Dr. Harold Shipman

I wrote this post originally on the 70th birthday of the NHS (national health service) in the UK, for any of my readers from the world that might not know the NHS is our free health care basically it’s a life saver, I’ve never known a life where I had to worry about my healthcare, if something should happen to me and I need any medical assistance I know I’m in good hands and I don’t need to pay for it or any medications associated

Sadly, I’m delving into a much darker story within the NHS, aside from how horrendously under-funded it is, here’s the story now of one of the most notorious serial killers in history with a victim count of 215 known victims (with the possibility of 260).

Harold Frederick Shipman was born into a middle class family on 14th January 1946, and was considered the “favourite child” of his domineering mother, Vera. He was isolated as an adolescent with few friends due to his mother instilling an early sense of superiority in him, this would taint any later relationships because in any relationship there should a mutual respect, so if one person thinks they’re better than the other, the relationship isn’t going to work, it’ll either wear one person down damaging their self esteem or it’s just going to piss the other person off, driving them to end the relationship.

Vera was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and Shipman oversaw her care as she declined, he developed a fascination with the positive effect that morphine administration had on his mother until she died on 21st June 1963. Shipman was left devastated by her death and was determined to go to medical school, he then attended Leeds university medical school for training in 1965, he failed his entrance exams first time before serving his hospital internship.

At age 19 he met his wife Primrose, and they married when she was 17 and five months pregnant with their first child. Shipman was a father of two by 1974 and he joined a medical practice in Todmorden, Yorkshire, he was a family practitioner and did well within the community before he became addicted to the painkiller Pethidine. Shipman started forging prescriptions for large amounts of the drug, he got caught by his medical colleagues and was forced to leave the practice in 1975.

Shipman then entered a drug rehab program, after an inquiry he was given a small fine and a conviction for forgery. Shipman joined Donneybrook Medical Centre, Hyde and he blended himself into the community as a hardworking doctor and family man, who enjoyed the trust of his colleagues and patients alike, he did have a reputation for being arrogant with junior staff members, but he remained a doctor at this practice for 20 years.

People around Shipman professionally started to notice strange things surrounding Shipman’s patients, the local undertaker grew concerned that Shipman’s patients were dying at an unusually high rate, and the patients exhibited similar poses in death, most were fully clothed, usually sitting up or reclining on a couch, he approached Shipman and Shipman reassured it that there was no cause for concern. Another colleague Dr. Susan Booth also found these similarities to be alarming and alerted the local coroner’s office, who in turn contacted the police.

After this report a covert investigation was launched, but Shipman was cleared, his records appeared to be in order, they did fail to contact the General Medical Council, or check his criminal records, this would have yielded evidence of Shipman’s previous records for forgery, because when a thorough investigation was conducted later it was revealed that Shipman had also been altering the medical records of his victims, giving them conditions and illnesses that would corroborate their cause of death.

As mentioned Shipman hid behind his image of a caring family doctor and family man, because of this it has been near impossible to establish exactly when he started killing patients, or even the exact number of victims. He has denied all charges and did not co operate with authorities through the investigation.

Shipman was only stopped by the determination of Angela Woodruff, she was the daughter of one of Shipman’s victims, she refused to accept Shipman’s explination of what happened to her mother. Angela#s mother Kathleen Grundy was an active, wealthy 81 year old widow, she was found dead in her home on 24th June 1998, following a visit by Shipman. Shipman told Woodruff that an autopsy was not required and Kathleen Grundy was buried.

Now, Angela was a lawyer and had always handled her mother’s affairs, she was surprised after her mother’s death to dins a second will existed saying a bulk of her estate was to be left to none other than Dr Shipman. She believed Shipman had forged the will, and murdered her mother to benefit from the death. Angela alerted the police and Detective Superintendent Bernard Postles came to the conclusion as Angela quickly after examining the evidence.

Kathleen Grundy’s body was exhumed, and it was revealed through post mortem that she had died of a morphine overdose, it was administered within three hours before her death, precisely the time that Shipman went to visit her. Upon a search of Shipman’s home and odd collection of jewellery, and an old typewriter, which proved to be the one Kathleen Grundy’s will was forged on.

Medical records were also seized and it was immediately apparent to the police that the case would extend much further than just the one death in question, priority was then given to the deaths, that would be most productive to investigate in terms of evidence gathering against Shipman. Shipman had urged families to cremate his victims stressing that no further investigation of their death was needed, so priority was given to the victims that had not been cremated, and to victims that had recently been visited by Shipman in their home before their deaths. If any family member chose to question Shipman about their family members death he would provide falsified computerised medical notes that corroborated his cause of death announcement.

The police confirmed that Shipman was altering the medical notes of his patients directly after killing them, this ensured his account matched historical records, Ship man didn’t notice that every alteration made on those records were timestamped by the computer, this made it easy for the police to see exactly which records had been altered and when.

The extensive investigation into Shipman included numerous exhumations and autopsies, Shipman was charged with 15 individual counts of murder on 7th September 1998, as well as one count of forgery. The trial commenced on 5th October 1999, Shipman’s defence tried to have Shipman tried in three separate phases e.g. cases with physical evidence, cases without and the Grundy case (where the forgery was different, as a will was forged as well as medical records), as well as having the evidence of Shipman’s fraudulent accumulation of morphine and other drugs, were thrown out. The trial proceeded and the 16 charges including fraud was included in the indictment.

The prosecution asserted that Shipman killed 15 people because he enjoyed exercising control over life and death, they dismissed any claims that he had been acting compassionately because none of his victims were suffering a terminal illness or severe pain.

The first witness to take the stand was Kathleen Grundy’s daughter, Angela Woodruff, Shipman’s defence made numerous attempts to undermine Angela, all of which unsuccessful, her determination to get the truth for her mother impressed the jury.

Kathleen Grundy’s “will” was sent for fingerprint analysis, and this revealed that Kathleen Grundy had never handled the will, so her signature on the will was dismissed by a handwriting expert as a crude forgery. More and more details emerged and a government pathologist led the court through post mortem findings, revealing that morphine toxicity was the cause of death in a majority of the cases.

Accounts of other victims were revealed as the trial progressed, and a pattern of Shipman’s behaviours were seen, he had a lack of compassion, a reluctance to revive a patient, disregard for the wishes of attending relatives, and it got worse when he would pretend to call the emergency services in the presence of relatives and cancel the call out when the patient died, but telephone records showed that these called had never been made.

There was speculation from the commission that Shipman may have been “addicted to killing” and he was also critical of police investigation procedures, he claimed a lack of experience of investigating officers, which resulted in missed opportunities to catch Shipman.

Due to the fact he would not take any responsibility for the murders and reveal any details, as I said it’s impossible to really know when he committed his first murder, but it is speculated that he may have taken his first victim within months of obtaining his medical licence. The alleged victim was Margaret Thompson, she died in March 1971 while recovering from a stroke, but any deaths associated with Shipman prior to 1975 were never officially proven.

We’ll never really know the exact number, I’m sure that someone like Shipman, knows the exact number of lives he took, but the fact is he is now one of the most prolific known serial killers in the world. He remained at Durham Prison throughout the investigations, maintaining his innocence, his wife and family even defended him. He was moved to Wakefield Prison in June 2003 to make visits from his family easier. A year later on January 13 2004, Shipmn was found in his cell at 6am, he’d used bed sheets and hung himself off the window bars of his cell.

At first glance of this case, it looks like a doctor overdosing his elderly patients in an “angel of death” situation, but Shipman didn’t show compassion in his kills, the fact he tried to gain financially from the Grundy murder and the fact he killed people that weren’t terminally ill, this shows his disregard for human life and his desire to control and manipulate life. I believe this came from his mother instilling that image of superiority into him, I mean evidence was piled up against him and he still maintained his innocence, he thought he was too good to be caught and that’s what I think was the downfall in the end, he killed himself because he could see that there was no way he was going to get out of it and by killing himself he’s escaped any real justice and left a lot of unanswered questions for the victim’s families, almost like a final move of power and arrogance.

Finally, I do want to mention the links between his mother’s death and his killing. I talked about how he was fascinated by the effect of morphine on his mother and it could be possible that his mother was his first victim, an actual act of mercy for his mother that he realised he enjoyed, a high he wanted to recreate over and over, getting more and more bold as he kept taking lives.

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