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While Jack the Ripper had about 13 victims, Dr Harold Shipman has been directly fingered in 215 murders, and been further alleged to have killed up to 500 of his patients. Dubbed “Doctor Death” by British media, he deliberately killed 8 patients in one month, and 6 patients all living on the same street. He is worldwide, the most prolific serial killer in history with a trail of bodies spanning across twenty years.


Born in January 1946, Harold Shipman grew up in Nottingham, England. He didn't stand out. His schoolmates remember him as average. He played on the rugby team. He did well in school. Classmates recall him as being a “very able sportsman”, “very easy going and quiet young man”. But at home, Harold was suffering as he watched his mother, Vera Shipman, slowly lose her battle with cancer. He watched as she wasted away, gripped by the intense pain of her cancer as it ate her away. Her doctor prescribed her morphine injections to subdue the pain, the use of which escalated as the cancer got worse. Vera’s pain ended when she died, but it seems Harold’s did not. He was seventeen when her cancer ended her. His reaction might seem peculiar: classmate Michael Heath recalls that as they were walking to school on Monday morning he asked Harold what he’d done over the weekend. Harold told him his mother had died. Michael said: “oh God, well what did you do? That must have been awful.” to which Harold nonchalantly replied: “yeah… I went for a run.”



The parallels here seem hardly a coincidence. Shipman's victims of choice later, were older women, and his weapon of choice was morphine. Was Shipman's first kill an attempt to relieve suffering? Was it his mother? We may speculate. The facts that we do possess show that Harold decided to study medicine after his mother's death and attended Leeds University for six years as a medical student where he met his wife. At his first job as a junior doctor in Yorkshire he began having blackouts. He was diagnosed by a consultant as an epileptic but in 1976 the real source of his black outs was discovered. He was criminally charged for overprescribing and forging narcotic prescriptions at a nursing home in order to indulge his own demerol addiction. He was treated at the Retreat Hospital in York but was not barred from future practice.


In 1979 Harold put his past behind and applied to a group practice in the town of Hyde, a market town of 22 000 people. He was accepted into the group and seemed to have turned over a new leaf. He joined the local ambulance brigade, became a school governor, and had a reputation for visiting his elderly patients at their homes. Patients liked him. So much so that there was a waiting-list to join his practice. But in 1991 he abruptly left the group to form a solo practice of three thousand patients named "The Surgery".


The first alarm rang in 1998. Debbie Massey, was the director of the largest independant funeral home in Hyde. She began to suspect that something was not right with Dr Shipman. She said: “We were concerned that there were too many deaths from one surgery, especially when that surgery only had one doctor. Most of the deaths seemed to fit into a pattern: usually ladies, nearly always ladies, never anyone who had been terminally ill. It seemed strange that nearly all the people that had died were fully dressed. When somebody’s ill, they generally die in bed with their night wear on. That was never the case. They were always fully dressed as if they’d just come back from shopping,” and "things just didn’t add up.”


Debbie approached another town doctor, Dr Sue Booth, when she came in to their chapel to sign some cremation forms. Dr Booth worked in a group practice directly across the street from Shipman called Brooke Surgery. She promised Debbie that she would look into her concern.


Dr Booth brought up her concern with her colleagues Drs Raj Patel and Linda Reynolds. So sensitive was the nature of the accusation that they decided not to meet to discuss the case at their office but instead to meet at a pub further away. Sue and Raj wondered whether Shipman was medically incompetent, but Linda, being an import from a much larger town and finding that she had been signing far more forms for Shipman than at her previous post, found it odd that Shipman was often present at the times of death; she wondered out loud if Shipman might be deliberately harming his patients. The partners decided to examine their own cremation records as a benchmark and compare them with the cremation statistics coming from Shipman's office. Cremations by law required two doctors' signatures and Shipman had been passing his cremation requests across to Brooke Surgery for second signature.


What the Brooke Surgery doctors found was shocking. Over the preceding months, there had been 41 cremation requests from The Surgery serving 3000 patients, and 14 from their own practice of 10 000. They decided to report their concern to the police.


The coroner, John Pollard, sent a detective to investigate, but hoping not to wrongly tarnish the reputation of a conscientious doctor, the detective was ordered to be discreet in his investigation so as not to alarm Dr Shipman and his patients should the accusations turn out to be unsubstantiated.


Detective Smith requested from the town hall a tally of how many deaths had occurred in the past six months signed off by Dr Shipman. Due to an error in reporting, the numbers he was given were deflated. He also visited the liaison for physician complaints in the area, Dr Banks, who assured him that Shipman hadn't been receiving any complaints and Dr Banks surmised that maybe the deaths might be explained as a statistical mirage caused by Shipman having more elderly and retired people in his practice (in actual fact, he had less). Unfortunately, Shipman's police record was not consulted - the detective would have seen a red flag in his prior criminal impropriety - and the funeral home director that had blown the whistle was never contacted.


The detective, reassured by the census numbers and the favorable report of Dr Banks, closed the case. Dr Patel recalled: "I just breathed a huge sigh of relief at the time, I just thought that was good news as far as I was concerned as I really didn’t want there to be any truth in any of those observations." Tragically, during the week of the investigation, Shipman killed two more elderly ladies and their bodies had been waiting for cremation while Detective Smith was conducting his investigation. If an autopsy had been ordered, Shipman would have been stopped then. But instead, Shipman continued to quietly kill, unaware of the growing suspicions circulating around Hyde.


Three months later, on June 24th 1998, Kathleen Grundy the former mayoress of Hyde, suddenly died at home. Kathleen was a “sprightly” 81 year old, very active in the community. When she didn't turn up to volunteer for lunch at the Community Club centre, other volunteers went to her home. They found her dead on her settee, fully dressed, with no preceding illness. Shipman certified her death as old age.


Two days before Kathleen Grundy died, local solicitors received a typed will bequeathing her entire 400,000 pound estate to Dr Shipman. They informed her daughter, Angela Woodruff.  By chance, Angela turned out to be a solicitor herself, and had her mother’s will that had been composed ten years before. She asked for a copy of the new will to be faxed to her which she then examined. She found several inconsistencies: her mother had listed leaving her house, but she had two houses; the will also appeared sloppy and typewritten, but her mother hand wrote her documents and was impeccably tidy; she compared her mother’s signature with that on bank statements and they did not match. She travelled to Hyde and tracked down the witnesses listed on the will. She uncovered that days before Kathleen was murdered by Shipman, he had duped two patients in his waiting room into signing as witnesses what he folded over and told them was an insurance form. Angela forthwith contacted the Greater Manchester Police.


Inspector Stan Egerton was months away from retirement when he was called on to conduct what he thought was a routine case of fraud. He had no idea that it would turn out to be the defining case of his career. He quickly realized that his “routine” case might be anything but. He came across the previous investigation four months earlier by Detective Smith and began to suspect that there was much more to Shipman than met the eye. In Kathleen’s diary was an entry fingering Shipman as expected the next morning to take a blood sample. No sample was ever found at the lab. Shipman’s fingerprints were also found on the forged will. The case of forgery was evolving into a murder investigation.


Inspector Egerton had detectives search Shipman’s home and clinic. A portable typewriter and Shipman’s computer files were confiscated. Forensic scientists matched the typewriter to that used to prepare the forged will. True to serial killer form, rings and jewellery taken as possible keepsakes from Shipman’s victims were found stashed away in his garage.


Further damning evidence was lifted from Shipman’s computer records confiscated from his office. Of 150 deaths, they found that incriminating visits had been removed, and health records were altered to match the fictitious causes of death Shipman had invented, some visits appeared in the system that had never occurred, and most damaging was that some deaths had been recorded by Shipman before his patients had actually died.


Kathleen Grundy’s body was exhumed and toxicologists found enough diamorphine still within her that they could reasonably speculate that her death would have been swift.  


In September 1988, Shipman was arrested. On January 15th, 2000 Dr Harold Shipman received his final verdict: guilty on fifteen counts of murder; he was sentenced to fifteen lifetime sentences to run concurrently i.e. the remainder of his life in prison. In 2004, this man who had quietly stolen the lives of the loved ones of so many families, for so very long, committed his final murder... he hung himself from the window bars of his cell using bed sheets in his prison cell, one day before his 58th birthday. Harold Shipman never provided a satisfactory explanation for his diabolical behavior or an apology to the families he had robbed of their loved ones.

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