Known as “Britain’s Most Prolific Serial Killer”, Dr. Harold Shipman (a.k.a Dr. Death) claimed the lives of more than 250 victims. In 2004, 57-year-old Shipman was found hanging in his cell at HM Prison Wakefield, West Yorkshire, which cut short his sentence that was set for him to serve 15 consecutive life sentences.
Although he was convicted of only 15 murders, further investigations discovered that his undetected crimes had gone on for much longer. How did Shipman get away with it for so long? What finally ended his unthinkable scheme?
As part of our catching a killer series, here we look at how police managed to capture and convict Dr. Death…
Born in Nottingham, Harold Frederick Shipman grew up in a working class household – his mother a housewife and father a lorry driver. He excelled beyond expectations as an accomplished rugby player, successful long distance runner, and vice-captain of his athletics.
Then came a death in the family – when he was 17-years-old, his mother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and Shipman oversaw her care, administering the morphine doses that would ease her pain. In 1963, she passed away and without his mother, Shipman became withdrawn and adopted a loner-like personality. Many speculate it was the death of his mother which would later give birth to his obsession with death.
Shipman used his natural ability to excel and powered through his studies at Leeds School of Medicine. Four years after his graduation he officially became Dr Shipman. It only took Shipman one year into his medical profession for his mask to slip; he had become addicted to the painkiller Pethidine (commonly used in childbirth) and forged prescriptions for large amounts that could feed his addiction. His colleagues rang the alarm bells and he received a small fine and forgery conviction. Perhaps it was at this pivotal moment that Shipman quietly said to himself “Better not get caught next time.”
Harold Shipman and his wife Primrose
A few years after the forgery scandal, Shipman was accepted as a member of staff at Donneybrook Medical Centre in Hyde, where he earned back his reputation as a hardworking, trustworthy and friendly doctor.
Then in 1998, a funeral director by the name of Deborah Massey expressed her concerns to the local coroner that there was an unusually high number of deaths amongst Shipman’s patients. Massey found it also a cause for concern that the patients who were found dead were mostly women whose bodies were sitting upright, or reclining in a chair, and had been fully clothed. Shipman had given the cause of death as “old age” on their death certificates. There wasn’t enough evidence to investigate such a well-respected doctor at this point but evidence which was about to put him away for life was just around the corner…
Harold Shipman’s victims
On June 24th, 1998, 81-year-old Kathleen Grundy, a former Mayoress, was found dead in her home following a visit from Shipman. She was active, healthy and above all else – wealthy. Grundy’s daughter, a lawyer named Angela Woodruff, was advised by Shipman that an autopsy was not necessary and she buried her mother.
Shockingly, after her mother’s death, Woodruff received a poorly typed will that had apparently been made by her mother. Confused, Woodruff could not understand how the will left out herself and her own children but also that the entire £386,000 estate was left to Shipman. She reported this to the police in her hometown of Lemington Spa and a thorough investigation had begun. Grundy’s body was dug up from the grave, exhumed and it was found to contain traces of diamorphine – a drug used to control pain in terminal cancer patients.
Senior Detective Stan Egerton
Senior Detective Stan Egerton was only months away from retirement when he came across the Shipman case – he had no idea this would lead to him exhuming twelve bodies. He recalls, “There were numerous emotions; one that sticks in my mind more than any is the intrusion, not only were we intruding into death but we were intruding into the grief of the families.” Adding, “This was a case of forgery, attempting to obtain monies by deception, never at the beginning of that investigation did I envisage that I would be dealing with not only one murder investigation but a number of murder investigations.”
Egerton discovered that four months earlier, a secret police enquiry carried out on Shipman had taken place following another doctor’s concerns of the high death rates amongst Shipman’s patients. Local coroner John Pollard said, “Originally I was approached by a general practitioner in the Hyde area and she felt she had been signing rather a lot more cremation certificates where the first signature was that of Dr Shipman.”
Alarmingly, five patients had died in his surgery – a rarity for any general practitioner – and in one month eight of his patients had all died on the same street. Detectives were shocked how long these crimes went on for with nobody raising an alarm about this staggering mortality rate amongst his patients. Clearly, nobody was willing to challenge the friendly, professional doctor.
On 7th September 1998, Shipman was arrested and the typewriter that matched with the one used to forge the will was taken into evidence. Two years later, he was convicted on 15 counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison. A government inquiry took place in order to determine exactly how many patients Shipman had murdered. In 2002, an official report found that he had killed at least 215 people and possibly as many as 260. The patients were mostly elderly and a lethal dose of the painkiller drug diamorphine had been administered – Shipman would then sign the death certificates attributing the cause of death as “natural causes.”
Although on my occasions he would benefit financially from the death of his patients through forgeries, in some cases it appears he simply killed because he could. Potentially a psychopathic power seeker who enjoyed toying between life and death with his patients.
On 13th January, 2004, Shipman hanged himself behind bars at HM Prison Wakefield, Wakefield.