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Harold Shipman: "Doctor Death"

Updated on March 7, 2012

English doctor Harold Shipman, AKA “Doctor Death,” was known to have committed at least 218 murders. A special inquiry concluded Shipman was probably responsible for about 250 deaths, but it would have been an act in futility to keep handing down life sentences after the first 15 convictions. About 80% of his victims were elderly women, his youngest being a 41-year-old man. Shipman’s method of killing was injecting his patients with fatal doses of pethidine hydrochloride (Demerol)…the same drug which killed pop star Michael Jackson, or diamorphine.

After a six day trial, a jury found Shipman guilty of 15 murders on 31 January 2000. He was sentenced to 15 consecutive life sentences plus 4 years for forgery without the possibility of parole at Wakefield Prison in West Yorkshire. Shipman died on 13 January 2004, after hanging himself with bed sheets in his cell. He maintained his innocence until the last. The sheer number of his victims put him at the top of the list as the most prolific serial killer in history to date.

Born on June 14, 1946, Harold was the second of four children of Harold and Vera Shipman. He became his mother’s favorite. According to the family’s neighbors, Vera felt her family was superior to everyone else, despite the fact they were a working class family. As a result, the trait apparently passed to young Harold.

The Trial

Being his mother’s favorite, Vera controlled every aspect of the boy’s life. She decided who his playmates would be and felt no girl was worthy of her son. Students and others who remembered him said he had no girl friends they knew of. While other boys were dressed to play, Harold was the one wearing a shirt and tie. His mother died from cancer when he was 17 in 1963.

During his early years Harold showed promise as a bright student, but, later on instructors classed him as just average. In fact, he failed his medical school entrance exams and had to be retested. But due to his early upbringing he still believed he was vastly superior to his peers. Harold was finally admitted to Leeds University medical school where he served his mandatory hospital internship.

With his mother now gone, Harold at the age of 19 met Primrose, a girl three years his junior. They married when she was 17 and 5 months pregnant. By 1974 they had two children and he had joined a medical practice in the Yorkshire town of Todmorden. He was well respected by his patients, partners and other physicians. But those who worked under him saw a different side. He was rude and constantly telling them they were “stupid,” his favorite word.

However, his career came to a screeching halt in 1975 when it was discovered he was having blackouts. He lied about the reason saying he suffered from epilepsy. But the truth soon came out when a receptionist came across incriminating evidence in a controlled narcotics ledger. The ledger revealed he had been prescribing large, excessive dosages of pethidine, a morphine-like analgesic, for several patients, who didn’t need it and also some who never received it. The doctor had been using it himself.

Realizing his career was on the line he denied the allegations and begged for a second chance. When he didn’t get it, Shipman flung his medical bag across the room, threatened to resign and stormed out cursing. It made no difference as his partners kicked him out anyway and forced him into a drug rehabilitation program.

Shipman continued working as a General Practitioner throughout the 1980s at various hospitals. Eventually he established his own surgery practice in Hyde and became a respected member of the community. In March 1998, the Frank Massey and Son's Funeral Parlor, expressed concerns to the coroner’s office about the high death rate among Shipman's patients. Further investigation revealed he had been forging cremation forms for elderly patients in poor health which needed a counter signature.

However, at the time the matter was reported to police there was insufficient proof to file charges and the investigation was abandoned in April 1998. In the interim, before his eventual arrest on 7 September 1998, it was determined he had killed three more people.

His last victim was wealthy Kathleen Grundy, a former Hyde mayor. She was found dead at home on 24 June 1998 and Shipman was the last person to see her alive. He later signed her death certificate recording "old age" as cause of death.

However, Grundy's daughter, lawyer Angela Woodruff, became suspicious when informed a will supposedly made by her mother, left everything to Shipman. The police, who suspected Shipman was guilty all along but just couldn’t prove it, immediately began an investigation.

Grundy's body was exhumed and examined. It was found to contain traces of diamorphine. Shipman was arrested. Searches conducted at his office and home produced the typewriter which he used to make the fake will.

The police then investigated other patient deaths Shipman had certified. They created a list of 15 cases to investigate. It was sufficient to prove either his guilt or innocence. There was no reason to exhume over 200 bodies. In each case it was proven he had administered lethal doses of diamorphine and forged medical records indicating the patients had been in poor health.

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