Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dr. Harold Shipman, the World's Most Prolific Serial Killer

New Chapter - Deadly Details

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.

Mind Set on Murder
Mind Set on Murder

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.

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