The Angel of Death

One of the Most Prolific Serial Killers in Modern History 1975- 1998
One of the Most Prolific Serial Killers in Modern History 1975- 1998

Dr Death

The term “lonely hearts killer” refers to an individual who uses deception to form relationships with people, often with the intent of committing murder. These individuals may target vulnerable people, such as the elderly, widows, or divorcees, and use various tactics, such as false identities or false promises of love, to gain their trust and eventually their lives.

One of the most infamous lonely hearts killers was Harold Frederick Shipman, nicknamed ‘Dr Death’ or ‘The Angel of Death’, a British doctor who is believed to have murdered between 215 and 250 of his patients, making him one of the world’s most prolific murderers. He posed as a caring and trustworthy physician but used his position to administer lethal doses of drugs to his victims.

Dr Death
Harold Frederick Shipman aka “Dr Death”

The Angel of Death was a cruel and calculating killer who used a variety of methods to kill his victims. His use of lethal injection, drugs, suffocation, and carbon monoxide poisoning made him one of the world’s most prolific murderers.

Harold Frederick Shipman

Harold Frederick Shipman was born on January 14, 1946, in Nottingham, England. The second child of three siblings, from very devout Methodists parents.

In his early childhood, Shipman excelled at sports, both as a long-distance runner and as a rugby player, even becoming vice-captain of the athletics team in his final year of school.

Shipman was particularly close to his mother and he watched her die at the age of seventeen from lung cancer. He paid particularly close attention to the morphine injections she received during the late stages of her terminal disease. She died in 1963.

In 1966, at the age of 20, he married Primrose May Oxtoby. The couple had four children together.

A young Harold Frederick Shipman
A young Harold Frederick Shipman

Harold graduated from Leeds School of Medicine in 1970 and began working at the Pontefract General Infirmary. In 1974, he took a position as a General Practitioner (GP), a family physician at the Abraham Ormerod Medical Centre in West Yorkshire. He soon developed a reputation for being a competent and caring doctor.

However, there were also rumours that he was overly eager to prescribe drugs, particularly opioids. He was caught forging pethidine prescriptions for his own private use.

Shipman was taking between 600 and 700 milligrams of pethidine a day to stave off depression. His habit came to light after it became obvious that some patients were being prescribed large amounts of the drug. He was subsequently fined £600 and asked to attend a rehabilitation clinic.

In 1977 Shipman worked as a general practitioner in the town of Hyde, Greater Manchester and, by the 1980s, he established his own surgery at 21 Market Street in 1993, becoming a respected member of the community. Harold Frederick Shipman would become one of the most prolific serial killers in recorded history

Dr Death’s Victims

Between 1975 and 1998, Shipman used his position as a general practitioner to gain access to his victims. He would visit them in their homes, often giving them fatal doses of drugs and signing their death certificates with diagnoses such as “old age” or “natural causes.” Shipman was able to get away with his crimes for so long because he was trusted in the community and the deaths were assumed to be natural.

The first suspicion of Shipman’s crimes emerged in 1998 when a local funeral director became suspicious of the high number of cremation forms signed by Shipman for deceased patients. An investigation was launched, leading to the exhumation of several bodies, and eventually to Shipman’s arrest in September 1998.

The first victim to be linked to Shipman, and the last in his murderous streak, was Kathleen Grundy, an 81-year-old former mayor of Hyde, England. In 1998 her daughter discovered that her mother’s will had been forged, leaving almost everything to Shipman. Grundy’s death was ruled a homicide and police began to investigate other deaths that Shipman had been involved with.

'The Angel of Deat' would often inject them with lethal doses of diamorphine
‘The Angel of Deat’ would often inject them with lethal doses of diamorphine

Dr Death is believed to have killed between 215 and 250 of his patients, mainly elderly women ranging from 45 to 81, between 1975 and 1998. He would visit their homes and inject them with lethal doses of diamorphine, a strong painkiller, which resulted in their deaths. He would then falsify medical records and death certificates to cover up his crimes.

He would then lied to the families telling them that he had called for emergency medical assistance for the women he killed. In some cases, he even forged wills so that he could inherit their money.

Many of these patients were cremated, so it was difficult to investigate their deaths. His killing spree was finally stopped in 1998, but his victims will never be forgotten.

The Method

The most common method used by Shipman was lethal injection. He used a combination of morphine and diamorphine to kill his victims, usually by injecting them in the buttocks. He would often tell his victims that he was giving them a “painkiller”, when in fact he was killing them.

The Angel of Death often killed his victims in combination with other methods. He would often give them a combination of sleeping pills, painkillers, and tranquillizers, and then strangle them. He also used drugs to induce heart attacks in some of his victims.

Shipman Family Portrait - Taken in January 1997
Shipman Family Portrait – Taken in January 1997

Another method Shipman used was suffocation. He would cover his victims’ faces with a pillow or a plastic bag and then press down on their chests until they stopped breathing. This was a particularly gruesome method of killing, as it allowed Shipman to watch as his victims slowly suffocated to death.

Finally, Shipman also used carbon monoxide poisoning as a method of killing his victims. He would fill his victims’ homes with the deadly gas, either by turning on the gas stove or running a car engine in an enclosed space. This was a particularly effective method, as it was often difficult to detect until it was too late.

The Shipman Enquiry

In 1998, an investigation was launched after one of Shipman’s patients, 81-year-old Kathleen Grundy, died suddenly. Grundy’s daughter, Angela Woodruff, grew suspicious after she found that her mother had made a new will just weeks before her death, leaving everything to Shipman.

A post-mortem examination revealed that she had been given a lethal injection of diamorphine. Further investigation uncovered dozens more suspicious deaths, many of which were subsequently confirmed to be murders.

The Shipman Inquiry was established to investigate the circumstances surrounding Shipman’s crimes and make recommendations to improve the safeguarding of patients. The inquiry found that Shipman had exploited gaps in the healthcare system to carry out his crimes and that there was a lack of proper scrutiny of his actions.

Harold Frederick Shipman 'Dr Death' Mugshot
Harold Frederick Shipman ‘Dr Death’ Mugshot

Shipman’s trial began on 5 October 1999. On January 2000 and he was found guilty of 15 counts of murder and one count of forgery.

The 15 women he was charged with killing via lethal injection were:

  • Marie West
  • Irene Turner
  • Lizzie Adams
  • Jean Lilley
  • Ivy Lomas
  • Muriel Grimshaw
  • Marie Quinn
  • Kathleen Wagstaff
  • Bianka Pomfret
  • Norah Nuttall
  • Pamela Hillier
  • Maureen Ward
  • Winifred Mellor
  • Joan Melia
  • Kathleen Grundy

He was also and was suspected of having killed over 250 people. He was sentenced to life in prison with a recommendation that he should never be released.

After the verdicts were released, it was made public that an earlier investigation into the suspicious number of deaths among Shipman’s patients had failed because there was not enough evidence.

Police examined the dead patients’ medical records and compared them with their death certificates in March 1997, eighteen months before Shipman was arrested and charged. After a local GP expressed suspicions to the coroner, Shipman went on to kill three more patients before he was arrested.

Shipman’s crimes raised questions about how he managed to evade suspicion for so long, and whether or not the medical profession could have done more to stop him. His trial was one of the longest and most publicised in British history, and he was ultimately convicted of 15 murders. However, it is believed that he actually killed many more people than that.

Why Did He Kill?

No real motive emerged during the trial as to why an apparently caring family doctor, with over 3,100 patients, had become a serial killer. Despite his forgery of the will of one of his victims, Mrs Grundy, financial gain appears not to have been a serious motive as he had had nothing to gain from murdering them.

Some have speculated that Dr Death was trying to avenge the death of his mother.

Harold Frederick Shipman 'Dr Death' 'The Angle of Death' Killed his victims with lethal dosis of diamorphine
Harold Frederick Shipman ‘Dr Death’ ‘The Angle of Death’ Killed his victims with lethal dosis of diamorphine

A more charitable view is that he thought he was practising euthanasia, removing from the population older people who might otherwise have become a burden to the health care system.

Lastly, it has been proposed that Shipman simply derived pleasure from killing. Safe in the knowledge that, as a doctor, he had the power of life or death over his patients.


Shipman was found dead in his prison cell on 13 January 2004, at 6:20 a.m.  He had committed suicide by hanging from the window bars of his cell using his bed sheets.

The reason for Shipman’s suicide was never reported, though allegedly he told his probation officer that he wanted to ensure his wife’s financial security after he was stripped of his National Health Service (NHS) pension.

Shipman’s body was cremated on 19 March 2005 at Hutcliffe Wood Crematorium.

Some of the victims’ families said they felt “cheated”, as Shipman’s suicide meant they would never have the satisfaction of a confession, nor answers as to why he committed his crimes

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