Harold Shipman: the placid appearance of “Doctor Death”

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Generally when we think about the figure and the way of acting of a serial killer, we imagine immense brutality, where the victims are killed with ferocity and ruthlessness. Very often this is the case, sometimes it can happen that the mental deviations appear in a completely different way, taking on more unpredictable and furtive manners like in the events that occurred in England in the late 90s.

It all began with a report and following investigation leading to open a Pandora’s box that released crimes that had been covered for twenty years.

A suspicious death

1998, Hyde, Manchester. It is June 24th when Kathleen Grundy is found dead at home. She was an active and healthy 81-year-old lady. On the same day a lawyer receives a will in which Kathleen declares to leave her property to her physician, Dr. Shipman.

Angela Woodruff, the woman’s daughter, is rather puzzled. Her suspicions lead her to dig in to the matter; few days later she is contacted by the law firm that had received the will. Angela decides to compare the signature of the first will that Kathleen had made in 1986 with the one of the latest will recently received. The signatures do not match.

The matter is rather strange and the police are notified. After examining the evidence, the superintendent decides to arrange for the exhumation of the lady’s body. Subsequent examinations of the corpse will show that her daughter’s hunch was correct. Kathleen Grundy died of a morphine overdose. The substance was injected into her three hours before her death. Reconstructing the latest events in the woman’s life, it emerges that at that time she had been visited in the house by Dr. Shipman.

The agents immediately proceed to the doctor’s house for the arrest.

Among the investigators, the doubt begins to surface that Kathleen’s may not be the only case. Intensifying the investigations, the bodies of other patients are exhumed. It emerges that traces of morphine are present in 14 corpses. Analyzing the doctor’s computer these deaths are all recorded for “natural causes”: all the records had been falsified.

Reached this point there are sufficient elements to suppose that a serial killer is actually hiding behind that reassuring and respectable-looking doctor.

But how did it all start? And who is really Harold Shipman?

Harold Shipman

He was born in Nottingham on January 14, 1946 into a family of workers. He develops a particular relationship with his mother since childhood, which demonstrates an overprotective attitude towards him. The woman pushes him to focus in his studies, instilling in him a sense of superiority towards his companions. For this reason he grows up without particular friendships, isolating himself from other boys. However, the results of his efforts are visible to all; Harold is indeed one of the most promising students.

When the boy is 17, his mother falls ill with lung cancer. An event that will mark his life. Harold often visits her at the hospital and observes amazed when the doctors inject her doses of morphine, fascinated by how that drug can alleviate the woman’s pain.

On June 21, 1963, her mother dies, leaving an unbridgeable emotional void in her Harold’s existence.

The young man is determined to pursue a career as a doctor, and two years later is admitted to the medical university of Leeds. During this time he meets Primrose, a 17-year-old girl that later will become his wife and will give them four children.

Shipman graduates and in 1974 begins practicing as a doctor in Todmorden, a village in Yorkshire. He plays this role temporarily until he is discovered by his colleagues while he is prescribing himself Demerol, an opioid. It then emerges that Harold has developed an addiction to that drug so he is sent to a rehabilitation clinic.

In 1977, after cleaning up, he returnes to his profession filling a vacancy at Donneybrook Medical Center in Hyde. His tenure at Donneybrook will be for 16 years, until he opens his own private practice in 1993.

Over the years, Dr. Harold Shipman is recognized as a reliable professional, earning the esteem of the community. No one was aware at the time of his dark side and the evil murderous plan he had been carrying out for a long time.

It is difficult to determine when the chain of crimes began, however it is assumed that his first killing dates back to March 1975, against 70-year-old Eva Lyons. From then on, he went on and on for 23 years, reaping a long trail of death. He has always maintained the usual modus operandi, injecting lethal doses of morphine to patients. His youngest victim was Peter Lewis, 41. The oldest was Anne Cooper, 93 years old.

Investigators managed to find enough evidence to prove him guilty of the deaths of 15 people, albeit for the many years he has operated the total number may be estimated to be much higher, reaching around 215 victims.

The sentence

The man is brought to trial. Shipman vigorously denies being a murderer, yet the evidence proves his responsibilities and he is ultimately sentenced to life in prison for 15 murders.

He remains in detention for few years, until January 13, 2004, when he takes his own life hanging himself with the bed sheets.

Harold Shipman is still considered one of the most prolific serial killers ever. A man who exploited his harmless and benevolent image to devise a project as devious as malicious, taking away the lives of people that trusted him.

A rather particular story that has changed the way we observe and study the cases of serial killers, to show that madness facets can be multiple.