Harold Shipman was born on January 14, 1946, the middle child of a working-class family. He went by Fred and was his mother’s favorite child. Vera, his mother, was considered domineering, and she instilled in him a sense of superiority that tainted most of his relationships, leaving him an isolated adolescent.
When Vera was diagnosed with lung cancer, he willingly oversaw her care as she declined until she died on June 21, 1963. He was fascinated by the positive effect that the morphine had on her. Devastated by her death, he wanted to go to medical school and attended Leeds University medical school for two years. He failed the entrance exams the first time, before serving his hospital internship.
He was still very much loner, but he met his future wife, Primrose, at the age of 19, and they were married when she was 17 and five months pregnant with their child.
By 1974, he had two children and joined a medical practice in Todmorden, Yorkshire, where he thrived as a family doctor before becoming addicted to Pethidine, a painkiller. He would forge prescriptions for large amounts of the drug and be forced out of the practice when he was caught by his medical colleagues in 1975. That’s when he entered a rehab program. At the inquiry, he received a fine and was convicted for forgery.
A couple of years later, Shipman was accepted onto the staff at Donnybrook Medical Center in Hyde, where he ingratiated himself as a hardworking doctor who wanted to be trusted by patients and colleagues. Still, he did build a reputation for being arrogant. He stayed there for nearly two decades, and his actions only attracted a bit of attention from the other professionals.
The local undertaker took notice that the patients of De. Shipman seemed to be dying at a high rate and had similar poses in death. Most were fully clothed and would usually sitting up or reclined on a settee. He was worried enough that he approached Shipman about this, who reassured him that he should not be concerned. Later a colleague, Dr. Susan Booth, found this similarity disturbing and let the coroner’s office know, who then contacted the police.
A covert investigation followed, but Shipman was cleared, as his records were all in order. The inquiry did not reach out to the General Medical Council, or check criminal records, which would have show them his previous record. Later, a more thorough investigation found that Shipman had altered the records of his patients to corroborate their cause of death.
Hiding behind his façade of being a caring, family doctor, it was nearly impossible to establish when he started to kill his patients, or exactly how many died at his hands. The fact that he denied all charged did nothing to help the authorities. The killing spree was only brought to an end thanks to the determination of Angela Woodruff, the daughter of one of his victims. She refused to accept the explanations given for her mother’s death.
Kathleen Grundy, a wealthy, and very active 81-year-old widow, was found dead in her home on June 24, 1998 after a visit by Shipman. Shipman told Woodruff that an autopsy wasn’t needed, and Grundy was buried in accordance to her daughter’s wishes.
Woodruff was a lawyer, and had always taken care of her mother’s affairs, so it was a bit of a surprise that she found out that another will existed, leaving most of her mother’s estate to Dr. Shipman. Woodruff was convinced it had been forged, and that Shipman had killed her mother, forging the will to benefit from her passing. She contacted the police, where Detective Superintendent Bernard Postles quickly came to the same conclusion after looking at the evidence.
They exhumed Grundy’s body, and a post-mortem revealed that she had died from an overdose of morphine, administered within three hours of her death, which was exactly the time when Shipman had visited her. They raided Shipman’s home and obtained medical records, an odd collection of jewelry, and an old typewriter which proved to be what he had used to forge the will.
From the medical records they seized, they police quickly noticed that case would extend further than one death, and the priority was given to the deaths it would be most productive to look into. These were mainly the victims who had not been cremated, and who had died after being visited at home by Shipman.
One a large number of patients, Shipman had urged families to cremate their relatives. He would also stress that no other investigation into their deaths were needed, even when the relative died of causes that were previously unknown to the families. In situations when they did start questioning things, Shipman would provide computerized medical notes that corroborated his cause of death.
The police established that Shipman would, most of the time, alter these medical notes right after he killed them to make sure that his account matched the historical records. What Shipman didn’t think about was that with every alteration of the records, there was a time stamp made by the computer, which enabled the police to figure out exactly which records had been changed.
After an extensive investigation, which included several autopsies and exhumations, the police charged Shipman with 15 individual counts of murder on September 7, 1998 and one count of forgery. Shipman’s trail started on October 5, 1999 at Preston Crown Court. Attempts by his attorneys to have Shipman tried in three phases, for example, cases with physical evidence, cases without, and then the Grundy case where the forgery differentiated it from the others, as well as to have damning evidence relating to Shipman’s fraudulent accumulation of morphine and other drugs, were all thrown out, and the trail continued on for the 16 charges included in the indictment.
The prosecution worked to prove that Shipman had killed 15 patients because he enjoyed exercising control over life and death, and dismissed any claims that he had been acting with compassion, as not a single one of the victims were suffering from terminal illness.
Woodruff was the first witness. Her determination to find out the truth and your forthcoming manner impressed the jury. All of the attempts by Shipman’s defense to undermine her proved unsuccessful.
The pathologist then led the court through all of the gruesome post mortem findings, where morphine toxicity was the cause of death most of the time. Then they looked at the fingerprint analysis of the forged will, which showed that Grundy had never handled the will, and her signature was dismissed through a handwriting expert as a forgery.
A police computer analyst testified how Shipman had changed the computer records to add symptoms that his dead patients never had, and most of the time the changes were made within hours of their deaths.
As the trail moved into the victims and the accounts of their relatives, the pattern of Shipman’s actions become clearer. A lack of compassion, disregard for the relatives, and a reluctance to attempt resuscitation were bad enough, but another fraud was brought to light. He would often pretend to call the emergency services when around attending relatives, then he’d cancel the call when the patient was found dead. Telephone records showed that no actual calls were ever made.
Finally, they released evidence of the drug hoarding. He would prescribe morphine to patients who didn’t need it, over-prescribe to those who did, as well as proof of his visits to the homes of the recently deceased to collect any drugs they hadn’t used in order to “dispose” of them.
The haughty demeanor of Shipmen didn’t help his attorneys paint a picture of a dedicated healthcare professional. Despite their attempts, his shear arrogance and the fact that he constantly changed his story when caught in lies, did nothing to make the jury like him.
Following the Judges summation and a caution to the jury that nobody had actually seen Shipman kill any of his patients, the jury were sufficiently convinced by the testimonies and evidence and they came back with a unanimous guilty verdict on all charges on January 31, 2000.
Shipman was given 15 life sentences for the murders and 4 years for the forgery, which he commuted to a “whole life” sentence, which removed any chance of parole. Shipman was incarcerated at Durham Prison.
The idea that a doctor had been able to kill 15 patients sent a shudder through the medical community, but this was to prove insignificant in light of additional investigations that dove deeper into the his patient case history.
Through the University of Leicester, Professor Richard Baker performed a clinical audit. He examined the number and pattern of the deaths in Shipman’s practice and compared them to other practitioners. The audit discovered that the rates of death amongst Shipman’s elder patients were significantly higher, clustered around certain times of the day, and that Shipman had been present in a disproportionately high number of cases. The audit estimated that he may have been responsible for the deaths of around 236 patients over a 24-year period.
Another inquire by High Court Judge, Dame Janet Smith, examined the records of 500 patients who had died while in the care of Shipman, and the 2000-page report said that the likely number of those he had murdered was at least 218. This was only an estimate and not a precise calculation.
It also speculated that Shipman may have been “addicted to killing,” and was critical of police investigation procedures. It claimed that the lack of experience of the investigating officers resulted in missed opportunities to bring Shipman to justice earlier. It is possible that he took his first victim only months after he obtained his medical license as 67-year-old Margaret Thompson, who died in March 1971 while recovering from a stroke. The deaths that may have occurred before 1975 were never officially proven.
Of those that were likely murdered by Shipman, they included both men and women and were aged between 47 and 93. Most of the time, he would inject them with a lethal dose of morphine and then signed a death certificate stating that they had died of natural causes. The actual reason for his killings is still unclear. Some say he may have been avenging the death of his mothers, while others thing he was practicing euthanasia, and removing older people from the population who would have become a burden to the health care system. A third possibility was that he got some type of pleasure from the knowledge that, as a doctor, he had power over life and death with his patients, and killing was a way to express that power. Despite the one forgery, financial gain does not appear to have been a big motive for him.
No matter what the actually number was, or what his motives may have been, the sheer scale of his murderous activities meant that Shipman was shot from a patient killer to one of the most prolific serial killers in the world. He stayed at Durham Prison throughout these investigations, maintaining that he was innocent, and was staunchly defended by his wife and family. He was transferred to Wakefield Prison in June 2003, which made it easier for his family to visit.
On January 13, 2004, Shipman was found hanging in his cell at Wakefield. He had used his bed sheets and tied them to the window bars of is cell. There is still a bit of mystery as to where his remains are, with some saying his body is still in Sheffield Morgue, while others think that his family has custody of his body, believing that he may have been murdered, and wishing to delay his interment for more tests.
While Shipman is dead and he is no longer causing harm to people, a big question remains, how? How did he manage to possibly kill over 200 people without raising suspicions. What’s more is all of the patients had been healthy shortly before they encountered him. The fact that he took advantage of the trust that his patients had in him made his crimes particularly odious.