Dr Harold Shipman (1946-2004) was one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers, and undoubtedly it’s most prolific one to date. He was charged in 2000 with the murder of 15 patients in his care through lethal overdoses of diamorphine, though later investigations estimate his actual murder toll at around 250 patients over his career. What drove him to do this?
We will likely never fully know what drove Shipman to do what he did since he refused to give any details of motivations or even admit to the crimes right up until his suicide in prison in 2004. This is typical of the sense of control that many psychopaths always like to keep over both their victims and those who are investigating them.
However there is a crucial moment in his life which appears to have sown the seeds in him psychologically in terms of witnessing the suffering and eventual death of his mother from terminal cancer at a relatively young age. The circumstances surrounding this closely parallel the manner in which he chose to kill his victims and offer the best possible explanations for the motivation he had to murder elderly women in the way he did.
Throughout his life he displayed some of the traits and precursors relatively common in psychopathic serial killers, though looking at the biographical evidence of his life nothing stands out as massively different from any number of other people who have quirks or oddities to their personality.
Whilst on closer inspection there are accounts of some odd and unpleasant personality traits, Shipman seems to by and large have been respected by doctors and especially patients in the local communities he served. He married a childhood sweetheart Primrose, had 4 children, and remained close to her right until his death, with Primrose always maintaining his innocence.
This is typical of the facade of normalcy or mask of sanity that so many psychopathic killers are able to put up to the world; the appearance of being perfectly normal, just like everyone else, even popular and well liked. The phrase so commonly heard when such killers are exposed – “I can’t believe it would be him” were especially true of Shipman.
Whilst there must have been evidence of this mask slipping every now and then, evidence of this is difficult to ascertain since neither his wife nor family have spoken publicly about Dr Shipman or the case. His wife Primrose supported him right up until his suicide in prison just before his 58th birthday.
Shipman’s Early Life
Accounts of Shipman’s early life are mostly normal, with a few things out of the ordinary, but nothing which could reasonably be used to predict the serial killing monster he would turn into. He was described as a little quiet and aloof, but still respected and liked at school, and later on very gifted at sports.
The seeming turning point in his life for the worse, and what appears to have sown the seeds for what was to come, was the circumstances surrounding the death of his mother. She died after a long and painful battle with cancer over several years, and the young Shipman, still in his teens, had to watch this process unfold and cared for her during this time.
His friend recalls meeting him on a Monday morning when they were 17, and asking the usual questions about what they got up to at the weekend. Shipman responded that his mother had died. Asked how he dealt with the death, he simply said that he ran for hours, in the pouring rain.
This bizarre reaction to the death of his mother, with whom he was very close, is one of the first markers of something a little off in his character. This is a very strange reaction to have to the death of one’s own mother and perhaps suggests an kind of emotional disconnect there.
However, the circumstances of how his mother passed away is most important here. She was adminstered morphine in her final days and hours to relieve the pain, and the relief is something Shipman must have witnessed and sowed the seeds for how he would later kill his victims.
Here we have a circumstance much like that of Dennis Nilsen, another one of the serial killers we have covered, where a traumatic incident in early life regarding the death a loved one appears to have very strongly fused certain concepts into the killer’s mind related to death and a certain factor surrounding the death.
In Nilsen’s case, the concepts of love and death appear to have been fused by the unexpected sight of his deceased grandfather in a coffin. In Shipman’s case, the use of morphine and relief it provides appears to have been fused with the idea of death and created a perverted, corrupted fetish around these concepts which would guide how he would later murder his victims.
Some people have used this fact to suggest that Shipman killed his patients with overdoses or morphine as a way of recreating the scene of his mother dying, where he in some twisted way believes he is “doing the right thing” by ending their suffering with the morphine just as it ended or relieved his mother’s suffering.
Closer inspection of the facts reveals this cannot have been the motivation, certainly not by the end, since he also murdered elderly but still perfectly healthy patients with overdoses. Many were not terminally ill or even in obvious ill health. So the “relief of suffering” rationalization for his actions does not hold water.
There was something more perverted and malevolent going on here. The circumstances of his mother’s suffering and death created a strong perverted fetish around the use of morphine, but his motivation was not to end suffering, but some kind of pleasure or power seeking his behalf, or perhaps even to rid himself of having to care any longer for the victims he murdered.
Shipman killed his patients by giving them lethal overdoses of diamorphine or heroin and then forging death certificates
Career As A Doctor
However one chooses to interpret this, it was most definitely a seminal turning point in his life. Researchers have noticed that he only displayed an interest in medicine once his mother had passed, having never expressed an interest in it before.
He trained in medical school at Leeds University, graduating in the mid 1970s, before moving on to health practices in Pontefract and Todmorden in Yorkshire. Here we see the first signs of character problems as he became addicted to the painkiller Pethidine, likely as a way of relieving stress for the enormous workload of patients he put onto himself.
Due to the forgery of papers and prescriptions he had to undertake to feed this addiction, he had to leave this practice and briefly attended a rehab clinic, before joining another practice in Hyde, Manchester, where he rebuilt his career.
All his colleagues describe him as a very hard working, dedicated doctor, again emphasizing the facade or mask of sanity so many psychopaths, including serial killers are able to present to the world. They are able to come across as normal, respectable people, even pillars of the community who no one would suspect.
There are occasional documented signs of an abrasive, controlling and overbearing character around his work, but nothing off the charts or out of line with any other number of people in life, given that no one is perfect of course. There is nothing there that hints at a serial killer, emphasizing how good they are at hiding.
However it is now known that during his career as a General Practitioner, he most likely killed several hundred people over the span of several decades by overdoses of morphine, most of them elderly, vulnerable women, forging their death certificates and erasing data from medical records to conceal his actions.
He often did this by visiting them at their homes under the pretense of taking blood samples or just a general care visit, injecting them with fatal doses of morphine. In the predatory way of psychopathic killers, he targeted elderly people who lived alone and since he was so well liked and respected, even by the patients, he was never suspected.
Suspicions were raised at several points by different people during the 1990s at the large number of deaths of patients under Shipman’s care. A secret investigation was even carried out by police following concerns being reported by local doctors and undertakers, but nothing came of them and Shipman was able to evade detection and kill several more people before be was finally apprehended in September 1998.
One of the key things which allowed Shipman to get away with it for so long was this respectable “he would never do that” image he was able to portray to the world. Rules around the certification of death in the UK were also not very strict at the time and so he was able to create a “closed circle” where he effectively “signed off” his own murders through some general explanation like “old age”.
How He Got Caught
One common thread that does run through some of the feedback about Shipman who worked with him is that he did sometimes give off an air of arrogance and superiority. he did often consider himself cleverer than and “above” other people.
However, whilst Shipman did appear to take steps to cover his tracks, he was not nearly clever enough in concealing his actions to the point where he could never be caught. In fact, far from this, he actually made some silly mistakes which would actually seal his fate, demonstrating that he was not nearly as clever as he would have liked to think.
Firstly, the sheer number of deaths that began to be associated to people under his care meant that suspicions would continue to be aroused regarding him, no matter his respectable image. Sooner or later these were going to lead to him being caught and they did. It appears he couldn’t stop killing even if he wanted to.
Secondly, the use of diamorphine (heroin) in itself was a silly thing to do, since this stays in victims bodies and is therefore traceable for even years after the murders. Victim’s bodies were later exhumed and confirmed to still contain the diamorphine. Again it seems to be a powerfully ingrained fetish and something he was determined to do no matter what.
However, his most stupid act and the one that finally got him caught was an attempt to forge the will of his last victim to leave her entire estate of several hundred thousand pounds to Shipman himself. The attempted forgering was very poorly written and was never going to work, confirmed as an amateurish attempt by everyone who inspected it.
Psychopaths are normally very clever and calculating individuals, but this stands out as a very stupid thing to do on several fronts. Firstly, the victim’s family immediately contested this will, as they inevitably would, having in their possession the real, actual will that had been drawn up a decade earlier.
Secondly, it would make no sense for a victim to write their own children, with whom there was no acrimony, out of their will altogether and leave the entire sum to their doctor alone. It would be an inexplicable thing to do and was a stupid miscalculation on Shipman’s part. Who did he expect to believe this would happen?
Thirdly, the forged will was so badly written that it would never have been believed by anyone. Who did he think he was fooling? Some have speculated it was a desperate last attempt by Shipman to secure funds and leave the country. Whatever the motivation, it is what brought him down.
Depending on how you look at it, it either depicts and amazing arrogance or an amazing stupidity on Shipman’s part. Either he thought he was invincible because he had got away with it for so long, or he was delusional and nowhere near as smart as he wanted to believe of himself.
Either way the poorly forged will sealed his fate and led to further investigations and his arrest. Over time the sheer scale of his killing, estimated at several hundred people over several decades, stunned those involved and became headline news in the UK. He was convicted of 15 murders but in reality was responsible for many more.
Why Did He Do It?
Establishing a motive is even harder in this case than normal for psychopathic serial killers, since Shipman steadfastly refused during his questioning, trial or imprisonment to provide any form of cooperation to the police or even admit guilt for the murders. He remained in denial until his suicide by hanging in 2004.
We see here the common aspect of control that is key with all psychopaths, especially killers, in relation to victims, their families and investigators. By refusing to admit anything or cooperate, he remained in control, just as he was in control when killing elderly, vulnerable women with overdoses. Control is crucial to psychopaths, since their internal world is such a mess.
We see also with Shipman a distinct arrogance and superiority complex that many serial killers have, where they simply consider themselves better than anyone else, smarter than their victims, smarter than the police, righteous and justified in the acts they committed. Their mindset is often twisted this way.
As far as the reason for killing his victims the way he did with overdoses, again the death of his mother seems to have been the turned point here that locked a very strong fetish in his mind regarding death and morphine. This then appears to have combined with an already existing disposition to turn him into the serial killer he would become.
We suggest the same general pattern here of a combination of nature and nurture, where a genetic predisposition towards psychopathy “loads the gun” and a bad environment or traumatic experience early in life “pulls the trigger” and turns that trait into full blown psychopathy.
“A psychopath’s acting out is a reformation of grief – intense, deep grief”
In this case the suffering and death of his mother appears to have affected him deeply and set him off on the path of medicine as well as defined in his mind how he would satisfy his murderous impulses.
His evil actions and the countless damage he caused in the lives of others is of course not excusable but at least trying to understand how these serial killers are formed can help to prevent the unfortunate set of circumstances combining again to create another one in the future.
If there are some genetic markers for psychopathy, these need to be tested for. Individuals who have these markers can then be closely monitored from a very early age to oversee their development and prevent any avoidable maltreatment and traumatic experiences acting on these pre-existing markers and turning a genetic disposition into full blown psychopathy, from which the monstrous killers of the world such as Dr Shipman are created.
This surely has to be the way forward to research on psychopathy, as a way of finding some good out of the endless damage and suffering killers like Shipman cause in the world. Psychopaths are only a small proportion of the population, but they cause a significant share of the physical and psychological damage, so we have to understand how they are created to stop more of them being created.
A number of books have been written about the life and crimes of Dr Harold Shipman and are available on Amazon. See Prescription for Murder, by Brian Whittle, and also Harold Shipman: The True Story of Britain’s Most Notorious Serial Killer. See also Doctor Death: The True Story of Harold Shipman by Natalia Marshall.