Describing the Killing Fields of Harold Shipman-Worst Serial killer of all time
His trusting patients considered him the perfect GP: kindly, capable, caring. But for 25 years Harold Shipman carried out a relentless campaign of murder & death that claimed hundreds of victims in two small towns. On the eve of a public inquiry into the murders, it reveals some of the shocking truths that have emerged
TO the casual eye they are simply two former northern mill towns, each fiercely proud of its traditions, the pair of them separated by a county border and just 20 miles of moorland. Yet Todmorden and Hyde are something much more. For over a period of a quarter of a century they became, in succession, the killing fields of Harold Shipman, Britain’s most prolific serial killer.
Eighteen months after Shipman was sent down from the dock to serve 15 life sentences for murder, the one-time family GP still holds the secret of precisely how many of his patients he injected with fatal doses of diamorphine. But on Wednesday in Manchester town hall, Dame Janet Smith, the High Court judge entrusted with the Shipman inquiry, will begin the near-impossible task of both quantifying and explaining a killing spree that stretched, almost unabated, over three decades. It seems unlikely that she will get any help from Shipman himself. He has chosen, for the time being at least, to remain silent, brooding in his cell at Frankland Prison, Co Durham.
Shipman, now 55, is thought to have begun murdering his patients only a few months after taking his first job as a GP. By the time of his eventual arrest in Ashton-under-Lyne, Greater Manchester, close to his home in Mottram, in September 1998, he had succeeded in claiming the lives of several hundred people.
The Daily Telegraph has compiled a list of nearly 300 of these victims. Most were women. Yet, contrary to a widespread view of the case, many of them – possibly more than 60 – were males. Our research, the most comprehensive to date, gives a disturbing insight into both the geographical density of Shipman’s attacks and their frequency. It also illustrates how many streets, and how many families, were left devastated by his decision to settle among them.
It has long been recognised that to fully understand Shipman one needs to identify his first victim. This murder would have provided the catalyst for those that followed: the moment he breached the moral watershed that took him from simply wishing to kill, to actually doing so.
During his trial, the trail went cold in 1985. Since then, however, it has been tracked back at least to 1974. There is an awful possibility that it goes back still further, perhaps to Shipman’s time as a houseman at Pontefract General Infirmary, or even to his student days at Leeds University Medical School.
Shipman, the son of a Nottingham lorry driver, married his wife, Primrose, while studying in Leeds. They made an odd couple then, as now. Fellow medical students were perplexed by the relationship, not least because of Primrose’s timidity and her unexpected early pregnancy with the first of the couple’s four children.
Once he had qualified, Shipman spent three years in Pontefract before joining the Abraham Ormerod Medical Centre in Todmorden as an earnest, highly regarded assistant principal GP on March 1, 1974. He was 27.
Todmorden’s new GP purchased a large family house in Spring Bank on a treed hill looking down on what is a gritty, working-class West Yorkshire town. Two months later, on May 10, he signed the very first death certificate of his career for 72-year-old Ruth Highley. She had died, said Shipman, of kidney failure.
Mrs Highley was cremated and the documentation that certified the whole process was destroyed long ago, so it is very unlikely that the inquiry will find sufficient evidence to prove that she was murdered by Shipman. But in Todmorden a deep suspicion about her death still persists.
Shipman is suspected of killing up to five of his patients in 1974. On January 25, 1975, he may have murdered three on the same day: Lily Crossley, 74, Elizabeth Pearce, 84, and Robert Lingard, 62, all lived within a few streets of each other. Documentary evidence is feeble and the memories of relatives understandably quite hazy. But in each case Shipman certified the patient dead, and in each case he is thought to have been present both before and shortly after they died. When he called on Lily Crossley, he did so in the role of emergency doctor.
During his time in Todmorden, sometimes helping to ferry his children to primary school, & at times joining other volunteers in the restoration of the Rochdale Canal (Primrose, a childminder, brought sandwiches and brewed tea), Shipman signed a total of 22 death certificates. He also referred 14 other deaths to the coroner.
In around 40 per cent of these cases he appears to have been with the patient on the day he or she died. Statistically, this is astounding. GPs are rarely with their patients at such times. Indeed, a clinical audit prepared by Professor Richard Baker, from the University of Leicester, as part of his Government-commissioned brief to examine the Shipman murders, suggested a national incidence of a mere 0.8 per cent.
But the Todmorden killings came to an abrupt halt in the autumn of 1975 when a local chemist expressed concern about the large volume of prescriptions for pethidine signed by Shipman (he had become addicted to the pain-killing drug). The GP’s shocked colleagues demanded his immediate resignation, yet felt sufficient compassion, given that they now thought his career was over, to secure him a position as a patient at The Retreat, a psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of York. Shipman was fined £600 by magistrates in Halifax after admitting to 75 drugs offences, including forgery and possession. He spent six months at The Retreat.
With the General Medical Council failing to take any disciplinary action over his conviction, he managed to return to medicine following a 294-day break from practice. His rehabilitation began in Co Durham, where he worked briefly at a family planning centre. A month later, in October 1977, he moved on to the Donneybrook House group practice in Hyde. The Shipman inquiry will be seeking to establish how he managed to conceal his criminal past so successfully.
The Donneybrook practice stands in the centre of Hyde, close to the bus station. Shipman was still only 31 when he started work there. Within a week he is thought to have killed again. His suspected victim was Josephine Carroll, 81, whose home was a short walk away from the surgery practice.
Shipman worked as a partner in the practice for the next 15 years. By the time he left, at the end of May 1992, he had gained a reputation for no-nonsense expertise and a bedside manner that secured him an adoring following. What no one knew at the time was that he had probably killed up to 80 patients while at the Donneybrook medical practice. When his patients learnt that he was setting up a solo practice at 21 Market Street, less than 100 yards away, many followed him. This suited Dr Death Shipman. Away from the prying eyes of his Donneybrook ex-colleagues, he knew he could enjoy a freedom he had craved since his arrest in Todmorden.
Unfettered, he roamed the streets of Hyde at will; his patients were glad to welcome him into their dwellings as a caring, capable and undeniably popular trusted doctor. There is no real pattern to his killing – it was concentrated in the generally narrow, terrace-lined streets of Hyde, wherever he could find an opportunity. By June 24, 1998, when he claimed his last victim, Kathleen Grundy, 81, a former mayoress of the town, he was averaging at least a murder a week.
His patients did not even have to be sick to be of interest to Dr Shipman. Again and over again, he gained his thrills by exploiting those who trusted him most. Although psychiatrists diagnosed him as a classic necrophiliac during the exhaustive police investigation, there was never any suggestion that he ever molested his victims. Indeed, a facet of his killings was that the women tended to be found still demurely buttoned up in their day clothes, perhaps sitting in a favourite armchair or else laid out by him on a bed in a state of repose.
The act of ‘discovering’ his victims shortly after he had killed them was important to Shipman. Sometimes he would send their closest relatives a pre-printed and unsigned sympathy card. His favourite time to watch his patients die was mid-afternoon. Sometimes, though, he would call at their homes on his way to work, and relatives of such victims still have difficulty in comprehending that only a few minutes earlier he would have been saying goodbye to his wife and four children.
Mrs Grundy, so energetic that her friends thought she had many years yet to enjoy life, was a typical example of one of his patients killed on the way to work.
Even now, incredible as it may seem, some of his former patients refuse to accept Shipman’s guilt, while others decline to report possible murders within their own families for fear of what darkness they might uncover.
Few of the streets in Hyde, and few of the town’s families, escaped Shipman’s attentions. He returned time and time again to particular streets, sometimes even to the same house, in search of fresh victims. It is possible that Shipman killed twice at No 2 Leigh Fold, Hyde. Alice Gorton, 76, died there on August 10, 1979. Nine years later, on February 15, 1988, a later resident of the same house, Jane Jones, 83, was also found dead.
He killed five people in his surgery, without raising the suspicion of his staff. Six residents of Joel Lane, a long street that rises through one of the more affluent parts of Gee Cross, were killed over a period of around four years. There were five from St John’s Drive, six from Garden Street and nine – including Muriel Ward and her daughter Margaret – whom Shipman murdered in Ogden Court, a warden-controlled home for the aged
Shipman, who at times stole jewellery and other items as ‘trophies’ to remind him of a murder, was almost caught on several occasions before his eventual apprehension & arrest. Such was his arrogance, in fact, that he may actually have enjoyed such moments; and perhaps even encouraged them.
His first narrow escape would probably have been as long ago as August 1974, in Todmorden, when Elaine Oswald, three years Shipman’s junior at the age of 25, arrived at his surgery to complain of a mild stomach pain. ‘It was just so cool having a young attractive doctor there,’ she recalls. ‘He had very pale blue eyes and looked like the doctors on television.’
Shipman told Mrs Oswald – who may yet prove to be the killer’s sole survivor – that he needed to take some blood samples. He suggested Diconal, a synthetic morphine, and suggested she leave her front door open so he could let himself in. Within hours of her return home he did exactly that. This was a scenario that would repeat itself again and again over the next quarter of a century.
Mrs Oswald’s last memory before losing consciousness was of seeing her GP approach her with a hypodermic needle in his hand. ‘The next thing I know, I’m lying on the floor. There are many people in my bedroom. My mouth’s bleeding, there’s blood trickling around my lips. I can’t breathe, my ribs are hurting every time I breathe. The people in the room are shaking me, slapping my face. All I wanted to do was sleep, just sleep for ever.’
Shipman later claimed she had suffered a severe allergic reaction. He visited her daily in hospital, and later insisted on inviting her and her husband to dinner. She thought he was her saviour. Only after reading newspaper reports of Shipman’s modus operandi did Mrs Oswald, now living in America, suspect he had been disturbed while trying to kill her as well.
When police finally began to investigate Shipman they quickly identified a number of recurring themes. His victims tusually were those who lived alone. Some had visited his surgery shortly before they died. Often they had died in the afternoon. They were found fully dressed in normal day clothes. They trusted him enough to allow him without question into their homes, even if no prior appointment had been arranged.
If he was disturbed, he would feign attempts at resuscitation or pretend to summon an ambulance. Sometimes he was complacent. When he arrived to kill Maria West he failed to realise that one of her friends had already called in for a cup of tea and a chat. The woman was in the bathroom when he arrived. Discretion persuaded her to sit quietly in the kitchen while the doctor examined his patient.
Only when the eirry silence become too much did she venture back into the living-room. Surprised, Shipman bluffed his way out of the situation by saying, ‘She’s collapsed on me.’ She was, of course, already deceased.
Once the enormity of what had gone on was realised and the pattern of killings understood, it became remarkably easy for police to identify likely victims. But until then the trust from patients that Shipman enjoyed appeared endless.
Irene Berry, 74, known to her family as ‘a very healthy & fit woman, not the little old lady people may imagine’, was killed by Shipman in 1998. As in so many of his murders, he had decided to make a home visit. Mrs Berry’s daughter, Jean Darlington, said of him, ‘If Dr Shipman had said, “Have one egg a week”, she would have done it. She lived by his word.’
Father Denis Maher, the Catholic priest who assisted in the exhumations of six Shipman victims, recalls, ‘About a month after he was arrested one of my parishioners said she was glad, saying, “Now I know what happened to my sister 12 years ago.” When I asked her why she had not reported it, she replied, “Who would have believed me? If I’d said her own doctor had murdered her, they would have locked me away.” ‘
In the end it was the sheer number of deaths that began to raise suspicions. Shipman’s Market Street surgery gained a reputation for ‘losing’ many of its patients. Undertakers in particular, and some paramedics, began privately to voice their concerns. The South Manchester coroner, John Pollard, requested a police investigation after being approached by another GP in the township, a counter-signatory to a number of Shipman’s death certificates.
This investigation, in March 1998, drew a blank. A further three victims, among them Kathleen Grundy, would die because Shipman was not arrested.
Eventually it was left to Shipman himself to make the blunder that would bring about his downfall. For some unfathomable reason he had decided to forge Mrs Grundy’s will to inherit her entire £380,000 estate. It was a feeble attempt and the pensioner’s daughter, Angela Woodruff, a qualified lawyer, instantly became suspicious. After briefly making her own inquiries, she called in the police.
Relatives realise that Shipman can never again stand trial, no matter how high the final death toll rises. But they are determined that the Shipman inquiry will clearly identify those whose failings allowed his murderous reign to continue for so long. Some hope that Primrose Shipman, once one of her husband’s receptionists and now living a reclusive life in a Yorkshire village, will be required to give evidence about his behaviour. Up to now Mrs Shipman has maintained a stubborn silence, even shutting the door on detectives & investigators when they called at her bungalow dwelling.
The bereaved in both Todmorden and Hyde also hope the inquiry will see some sort of peace, some acknowledgement of the suffering their families have endured, and some degree of certainty as to whether their relatives were indeed murdered by the family doctor they once trusted so implicitly.