Outside of your family and close friends, who do you trust the most? Take a second and think. Maybe it’s your kid’s favorite school teacher, maybe the nice old lady who lives next door, maybe your local police — although that last one really depends on where you live. I’ll bet that a fair few of you thought of your local doctor instead.
Picture him now: late middle-aged, thinning grey hair, warm fatherly smile, thick-rimmed glasses tilted slightly to the side, and an unwavering air of comforting competence hanging around him. And on top of it all, this person has dedicated their entire life to the very specific task of making sure you don’t die — surely there are no safer hands to be in! Well… actually, as it turns out, the friendly face you’re picturing right now could actually be that of a cold-blooded killer.
Not just any old killer — this was the most gruesomely prolific killer ever to operate in the UK, whose decades-long killing spree claimed the lives of a veritable pile of victims, in what must be the most flagrant violation of the Hippocratic oath in history. His legacy of unassuming terror sent shockwaves through the entirety of British society, and caused an overhaul in the health system aimed at making sure nothing like it could ever happen again. National Health Service workers of a particular generation will still shiver when they hear his name: Harold Shipman.
So what was Mr Shipman doing? Was he killing people for medical researchers a la Burke and Hare? Stalking the streets at night with his scalpel? Creating his own Frankenstein’s monsters in the clinic supply closet? As it turns out, the reality was actually far more insidious than any of that…
To get to the bottom of it all, let’s rewind to the mid 1990s. Acid wash jeans were all the rage, the Backstreet Boys battled it out with the Spice Girls for the top spot in the charts, and a certain Dr Shipman was plying his noble trade down in the town of Hyde, near Manchester. After over a decade of working in the Donneybrook Medical Centre, he had gathered the funds to start his own clinic on Market Street in 1992, cementing his place as a familiar friendly face around town.
Known as Fred to his friends, he was a picture of professionalism — a real family man, with four children to his wife Primrose. To any and all observers, Fred seemed like a decent guy — someone you’d say hello to down the pub; someone you’d happily take your kids to for treatment; the one who sat by your grandmother’s bedside during her final moments; he even had the beard and build to make a pretty convincing shopping center Santa Claus if he had ever fancied the gig.
Everything seemed fine in the leafy town of Hyde until March of 1998, when a local undertaker noticed a worrying trend. Deborah Massey had spent her whole working life around death, so she knew a thing or two about it — and as she went about her morbid business she realized that a certain name kept popping up over and over again on the death certificates of her dearly-departed clients, particularly the elderly women.
After presumably spending hours deciphering the incomprehensible scrawl that is doctor’s handwriting, she discovered the name belonged to our plucky hero, Dr. Shipman. Yes, it seemed to her that old Harold had a higher kill count than your average Call of Duty player, almost all down to natural causes, which meant one of three things. Either he was the unluckiest doctor in all of Manchester, he was just some incompetent guy who nicked a lab coat and made his medical degree on photoshop, or… something much more sinister was going on.
The number of deaths wasn’t the only red flag either; Shipman’s patients also had an unusually high rate of cremation. On top of that, most of the newly-deads were found in the exact same position: at home, sat in a slightly-reclined position on the sofa, fully clothed.
So we have a local doctor with the power of life and death in his hands, who seems biased in favor of the latter, and who recommends incineration as the best method of burial to his elderly patients’ families. That’s enough red flags to carpet a mansion.
Needless to say, Massey didn’t just give Shipman the benefit of the doubt; she spoke to her father who confronted the doctor directly about the stats, but he reassured them that there was nothing to be worried about — hey, old ladies die, it’s a fact of life, he couldn’t save everyone. There must at least have been a part of them that just wanted to accept the excuse and move on — surely this round-faced little local man couldn’t have intentionally killed anyone.
Nonetheless, Massey brought her worries to another GP right across the street from Shipman’s clinic, who already had some suspicions of their own on account of all the cremation forms they had been asked to countersign. After double-checking the stats, which revealed a ten times higher death rate than average, the GP contacted the district coroner. Ah, now the noose was tightening — if Harold really was the killer which some suspected he might be, then surely this was the end of his grisly career, the long arm of the law had finally caught up with him, and justice was well and truly… oh wait, no.
No, actually the subsequent investigation turned up no evidence of wrongdoing. Apparently, the rookie police sent to investigate the matter were perfectly happy to buy the ‘plain bad luck’ excuse and close the case in the middle of April, less than a month after it began. They hadn’t dug into Shipman’s patchy past at all, but to be fair, the records of all his deceased patients did seem to set a reasonable precedent for the ways in which they died: patients diagnosed as having heart conditions would pass away from heart attacks, those who had a history of liver cirrhosis would succumb to liver failure. The files all seemed pretty clear-cut.
So Harold returned to work just as before, and the old dears of the town entrusted their lives to him just as they had for decades. The reporter who first broke the story of Dr Death, Mikaela Sitford of the Manchester Evening News, later visited him at his clinic. In 2020, she recounted:
“When I approached Shipman, still working at his surgery, and asked him to reassure his patients he was innocent of any wrongdoing, he declined in a thin, reedy voice, his beady, pale eyes staring at me through his glasses. As I left, an old lady sitting in the waiting room tutted at me for daring to question him.”
That’s right, like a cow rolling its eyes at the vegans picketing the abattoir, the old woman in the waiting room got annoyed at Sitford for harassing poor Harold, with no regard for the danger she might have been in. I guess it’s easier to believe that some faceless bureaucrats in the NHS made a mistake, rather than face the fact that your much-loved family doctor might have killed some of your best friends. It was this — the steadfast trust of the Hyde community, built up over years and years of loyal service, which allowed Shipman to kill a further three more victims within the following months.
Oh sorry, was that a spoiler? Were you waiting for the big twist where it turns out poor old Harold was actually framed by a nefarious coroner, or the victim of some conspiracy by some rival clinics? No, no: he was absolutely guilty, so damn guilty. But trust me, the real shocks are still to come.
Before we get to those though, let’s go back to the very beginning. How exactly does someone with such a fascination for death get into a profession which is all about preserving life? Well, the answer might well lie in Harold’s formative years. The story of how he came to be the man he was is a recipe lifted straight from the Serial Killer Cookbook: narcissistic delusions of grandeur, trauma, and mother issues.
Baby Harold was born on the 14th of January 1946, the middle of three children in a working-class family in Nottingham, England. His father drove lorries, meaning that for the most part, the Shipman kids were under the sole care of their mother Vera. By all accounts, she was controlling and hard-to-please, and gave her eldest and youngest a stressful childhood.
Harold however, was let off easy. His mother made no secret of the fact that he was the favorite child, and she had high hopes for his future. Being told every day how much better he was than his siblings and schoolmates gave the boy a severe superiority complex, which made it difficult for him to make friends. Remember that one kid at school who thought he was destined for MENSA just because he aced a basic algebra exam? That was Harold Shipman. This attitude stuck with Harold throughout his life. One of his colleagues from his time in Hyde, Dr Jeffrey Moysey, once told reporters:
“He had very high opinions and very strong opinions, and he felt that the way in which he practiced medicine was the standard to which all his colleagues should aspire.”
Yeah, can you really even call yourself a doctor if you don’t have a double figure kill-to-death ratio?
His mother’s soft spot for Harold meant that when she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, it was he who took on much of the burden of her day-to-day care, even though he was just a teenager at the time. Despite the adult he became, you have to feel kind of sorry for the kid that he was. By just 17 years old, he was watching the final days of his mother’s life unfold right before his eyes.
And what most fascinated him about it all were the drugs — the morphine which their family doctor would administer to his mother to ease her pain. With just one little vial of liquid, she was relieved of all her suffering. It was this which inspired Shipman to study medicine, which he went on to do at Leeds University after his mother’s passing.
If we stopped his biography at this point, you’d just have an uplifting story about how one young man turned his crushing grief into a drive to help and heal the sick. And really, I wish that was the story I could tell, because it’s basically all downhill from here.
At the very beginning of his studies, when he was 19, Harold had another coming-of-age experience: he got someone pregnant. The girl was 17-year-old Primrose, who he married in a small ceremony at the registry office when she was 4 months due, at the demand of her super-religious parents. That sort of thing was common in 1960s England, when a child born out of wedlock was still a pretty big taboo.
Fast forward ten years, and the couple had another child together, and were living in the town of Todmorden, West Yorkshire. It was in this quaint little pastoral town of just 15,000 that things started to unravel for Shipman.
His colleagues in the local medical clinic had noticed some strange discrepancies in his files. Most notably, they were wondering why the hell this guy prescribed so much morphine. From the amount that he had dished out over the first half of 1975, it seemed like this was his go-to cure-all for any and all ailments, which you might recognize as a tip lifted from Trainspotting, rather than any medical textbook.
It turned out that he had written up over 70 false prescriptions for the opiate drug pethidine, to feed his own drug addiction. Pethidine is usually given to women during childbirth, but Shipman had spent the last 6 months injecting himself with around 700 milligrams in the arms and legs every day, to deal with a severe bout of depression. He claimed it was caused by his suggestions not being taken seriously enough by his peers at the clinic, which for someone so used to intellectually dominating the room, must have really tortured his pride.
In February of 1976, he was summoned to court in Halifax where he admitted to eight counts of obtaining a drug by deception. By way of excuse, he just said that he had become fascinated by drugs during his time at university — which is a fair enough explanation for a little bag of weed in your bedroom drawer, but not for raiding the local pharmacy of its stock of injectable opiates.
But amazingly, the punishment for doing so was pretty light — it was the 70s after all: just a £600 fine and compensation for the NHS to cover the drugs he stole. After settling the bill, Shipman set off for a drug rehab clinic in the city of York, where he laid low for a while and attempted to kick his drug habit. This disgrace was the first major roadblock in the career of our frustrated, self-assumed genius, and it may well be what completed his transformation from garden-variety narcissist to cold-blooded killer.
It took less than 5 years for the heat to die down and Harold to return to practicing as a GP. In 1979 the Shipmans relocated to the community which was to be his hunting ground for the next two decades, the sleepy town of Hyde where our story began. Despite his record of criminally abusing his position, he landed a job at the Donneybrook Medical Center, and the rest is history… grisly, dark, depressing history…
At his tribunal for stealing drugs in 1975, the presiding magistrate Dr Maurice Goldin said to Shipman:
“It is indeed a very sad case – that almost at the beginning of your career you should find yourself in this position.”
Oh god, if only he knew the positions that the pethidine-loving doc in front of him would find himself in in years to come…
So now we’re all caught up on the life and times of Britain’s most heinous killer, and we find ourselves back in the innocent days of 1998. Let’s recap: we have a killer on the loose, who was reported by his colleagues but has been cleared by the police. He’s also maintained the good faith of much of his community, and looks set to ride off into the late-nineties sunset with Wonderwall blaring out of the stereo of his Ford Focus.
But see, there’s a funny thing about serial killers: they don’t exactly have the best impulse control. Shipman was no exception, so instead of wiping the sweat off his brow after his close call with the law, and calling time on his career as a murderer, he just kept on doing what he did best.
On June 24th, Kathleen Grundy, the former mayoress of Hyde was found dead in her house at the age of 81. Her family were shocked at the speed of her passing, but they were assured by trusty Dr Shipman that he had seen her just that morning, and she hadn’t been in the best of health. No need for an autopsy, of course: it was perfectly natural for people in their 80s to pass like this, and why put the family through any more stress and worry?
Of course, the victim’s daughter Angela took Shipman at his word, and a week later hundreds of townsfolk attended the funeral at Hyde Chapel to say their farewells. Among them were Grundy’s two grandchildren, who she had been gushing about to her friend just the night before her passing. They said their final tearful goodbyes, and Mrs Grundy was taken away to be buried.
From Shipman’s perspective, it was another job well done. Well, not his actual job — he’d obviously done a terrible job of that — but another flawless murder: the perfect crime, which the police seemingly couldn’t figure out even when it was staring them right in the face.
The world continued on as normal, and Angela Woodruff set about settling her mother’s affairs. But as she dug into the drawers of paperwork containing the insurance policies, bank books, and all the other dreadful admin that has to be dealt with after a death, she made a strange discovery. Apparently her mother and the good doctor had been closer than she had realized — so close that he was now the sole beneficiary of Mrs Grundy’s £386,000 estate.
This was outlined in a new will, which had only been completed recently. The document read:
“All my estate, money and home to my doctor. My family are not in need and I want to reward him for all the care he has given to me and the people of Hyde. He is sensible enough to handle any problems this may give him. My doctor is Dr H F Shipman, 21, Market Street, Hyde. Residue to my daughter. I wish my body to be cremated.”
Oh okay, so the grandkids were going to get nothing while some random doctor was getting every penny she owned? Sounds legit. After the initial shock, Woodruff took a closer look at the document, and found that, as you might have already noticed, it was written with about as much subtlety as an eight-year-old forging their own sick note for school:
“Sorry Jonny can not come to school today he is very very sick, signed Jonny’s mum.”
Now, while that childish level of trickery might fool some naive souls, Woodruff was a lawyer. She dealt with this stuff every day of her life, and rarely did any authentic legal document look as slapdash as this. The typesetting was all uneven, the grammar was poor, and the signature of Mrs Grundy didn’t even match with her usual one. Woodruff went to the police with the document, and further checks revealed Dr Shipman’s fingerprint in the bottom left corner, with none from the deceased anywhere to be found.
So while it was Al Capone’s lax approach to taxes which eventually brought him down, Dr Shipman’s achilles heel was his hamfisted word processing skills. With this smoking gun in hand, now the real investigation could begin…
It began, rather depressingly, with the exhumation of Mrs. Grundy’s body. The town was torn apart by a fresh wave of anxiety, as they waited with bated breath for the results of the autopsy. And sure enough, as Angela Woodruff had suspected, her mother hadn’t passed away from natural causes — it was a massive overdose of morphine which had seen her off.
The coroners managed to narrow down the time of the injection to around three hours before the time of death, which was precisely when Harold Shipman had been visiting. In Mrs Grundy’s diary, she had written that the doctor would be visiting her to take a blood sample for a Manchester University survey on aging. The study was totally fictitious, and instead, he administered her with a fatal dose of diamorphine.
As it turned out, this was completely typical of his modus operandi. Shipman wasn’t just some opportunist, he was a fully-fledged predator — a conman who wiled his way into the trust of his victims, and engineered the perfect conditions to kill them without suspicion.
But now all his good faith and benefit of the doubt had dried up, and on the morning of the 7th of September 1998 Shipman was asked to come down to the police station for questioning. While raiding his house, the police gathered boxes of medical records, a collection of jewelry pieces which were likely taken as souvenirs from his victims, and even a battered old typewriter with a broken key which made it an exact match for the documents forged in the name of Mrs Grundy.
With Shipman in custody, the police set to work on raking through the files found at his home and clinic. Given the prior investigation, they had reason to believe that Mrs Grundy might not be the only victim, and how right they were. All in all, they identified a further 11 cases in which the deceased could be exhumed for examination.
Over the following months, the graveyards of Hyde were restless, as investigators worked through the nights to open the graves of Shipman’s patients, and delivered the bodies back to the morgue. Of course, high levels of morphine toxicity were discovered in all of them, despite the causes of death all being listed as natural.
Now with 12 separate murder charges hanging over him, the good doctor went head-to-head with investigators as best he could, despite basically having the word “guilty” written right across his forehead. Predictably, his excuses were about as convincing as the signatures he forged on the fake will.
For the most part, he just stuck to one-word answers, despite some pretty intense grilling. But when probed about the typewriter in his home matching the documents, he said that Mrs Grundy had borrowed it from him several times, he just couldn’t remember when. Detective Chief Inspector Mike Williams of the Greater Manchester Police later told the BBC:
“My assessment of him was that he was treating this as some sort of game or competition, pitting his — what he considered to be — superior intellect — [against] those of the officers who were interviewing him.”
Oh yeah, well done Harold, the old “she borrowed my typewriter” defense. Checkmate. Surely no detective, judge, or jury was any match for such masterful deception.
His most audacious gambit was trying to retroactively paint one of his victims as a drug addict herself. He can be heard on the investigation tapes saying:
“I had my suspicions she was actually abusing a narcotic of some sort […] she did have drugs available. She may well have given herself accidentally an overdose.”
As if it weren’t enough that he had taken away someone’s mother, someone’s grandmother, someone’s wife, he was now even willing to put them through the heartache of those baseless accusations if there was any chance they might see him walk free to kill again.
But in reality, Dr Shipman wasn’t quite the evil genius he envisioned himself as, and he failed to provide any convincing alibi or explanation for the pile of bodies by his side. By the time the trial came around, the police had gathered together a total 15 counts of murder to send him down on, all of the victims women, almost all of them elderly.
These 15 murder charges, with an additional one for forgery, were brought before Preston Crown Court on October 5th 1999. The media went into a frenzy over the case of Dr Death, and the entire nation was in a state of total shock at seeing the mask of a small-town doctor ripped off to reveal a cold-blooded killer.
During the trial, Shipman’s murderous methodology was laid bare by the prosecution. We already know that he used his trusted position as cover; he would visit his patients at home, either at their request or under some false pretenses, then inject them with enough morphine to sedate a racehorse. It’s chilling to imagine his elderly victims welcoming Shipman into their homes with a smile, and brewing him a cup of tea as he prepared the needle which would end their life.
His penchant for targeting the elderly was no coincidence either, and it wasn’t just because he really loved a good cuppa before a kill. Shipman knew that nobody would ask questions if some dear old octogenarians passed on quietly in their homes, and nobody would demand an autopsy. To make sure of it, he even went back into the patients’ medical records and added fake conditions to the notes to back up his reported causes of death.
This malevolent stroke of genius had allowed Shipman to sidestep the first investigation into his hefty kill count, but as we already know, old Harold wasn’t the most tech savvy. The prosecution explained how each of these amendments had an electronic timestamp attached, which showed Shipman altering data from years gone by just hours after each of his victims died.
What’s more, he also scooped up all of their prescription medications on the way out the door — it seemed Harold hadn’t quite managed to kick that drug habit which plagued him in his 20s. In the weeks leading up to his murders, he would often prescribe the victims with his favorite drugs so he’d have a nice post-kill hit just waiting there for him.
These paper trails were damning in the highest sense of the word — like I said before, Shipman was so unbelievably guilty that not even the best lawyer in the world could have got him acquitted. And he didn’t exactly do his defence team any favors with how he came across in court; Harold maintained the same aloof demeanor which had irritated his colleagues and schoolmates throughout his life. Presumably his lawyer spent much of the trial kicking him under the table and whispering “Cry, for Christ’s sake”.
On the other hand, the first witness in the case made a fantastic impression. This was Angela Woodruff, ace attorney — the solicitor and daughter of Shipman’s final victim. Her calm, collected account of her quest for the truth won the jury over wholesale. If we had to choose a hero of this story, it would probably be her.
As more and more victims’ relatives took the stand, some revealed how Shipman had claimed to be calling an ambulance for their loved one as they passed away, but his phone records proved that he had hung up the calls before they ever connected, leaving the patient to slowly slip away with their worried family looking on helplessly.
Shipman’s defense against these piles of evidence was paltry at best. His story kept shifting between sessions of questioning, and when it was obvious there was no wriggling out of this one, he tried to claim that he was acting on compassionate grounds. But that hardly stands up when you consider the fact none of the victims had a terminal illness — far from it: take 77-year-old Lizzie Adams for example. She was still working away as a dance teacher, as nimble as ever, when Shipman took all that away from her.
With all of this information in hand, the jury retired to deliberate for a total of 34 hours, and you can probably guess what conclusion they came to. On January 31st 2000, Harold Shipman was convicted on all counts, and sentenced to fifteen consecutive life sentences, plus four years for forging the will. The judge decided to combine all of these punishments into one neat package: life without parole — an extremely rare sentence in the UK. Oh, and he lost his medical license, of course.
When the sentence was handed out, Shipman stood in the courtroom pale and anxiously biting his lip. Aside from having his evil laid bare for all to see, he had to face up to the fact he had been well and truly defeated — better people had thoroughly humbled him by unravelling what he must have thought was a perfect web of deception.
Judge Forbes’ closing remarks tried to express the betrayal felt by all of the victims’ families, the people of Hyde, and the whole of the NHS whose reputation Shipman had tarnished. He said:
“Each victim was your patient, you murdered each and every one by a calculated and cold-blooded perversion of your medical skills. I have little doubt that the victims smiled as they submitted to your deadly mistreatment. The sheer wickedness of what you have done defies description.”
After the doctor was taken off to start his new life in Durham Prison (where he would presumably be barred from helping out in the infirmary), the judge turned to the weeping crowd in the public gallery, and spoke about how emotionally harrowing the whole affair had been. He thanked all of the witnesses who were willing to relive their trauma to secure justice for their loved ones.
So Hyde was free of Doctor Death, and its old dears could finally go get treatment for a cold without risking their lives. Everything’s all good now, right? Well, not quite — the true horror show was still to come…
I mentioned before that the 15 murder charges which Shipman went down on were mostly based on autopsy results, but we already know that he did his best to convince the families to have his victims cremated, which makes an autopsy around ten thousand times more difficult. So what kind of body count are we really talking — 20? 50?
This was the question on everyone’s minds for months. The media went crazy for the story, with all sorts of estimates floating around the front pages of newspapers. After the trial concluded, the BBC reported an estimated total of 146 victims! For comparison’s sake, your average double-decker bus holds about half that much. Shipman had potentially filled two entire double deckers with corpses.
But that was essentially just hearsay at this point — media sensationalism, surely? To really get to the bottom of it, two separate enquiries were commissioned. Dame Janet Smith and professor Richard Baker of the University of Leicester both independently went through all of Shipman’s files to identify cases which seemed to match the conditions of his confirmed murders. After poring through the evidence for months upon months, the enquiries arrived at some truly mind-blowing figures: 236 and 216 respectively, with serious suspicion hanging over a further four dozen or so cases.
We’re desensitized to these sorts of figures nowadays, so let’s take a second to really appreciate the gravity of this number: around 250 times, this man watched on as someone he was charged to protect slowly died at his hands. 250 times he went home and slept, having just ended a life — each murder an eerie echo of his own mother’s dying moments, reenacted over and over through his sick addiction to murder.
At the beginning I mentioned that Harold Shipman was the UK’s worst serial killer, but I have to admit, that was a little misleading. Actually, he has the highest number of confirmed murders of anyone in modern times — Shipman is the world’s worst serial killer. The extensive list of his victims reads like the closing credits to a movie:
Charles Harris, 70
Dorothy Fletcher, 74
Christine Hancock, 53
Lily Higgins, 83
Leah Johnston, 80
And on and on. But one name stands out among the rest: Susie Garfitt, who was under Shipman’s care for complications related to her cerebral palsy. In 1972, while working his very first job as a junior doctor at Pontefract General Infirmary in West Yorkshire, Shipman killed Susie when her mother left her bedside for ten minutes to get a cup of tea. She was just four years old.
Cases like this were unearthed for years after the original conviction, and the researchers involved agree that the spree probably started just a few months after Shipman gained his medical license in 1971. But unfortunately the good doctor wouldn’t be hanging around to answer for all of these crimes.
The man who was so obsessed with taking the power of life and death into his own hands did it one last time; on the 13th of January 2004, in his cell at Wakefield Prison where he relocated to 6 months prior, Shipman took his own life. He hanged himself from the window bars of his cell with a set of bedsheets. And so ended the story of Britain’s worst murderer, and the most prolific serial killer in the world.
Perhaps, knowing the full gargantuan scale of his crimes, he couldn’t face the fact that he would continue to face fresh interrogations for the rest of his days. Or maybe he finally felt the long overdue guilt for his almost three decades of menace. Or perhaps he just wasn’t a fan of prison (I’ve heard it’s not all that great). Some say that his wife Primrose suspected foul play was involved in his death, but she must have been hard-pressed to find anyone who even slightly gave a damn.
This self-appointed Grim Reaper was public enemy number one, after all, and he had decimated public trust in the NHS. How the hell could they have let this happen? And how many other killer doctors might be out there!? The General Medical Council was on full damage limitation mode, while the public inquiry commission took those involved to task for their failings. The next time you mess up at work, just imagine how the rookie police officer who originally cleared Shipman of wrongdoing must have felt at this point.
The GMC brought charges against six other doctors — not for murder, but for countersigning so many damn cremation forms for Shipman without noticing that this guy really like burning bodies. They were all cleared of any wrongdoing, but not so for two other doctors from Tameside General Hospital who somehow failed to address the massive amounts of morphine in the system of one of Shipman’s victims in 1994.
The greater Manchester police force apologized for their mistake, but defended the detectives assigned to the case as having done the best they could with the information available at the time. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether that’s true or not.
As for the health service itself, they made some serious changes in the hope of avoiding a calamity like this happening again. Instead of single-doctor GP clinics were now somewhat shunned for their lack of internal oversight, and health authorities started keeping a closer tab on small-town doctors and their reported stats. GPs started under-prescribing pain medicine, for fear of accidentally prescribing too much and inadvertently inheriting the Dr Death nickname.
There were even extra questions added to the standardized cremation paperwork thanks to Shipman, which read:
Do you consider that there should be any further examination of the remains of the person who has died?
Do you know or suspect that the death of the person who has died was violent or unnatural?
It’s basically asking: “Oh by the way, do you reckon the doctor killed them?”. Thankfully the answer is almost always no, because Shipman is actually the only doctor in the history of the UK to be convicted for killing his patients.
But that’s just the thing: he’s the only one to be convicted of it. Therein lies the real chilling aspect of this case: was he the only one? Couldn’t it be the case that others have done the exact same thing, but refrained from pushing the limits and getting greedy. Just how long could someone like that keep getting away with it, all while wearing the smiling mask of your friendly family doctor? The total number of deaths in a case like that might make Shipman’s 250 pale in comparison.
My advice: don’t dwell on it — that way madness lies.
1. If you’re left wondering how such a meticulous killer could have been caught through such a childishly slapdash forgery, you’re not alone. Some suspect that it was left because Shipman actually wanted to be caught, as he couldn’t stand the anxiety of his downwardly spiraling life of drugs and deceit.
2. The press weren’t the first to give Shipman the Dr Death moniker — it was old biddies around town who came up with it. For two years before his capture, the elderly ladies of Hyde had been referring to Shipman by that gruesome nickname, yet for some reason kept going to him for treatment. One was quoted as saying “All the old ladies die with him. They say he’s a good doctor, but you don’t last.” How right you were Doris.
3. Despite being present at two of the murder scenes, Shipman’s wife Primrose defended his innocence to the last, possibly because she was under his abusive control. Psychologists call the phenomenon Folie a Deux: when two people who are close to each other share a common delusion or warped worldview. His suicide may have been a kind of twisted thanks for her loyalty, as she was still entitled to receive his NHS pension if he died before turning 60.
4. If you find yourself down in the town of Hyde, you can pop by the Garden of Tranquility to pay your respects to the Shipman victims. This memorial opened up in 2005 in the town park as a place for some quiet reflection on the darkest episode of the town’s history.