Hazel McHaffie

Murder most foul

Twenty years ago a much loved and respected doctor was arrested. He was found to beĀ  the world’s most prolific serial killer of all time (250 victims over 30 years and counting) . His name has become synonymous with evil: Dr Harold Shipman.

Back then the culture in this country was one of respect and trust for doctors, and in the small working-class town of Hyde near Manchester, this particular GP was revered for his dedication and compassion. He would visit vulnerable patients at all hours, stay with them during their last breaths, personally phone their relatives to break the news. When investigators came snooping the locals resisted their suggestions of sinister malpractice fiercely.

Oh yes, they knew lots of elderly people in his practice died – they even jokingly called him Dr Death – but it never entered their heads that this was in any way untoward. They were just grateful that he cared enough to be with these neighbours during their last hours on this earth. He seemed invincible.

And he believed he was. After all, he’d survived a report to the General Medical Council (GMC) relating to his personal drug addiction, he’d successfully forged prescriptions and wills, acquired legacies from patients, as well as conning the good people in his practice. When he was questioned by the police, he displayed breathtaking arrogance and insolence, spinning absurd stories, even at one point sitting with his back to his interrogators.

Photo courtesy of Photolia

Listening to the harrowing testimony of those caught up in this horrific case, it’s not difficult to understand the despair of the policeman who took his sheaf of evidence to the GMC back in 1976, twenty three years before the doctor was finally tried, only to be waved away without a hearing himself: this august medical body deeming Harold Shipman ‘no danger to the public‘, just needing some rehabilitation. If only!

In the end the law enforcement officers investigated a total of 900 deaths spanning decades; they exhumed numerous bodies; they traced his killings back to 1972; they are almost certain that the estimate of 250 deaths by poisoning is a conservative one. But Shipman never admitted his guilt, never expressed remorse; a senior forensic psychiatric said he felt none. Imprisoned for life he waited only till he had assured his wife Primrose the best settlement possible, before, on the eve of his 58th birthday, in 2004, taking the last life: his own.

Twenty years ago, but it is still as vivid as it was then. Some crimes are indelible. I was mesmerised by the documentary shown on independent television last Thursday evening. We all carry burdens from the past, but they can be as nothing compared with those borne by local friends of the ‘good doctor’, nurses who saw but didn’t dare protest, policemen whose hands were tied, relatives who thanked the doctor who had killed their loved ones. If you’ve ever been betrayed by someone you trusted, you’ll know it’s a peculiarly deep hurt.

I’m in the business of medical ethics. This story is way, way outside my scope. Had I written it into fiction no one would have believed it. It would have sunk without trace; Shipman never will.

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