to talk about literature and Greek gods and all that kind of thing. Richard Earl, the DS [Detective Sergeant] that worked on this, is a clever man and he figured a lot of it out.”
Gesturing at the stark, multi-use meeting room where we were sitting, he explained that the team spent several hours a day over multiple weeks and months pouring over Field’s writings. They gathered in similar rooms here at the Thames Valley Police’s headquarters, which is on the outskirts of Oxford, far from the city’s famous cobbled streets. “We used to put it up on the wall; try and decipher his handwriting and try and decipher what he meant or what his notes were relating to,” he said.
“He is well-read isn’t he; he can talk about literature. He reads the Oxford English Dictionary for fun,” Glover explained. “Is he clever? I'm not sure he’s properly clever and if he is then he’s certainly very arrogant with it.”
Glover laughs off comparisons with Thames Valley’s most famous detective, Inspector Morse, a fictional character found on British TV and the PBS Mystery! series for more than a decade. Each episode of the show was strewn with literary and classical music references as Morse endeavored to solve the latest murder in Oxford’s ambitious and competitive academic circles. “I would fail miserably. I don't mind driving around in a Jaguar if somebody wants to give me a Jaguar,” he said. “There’s that, and drinking beer, but after that I’d fail miserably.”
His team of detectives ground their way through tens of thousands of pages of written evidence. Glover doesn’t claim there was any flash of genius that brought the truth to light, but he did succeed in inspiring his team to build a case out from these papers that would win in a real court, in front of a real jury.
Field’s love of writing and literature may have been his primary weapons in defrauding a pair of unsuspecting intellectuals but writing absolutely everything down has some very obvious downsides.
When they were first arrested, the court heard that Field was secretly recorded telling Smith he expected to “get away with most of it.”
And he might have done if he hadn’t drawn up such a compelling written account of his own despicable crimes.
Field wrote documents explaining how he got to know Farquhar, and identified his weaknesses. “[Peter] is a closeted Christian, homosexual, English teacher,” he wrote. “[He] says he is / wants to be a ‘writer.’ He is wrong. He wants to be an author. Peter does not enjoy writing, nor is he good at it, but he craves status and approval in a sickly dependent way.”
Years before he killed him, Field had seen a way to make himself feel indispensable in Farquhar’s eyes.
In a second note to himself published by the police, Field described how he engineered early visits and struck up a “vulgarly commercial” relationship with Farquhar; he got somewhere free to stay and a few meals in exchange for making him feel less lonely. “This is needlessly cruel, of course; I do like the man, and appreciate some of the things he’s done for me,” he wrote. “However, that’s not really an interesting thing to say.”
Most devastatingly of all, Field wrote up a plan for how a murder like this could be carried out without detection. Field admitted in court that he had written about a character named Ben giving alcohol and sleeping pills to a character called Peter before suffocating him to death, but he claimed this was merely a literary flourish and he had done no such thing in reality.
In a battle-rap recorded on his dictaphone, Field talked about killing a “faggot”:
There’s nothing in your future
When I do you, then it’s eutha
You’ve been euthanized
Glover said Field’s writing was the key to understanding a man who admitted in court that almost everything he said was either a straight-up lie or had been calculated to deceive. After all he’d boasted to a friend online—captured in logs posted by the police—that he managed to “snake-talk” his way into “an old man's house like a sociopath.”
“If he stands up and says something I'm not sure I'll believe it in all honesty,” Glover said. “If Ben’s written something, I'll probably believe it.”
The officer, who recently retired from the force after 30 years of service, said he had never encountered a murder that was so meticulously documented, both by the killer and the victim since Farquhar also kept a daily journal. “Most of the cases that we deal with are things that happen in five minutes; anger, madness, rage,” he said. “This has covered years, you have what Ben documents, his writings… it documents everything really.”
Field never had the talent to become a celebrated poet, instead he will go down in criminal history as a notorious wordsmith who wrote his way into a prison cell.
Additional reporting by Barbie Latza Nadeau