Harold Fredrick Shipman (14 January 1946 –
13 January 2004) was a convicted English serial killer. A doctor by
profession, he is among the most prolific serial killers in recorded
history with 218 murders being positively ascribed to him, although
the actual number is likely much higher.
On 31 January 2000, a jury found Shipman guilty of
15 murders. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and the judge
recommended that he never be released. The whole life tariff was
confirmed by the Home Secretary a little over two years later.
After his trial, the Shipman Inquiry, chaired by Dame
Janet Smith, investigated all deaths certified by Shipman. About 80% of
his victims were women. His youngest victim was Peter Lewis, a 41-year-old
man. Much of Britain's legal structure concerning health care and
medicine was reviewed and modified as a direct and indirect result of
Shipman's crimes, especially after the findings of the Shipman Inquiry,
which began on 1 September 2000 and lasted almost two years. Shipman is
the only British doctor found guilty of murdering his patients.
Shipman died on 13 January 2004, after hanging
himself in his cell at Wakefield Prison in West Yorkshire.
Early life and career
Harold Frederick Shipman was born in Nottingham,
England, the second of four children of Vera and Harold Shipman, a lorry
driver. His working class parents were devout Methodists. Shipman was
particularly close to his mother, who died of cancer when he was 17. Her
death came in a manner similar to what later became Shipman's own modus
operandi: in the later stages of her disease, she had morphine
administered at home by a doctor. Shipman witnessed his mother's pain
subside in light of her terminal condition, up until her death on 21
Shipman received a scholarship to medical school, and
graduated from Leeds School of Medicine in 1970. He started work at
Pontefract General Infirmary in Pontefract, West Riding of Yorkshire,
and in 1974, took his first position as a general practitioner (GP) at
the Abraham Ormerod Medical Centre in Todmorden, West Yorkshire. In 1975
he was caught forging prescriptions of pethidine for his own use. He was
fined £600, and briefly attended a drug rehabilitation clinic in York.
After a brief period as medical officer for Hatfield College, Durham,
and temporary work for the National Coal Board, he became a GP at the
Donneybrook Medical Centre in Hyde, Greater Manchester, in 1977.
Shipman continued working as a GP in Hyde throughout
the 1980s and founded his own surgery on Market Street in 1993, becoming
a respected member of the community. In 1983, he was interviewed on the
Granada television documentary World in Action on how the
mentally ill should be treated in the community.
In March 1998, Dr. Linda Reynolds of the Brooke
Surgery in Hyde—prompted by Deborah Massey from Frank Massey and Son's
funeral parlour—expressed concerns to John Pollard, the coroner for the
South Manchester District, about the high death rate among Shipman's
patients. In particular, she was concerned about the large number of
cremation forms for elderly women that he had needed countersigned. She
suspected Shipman was, either through negligence or intent, killing his
The matter was brought to the attention of the police,
who were unable to find sufficient evidence to bring charges; The
Shipman Inquiry later blamed the police for assigning inexperienced
officers to the case. Between 17 April 1998, when the police abandoned
the investigation, and Shipman's eventual arrest, he killed three more
people. His last victim was Kathleen Grundy, a former ceremonial Mayor
of Hyde, who was found dead at her home on 24 June 1998. Shipman was the
last person to see her alive, and later signed her death certificate,
recording "old age" as cause of death.
Grundy's daughter, lawyer Angela Woodruff, became
concerned when solicitor Brian Burgess informed her that a will had been
made, apparently by her mother (although there were doubts about its
authenticity). The will excluded her and her children, but left £386,000
to Shipman. Burgess told Woodruff to report it, and went to the police,
who began an investigation. Grundy's body was exhumed, and when examined
found to contain traces of diamorphine, often used for pain control in
terminal cancer patients. Shipman was arrested on 7 September 1998, and
was found to own a typewriter of the type used to make the forged will.
The police then investigated other deaths Shipman had
certified, and created a list of 15 specimen cases to investigate. They
discovered a pattern of his administering lethal overdoses of
diamorphine, signing patients' death certificates, and then forging
medical records indicating they had been in poor health.
Prescription For Murder, a book by journalists
Brian Whittle and Jean Ritchie, reports two theories on why Shipman
forged the will. One is that he wanted to be caught because his life was
out of control; the other reason, that he planned to retire at fifty-five
and leave the country.
Trial and imprisonment
Shipman's trial, presided over by Mr Justice Forbes,
began on 5 October 1999. Shipman was charged with the murders of Marie
West, Irene Turner, Lizzie Adams, Jean Lilley, Ivy Lomas, Muriel Grimshaw, Marie Quinn, Kathleen Wagstaff, Bianka Pomfret, Norah Nuttall,
Pamela Hillier, Maureen Ward, Winifred Mellor, Joan Melia and Kathleen
Grundy, all of whom had died between 1995 and 1998.
On 31 January 2000, after six days of deliberation,
the jury found Shipman guilty of killing 15 patients by lethal
injections of diamorphine, and forging the will of Kathleen Grundy. The
trial judge sentenced him to 15 consecutive life sentences and
recommended that he never be released. Shipman also received four years
for forging the will. Two years later, Home Secretary David Blunkett
confirmed the judge's recommendation that Shipman never be released,
just months before British government ministers lost their power to set
minimum terms for prisoners.
On 11 February 2000, ten days after his conviction,
the General Medical Council formally struck Shipman off its register.
Shipman consistently denied his guilt, disputing the
scientific evidence against him. He never made any statements about his
actions. His defence tried, but failed, to have the count of murder of
Mrs Grundy, where a clear motive was alleged, tried separately from the
others, where no obvious motive was apparent. His wife Primrose
apparently was in denial about his crimes as well.
Although many other cases could have been brought to
court, the authorities concluded it would be hard to have a fair trial,
in view of the enormous publicity surrounding the original trial. Also,
given the sentences from the first trial, a further trial was
unnecessary. The Shipman Inquiry concluded Shipman was probably
responsible for about 250 deaths. The Shipman Inquiry also suggested
that he liked to use drugs recreationally.
Despite the prosecutions of Dr John Bodkin Adams in
1957, Dr Leonard Arthur in 1981, and Dr Thomas Lodwig in 1990 (amongst
others), Shipman is the only doctor in British legal history to be found
guilty of killing patients.
According to historian Pamela Cullen, Adams had also
been a serial killer—potentially killing up to 165 of his patients
between 1946 and 1956—and it is estimated he may have killed over 450,
but as he "was found not guilty, there was no impetus to examine the
flaws in the system until the Shipman case. Had these issues been
addressed earlier, it might have been more difficult for Shipman to
commit his crimes." H. G. Kinnell, writing in the British Medical
Journal, also speculates that Adams "possibly provided the role
model for Shipman".
Harold Shipman committed suicide by hanging in his
cell at Wakefield Prison at 06:20 on 13 January 2004, on the eve of his
58th birthday, and was pronounced dead at 08:10. A Prison Service
statement indicated that Shipman had hanged himself from the window bars
of his cell using bed sheets. Some British tabloids expressed joy at his
suicide and encouraged other serial killers to follow his example;
The Sun ran a celebratory front page headline, "Ship Ship hooray!"
Some of the victims' families said they felt cheated,
as his suicide meant they would never have the satisfaction of Shipman's
confession, and answers as to why he committed his crimes. The Home
Secretary David Blunkett noted that celebration was tempting, saying: "You
wake up and you receive a call telling you Shipman has topped himself
and you think, is it too early to open a bottle? And then you discover
that everybody's very upset that he's done it."
Despite The Sun's celebration of Shipman's
suicide, his death divided national newspapers, with the Daily Mirror
branding him a "cold coward" and condemning the Prison Service for
allowing his suicide to happen. The Independent, on the other
hand, called for the inquiry into Shipman's suicide to look more widely
at the state of Britain's prisons as well as the welfare of inmates.
In The Guardian, an article by Sir David
Ramsbotham (former Chief Inspector of Prisons) suggested that whole life
sentencing be replaced by indefinite sentencing as these would at least
give prisoners the hope of eventual release and reduce the risk of their
committing suicide as well as making their management easier for prison
Shipman's motive for suicide was never established,
although he had reportedly told his probation officer that he was
considering suicide so that his widow could receive a National Health
Service (NHS) pension and lump sum, even though he had been stripped of
his own pension. His wife received a full NHS pension, which she would
not have been entitled to if he had died after the age of 60.
FBI profiler John Douglas asserted that serial
killers are usually obsessed with manipulation and control, and killing
themselves in police custody, or committing "suicide by cop", can be a
final act of control. Shipman had been emotional and close to tears when
his refusal to take part in courses which would have encouraged him to
confess his guilt led to privileges including the opportunity to
telephone his wife being removed. Privileges had been returned the week
before the suicide.
Additionally, Primrose, who had consistently believed
that Shipman was innocent, might have begun to suspect his guilt.
According to Tony Fleming, Shipman's ex-cellmate, Primrose recently
wrote her husband a letter, exhorting him to "tell me everything, no
In January 2001, Chris Gregg, a senior West Yorkshire
detective was selected to lead an investigation into 22 of the West
Yorkshire deaths. Following this, a report into Shipman's activities
submitted in July 2002 concluded that he had killed at least 215 of his
patients between 1975 and 1998, during which time he practiced in
Todmorden, West Yorkshire (1974–1975) and Hyde, Greater Manchester
(1977–1998). Dame Janet Smith, the judge who submitted the report,
admitted that many more suspicious deaths could not be definitively
ascribed to him. Most of his victims were elderly women in good health.
In her sixth and final report, issued on 24 January
2005, Smith reported that she believed that Shipman had killed three
patients, and she had serious suspicions about four further deaths,
including that of a four-year-old girl, during the early stage of his
medical career at Pontefract General Hospital, West Riding, Yorkshire.
Smith concluded the probable number of Shipman's victims between 1971
and 1998 was 250. In total, 459 people died while under his care, but it
is uncertain how many of those were Shipman's victims, as he was often
the only doctor to certify a death.
The Shipman Inquiry also recommended changes to the
structure of the General Medical Council.
The General Medical Council charged six doctors who
signed cremation forms for Shipman's victims with misconduct, claiming
they should have noticed the pattern between Shipman's home visits and
his patients' deaths. All these doctors were found not guilty. Shipman's
widow, Primrose Shipman, was called to give evidence about two of the
deaths during the inquiry. She maintained her husband's innocence both
before and after the prosecution.
In October 2005, a similar hearing was held against
two doctors who worked at Tameside General Hospital in 1994, who failed
to detect that Shipman had deliberately administered a "grossly
excessive" dose of morphine.
A 2005 inquiry into Shipman's suicide found that it "could
not have been predicted or prevented," but that procedures should
nonetheless be re-examined.
In 2005, it came to light that Shipman might have
stolen jewellery from his victims. Over £10,000 worth of jewellery had
been found in his garage in 1998, and in March 2005, with Primrose
Shipman pressing for it to be returned to her, police wrote to the
families of Shipman's victims asking them to identify the jewellery.
Unidentified items were handed to the Assets Recovery
Agency in May. In August the investigation ended: 66 pieces were
returned to Primrose Shipman and 33 pieces, which she confirmed were not
hers, were auctioned. The proceeds of the auction went to Tameside
Victim Support. The only piece actually returned to a murdered patient's
family was a platinum-diamond ring, for which the family were able to
provide a photograph as proof of ownership.
A memorial garden to Shipman's victims, called the
Garden of Tranquillity, opened in Hyde Park (Hyde) on 30 July 2005.
In media and popular culture
Harold and Fred (They Make Ladies Dead) was a
2001 strip cartoon in Viz, also featuring serial killer Fred West.
Extracts from the strip were subsequently merchandised as a coffee mug.
Shipman, a television dramatisation of the
case, was made in 2002 and starred James Bolam in the title role. The
case was also referenced in an episode of the 2003 television series
Diagnosis: Unknown called "Deadly Medicine" (Season 2, Episode 17,
2003). Shipman's activities also inspired D.A.W., an episode of
the American TV series Law & Order: Criminal Intent. In it, the
police investigate a physician who they discover has killed 200 of his
Both The Fall and Jonathan King have released songs
about Shipman. The Fall's song is, "What About Us?", from the 2005 album
Fall Heads Roll.
King's song became controversial when, six months
after its release, it was reported to be in Shipman's defence, urging
listeners not to "fall for a media demon".
As of early 2009, families of the victims of Shipman
are still seeking compensation for the loss of their loved ones.
In September 2009, it was announced that letters
written by Shipman during his prison sentence were to be sold at auction.
Following complaints from victims' relatives and the media, the letters
were removed from sale
Born the middle child into a working class family on 14th June
1946, Harold Frederick Shipman, known as “Fred”, was the favourite
child of his domineering mother, Vera. She instilled in him an
early sense of superiority that tainted most of his later
relationships, leaving him an isolated adolescent with few
When his mother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, he
willingly oversaw her care as she declined, fascinated by the
positive effect that the administration of morphine had on her
suffering, until she succumbed to the disease on 21st June 1963.
Devastated by her death, he was determined to go to medical
school, and he was admitted to Leeds University medical school for
training two years later, having failed his entrance exams first
time, before serving his hospital internship.
Still a loner, he met his wife-to-be Primrose at the age of 19,
and they were married when she was 17, and five months pregnant
with their first child.
1974 he was a father of two and had joined a medical practice in
Todmorden, Yorkshire, where he initially thrived as a family
practitioner, before allegedly becoming addicted to the
painkiller, Pethidine. He forged prescriptions for large amounts
of the drug, and he was forced to leave the practice when caught
by his medical colleagues in 1975, at which time he entered a drug
rehab programme. In the subsequent inquiry he received a small
fine and a conviction for forgery.
couple of years later he was accepted onto the staff at
Donneybrook Medical Centre in Hyde, where he ingratiated himself
as a hardworking doctor, who enjoyed the trust of patients and
colleagues alike, although he had a reputation for arrogance
amongst junior staff. He remained on staff there for almost two
decades, and his behaviour incurred only minor interest from other
local undertaker noticed that Dr. Shipman’s patients seemed to be
dying at an unusually high rate, and exhibited similar poses in
death: most were fully clothed, and usually sitting up or
reclining on a settee. He was concerned enough to approach Shipman
about this directly, who reassured him that there was nothing to
be concerned about. Later, another medical colleague, Dr. Susan
Booth, also found the similarity disturbing, and the local
coroner’s office were alerted, who in turn contacted the police.
covert investigation followed, but Shipman was cleared, as it
appeared that his records were in order. The inquiry failed to
contact the General Medical Council, or check criminal records,
which would have yielded evidence of Shipman’s previous record.
Later, a more thorough investigation revealed that Shipman altered
the medical records of his patients to corroborate their causes of
Hiding behind his status as a caring, family doctor, it is almost
impossible to establish exactly when Shipman began killing his
patients, or indeed exactly how many died at his hand, and his
denial of all charges did nothing to assist the authorities.
Indeed, his killing spree was only brought to an end thanks to the
determination of Angela Woodruff, the daughter of one of his
victims, who refused to accept the explanations given for her
Kathleen Grundy, an active, wealthy 81-year-old widow, was found
dead in her home on 24th June 1998, following an earlier visit by
Shipman. Woodruff was advised by Shipman that an autopsy was not
required, and Kathleen Grundy was buried in accordance with her
Woodruff was a solicitor, and had always handled her mother’s
affairs, so it was with some surprise that she discovered that
another will existed, leaving the bulk of her mother’s estate to
Dr. Shipman. Woodruff was convinced the document was a forgery,
and that Shipman had murdered her mother, forging the will to
benefit from her death. She alerted the local police, where
Detective Superintendent Bernard Postles quickly came to the same
conclusion on examination of the evidence.
Kathleen Grundy’s body was exhumed, and a post-mortem revealed
that she had died of a morphine overdose, administered within
three hours of her death, precisely within the timeframe of
Shipman’s visit to her. Shipman’s home was raided, yielding
medical records, an odd collection of jewellery, and an old
typewriter which proved to be the instrument upon which Grundy’s
forged will had been produced.
was immediately apparent to the police, from the medical records
seized, that the case would extend further than the single death
in question, and priority was given to those deaths it would be
most productive to investigate, namely victims who had not been
cremated, and who had died following a home visit by Shipman,
which were given priority.
Shipman had urged families to cremate their relatives in a large
number of cases, stressing that no further investigation of their
deaths was necessary, even in instances where these relatives had
died of causes previously unknown to the families. In situations
where they did raise questions, Shipman would provide computerised
medical notes that corroborated his cause of death pronouncements.
Police later established that Shipman would, in most cases, alter
these medical notes directly after killing the patient, to ensure
that his account matched the historical records. What Shipman had
failed to grasp was that each alteration of the records would be
time stamped by the computer, enabling police to ascertain exactly
which records had been altered.
Following extensive investigations, which included numerous
exhumations and autopsies, the police charged Shipman with 15
individual counts of murder on 7th September 1998, as well as one
count of forgery.
Shipman’s trial commenced in Preston Crown Court on 5th October
1999. Attempts by his defence council to have Shipman tried in
three separate phases, i.e. cases with physical evidence, cases
without and the Grundy case (where the forgery differentiated it
from other cases), as well as to have damning evidence relating to
Shipman’s fraudulent accumulation of morphine and other drugs,
were thrown out, and the trial proceeded on the sixteen charges
included in the indictment.
prosecution asserted that Shipman had killed the fifteen patients
because he enjoyed exercising control over life and death, and
dismissed any claims that he had been acting compassionately, as
none of his victims were suffering a terminal illness.
Angela Woodruff, Kathleen Grundy’s daughter, appeared as first
witness. Her forthright manner, and account of her unremitting
determination to get to the truth impressed the jury, and attempts
by Shipman’s defence to undermine her were largely unsuccessful.
Next up, the government pathologist led the court through the
gruesome post mortem findings, where morphine toxicity was the
cause of death in most instances.
Thereafter, fingerprint analysis of the forged will showed that
Kathleen Grundy had never handled the will, and her signature was
dismissed by a handwriting expert as a crude forgery.
police computer analyst then testified how Shipman had altered his
computer records to create symptoms that his dead patients never
had, in most cases within hours of their deaths.
the trial progressed onto other victims and the accounts of their
relatives, the pattern of Shipman’s behaviour became much clearer.
A lack of compassion, disregard for the wishes of attending
relatives, and reluctance to attempt to revive patients were bad
enough, but another fraud also came to light: he would pretend to
call the emergency services in the presence of relatives, then
cancel the call out when the patient was discovered to be dead.
Telephone records showed that no actual calls were made.
Finally, evidence of his drug hoarding was introduced, with false
prescribing to patients who didn’t require morphine,
over-prescribing to others who did, as well as proof of his visits
to the homes of the recently deceased to collect up unused drug
supplies for “disposal”.
Shipman’s haughty demeanour throughout the trial did nothing to
assist his defence in painting a picture of a dedicated healthcare
professional of the old fashioned variety, always putting the
needs of others above his own. Despite their attempts, his
arrogance and constantly changing stories, when caught out in
obvious lies, did nothing to endear him to the jury.
Following a meticulous summation by the judge, and a caution to
the jury that no one had actually witnessed Shipman kill any of
his patients, the jury were sufficiently convinced by the
testimony and evidence presented, and unanimously found Shipman
guilty on all charges: 15 counts of murder and one of forgery, on
the afternoon of 31st January 2000.
judge passed fifteen life sentences, as well as a four-year
sentence for forgery, which he commuted to a “whole life”
sentence, effectively removing any possibility of parole. Shipman
was incarcerated at Durham Prison.
fact that a doctor had killed 15 patients sent a shudder through
the medical community, but this was to prove insignificant in
light of further investigations that delved more deeply into his
patient case list history.
clinical audit conducted by Professor Richard Baker, of the
University of Leicester, examined the number and pattern of deaths
in Harold Shipman's practice and compared them with those of other
practitioners. It found that rates of death amongst his elderly
patients were significantly higher, clustered at certain times of
day and that Shipman was in attendance in a disproportionately
high number of cases. The audit goes on to estimate that he may
have been responsible for the deaths of at least 236 patients over
a 24-year period.
Separately, an inquiry commission chaired by High Court Judge,
Dame Janet Smith, examined the records of 500 patients who died
whilst in Shipman’s care, and the 2,000-page report concluded that
it was likely that he had murdered at least 218 of his patients,
although this number was offered by Dame Janet as an estimation,
rather than a precise calculation, as certain cases presented
insufficient evidence to allow for certainty.
commission further speculated that Shipman might have been
“addicted to killing”, and was critical of police investigation
procedures, claiming that the lack of experience of the
investigating officers resulted in missed opportunities to bring
Shipman to justice earlier.
may in fact have taken his first victim within months of obtaining
his licence to practice medicine, 67-year-old Margaret Thompson,
who died in March 1971 whilst recovering from a stroke, but deaths
prior to 1975 were never officially proven.
Whatever the exact number, the sheer scale of his murderous
activities meant that Shipman was catapulted from British patient
killer to the most prolific known serial killer in the world. He
remained at Durham Prison throughout these investigations,
maintaining his innocence, and was staunchly defended by his wife
Primrose and family. He was moved to Wakefield Prison in June
2003, which made visits from his family easier.
13th January 2004, Shipman was discovered at 6 a.m. hanging in his
prison cell at Wakefield, having used bed sheets tied to the
window bars of his cell.
There remains some mystery about the whereabouts of his remains,
with some claiming that his body is still in a Sheffield Morgue,
while others believe that his family have custody of his body,
believing that he may have been murdered in his cell, and wishing
to delay his interment pending further tests.
Dr. Harold Shipman, the World's Most
Prolific Serial Killer
BY Ted Ottley - TruTV.com
Raising the Dead
His patients - mainly elderly women - were
living alone and vulnerable. They adored their doctor, Harold
Even when their contemporaries began dying in
unusually high numbers, patients remained loyal to the murderous
For as long as he spared them, his victims
loved their doctor — to death.
No film director could plan a grislier scene.
In the dead of a black August night, relentless
rains and driving winds formed the perfect backdrop for an
But this was no psychological thriller — the
Manchester police were observing a real-life drama. Experts were
raising the mud-streaked coffin of wealthy Kathleen Grundy.
Interred just 5 weeks earlier in the Hyde
cemetery, the 81-year-old ex-mayoress held, in death, the key to
solving nearly 400 murders. This would give killer Dr. Harold
Shipman the dubious distinction of being the greatest serial
murderer the world has ever known.
It puts him well ahead of modern history's most
prolific serial killer to date — Pedro ("monster of the Andes")
Lopez. Convicted of 57 murders in 1980, Lopez allegedly killed 300
young girls in Colombia.
55-year-old Shipman is already serving 15
consecutive life sentences in Frankland Prison, County Durham,
plus four years for forging the will of his last victim, Kathleen
In spite of overwhelming evidence to the
contrary, he continues to maintain his innocence.
How could this prolific serial killer go
undetected for so long? And what made him the monster he became?
The answers lie in a story that began in earnest over fifty years
ago — in a government-owned red brick terrace house in the north
A Killer's Childhood
Born into a working class family on June 14,
1946, Harold Frederick Shipman, called Fred or Freddy, knew a
childhood far from normal. He maintained a distance between
himself and his contemporaries — mainly due to the influence of
his mother, Vera. This distance was to manifest itself in later
One neighbor notes, "Vera was friendly enough,
but she really did see her family as superior to the rest of us.
Not only that, you could tell Harold (Freddy) was her favorite —
the one she saw as the most promising of her three children."
Vera decided who Harold could play with, and
when. She wanted to distinguish him from the other boys — he was
the one who always wore a tie when the others were allowed more
casual dress. His sister Pauline was seven years older, his
brother Clive, four years his junior. But in his mother's eyes,
Harold was the one she held the most hope for.
As a student, Shipman was comparatively bright
in his early school years, but rather mediocre when he reached
upper school level. Nonetheless, he was a plodder determined to
succeed, even when it meant re-sitting his entrance examinations
for medical school.
Strangely, he had every opportunity to be part
of the group — he was an accomplished athlete on the football
field and the running track. In spite of this, his belief in his
superiority appears to have precluded forming meaningful
friendships with his contemporaries.
And there was something else that isolated him
from the group. His beloved mother had terminal lung cancer. As
she wasted away, Harold willingly played a major supportive role.
Watching Vera Die
Much has been made of the way young Harold
Shipman dealt with his mother's final months — justifiably so.
Because his behavior then closely paralleled that of Shipman the
serial killer. Every day after classes, he would hurry home, make
Vera a cup of tea and chat with her — probably about his day at
school. She counted the minutes as she waited, and found great
solace in his company.
For his part, this is likely where Shipman
learned the endearing bedside manner he would adopt later in his
practice as a family physician. Toward the end, Vera experienced
severe pain. But, because pumps to self-administer painkillers did
not exist at that time, Vera's sole relief from the agony of
cancer came with the family physician.
No doubt young Harold watched in fascination as
his mother's distress miraculously subsided whenever the family
doctor injected her with morphine. As the disease progressed, the
already trim Ms. Shipman grew thinner and frailer until, on June
21st 1963, the cancer claimed her life.
Vera's death left her son with a tremendous
sense of loss. After all, his mother was the one who made him feel
special, above the rest. Significantly, her passing left him with
an indelible image — the patient with a cup of tea nearby, finding
sweet relief in morphine.
Etched upon the 17-year-old's mind, it was a
scene he would re-create hundreds of times in the future.
And when it happened, he would be a doctor —
one with no regard for human life or feeling.
Two years after his mother died, Harold Shipman
was finally admitted to Leeds University medical school. Getting
in had been a struggle. In spite of his self-proclaimed
superiority, he'd had to re-write the exams he'd flunked first
time around. Nonetheless, his grades were adequate enough for him
to collect a degree and serve his mandatory hospital internship.
It is surprising to learn that so many of his
teachers and fellow students can barely remember Shipman. Some who
do remember claim that he looked down on them and seemed bemused
by the way most young men behaved. "It was as if he tolerated us.
If someone told a joke he would smile patiently, but Fred never
wanted to join in. It seems funny, because I later heard he'd been
a good athlete, so you'd have thought he'd be more of a team
Most of his contemporaries — especially from
his earlier years — simply remember him as a loner. They also
remember the one place where his personality changed — the
football field. Here, his aggression was unleashed, his dedication
to win intense.
Even so, he was more sociable in medical school
than his mother had allowed him to be while living at home.
A former teacher said, "I don't think he ever
had a girlfriend; in fact he took his older sister to school
dances. They made a strange couple. But then, he was a bit strange
— a pretentious lad."
But Shipman finally found companionship in a
girl and married before most of his contemporaries did. At
nineteen, he met Primrose — 3 years his junior.
Her background was similar to Fred's. Her
mother restricted her friendships, and controlled her activities.
No poster girl, Primrose was delighted to have
finally found a boyfriend. Shipman married her when she was 17 —
and 5 months pregnant.
By 1974 he was a father of two and had joined a
medical practice in the Yorkshire town of Todmorden. In this North
England setting, Fred seemed to undergo a metamorphosis; he became
an outgoing, respected member of the community — in the eyes of
his fellow medics and patients.
But the staff in the medical offices where he
worked saw a different side of the young practitioner. He was
often unnecessarily rude and made some of them feel "stupid" — a
word he frequently used to describe anyone he didn't like. He was
confrontational and combative with many people, to the point where
he belittled and embarrassed them. He also had a way of getting
things done his way — even with the more experienced doctors in
Not yet thirty, Shipman had become a control
Addiction and Attitude
Hard working, and enthusiastic, Shipman fitted
well into the social matrix.
His senior partners saw him as a Godsend. One,
Dr. Michael Grieve, appreciated Fred's contribution in providing
up-to-date information, as he was so recently out of medical
But his career in Todmorden came to a sudden
halt when he began having blackouts. His partners were devastated
when he gave them the reason. He suffered, he said, with epilepsy.
He used this inaccurate diagnosis as a cover-up.
The truth soon surfaced, when practice
receptionist Marjorie Walker stumbled upon some disturbing entries
in a druggist's controlled narcotics ledger. The records showed
how Shipman had been prescribing large and frequent amounts of
pethidine in the names of several patients.
Moreover, he'd written numerous prescriptions
for the drug on behalf of the practice. Although this was not
unusual (drugs are kept on hand for emergencies and immediate
treatments), the prescribed amounts were excessive.
Pethidine — a morphine-like analgesic — was
initially thought to have no addictive properties. Now, some sixty
years after scientists first synthesized it, pethidine's
non-addictive reputation is still hotly debated.
Following the discovery of Shipman's
over-prescribing, a covert investigation by the practice —
including Dr. John Dacre — followed. To his alarm, he discovered
many patients on the prescription list had neither required nor
received the drug.
Dacre challenged Fred in a staff meeting, as
one of his partners, Dr. Michael Grieve recalls:
"We were sat round with Fred sitting on one
side and up comes John on the opposite and says, 'Now young Fred,
can you explain this?' And he puts before him evidence that he has
been gleaning, showing that young Fred had been prescribing
pethidine to patients and they'd never received the pethidine, and
in fact the pethidine had found its way into Fred's very own
Shipman's way of dealing with the problem was
to provide an insight into his true personality. Realizing his
career was on the line, he first begged for a second chance.
When this was denied, he became enraged and
stormed out, hurled a medical bag to the ground and threatened to
resign. The partners were dumbfounded by this violent — and
seemingly uncharacteristic — behavior.
Shortly afterwards, his wife Primrose stormed
into the room where his peers were discussing the best way to
dismiss him. Rudely, she informed the people at the meeting that
her husband would never resign, proclaiming, "You'll have to force
She was right. Ultimately he was forced out of
the practice and into a drug re-hab center in 1975.
Two years later, his many convictions for drug
offences, prescription fraud and forgery cost him a surprisingly
low fine — just over 600 pounds sterling. Shipman's conviction for
forgery is worth noting. First, because his skill in this area was
nothing less than pathetic; second, he failed to learn that his
ineptitude in this area was readily exposed.
Yet in spite of this early warning, some 22
years later he actually believed he could get away with faking
signatures on a patently counterfeit will — that of his last
victim, Katherine Grundy.
This lack of judgment — some say arrogance —
set in motion the mechanism for his downfall.
As for the pethidine charges, the question
remains: Did he really self-inject the drugs (as he claimed) or
had he already begun using them to kill unsuspecting patients?
This is currently under review.
Back in Business
Today, it is unlikely Harold Shipman would be
allowed to handle drugs unsupervised, given his previous track
record. Nonetheless, within two years, he was back in business as
a general practitioner.
He was accepted into the Donneybrook Medical
Center in Hyde in the north of England. How readily he was
accepted demonstrates his absolute self-confidence — and his
ability to convince his peers of his sincerity.
Dr. Jeffery Moysey of the Center explained "His
approach was that I have had this problem, this conviction for
abuse of pethidine. I have undergone treatment. I am now clean.
All I can ask you to do is to trust me on that issue and to watch
Perhaps he was not watched carefully enough.
Again, he played the role of a dedicated,
hardworking and community-minded doctor. He gained his patients'
absolute trust and earned his colleagues' respect.
Some of those who worked under him have told of
his sarcastic and abusive nature, but he was skilled at masking
his patronizing attitude in front of those he chose to impress. As
for any signs of addiction, there were no blackouts as before, and
no indication of drug abuse.
In Hyde, Harold Shipman was home free — and
free to kill.
A Diary of Death
Because of the nature of the Shipman case, it
may never be possible to document every murder he committed.
A clinical audit commissioned by the Department
of Health estimates his responsibility for the deaths of at least
236 patients over a 24-year period.
This audit, by Professor Richard Baker of the
University of Leicester, examined the number and pattern of deaths
in Harold Shipman's practice. It then compared them with those of
other practitioners. Significant differences appeared, notably
that the rates of death in elderly patients were
Other variations appeared; deaths were often
clustered at certain times of the day, patients' records and
previous symptoms mismatched, and Shipman was usually in
Professor Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer
for the Department of Health, wrote that these factors "must now
be investigated by the proper legal authorities."
Detective Chief Superintendent Bernard Postles,
who headed the original investigations, said of the report 'many
of its conclusions accord with our own findings to date.' He noted
the death toll estimated in the audit was "broadly in keeping with
the number of deaths investigated by Greater Manchester Police
during the course of the investigation."
Even so, the final numbers are anyone's guess —
Coroner John Pollard once speculated "we might be looking at
But whatever the final count, there is no
immediate plan to try the killer on future findings — nor would it
serve much purpose because he's already serving 15 concurrent life
Instead, other cases are being investigated as
they come to light, with coroners' verdicts of unlawful killing
continuing to mount. As they do, the question most asked is this:
Why wasn't he stopped sooner?
In this macabre and unfinished story, Shipman's
former patients are grateful indeed he was finally stopped. The
feeling "I could have been next" will always haunt them. And there
is little doubt that some owe their lives to a determined and
intelligent woman named Angela Woodruff.
Her dogged determination to solve a mystery
helped ensure that, on Monday, January 31, 2000, the jury at
Preston Crown Court found Shipman guilty of murdering 15 of his
patients and forging the will of Angela's beloved mother,
But Ms. Woodruff was not the first to realize
something was dangerously wrong where Dr. Shipman was involved.
Local undertaker Alan Massey began noticing a
strange pattern: not only did Shipman's patients seem to be dying
at an unusually high rate; their dead bodies had a similarity when
he called to collect them. "Anybody can die in a chair," he
observed, "But there's no set pattern, and Dr. Shipman's always
seem to be the same, or very similar. Could be sat in a chair,
could be laid on the settee, but I would say 90% was always fully
clothed. There was never anything in the house that I saw that
indicated the person had been ill. It just seems the person, where
they were, had died. There was something that didn't quite fit."
Worried enough to voice his unease, Massey
decided to confront Shipman, and paid the doctor a visit.
Massey recalls, "I asked him if there was any
cause for concern and he just said 'no there isn't". He showed me
his certificate book that he issues death certificates in, the
cause of death in, and his remarks were 'nothing to worry about,
you've nothing to worry about and anybody who wants to inspect his
book can do."'
Reassured by Shipman's ease at being
questioned, the undertaker took no further action. But his
daughter, Debbie Brambroffe — also a funeral director — was not so
readily appeased. She found an ally in Dr. Susan Booth.
Cash for Ash
From a neighboring practice, Dr. Booth had gone
to the funeral directors to examine a body. British law requires a
doctor from an unrelated practice to countersign cremation forms
issued by the original doctor. They are paid a fee for this
service which some medics cynically call "cash for ash." Debbie
told Dr. Booth she had misgivings.
Booth explained, "She was concerned about the
number of deaths of Dr. Shipman's patients that they'd attended
recently. She was also puzzled by the way in which the patients
were found. They were mostly female, living on their own, found
dead sitting in a chair fully dressed, not in their nightclothes
lying ill in bed."
Booth spoke to her colleagues. One of them, Dr.
Linda Reynolds contacted coroner John Pollard. He in turn alerted
the police. In a virtually covert operation, Shipman's records
were examined and given a clean bill of health because the causes
of death and treatments matched perfectly.
What the police did not discover was that
Shipman had re-written patient records after he killed.
The quality of that investigation has been
questioned because the police failed to check for a previous
criminal record. Nor did they make inquiries with the General
Medical Council. Had they done so, Shipman's past record of drug
abuse and forgery might well have led to a more thorough approach.
But more intense scrutiny was about to blow the
Shipman case wide open.
Kathleen Grundy's sudden death on June 24th
1998 came as a terrible shock to all who knew her. A singularly
active 81-year-old, she was well known to the people of Hyde. A
wealthy ex-mayor, she had energy to burn and was a tireless worker
for local charities until the day of her death.
Her absence was noted when she failed to show
at the Age Concern club. There, she helped serve meals to elderly
pensioners. Because the wealthy widow was noted for her
punctuality and reliability, her friends suspected something was
When they went to her home to check up on her,
they found her lying on a sofa. She was fully dressed, and dead.
They immediately called Dr. Shipman.
He had visited the house a few hours earlier,
and was the last person to see her alive. He claimed the purpose
of his visit had been to take blood samples for studies on aging.
Shipman pronounced her dead and the news was conveyed to her
daughter, Angela Woodruff.
The doctor told the daughter a post mortem was
unnecessary because he had seen her shortly before her death.
Following her mother's burial Ms. Woodruff
returned to her home, where she received a troubling phone call
from solicitors. They claimed to have a copy of Ms. Grundy's will.
A solicitor herself, Angela's own firm had
always handled her mother's affairs - her firm held the original
document lodged in 1986. The moment she saw the badly typed,
poorly worded paper, Angela Woodruff knew it was a fake. It left
386,000 pounds to Dr. Shipman.
"My mother was a meticulously tidy person," she
later told the Shipman trial, 'the thought of her signing a
document which is so badly typed didn't make any sense. The
signature looked strange, it looked too big. The concept of Mum
signing a document leaving everything to her doctor was
"It wasn't a case of 'Look, she's not left me
anything in her will."' she later said.
Initially, she wondered if Shipman was being
framed. But after interviewing witnesses to the "will," she
reluctantly concluded the doctor had murdered her mother for
It was then she went to her local police. Her
investigation results ultimately reached Detective Superintendent
His own investigation convinced him Angela
Woodruff's conclusions were accurate. Of the forged will itself,
Postles was to later say, "You only have to look at it once and
you start thinking it's like something off a John Bull printing
press. You don't have to have twenty years as a detective to know
it's a fake. Maybe he thought he was being clever — an old lady,
nobody around her: Look at it; it's a bit tacky. But everyone knew
she was as sharp as a tack. Maybe it was his arrogance..."
Now Det. Supt Postles had the oldest motive in
the world — greed — to justify his future actions.
The Plot Thins
To get solid proof of Kathleen Grundy's murder,
a post mortem was required which, in turn, required an exhumation
order from the coroner.
This is a rare occurrence for any British
police force, one the Greater Manchester Police had not
experienced. "We did not have one officer who had ever taken part
in an exhumation. We asked the National Crime Squad for advice."
Det. Supt. Postles explained.
By the time the trial had begun, his team would
be uncomfortably familiar with the process. Of the fifteen killed,
nine were buried and six cremated. Katherine Grundy's was the
first grave opened. Her body was the first of the ongoing post
Her tissue and hair samples were sent to
different labs for analysis, and the wait for results began.
At the same time, police raided the doctor's
home and offices. It was a low-key exercise, but timed so Shipman
had no chance of learning a body had been exhumed for a post
mortem — Police had to be certain no evidence could be destroyed
or concealed before their search. When the police arrived, Shipman
registered no surprise. Rather, his approach was one of arrogance
and contempt as the search warrant was read out.
One item crucial to police investigations was
the typewriter used to type the bogus will. Shipman produced an
old Brother manual portable, telling an improbable tale of how Ms.
Grundy sometimes borrowed it. This unbelievable story was to work
against Shipman — especially when forensic scientists confirmed it
was the machine used to type the counterfeit will and other
Searching his house yielded medical records,
some mysterious jewelry and a surprise. The Shipman home was
littered with filthy clothes, old newspapers and, for a doctor's
home, it was nothing short of unsanitary.
But an even bigger surprise was due.
The Morphine Factor
When toxicologist Julie Evans filed her report
on the cause of Ms. Grundy's death, Det. Supt. Postles was
The morphine level in the dead woman's body was
the cause of death. Not only that, her death would have occurred
within three hours of having received the fatal overdose.
Postles later said Shipman's use of the drug
was a serious miscalculation. A doctor would surely have known
morphine is one of the few poisons that can remain in body tissue
for centuries. Postles observed, "I was surprised... I anticipated
that I would have had difficulty if he gave them something in way
of poison lost in background substance." He gave insulin, which
the body produces naturally, as an example. "It was an unexpected
bonus once I had checked that Kathleen Grundy did not take it
Shipman would claim later that the stylish and
conservative old lady was a junkie. Even today psychologists
speculate on the possibility that he wanted to be caught.
Otherwise, why would he hand them the typewriter and use a drug so
easily traced back to him? Others believe he saw himself as
invincible, believing that, as a doctor, his word would never be
The detective realized the case went far beyond
one death, and the scope of the investigation was broadened
Selecting the Dead
Just which deaths to investigate became the
priority. To decide, a scale was devised, based on patterns.
Those who had not been cremated and had died
following a Shipman "house call" took precedence. Other issues
were factored in, but obviously only uncremated bodies could yield
tissue samples for examination.
Slightly different criteria were applied to the
next group for police investigation. All cremated, they were
investigated, mainly, on the basis of known pre-existing
conditions, recorded causes of death, and Shipman's presence
before they died.
Whenever he could, the doctor had urged
families to cremate their dead and had also stressed no further
investigation was necessary. It may seem strange now that no
relatives found this peculiar, but people typically trust their
doctors, especially in times of great stress.
After all, the causes of deaths Shipman
presented were rational, even though bereaved families were often
surprised to learn of conditions their loved ones had never
Even if they had questioned the doctor, he had
the computerized medical notes to prove patients had seen him for
the very symptoms he cited as leading to causes of death. Police
would later know he'd altered computer records to make everything
match. Callously, Shipman made most of these changes within hours
of his patients' deaths. Often, immediately after killing, he
would hurry to his office and adjust his records.
In the case of 82-year-old Kathleen Grundy, he
reinforced his later statement that she was a morphine junkie by
inventing and backdating several entries.
His sheer audacity in suggesting this highly
respected woman had been scoring hits from drug dealers was
overwhelmingly stupid. The moment he made the statement, his
When Shipman first encountered the computer, he
was technophobic. But once he reluctantly agreed to embrace the
(then) new technology, he declared himself a computer expert. This
was consistent with his need to assert his superiority.
But what the self-proclaimed computer wiz
didn't know was that his hard drive recorded — to the second —
every phony alteration he made to a patient's records.
A taped interview with the Greater Manchester
Police demonstrates this lack of knowledge:
Police Officer: I'll just remind you of the
date of this lady's death — 11th May '98. After 3 o'clock that
afternoon, you have endorsed the computer with the date of 1st
October '97 which is 10 months prior, 'chest pains'.
Dr. Shipman: I have no recollection of me
putting that on the machine.
Officer: It's your passcode; it's your name.
Shipman: It doesn't alter the fact I can't
remember doing it.
Officer: You attended the house at 3 o'clock.
That's when you murdered this lady. You went back to the surgery
and immediately started altering this lady's medical records. You
tell me why you needed to do that.
Shipman: There's no answer.
In another recorded interview, Detective
Constable Marie Snitynski also demonstrated how Shipman's computer
trapped him. Following her advising the doctor he had killed a
patient (73-year-old Winnifred Mellor) with morphine overdose,
then altered records to show a history of angina and chest pains,
the police officer continued her interview:
Police Officer: The levels were such that this
woman actually died from toxicity of morphine, not as you wrongly
diagnosed. In plain speaking you murdered her...One feature of
these statements from the family was they couldn't believe their
own mother had chest pains, angina and hadn't been informed.
Harold Shipman: By, by whom?
Officer: By her.
Shipman: By her, thank you.
Officer: They also found it hard to believe...
Because she didn't have a history of chest complaints and heart
disease and angina, did she doctor?
Shipman: If it's written on the records then
she had the history and therefore...
Officer: The simple truth is you've fabricated
a history to cover what you've done, you'd murdered her and you
make up a history of angina and chest pains so you could issue a
death certificate and placate this poor woman's family didn't you?
Officer: We've got a statement from a detective
sergeant John Ashley who works in the field of computers. He has
made a thorough examination of your computer, doctor, and the
medical records contained on it...what he's found is that there
are a number of entries that have been incorrectly placed on this
record to falsely mislead and to indicate this woman had a history
of angina and chest pains. What have you got to say about that,
It should be apparent from the above exchange
that Shipman was unwilling to cooperate with the police in any
way. Throughout the entire ordeal he was to be arrogant and
supercilious. This behavior earned him no friends during the
ensuing trial, which commenced on a bright, sunny day in the
Lancashire town of Preston on October 5th, 1999.
The first week was spent with the usual
courtroom minutiae. Shipman's Defense Counsel Nicola Davies went
Primarily a medical lawyer, 46-year-old Ms.
Davies mainly dealt with matters outside the criminal courts.
She had three applications to present.
First, that the trial be halted. Ms. Davies
claimed that Dr. Shipman could not receive a fair trial because of
the prior "inaccurate, misleading" coverage of the case. For the
better part of two days, she drew attention to the range of
newspaper articles reportage of nearly 150 patients' cases and
financial searches, plus the extensive coverage of the
The prosecutor Mr. Henriques countered with a
statement that the reports had actually been beneficial — they had
helped alert other families to possible irregularities in the
deaths of their loved ones.
In the Second Application, Ms. Davies wanted
the court to hold three separate trials.
She claimed the case of Kathleen Grundy should
be separate — it alone had any alleged motive, greed.
The second trial, she said, should involve only
patients who had been buried, because this was the only group
where physical evidence of cause of death — morphine poisoning —
The third trial, she believed, should cover
those cremated, as no physical evidence of death existed.
Again, the prosecutor countered with an
argument that, because the cases were inter-related, trying them
all together was required to present a more comprehensive picture.
Ms. Davies then presented the prosecution's
third application — one that stunned the court. She wanted
evidence referred to in 'volume eight' disallowed.
Essentially, volume eight detailed how Shipman
had accumulated morphine from 28 patients — many now deceased. It
showed the doctor continued prescribing for some after they had
died, and kept the drugs for his own purposes. Similarly, he had
prescribed opiates for many still living — patients who had never
required strong painkillers, much less morphine.
After considering the defense's three
applications, Mr. Justice Forbes carefully explained why he was
denying each one.
The trial would proceed; it would include the
sixteen charges in the indictment, and evidence in volume eight
would be allowed.
Proceedings were adjourned until the following
Monday, October 11th 1999. Then, the jury would be made up.
And a torrent of damning evidence would flow.
The trial began in earnest as Counsel for the
prosecution Richard Henriques delivered his opening address. One
of the top barristers in Britain, he had handled many sensitive
and difficult trials, including the sensational Jamie Bulger
trial, where two ten-year old boys kidnapped, tortured, then
murdered two-year-old Jamie.
Addressing the case at hand, Mr. Henriques
stated "None of those buried - nor indeed cremated — were
prescribed morphine or diamorphine. All of them died most
unexpectedly. All of them had seen Dr. Shipman on the day of their
As he briefly outlined the case, Henriques
dismissed euthanasia or mercy killing on the basis that none of
the dead had had a terminal illness.
He claimed Shipman killed the fifteen patients
because he enjoyed doing so: "He was exercising the ultimate power
of controlling life and death, and repeated the act so often he
must have found the drama of taking life to his taste."
His first witness was Angela Woodruff. An
accomplished solicitor, she was as striking as her mother had been
in life. Fashionably dressed in an expensive gray suit, she found
it difficult to retain her usual strong demeanor. Understandably,
she appeared on the verge of breaking down throughout her long and
arduous time in the witness box.
First, she explained in detail the police
photographs of the house where her "mum" had lived so happily. She
then told of the harrowing phone call from the Hyde Police to
inform her that her mother had died.
Seeking clarification, she later had a
conversation with Dr. Shipman: "Exactly what he said was difficult
to remember... It's very hazy because I was very, very upset. Dr.
Shipman said he had seen (my mother) on the morning of her death.
He said he had seen her at home." She couldn't remember why the
doctor claimed to have been there.
Speaking of the clumsy attempt made to fake the
will leaving everything to Shipman, she told of her mother's
meticulous attention to detail, how doing everything neatly was
her mother's way.
This would later be apparent to anyone reading
her mother's diary, where every detail of importance was
meticulously recorded in perfect penmanship. In contrast, Ms.
Woodruff said how her mother viewed "...my writing; mine's
She went on to show how healthy her 81-year-old
mother had been. "She was just amazing. We would walk five miles
and come in and she would say, 'Where's the ironing?' We used to
joke she was fitter than we were."
This portrait of an elderly but extremely fit
woman was to be repeated frequently as other victims' families
took the witness box.
In the ensuing cross-examination, Ms. Davies
seemed intent on emphasizing Ms. Woodruff's wealth. She had
analyzed and described the family's finances, and asked, "You are
not a family in need, are you?"
Ms. Woodruff concurred — it was common
knowledge that she and her husband David had inherited one million
pounds from her father in law. She confirmed the couple earned
A subsequent attempt by Ms. Davis to show Ms.
Woodruff's relationship with her mother had been unharmonious was
totally dispelled when the victim's writings — and a host of
witnesses — were examined.
Several days later, Dr. John Rutherford — a
leading government pathologist — appeared. He was tactful and
dignified as he led the court through the gruesome details of the
post mortems carried out.
In great detail, he explained how the procedure
was performed, focusing on the importance of collecting body
tissue for analysis.
The outcome of the tests was consistent. In
case after case, Dr. Rutherford said the victims had not died from
old age or natural disease. Typically, morphine toxicity was the
cause of death.
To analyze any fingerprints found on the will,
fingerprint expert Dr. Rutherford — who had worked on the Waco
cult disaster — was called. He explained how he had taken
fingerprints from the hands of the deceased Ms. Grundy.
The defense fingerprint expert claimed the
methodology was inconclusive, but Dr. Rutherford's expertise
helped destroy the counter-claim. Then, Rutherford's associate
told how prints on the fake will only identified three people —
two witnesses to the document's signing, and Dr. Shipman.
Because there were no prints matching Kathleen
Grundy's, it was obvious she had never handled the "will". This
observation was reinforced when calligraphy analyst Michael Allen
described the signatures as "crude forgeries."
Computer Analyst Detective Sergeant John Ashley
then testified how Shipman had doctored his computer records to
create symptoms his dead patients never had.
Recorded interviews were beyond contest.
The Trial: Week Two
In the second week, Shipman's former staff and
colleagues were called to bear witness.
District nurse Marion Gilchrist took the oath
and immediately burst into tears. Regaining her composure, she
told how Shipman had reacted when he realized he would be arrested
The doctor had broken down and he said, "I read
thrillers and on the evidence they have I would have me guilty,"
But the nurse said she took it as black humor when he said, "The
only thing I did wrong was not having her cremated. If I had had
her cremated I wouldn't be having all this trouble."
Another patient, whose statement was read out
in court, described Shipman's feelings on the will when he told
her, "If I could bring her back...I would say look at all the
trouble it's caused. I was going to say I didn't want the money
but because of all this trouble, I will have it." He had claimed
he would use most of the money for philanthropic causes.
The last part of the Grundy case heard evidence
from GP Dr. John Grenville.
Analyzing Shipman's medical notes, he spoke of
how he would have behaved quite differently under the
Whereas Dr. Shipman had quickly pronounced
Kathleen Grundy dead, "I would examine the body carefully to
ensure death had occurred...if I found no pulse at the neck, I
would look for a more central point.
Grenville claimed he would have attempted to
revive the patient — standard medical practice.
By now, onlookers were forming a picture of a
very callous, inefficient defendant — this impression would only
intensify in the grueling weeks ahead.
Litany of Lies
By now, the trial had gained a momentum that is
characteristic, where evidence follows a set pattern over and
over. Although the Kathleen Grundy case had taken over a week,
those to follow would progress more quickly.
What speeded up the trial were emerging
characteristics, among them the ambulance-telephone scam. Here,
Shipman would pretend to call emergency services. But when he
"discovered" a patient dead, he would pick up the phone and
pretend to cancel the ambulance.
One sad example of this ruse involved a vibrant
77-year-old, Lizzie Adams.
She loved dancing with her dance partner,
William Catlow — She played Ginger to his Fred. William dropped in
to visit Lizzie the day she died.
When he arrived, he found Shipman examining her
impressive collection of porcelains and crystal. In the next room,
Lizzie lay dying.
Catlow told the court, "I just burst past
him...she felt warm. I said, 'I can feel her pulse.'"
Shipman said, "No, that's yours. I will cancel
But telephone records proved Shipman never
phoned the ambulance service that day.
In another case, that of Nora Nuttall, her son
Anthony told how he had left his mother alone for just 20 minutes.
He returned to find Dr. Shipman leaving their house. 'I asked him
what was wrong. He said "I have rung an ambulance for her." I ran
in and... she looked like she was asleep in the chair. I took her
by the hands and shook her, saying, "Mum, Mum..."'
Shortly after, Shipman merely touched her neck
and told the son, "I'm sorry, she has gone."
Tales of phone calls the doctor never made
Norah Nuttall's sister went to Shipman's office
to examine the dead woman's records — she wanted details of her
Annoyed, Shipman addressed his staff: "I knew
it would happen, I told you it would happen."
Quickly, he fabricated a story of how Norah had
called his office to say she was ill. Shipman then claimed he'd
been paged and just happened to be nearby. When telephone records
proved him wrong, Shipman quickly fabricated a new story.
But he outdid himself with the tale of the
missing blood samples. His reason for visiting his last victim,
Kathleen Grundy, was allegedly to collect blood samples for a
study on aging. When asked what had happened to them, he initially
said they had gone for analysis.
When the prosecution proved there was no study
on aging, he suddenly "remembered" what happened. He had left the
samples under a pile of notes, and, as they were no longer useful
he disposed of them.
With each new revelation his credibility sank.
Other witnesses told of Shipman's lack of
compassion toward the bereaved.
Truck driver Albert Lilley broke down as he
recalled the way Shipman announced the death of his wife,
59-year-old Jean Lilley.
"He said, 'I have been with your wife for quite
a while now, trying to persuade her to go to the hospital, but she
won't go. I was going to come home (later) and have a word with
you and your wife and I was too late.'"
"I said, 'What do you mean too late?' He said,
"You are not listening to me carefully."' Perhaps Shipman took
pleasure in forcing Lilly to guess his beloved wife had died.
He repeated this tactic with Winnie Mellor, a
healthy outgoing 73-year-old who still played football with her
Excited about a planned trip to the Holy Land,
she, too, died following a Shipman visit. When he called her
daughter Kathleen, he was deliberately obtuse, forcing her to
guess her mother had died:
"He said, 'Did you realize that your mother has
been suffering from chest pains' and I said No."
"He said, 'She called this morning and...I came
to see her and she refused treatment.' So I says well I'll be up
as soon as I can. He said, 'No, no there's no need for that.' So I
said has she gone to hospital?
"And he said, 'There's no point in sending her
to hospital.' And I just went silent then, and he didn't say
anything neither. And then I just realized what he was not saying.
And I said do you mean my mother's dead? He says, 'I see you
Shipman's rudeness to a neighbor — Gloria Ellis
— was consistent with his personality. But Ms. Ellis was to play
an important role in bringing him down.
She had witnessed Shipman's visit to Winnie
Mellor just hours before her death. He was to return later, as
Detective Chief Inspector Mike Williams explained:
"A neighbor, teatime, gets a knock on the door
from Dr. Shipman saying he's come to see Winifred Mellor. He can
see her sat in a chair and he thinks she's dead. They go into the
house and again they find Winifred Mellor dead in a chair.'
When the neighbor Gloria asked, "You were here
before, weren't you?" Shipman did not answer. When she asked "Has
Gloria had a stroke?" Shipman was irritated and insulted her with:
"You stupid girl!"
Far from stupid, the neighbor knew to the
minute the times Shipman had arrived and left. She brought a smile
to the court when she claimed to have been surprised to learn he
was a doctor, "I thought he was an insurance man."
Defaming the Dead
In an outrageous example of Shipman's heartless
behavior, the killer ridiculed dead Ivy Lomas. — Of the fifteen
deaths Shipman was charged with, only Ms Lomas' occurred in his
Detective Sergeant Philip Reade — a constable
at the time, told how he had gone to the doctor's office to locate
Ivy's next of kin. He recalled his bizarre encounter with Shipman:
"He was laughing. He said he considered her
such a nuisance that he was having part of the seating area
permanently reserved for Ivy with a plaque to the effect —seat
permanently reserved for Ivy Lomas."
Even worse, Shipman told the officer that as he
left the room Ivy "could have taken her last breath." And yet, he
had made no effort to resuscitate the woman. Instead, he left her
alone while he saw other patients.
Medical expert for the defense, Dr Grenville
told the court: "This was a medical emergency. I would have given
my entire attention to this particular patient."
But 63-year-old Ivy would have been past
Again, Shipman had murdered with morphine.
Defending the Indefensible
Throughout the trial, Shipman's defense —
mainly Angela Davies, backed by junior counsel Ian Winter —
valiantly and professionally attempted to portray Shipman as a
kind and caring human being. She painted a rosy portrait of a
plain old-fashioned family doctor— one prepared to go the extra
mile for his patients.
His prior record of drug misuse, pethidine
addiction and forgery went unmentioned. Instead, Ms. Davies
focused on his happy family life with wife Primrose and their four
But the defense fought an uphill battle from
the start. On the one occasion Ms. Davies appeared to be gaining
the upper hand, she suddenly lost.
She had been questioning the forensic analyst
about the validity of tissue testing for drugs:
"As a scientist you have been breaking pretty
new ground in this analysis?"
"That is correct," the forensic analyst
Ms. Davis then asked whether finding morphine
in tissue samples was proof of single or multiple doses.
"I can't say," the scientist replied.
It was easy to see where the defense was
heading. If it could be proven that the tissue samples might not
have resulted from a single dose, perhaps the jury could be
convinced the high levels of morphine in the bodies resulted from
years of use.
It was a desperate long shot. And it failed
miserably when Dr. Karch Steven, took the stand. An American whose
credentials were as impressive as his evidence, Steven explained a
relatively new technique.
He described the test he had performed. It was
so new, Britain's prestigious medical journal The Lancet had
covered it just a year earlier. It analyzed hair samples for
ongoing drug use.
This remarkably accurate test proved
conclusively that not one victim was a long-term morphine user.
Clearly, any of the narcotic in murdered women's tissue samples
resulted from a single, massive dose.
Finally, the trial turned to evidence revealing
Shipman's devious ways of hoarding drugs to kill.
Prescription for Death
During the trial, Shipman had claimed he never
carried morphine, therefore he could not have killed any of his
patients. But the family of Molly Dudley (another victim)
disproved this assertion.
Although Shipman was not charged with Molly's
death in the original trial, he had admitted to giving her
Daughter-in-law Joyce Dudley received a call
from Shipman telling her, "I'm afraid your mother-in-law has only
got about half an hour left to live." Molly was dead when by the
time her son Jeffrey and his wife arrived. Shipman told them she
had died from a heart attack.
Joyce Dudley stated, "And this is when he said
to me and Jeff that he 'gave her a shot of morphine' for the
This proved Dr. Shipman did carry morphine.
Just how he amassed enough of the drug to kill so many would soon
be revealed. Shipman told many outrageous stories — but few as
ludicrous as his morphine-related tales. He had, he said,
prescribed 2000 milligrams of morphine to patient Frank Crompton,
who had prostate cancer. Although Mr. Crompton was not in pain,
Shipman said he wanted to have it on hand in case pain developed
He said the patient had told him he "didn't
want to be a drug addict. So he broke them (the ampoules) and put
them in the rubbish. We talked about it again and Mr Crompton
agreed to keep them in the house. So, Shipman said, he got him
another supply. Of course, since the patient had died, it was
impossible to prove Shipman had confiscated both batches.
In another example, Shipman's staff told how he
had confused them regarding drug entries. He explained away some
missing morphine with the excuse he was merely giving it to a
colleague who had loaned him some for a prior patient emergency.
But the doctor vastly overrated the gullibility
of the court with one ridiculous story: He said a supply of
diamorphine (the medical term for heroin) must have been put
through a slot in his office door, because he found it lying on
the office doormat when he arrived at work.
Prosecution counsel Richard Henriques
sarcastically dismissed this nonsense, referring to Dr. Shipman's
"magic mat" where restricted drugs could simply materialize
In most instances, Shipman got his morphine
through patients who had never needed it in the first place, or he
confiscated unused supplies from patients who had died. Detective
Superintendent Bernard Postles explained:
"What he tended to do is overprescribe to
individuals who legitimately required diamorphine, certainly in
the days just prior to them dying. What he would do then is go
along to the home, offer to dispose of any excess that was left at
the house, and he would take that away.
One man who narrowly escaped being an unwitting
supplier is Jim King. In 1996 he was incorrectly diagnosed as
having cancer. Shipman treated him with masive doses of morphine.
Jim King told how "he kept saying to us 'well you can take as much
morphine as you wish,' because of course it didn't really matter,
I was dying anyway."
When Jim's condition worsened, Shipman made a
house call. He diagnosed pneumonia and said he needed to give an
injection. Jim looked at his wife, who seemed wary. Perhaps her
unease was prompted because both King's aunt and father had died
following Shipman visits.
She remembers how the doctor "asked me if I
wanted him to give him an injection and I said no. I said can we
write out a prescription for him. He kept being a little bit
persistent about it and I kept telling him no, no, I don't want
it. He was a bit arrogant about it, a kind of snotty attitude
towards me, a little bit…"
So, King probably cheated death — and the
doctor out of more morphine.
The Kings learned later that Shipman had killed
The Verdict and Sentence
It took the judge — Mr. Justice Forbes — two
weeks to meticulously dissect the evidence heard by the jury. He
urged caution, noting that no witness had actually seen Shipman
kill. And he also urged the jurors to use common sense in arriving
at their verdict.
In summing up, he said, in part:
"The allegations could not be more serious — a
doctor accused of murdering 15 patients... You will have heard
evidence which may have aroused feelings of anger, strong
disapproval, disgust, profound dismay or deep sympathy."
At 4:43 pm on Monday January 31st 2000, the
foreman declared all the jury's verdicts were unanimous: they
found Shipman guilty on 15 counts of murder and one of forgery.
The disgraced doctor stood motionless and
betrayed no sign of emotion as he heard the jurors' verdicts read.
Wearing black, Shipman's wife, Primrose, also
remained impassive. Her boys — one beside her and the other seated
behind — looked down and seemed to diminish on hearing the
In the public gallery, some gasped as Shipman's
previous forgeries were described.
Defense counsel, Nicola Davies, asked that
sentence be passed immediately.
Mr. Justice Forbes obliged, addressing Shipman:
"You have finally been brought to justice by
the verdict of this jury. I have no doubt whatsoever that these
are true verdicts. The time has now come for me to pass sentence
upon you for these wicked, wicked crimes.
"Each of your victims was your patient. You
murdered each and every one of your victims by a calculated and
cold-blooded perversion of your medical skills, for your own evil
and wicked purposes.
"You took advantage of, and grossly abused
their trust. You were, after all, each victim's doctor. I have
little doubt that each of your victims smiled and thanked you as
she submitted to your deadly ministrations.
The judge passed fifteen life sentences for the
murders and a four-year sentence for forgery.
Then he broke with the tradition that usually
involves writing to the Home Secretary about his recommendations
on length of the sentence:
'In the ordinary way, I would not do this in
open court, but in your case I am satisfied justice demands that I
make my views known at the conclusion of this trial... My
recommendation will be that you spend the remainder of your days
Fifteen murders had been dealt with and the
fifty-seven day trial was over.
But the extent of the killing was yet to be
British police are so convinced that Shipman's
killing spree started long ago that a special helpline has been
set up for those concerned about how friends and relatives died
while under the killer's care.
The Baker report, noted earlier, is filled with
When he compared Shipman's patient list with
those of doctors with similar lists, Professor Baker concluded
that Shipman had 236 more in-home patient deaths than would
normally be expected. Most of these deaths involved women over 75.
Chief Medical Officer Professor Liam Donaldson
stated: "The questions raised in the report will be distressing
reading to the patients and relatives who were under Shipman's
care over the years, but it is important for their sake that this
work has been done and is published...'there must be serious
concerns about deaths of some patients during Harold Shipman's
entire career as a GP.'
High Court judge Dame Janet Smith heads a
proposed inquiry expected to start in March 2001 and last over two
Initially, the government said the inquiry
would be held behind closed doors, but in September 2000,
concerned relatives won their battle to have it held in public.
The reason Harold Shipman killed may never be
known. As long as he professes his innocence, the mystery will
remain, for this serial killer is unique.
There were no signs of violence, no sexual
overtones, no known motive — except for the one exception — and no
Also, serial killers often like to toy with
their victims, to reinforce their self-portrait of power, before
they strike. But Shipman's victims seem to have died peacefully,
and in surroundings where they felt safe and comfortable — at
Endless, contradictory theories abound.
Some psychoanalysts speculate he hated older
women, citing comments he made about the elderly being a drain on
the health system.
Others feel he was re-creating his mother's
death scene, in order to satisfy some deep masochistic need. His
belief in his own superiority makes this questionable.
That fact that he left so many indelible clues
indicates, some say, that Shipman desperately wanted to be
discovered and stopped; that he was fighting a compulsion he
simply could not control.
But the consensus seems to be that he felt he
was so superior he could do whatever he wanted with no fear of
discovery. Even this seems hard to comprehend — he had already
been caught red-handed forging prescriptions and stockpiling drugs
when he was hooked on pethedine.
Perhaps prosecutor Richard Henriques got it
right when he said:
"He was exercising the ultimate power of
controlling life and death, and repeated the act so often he must
have found the drama of taking life to his taste.'
Addicted to Killing
July 24, 2002
Until late July, 2002, Britain's worst serial
killer was Victorian serial poisoner, Mary Ann Cotton, who
murdered an estimated 21 people in the 1870s. Now that dubious
distinction is claimed by Dr. Harold Shipman.
Officially, Dr. Harold Shipman murdered at
least 215 of his patients — 171 women and 44 men ranging in age
from 41 to 93. After a year-long public inquiry, the 2,000-page
report into his 23-year murder spree was released by High Court
Judge Dame Janet Smith. The records of nearly 500 patients of
Shipman's who died while in his care between 1978 and 1998 were
scrutinized in the investigation.
Another investigation, conducted by University
of Leicester professor Richard Baker determined that the real
minimum number of Shipman victims was 236. Associated Press
reported that Judge Janet Smith said "the full toll may be higher,
citing a 'real suspicion' that Shipman had killed 45 more people
for whom there was insufficient evidence to be certain. In another
38 cases, there was too little information to form any opinion on
the cause of death."
Despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt, the
56-year-old former physician maintains his innocence, continuing
to shroud the motives for his extraordinary crimes. The official
report speculated that the doctor was "addicted to killing" much
like he was addicted to painkillers around the time the murders
started. Like other death angels such as Dr. Michael Swango, the
American doctor who killed patients in both Africa and the U.S.,
there was no hint of a sexual interest in his victims. Rather, as
South Manchester coroner John Pollard speculated, Shipman "simply
enjoyed viewing the process of dying and enjoyed feeling the
control over life and death."
A fatal fascination with death, dying and drugs
is consistent with the behavior of the 17-year-old Shipman who
spent hours comforting Vera, his cancer-stricken dying mother. In
the young man's mind, there was a powerful emotional connection
between the visit of the family doctor and the relief that his
injections of morphine brought to her suffering. Is it just a
coincidence that he began abusing painkillers himself and shortly
after he began practicing medicine, he used a lethal injection of
pain medication to murder his first victim?
Judge Smith found Shipman's "non-violent"
killing almost incredible. "The way in which Shipman could kill,
face the relatives and walk away unsuspected would be dismissed as
fanciful if described in a work of fiction." Even more incredible
was that his murders of so many people did not arouse suspicion
for decades, even though there were supposedly safeguards in place
at that time.
Clearly new safeguards are needed and a number
of them are now in the works in Britain. For example, after he
murdered a victim, Dr. Shipman would often arrange for the body to
be cremated if the family did not object, thereby destroying
evidence of his crime. Judge Smith points out that new
pre-cremation procedures are needed to prevent future abuse. Also,
the system failed tragically when Shipman, after being convicted
of drug abuse in 1975, was allowed to obtain enormous quantities
of painkilling drugs. For example, in the name of a dying patient,
Dr. Shipman obtained enough of the painkiller diamorphine to kill
Is Shipman a one-off monster as some have
suggested? There is growing evidence that he is not as rare as one
hopes him to be. Disguised in the aura of respectability that
normally surrounds medical professionals, a number of monsters
like Shipman have gradually been unmasked, but only after numerous
deaths have taken place. These "angels of death" are not only
doctors, but nurses, therapists, hospital workers and proprietors
of care facilities for the sick and the elderly. Dr. Michael
Swango killed his patients because it gave him a thrill and a
feeling of power; Beverley Allitt and Genene Jones, pediatric
nurses, killed their young patients to get more attention for
themselves; Dr. Marcel Petiot and Dr. H.H. Holmes killed for
money; Dr. Josef Mengele killed for political beliefs, and so on.
The medical profession clearly needs more oversight if the world
is to rid itself of this problem.
Shipman Inquiry Criticizes Police and Coroner.
On July 14, 2003, BBC Online reported that
officers from the Greater Manchester police department who
investigated the Harold Shipman case had come under heavy
criticism following the findings of an official enquiry into the
According to the report, Dame Janet Smith, the
judge heading the inquiry, said the enquiry had found that "three
of Harold Shipman's victims could have been saved if police had
In particular, the enquiry criticized the two
Greater Manchester Police detectives who investigated the doctor
calling them "inexperienced and unfit to handle the case" and
indicated that their lack of experience resulted in "many missed
opportunities to bring Shipman's crimes to light."
"If the police and the coroner had moved with
reasonable expedition, the lives of Shipman's last three victims
would probably have been saved," Judge Smith said.
Chief Superintendent David Sykes, the senior
officer on the case was, according to the enquiry "unable to give
effective leadership but did not do anything about it," Dame Janet
The junior officer, Detective Inspector David
Smith, was "out of his depth and made many mistakes but did not
ask for help and later lied to cover them up," Smith said.
The enquiry also found that an internal policy
inquiry into the two officers' handling of the investigation was
The report stated that Sykes has since retired
from the police department and a misconduct investigation has been
launched against Smith.
A spokeswoman for Greater Manchester police
told reporters that the department would examine the report's
recommendations thoroughly. "We have publicly acknowledged that
mistakes were made during the first police investigation into
Shipman's activities and [we offer] our sincere apologies to the
families of the three women who later died. We have already made a
number of changes to our working practices as a result of our own
reviews of the investigation. These we believe will ensure that
this could never happen again."
The following day The Guardian also carried a
report of the findings and paid particular attention to Judge
Smith's criticism of the way in which the coroners had handled the
case stating that, in future they "would be backed by a team of
expert investigators to ensure that a homicidal doctor such as
Shipman would not be able to exploit the system again."
The enquiry also found that the postmortem
examination of victim Renate Overton, who lingered in a coma for
14 months after Shipman apparently gave her a fatal injection in
1994, were inadequate and there should have been an inquest. "Had
the circumstances of her admission to hospital been fully
investigated at that time, there is a real possibility that it
would have been appreciated that Shipman had deliberately
administered a lethal dose of morphine - it was a missed
opportunity," Judge Smith said.
The enquiry also criticized Alan Banks, the
medical adviser to the West Pennine health authority, saying, "his
respect for Shipman closed his mind to the fact that his colleague
could have harmed a patient."
The Final Betrayal
By Rachael Bell
On Tuesday, January 13, 2004 , Dr. Harold
Shipman, Britain's worst serial killer, was discovered at 6 a.m.
hanging in his prison cell. He apparently committed suicide in
Wakefield prison, where he had been incarcerated since June of
2003 after being moved from Durham prison. The 57-year-old
physician was serving 15 concurrent life sentences for his
murders, beginning in January of 2000. It is estimated that he
killed between 215 and 260 patients during his 23-year killing
His death has opened an inquiry as to how he
was able to hang himself in his cell although suicide attempts are
not particularly unusual for people facing life in prison. There
is no evidence that he was on a suicide watch at Wakefield, even
though he had been on suicide watches at Durham. A spokeswoman
from Wakefield told BBC News that Shipman used bed sheets to hang
himself from the window bars of his cell. "'He was showing no
signs whatsoever of pre-suicidal behavior at all,' she said."
The Guardian reported that Shipman was
"obnoxious and arrogant to the prison staff. Just before Christmas
his enhanced status was reduced to basic. He was deprived of the
television set in his cell and had to wear prison uniform rather
than his own clothes." Some of his privileges were given back to
him shortly before he died.
To many of Shipman's victims his suicide is a
kind of final betrayal: not only will they never know why he
killed their loved ones, but he escaped his punishment of spending
the rest of his natural life in prison.
Danny Mellor, whose mother was one of Shipman's
victims, told Reuters that Shipman was a coward. "I always
harbored the remote possibility that one day I could confront him
and ask him why, Mellor said. "Now that has been taken away from
The closest that anyone came to understanding
what motivated Shipman was Dr. Richard Badcock, psychiatrist at
Rampton Special Hospital. After speaking at length with Shipman,
Dr. Badcock told the Telegraph that "he believed that Shipman's
choice of career might have been influenced by his developing
tendencies towards necrophilia, perhaps originally triggered by
the death of his mother from cancer when he was 17." Having
complete control over life and death, "that can give a sense of
power and omnipotent invulnerability in itself," Dr. Badcock
Shipman's wife and four children have never
accepted that he was guilty. Primrose Shipman was very devoted to
her husband. His transfer to Wakefield prison made it easier for
her to visit him.
Frightening New Revelations
By Katherine Ramsland
Although he used a bed sheet to commit suicide
in his cell in Wakefield prison in 2004, a renewed inquiry into
Dr. Harold Shipman's practice ended with a startling announcement
on January 27, 2005 . While he was already credited as one of the
world's most prolific serial killers with an estimated 215 to 260
victims, whom he killed with lethal injections of diamorphine,
people generally settled on the lower figure as the official toll.
It turns out, according to the BBC, that a British commission set
up to scrutinize his entire medical career believes that the
higher figure may be more accurate. While the fatal physician,
about to turn 58 when he died, can no longer be punished for his
crimes, more families may now receive closure—albeit painful—as to
how a loved one died.
The inquiry commission, writes journalist
Annabel Crabb in London, had earlier published reports in 2002 to
the effect that Shipman had begun his killing career after he had
joined a general practice in Todmorden in 1974, but then
investigators decided to examine 137 patient deaths prior to that
time for suspicious circumstances. Russell Jenkins for the
timesonline.co.uk writes that this new inquiry was inspired by
reports from Sandra Whitehead. She had been a student nurse in
Pontefract General Hospital in West Yorkshire , a facility where
Shipman had worked as a junior house officer (an interim position
between leaving medical school and becoming a doctor) and where he
then received his doctor's registration in 1971. He remained there
nearly three years. After Shipman's suicide, Whitehead had
reflected back over her three months there and recalled the high
death rate, so she contacted the commission to voice her concerns.
"The realization," she was quoted in several sources as saying,
"was like hitting a brick wall at 60 miles an hour." She believed
her colleague, who had used prescription drugs inappropriately,
had been killing patients even then.
The commission, chaired by Dame Janet Smith,
re-examined 137 patient deaths: 133 for which Shipman had signed a
death certificate or cremation order, and four more around whom
witnesses had indicated he was present. The New Zealand Herald
included the information that Dame Janet found Shipman present in
at least one-third of the cases he had certified, compared to an
average of 1.6 percent for other doctors. That raised red flags,
as did the fact that an unusually high percentage of the deaths
had occurred between 6:00 P.M. and midnight.
It was initially believed that Shipman, who as
a GP made house calls to the elderly (mostly women), had taken
advantage of the easy pickings among such patients. But that idea
has proven to be erroneous. While he certainly engaged in such
behavior, it seems that he preyed on other types of patients as
well. The latest report confirmed, according to several media
accounts, that Shipman appeared to have killed at least fifteen
patients prior to 1975, and Leeds Today added another seven.
Timesonline mentions that Dame Janet was suspicious of about at
least twenty-four deaths, and also indicates that she said that
while there will never be definitive evidence in many cases, the
actual figure could be as high as 284.
The public was angry that he'd been allowed to
practice for so long without anyone noticing what he was doing, so
the inquiry was launched, in part, to answer this question. Since
healthcare serial killers (HCSKs) appear to have increased
worldwide over the past two decades, people are demanding to know
why vigilance has been so low and institutions have not been held
accountable for hospital-based murders by practitioners. Given
these new findings, it was clear that new procedures had to be put
into place — especially in light of yet another report that
Although Shipman never publicly confessed, and
in fact denied the truth of the allegations, John Harkin, an
inmate at Preston Prison where Shipman was temporarily housed,
said that the doctor confessed to killing as many as 508 patients.
Upon investigation, there proved to be no basis for that claim's
accuracy. A psychiatrist also described Shipman as a "classic
necrophilliac," although there was no evidence that he had an
erotic attraction to corpses. Others believed that his motive was
to exercise control, but Dame Janet had her own opinion.
By Katherine Ramsland
Shipman's first victim was probably Margaret
Thompson, 67, who was recovering from a stroke. She died in March
1971, and records indicated that Shipman had been alone with her
at the time. Three males were added to the murder list as well:
Thomas Cullumbine, 54; John Bewster, 84, and James Rhodes, 71.
Dame Janet, who included the fact that Shipman had watched his
cancer-ravaged mother die within a morphine-induced coma and who
had himself become addicted to pethidine, interpreted Shipman's
behavior as a fascination with drugs. To BBC News, she said,
"There is some evidence that he liked to test the boundaries of
certain forms of treatment...It is quite likely that some of the
deaths Shipman caused resulted from experimentation with drugs."
It was her opinion that many of these patients
would have died anyway, perhaps within a few hours, but that
Shipman had used the opportunity to experiment on them with drugs,
thereby accelerating their demise. He then made unusual entries
into their medical records, which included brief comments about
their deaths, as well as overly elaborate comments and items
crossed out. These notations were similar to those he had made
with patients that he was convicted of killing. In Dame Janet's
opinion, he experimented during the evening shift when fewer
medical personnel would be around to observe him with patients.
Among four additional patient deaths for which
the commission found suspicious circumstances when Shipman was a
young doctor was a girl only four years old. Susan Garfitt, a
cerebral palsy patient, was at Pontefract on October 11, 1972,
with a bad case of pneumonia. Her mother, Ann Garfitt, remembers
Dr. Shipman telling her in a soothing voice that the child was
going to die and that medicating her any further would only
prolong her suffering. Mrs. Garfitt asked him to be kind to her
child and then stepped out for a cup of tea. When she returned, a
nurse told her that Susie had died. She was shocked, and in
retrospect she wondered if Shipman had taken her request as an
unspoken consent to euthanize her daughter. Given the
circumstances, the inquiry commission decided that Shipman had
likely given the child a lethal injection.
It's not unusual for HCSK's to "predict" deaths
that they themselves intend to commit. They see a defenseless
patient in sufficiently bad health that few would suspect foul
play if that person died, and they then prey on him or her. The
elderly and the very young are the most vulnerable, especially if
they're in critical condition. Few pathologists look for
suspicious needle marks, because hospital autopsies, when
undertaken, are fairly routine. In addition, Shipman showed
another behavior common to HCSKs: ingratiating himself with
authority figures, which apparently had the effect of deflecting
them from his suspicious behavior.
In sum, the three definite murders, four highly
suspicious deaths, plus seventeen more in which there were
reasonable suspicions amounts to 24. Dame Janet Smith's report is
the sixth thus far and was announced as the last one, although the
Scotsman reported that as many as 45 more deaths in other places
where Shipman worked might still merit investigation. Dame Janet
emphasized that her figure was an estimation, not a calculation.
She herself had positively identified only 218 victims.
In Leeds Today, it was reported that even a
year later, there has been no funeral for Shipman and his body
remains in a morgue in Sheffield. However, the Yorkshire Post says
that his remains were moved to Wakefield in secret and the family
is waiting for publicity to die down before they decide what to
do. Apparently Shipman's wife, Primrose, wants to bury him, while
a son prefers cremation. A book devoted to Shipman's crimes, Mind
Set on Murder, written by Carole Peters has been published, yet it
probably does not cover a recent revelation, that Shipman mocked
his victims and used derogatory codes for them, such as WOW -
Whining Old Woman—-and FTPBI - Failed To Put Brain In. He also
viewed himself as the "star" of his trial. Reportedly, the family
believed he had been murdered in his cell and had tests done to
make those determinations — perhaps another reason that his
remains are still on hold.
The General Medical Council must now respond to
the results of the expensive four-year inquiry with a plan for
better policing of the medical establishment. The pressure of
lawsuits from families of Shipman's victims will ensure that
measures are taken so that such a long-running killing streak by a
doctor, which involved as many as 36 patients a year, never
happens again. It can no longer be assumed that people who enter
the healthcare industry have only the best motives. While killers
like Shipman are rare, patient care demands better scrutiny.