Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

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

The Final Betrayal

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 spree.

Wakefield Prison, UK
Wakefield Prison, UK

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."

Harold Shipman, prison photo ID
Harold Shipman, prison photo ID

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 me."

Dr. Richard Badcock
Dr. Richard Badcock

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 theorized.

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.

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