Britain's Most Prolific Serial Killer Village Doctor by Day Murderer by Night
How did he get away with his reign of terror for more than 30 years?
When you mention serial killers, you think of a character surrounded by mystery, hiding in the shadows. In this case, the most prolific serial killer was a village doctor. Harold Shipman is one of the most understated serial killers in history.
During his murder spree, authorities believed that he was responsible for over 250 murders. Every victim was known to him and trusted him. At the height of his killing, he killed more than 30 people a year.
Highly respected by his patients, no one had any idea of the devastating crimes he was committing.
Who was Harold Shipman?
Shipman was born on 14th January 1946 to Harold and Vera Shipman. Shipman was the middle child and his mother's favourite.
When his mother was diagnosed with cancer in 1968, he was hit particularly hard. Shipman, until this point, had spent all his time with his mum. He preferred her company to that of his peers. Vera's death was long and drawn out, during which Shipman cared for her.
It is possible seeing his mum in agonising pain shaped his killing spree. The relief for her pain would come when the doctor arrived to administer morphine. It is not hard to link this event and Shipman's killing method.
After his mother's death, Shipman continued his education. He needed two attempts to get into medical school. Unfortunately, his education was so poor he couldn't get into the best university even then.
He met his wife, Primrose, on the local bus, having just started medical school.
Harold Shipman met Primrose on his first year in medical school in Leeds. A regular on the thirty-eight bus, a young girl called Primrose Oxtoby, caught Shipman's eye. Primrose was the youngest daughter by thirteen years to two middle-aged parents.
Having wanted a boy, the Oxtoby's were disappointed. It led to a very lonely existence for the young Primrose. Compared to her peers, she lived a strict, old fashioned life. Her religious mother did not see the advantage of playdates and socialising. As a result, Primrose left school with a minimum of qualifications and never went to college.
When Shipman met her on the bus, she was a window dresser in the local town. They went on a date to a local coffee shop and were soon an item.
Shipman was twenty when Primrose fell pregnant, she was seventeen.
Both sets of parents forced Shipman to marry Primrose after she fell pregnant. The wedding was a quiet affair in the local registry office.
Shipman thought Primrose an easy target. Someone he could control and feel superior to. Primrose, for her part, adored Shipman.
The couple's first child was born early, Shipman felt trapped. Having to work through a doctor's qualification whilst supporting a young family was not easy.
His education started to suffer; so did his career. Over the years, this turmoil led to him becoming dependent on drugs. He started his career as a hospital doctor, where several cases of medical negligence came to light.
To avoid this, he went into private practice. However, when people became suspicious of him there, he set up his own practice.
An inquest later stated that Shipman started killing in hospital in the 70s. It is suspected one of his victims was a young girl. Shipman gave her an overdose, having removed the family from her room.
Shipman's Last Victim
From this early killing, Shipman carried on his reign of terror until August 1998. In 1998 Shipman became a suspect in the murder of Kathleen Grundy.
Grundy lived in Gee Cross in Hyde near Manchester. Hyde was the location of Shipman's current private practice. Grundy had been a widow for twenty years.
On 24th June 1998, Grundy failed to attend her regular social events. Two friends decided to go and check on her. They found the front door open and unlocked. On entering, they found Grundy fully clothed, dead on her sofa. At the time of death, she was eighty-one but described as active and astute. The day before her death, it was reported she had visited friends.
The friend's first thought was to call the respected family doctor, Harold Shipman. Shipman carried out a perfunctory exam and pronounced her dead from a cardiac arrest. He later changed this diagnosis to old age and then drug overdose.
The friends, unsure what to do, asked for the advice of the trusted doctor. He suggested that they contacted various people, including the family solicitor. At the time, no one questioned how Shipman knew who the family solicitor was.
The police were called, Shipman told them the cause of death was natural causes. Some people think this was a sign that Shipman was ready to be caught.
The Suspicious Daughter
The police then contacted Grundy's daughter. Angela Woodruff was shocked at her mother's death. Her mother had no precursor for death and no underlying health problems.
A few days after the funeral, Woodruff received her second shock. When police obtained a copy of the will, that left everything to Dr Harold Shipman.
The will was oddly worded and contained several spelling mistakes. Grundy was a stickler for grammar and spelling.
An investigation followed, first by Woodruff herself and then the police. It was thought this was a case of forgery.
Later it became clear there was more to this case than initially thought. Finally, the police had enough evidence to exhume the body of Grundy. Pathologists found Grundy had died of a massive morphine overdose. The quantities found would have meant Grundy died within 2–3 hours of injection.
Shipman had thought of this. When police examined Grundy's medical records, it was stated she was a morphine addict. He had, however, forgotten one crucial fact, the date stamp on the records. Shipman never realised that every entry logged a date stamp on his computer. The date stamp showed that Shipman had made the entry after Grundy's death.
Finally Brought to Justice
Following this death, suspicions were raised about Shipman's high death count. However, investigators would never have anticipated the death toll at this point.
Patients described Shipman as caring and thoughtful. He was always happy to do house calls for his elderly patients. A practice that other doctors were reluctant to do. Colleagues, however, described him as arrogant and belittling. As investigators examined the facts, they realised the extent of Shipman's crimes.
Shipman never realised that his computer was to be his best witness. It was this that caused a significant breakthrough. Having discovered the late entry for Grundy, police examined his computer. Looking for entires that had been altered after death, they had a path to follow. As it became clear he had changed other patient records, the victim list grew.
Many victims were exhumed, all found to have died of morphine overdoses. Working as a sole practitioner meant he had a constant supply of elderly victims. It also meant that no one questioned his morphine prescriptions.
It took a year for all the evidence to be collected. The victim list had risen to over 100 patients by this point. Shipman himself denied all the claims, carrying on his practice and giving media interviews.
The courts decided initially to try Shipman for the murder of fifteen patients. Nine of these had been exhumed the other six had been cremated. These six were important. If they could prove these cases on circumstantial evidence, other deaths could be added.
The case was limited to fifteen because of the limitations on the court and jury. To hear a case of a hundred victims would have meant a lengthy, drawn-out lawsuit. As a result, Shipman would be out in public longer.
The Shipman trial started on 5th October 1999. Even with the mounting evidence, half the gallery still believed he was innocent. This included his wife and several patients.
The evidence consisted of medical and witness reports. Many people reported seeing Shipman at victims' houses hours before their death. At the time, they thought nothing of the doctor who visited his patients at home.
The prosecution case lasted 25 days. The defence case then started where Shipman took the stand. He had no credible excuses for the evidence against him. He came across as arrogant and above everyone else.
Throughout the investigation into his crimes, Primrose claimed Shipman's innocence.
The case ended on 24th January 2000; the jury retired to consider the verdict. They returned seven days later with a unanimous guilty vote. The judge sentenced Shipman to serve fifteen consecutive life sentences. He would never be allowed out.
Once Shipman was charged, life for Primrose became even worse. She was forced to sell their house to pay legal fees; without an income, she was left destitute. Living off welfare, she stayed a week at a time with different family members.
Doing right by Primrose
In a final insult to his victims, Shipman hung himself in his cell on 13th January 2004. He never admitted any of his crimes and refused to give hundreds of families closure.
Anyone who had a family member die when Shipman was their doctor was left wondering.
Some would say that Shipman must have felt guilty to take his own life. They would be wrong. Although Shipman had been struck off and denied his NHS pension, Primrose was still entitled to it if he died before sixty. By taking his own life, the destitute Primrose received his pension. This was essential as she could not find employment; her reputation went before her.
Primrose Shipman not only stood by her husband but maintained his innocence. Over the years, she changed from a giggling young girl to a sour-faced overweight woman. She attended every court hearing with Shipman and denied all knowledge of his crimes.
During the later inquest into Shipman, Primrose was made to take the stand. The families were further enraged when she reported knowing nothing of the alleged murders. This was even though the inquest proved she had been in the house of two victims during their murder. This was the first time she had spoken about the events. The police saw her as an unstable witness.
The victims thought this would give them the answers they wanted. Surely she could not have lived with him without knowing his crimes. They were disappointed. During the inquest, Primrose muttered statements such as 'I don't know’ and 'I can't remember.' She also denied having taken rings from the victims. When asked if she was convinced of Shipman's innocence, she said she was.
The inquest put the death toll finally at 250. A total of 459 patients died when Shipman was their doctor. Inmates stated that Shipman boasted of killing 500 people.
Shipman's death count has earned him the title of England's most prolific modern serial killer, how extensive this death total was will never be known.