HOW is it possible for one man to kill hundreds of people, in plain sight, without anybody noticing?
Twenty years after Britain’s worst serial killer, Dr Harold Shipman, was jailed, that is the question I set out to answer.
When the story broke in 1998, Shipman was a popular and respected GP in an ordinary market town called Hyde. At the time, I was living about seven miles down the road in Manchester.
I remember that at first it seemed like a curious local news piece. But it soon snowballed into the biggest serial-killer case in British history.
Shipman was eventually convicted, in January 2000, of killing 15 of his patients.
That was enough to put him away for the rest of his life and he died by suicide in Wakefield Prison in 2004, a day before his 58th birthday.
LETHAL DOES OF OPIATE
But police had investigated more than 100 suspicious deaths and the true extent of his crimes would only emerge after his trial.
The public inquiry in the aftermath of his conviction concluded he had begun murdering his patients as a newly qualified junior doctor in Pontefract, West Yorks, in the early 1970s. He had continued to kill while working as a GP in Todmorden, also in West Yorks, before crossing the Pennines to Hyde, where he commit-ted the vast majority of his murders, between 1977 and 1998.
It is impossible to be certain about the exact number, but the inquiry concluded that, in total, he had killed around 280 people.
Each had died from a lethal dose of opiate, usually diamorphine — pure, medical-grade heroin.
Most had been found in their own homes, often in the afternoon, fully clothed, sitting in front of the fire or a switched-on television.
The scale was jaw-dropping and the story has haunted me ever since.
When I was growing up, my mum was seriously ill and our GP was nothing short of a saint.
He had visited her at home regularly and even helped my dad to organise the funeral after she died.
He was the perfect doctor, always prepared to go the extra mile to ensure his patients’ wellbeing. That is exactly how the families of Harold Shipman’s patients described their GP — until they learned he had been murdering their relatives.
Coverage of Shipman’s story has been dominated by two aspects of the case — the scale of his crimes and his motive: How many had he actually killed and why did he do it?
But I wanted to ask a different set of questions, focusing not on the killer but on his victims.
I wanted to know more about who they were and, in particular, to explore whether their age might have been the real reason he was able to evade detection for so long.
The average age of Shipman’s victims in Hyde was 76. More than 200 of them were over 70. Why had he chosen to target such a specific group of patients? Put simply, I wanted to know if our preconceptions and prejudices about the elderly might have enabled Shipman to murder more people than anyone else in British history.
I was fortunate to talk to a huge range of people, all of whom were personally or professionally involved in the case.
Using their first-hand accounts, I was able to build an understanding of the story that completely overturned my preconceptions.
I had always thought of Shipman as a murderer driven by some kind of urge to kill old people. I had pictured his victims as decrepit, housebound old ladies.
But as I talked with many of the victims’ families and friends, I discovered those assumptions could not be further from the truth. While it is true that most of Shipman’s victims were elderly, the vast majority were fit and active members of their local communities, whose deaths were entirely unexpected.
I was shocked to find that when Shipman began killing, during his time as a hospital doctor in the early 1970s, at least two of his earliest victims were young children.
This revelation confounded the idea that he was driven by an urge to kill old people. Shipman was simply a killer.
When he began to kill in larger numbers, during his time as a GP, he chose to target elderly victims because, I think, he knew his crimes would be more likely to go unnoticed.
I discovered there were several missed opportunities to stop Shipman before he was finally arrested in 1998. While he was working as a GP in Todmorden in the mid-1970s, he was exposed as a drug user — addicted to a painkilling opiate called pethidine.
In 1976 he was convicted of more than 80 offences of illegally obtaining controlled drugs and forging NHS prescriptions.
The drug squad detective who brought him to justice told me how Shipman groomed his elderly patients, using their names to falsify prescriptions for drugs he then used himself.
But, remarkably, the General Medical Council allowed him to continue to practise — even dismissing the need for a formal disciplinary hearing.
If they had spoken to any of the patients involved, they might have discovered that Shipman was not just using pethidine to feed his own habit.
He was also using it to kill some of his patients by administering an overdose.
Shipman continued killing in Hyde in such great numbers that it was almost as if he was trying to wipe out an entire generation of the town.
Several months before he was caught, another GP raised concerns about the number of elderly patients who had been dying while under Shipman’s care.
Yet despite clear evidence, the police, coroner’s office and local health authority all failed to investigate properly.
These mistakes and missed opportunities are shocking.
But I think the reason why so many authorities and individuals failed to see what seems to have been right under their noses is that they shared a kind of blind spot — one that prevented them from treating the deaths of Shipman’s elderly patients seriously enough.
PEAK DISTRICT HIKES
As I began to think about this, I started to look at attitudes towards old age and the elderly, and the history of geriatric care before and during Shipman’s medical career.
I learned how a fear of hospitals was common among elderly patients; how the idea of dying quietly at home, under the supervision of a caring family doctor, was considered a “millionaire’s death”; and how the cost of looking after an ageing population fuelled an increasingly negative attitude towards old people.
It was against this backdrop that Shipman began murdering his elderly patients in their own homes, where their relatives were more likely to thank the doctor for giving their loved ones a “good death” than question the circumstances.
Shipman’s final victim was Kathleen Grundy, who died on June 24, 1998.
She was a former mayoress of Hyde and was well-loved in the town, where she worked for numerous charities and good causes.
Her son-in-law, Phil, told me how she would return from hikes in the Peak District with her grandsons and ask: “Is there any ironing needs doing?”
The night before Shipman killed her, she had been round at a friend’s house watching the World Cup on TV.
Kathleen was a fit and active 81- year-old, with no serious health issues, and her death was entirely unexpected. Yet nobody questioned the circumstances of her demise — which Shipman certified as due to “old age”, as if that in itself was a deadly disease.
When the Covid crisis struck Britain this year, I remember hearing people commenting on how it was OK because it was a disease that “only killed old people”.
Twenty years ago there was a sense that Shipman wasn’t a “proper” serial killer because he too “only killed old people” — as if their lives did not matter so much.
I wonder if our attitudes towards the elderly have changed at all?
- Chris Wilson is the series producer and director of The Shipman Files: A Very British Crime Story, a three-part documentary starting on BBC2 on Monday at 9pm.
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