He was such a nice man, a pillar of the community, said so many people who knew and trusted the man who became known as Dr. Death.
Over decades this serial killer visited the homes of his patients, and when he left those patients were perhaps too often no longer breathing.
But how chronic was his compulsion to kill?
At first it was thought he’d murdered a handful of people, and then it was scores of victims, with the final number still being disputed.
What we do know is that Mr. Shipman could
have been the most prolific serial killer of all time.
Harold Shipman was known to a lot of people.
He was a family doctor in a small community, an agent of help, and over two decades he became a man whose face most people recognised in the street.
This bespectacled, tweed-wearing doctor that
looked perhaps what you’d imagine a small town British doctor to look like, was indeed a pillar of the community.
But to say he had a dark secret would be the
understatement of the century, because Harold Shipman, aka, the Angel of Death, Dr. Death wasn’t just Britain’s most prolific killer, but he’s up there with the most murderous criminals the world has ever seen.
About Dr Death
He was born on 14 January, 1946, with the full name Harold Frederick Shipman. To his friends, patients and colleagues he was simply known as Fred, or Freddie.
As is almost always the case with the people we feature in this series of shows, if we want to try and understand how someone became a killer we might look to traumas in childhood.
What went wrong?
For young Freddie that was the death of his mother when he was 17.
His friends in interviews years later said young Fred didn’t talk much about his mother’s fight with lung cancer, and how he watched when the local doctor used to come around to his house and relieve her pain with morphine, but it’s thought young Fred was a very devoted
His mother had gone to great pains to make sure her working class boy brought up on a
council estate (that’s like the projects, for our American viewers), got into grammar school.
Again, for American viewers, this is a school
kids had to pass exams to get into, populated
perhaps with few poor kids.
But Shipman tried in earnest to please his mother, and his mother became very proud of
We might also add that some bios said she was domineering and overbearing, sometimes a recipe for disaster.
It’s said she pushed him too hard, and in turn he became isolated from other kids.
His mother would foster in him a sense of superiority, but this would become a life long problem for Shipman who perhaps could never get his mother out of his head.
Still, perhaps trying to please his mother and with her painful, long drawn out death on his mind, Fred was determined to become a doctor.
He would dedicate his life to other people’s pain, but as we will see, his method of treatment
we might perhaps say was overboard, a tad too total.
Shipman studied at Leeds University medical
school in the north of England and later took on internships at hospitals.
He was on his way to becoming a doctor, and a step closer to becoming a serial killer.
During this time, though, even though it’s said he was a loner, he would meet his future wife.
He was 19 and she was 17 when she became pregnant with their first child.
They would have four kids in total.
In 1974 he would get his first job as a GP, or general practitioner.
That’s basically your run of the mill family doctor.
The clinic where he worked was located in
a small town called Todmorden in West Yorkshire, which on the outside looks like a beautiful rural town, nestled between valleys, what a poet might have called England’s “green and pleasant land.”
But looks can be deceiving, because even though Shipman might have looked like he was living the perfect rural life, he was at that time forging prescriptions of the opioid called pethidine.
Yep, he was hooked on a kind of prescription
He was caught and fined, but after some rehab
he was back in business.
In 1977 he began working in another small
community, this time on the other side of those valleys in a place called Hyde, just outside Manchester.
Ok, so we should tell you now that we don’t
exactly know when Dr. Shipman consummated his curse and became Dr. Death.
It’s generally thought he didn’t waste much time and was killing when starting out in Todmorden.
How many he killed is a number that changes
by the source, but it was a lot- hundreds-
but how many hundreds we still do not know.
This might make him the worst serial killer in history, but getting the exact body count is not always easy.
There have been a couple of deranged Colombians that might have a stake in the most kills count, and as historians point out data from some countries might be unreliable.
Then you also have some depraved rich Europeans from times past who also took great pleasure in murdering scores of peasants for their amusement.
So, he is now working in this small Lancashire
He will stay there for around two decades and Mr. Shipman as we have said will become what’s called a pillar of the community.
In fact, one of the senior doctors who worked
with him said that Shipman would take on a
massive workload, and his patients for the most part adored him.
He was said to be the most popular doctor at the medical center.
What could possibly go wrong?
The answer to that is his patients seemed to kick the bucket a lot, perhaps before their time was up.
Psychologists have said that he might have
murdered some of his patients because of the
power it gave him, he became God, and the
memory of his dying mother was never far away.
But it’s said he also murdered when there was money in it for him – in one case someone’s
He also obtained large amounts of morphine by saying he needed it for patients that sometimes didn’t actually need it.
According to the Guardian newspaper most of
his victims were old women.
That reports says his first victim was a 71 year old woman who Shipman got rid of in 1975.
It was the eve of her birthday, too.
His youngest victim was a 41-year old man, and his eldest a 93-year old woman.
Killing became easier for him when he left that medical center and started his own practice in the same town.
You might well be thinking how come no one
noticed that there was this doctor in town that if you saw, there was a good chance your days were numbered?
Didn’t anyone say, wait a minute, my mum was alright on Friday and on Saturday she was found slumped over in her chair.
Hmm, and that’s what happened to so and so’s mother, and the other woman, too.
Well, apparently no one could see past the nice man in a tweed jacket.
It wasn’t until 1998 that the local undertakers
in that town of Hyde started saying that it
seemed a lot of bodies were coming from him.
Indeed, it was soon found out that his death rate was ten times higher than other doctors.
On top of that, many of those that died did so in the same position.
Like a drug addict that’s overdone it, the mostly old women were sat upright, or slumped, on a sofa and they were fully clothed.
The Guardian writes that the police investigation in ’98 was a shambles, stating that police didn’t check inconsistencies of his medical notes with the deaths of his patients.
“The police investigation failed to carry out even the most basic checks, including whether Shipman had a criminal record,”
wrote the Guardian.
But some members of the local community were on to him.
Even a taxi driver came forward and said Shipman was killing off perfectly healthy individuals.
Then also in 1998 a former mayoress who had a bit of cash stashed away died in Shipman’s care.
She’d left most of this money to Shipman, but the daughter wasn’t having any of that.
She ordered that the body be exhumed and Shipman was subsequently charged with his first murder.
The coroner of course ruled that the woman had died of a morphine overdose.
What followed you could perhaps call an exhumation sweep.
Low and behold, the notes Shipman had written didn’t match what had actually happened.
Those bodies showed that morphine toxicity had turned off the life that had once been inside them.
The notes also showed that Shipman had often
made up a bunch of ailments patients never had and he’d done that often right before they died.
It was also found out that in some cases he’d told the relatives of the deceased that before the old bean had passed he’d called for an ambulance, but phone records showed he’d lied about that.
The delectable doctor was finally becoming
Police and people of the town couldn’t believe
what had been happening right under their eyes.
It turned out that in just an 18-month period, on one street alone, six of Shipman’s patients had died in front of him after he’d gone around and done his house visit.
It was also found that in the space of one month, eight of his female patients had died
in mysterious circumstances.
It’s said in court he was still possessed with that air of superiority his mother had helped create.
He lied, changed his stories, was apparently
arrogant and unhelpful and denied everything
even though there was so much evidence.
In fact, in one documentary Shipman’s former
cellmate explains that he never admitted to the crimes.
That cellmate had tried to hang himself at one point, and it was Shipman that revived him.
He took lives, but leaving a dying man hanging
in his cell was not his MO.
Despite this act of kindness, investigators said he tried to belittle police and acted domineering in interviews.
“He was treating this as some sort of game,
a competition, pitting his, what he considered
to be his superior intellect, to those of
the officers who were interviewing him,”
one of those investigators told the BBC.
In 2000, he was convicted of 15 counts of murder and handed a life sentence.
The town of Hyde was in shock, but the story
would soon turn even more grim.
A lot of people of course started wondering if their aunt, gran, uncle, or cousin, had actually just passed away on the sofa in their sleep, or whether the now not so nice doctor had given them his most potent life-ending cocktail, The Shipman Sofa Special.
An audit followed which produced a 2,000 page report.
It was revealed that over the 24 years Shipman
had been taking care of people 500 of those
people had died.
That report concluded that of those people he had killed 218.
Today it’s still thought the number could be as high as 250.
This is the number given in the sixth and final investigation and report.
It was said that Shipman was “addicted to
killing”, and his last victim would be himself.
On January 13, 2004, he was found hanging in his cell.
He’d used his bedsheets.
The prison was criticized for allowing this to happen, but an investigation ruled the suicide “could not have been predicted or prevented.”
Shipman’s wife and children always said they knew nothing about his dark side, but they for the most part avoided talking openly to the media.
So, what do you think about this man (Dr. Death)?
Does his high body count make him more evil than a sadistic killer, or do you think his crimes were less abhorrent because of the way he ended lives?
Tell us in the comments.