Mental Floss

Angels of Death: 7 More Medical Murderers

Miss Cellania

In part one of Angels of Death, you saw the stories of eight medical professionals who killed their patients. That's just scratching the surface of the many cases of medical murders. Here are seven more.

Nightmare Nurse

Jane Toppan admitted to first eleven murders, then later to 31. Despite recklessness with drugs, unusually high patient deaths, and charges of theft, she managed to find employment over and over again in Massachusetts between the years of 1885 and 1901. In 1901, Toppan moved in with the Davis family after the death of the elderly mother she had cared for. Within a short time, the father and two daughters were dead. She also killed her foster sister before an investigation, which found the victims to be poisoned, led to her arrest. Toppan was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and was held in a mental institution for the rest of her life. Toppan was said to have been proud of the killings.

The Angel of Death

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Two of the people profiled here are very different from the rest in that they did not hide their actions at the time. One was Joseph Mengele, who had free rein under the SS to conduct experiments on inmates at Auschwitz. The doctor was also largely responsible for selecting prisoners for the gas chambers. Mengele had a special interest in twins. Thousands of twins were subjected to horrific surgical procedures and injections. Only a few survived World War II. Mengele also "experimented" with electric shock, castration, radiation, and removal of limbs and organs without anesthetic on manner of prisoners. Mengele escaped to Argentina after the war under a false identity. The records he kept on his experiments were destroyed by a colleague. Mengele died in 1979 in Brazil. A grave was exhumed in 1985 and DNA tests in 1992 confirmed that it was Mengele's.

The Job-hopping Nurse

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Charles Cullen worked as a nurse at ten different hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and admitted killing 45 patients between 1988 and 2003. He administered overdoses of drugs (usually digoxin) by injection or through intravenous lines. He was fired from job after job for erratic behavior, incompetence, or breaking rules, but Cullen continued to find work because of a nationwide nurse shortage. Suspicious deaths at Somerset Medical Center in New Jersey finally led authorities to look into Cullen's background. He was arrested for one murder and one attempted murder in 2003. He later confessed and pled guilty to the charges. In later investigations, Cullen pled guilty to 13 murders at Somerset and three more at other hospitals in New Jersey. He also pled guilty to killing six patients in Pennsylvania. Cullen is serving 18 life sentences and will be eligible for parole in 395 years. The nurse explained that he killed because he couldn't stand to see his patients suffer, although he seemed unaware that in many cases, he caused their suffering. As a result of the Cullen case, most states adopted laws that provided legal immunity to employers who give poor performance ratings or referrals to medical professionals.

Dr. Death

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There are many who would not consider Jack Kevorkian a murderer, but he was convicted and served eight years in prison for second-degree homicide. Kevorkian was an activist who published and spoke on the ethics of euthanasia. He pushed the idea that terminally ill patients and even those with a limited quality of life, should have the right to commit suicide, even those who are not physically able to do so. Kevorkian developed at least two devices that allowed patients to deliver their own death with a simple push of a button. The doctor, whose license was revoked in 1991, says he assisted in over 100 suicides. He was arrested numerous times, but wasn't convicted until 1998 because the patient had made the ultimate move in each death. However, Thomas Youk was completely paralyzed due to ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease), so Kevorkian, with the patient's permission, administered a lethal injection. The event was videotaped and shown on the TV show 60 Minutes in 1998, which led to murder charges for Kevorkian. He was denied parole until 2006, when he finally promised not to involve himself in any more suicides. At the time, Kevorkian was expected to die of Hepatitis C within a year. However, he was healthy enough to run for a Michigan congressional seat in 2008. He did not win the election.

The Veteran Murderer

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The Compassionate Killer

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Stephan Letter was convicted of murdering 16 patients and causing the death of 13 more, although the line between the two charges seems blurry. Letter was a nurse at a clinic for the elderly in Sonthofen, Bavaria, Germany. Police investigated around 80 suspicious deaths in 2003 and 2004. 43 victims were exhumed and another 38 had been cremated. The exhumations showed the patients had been killed by a lethal combination of drugs. Letter admitted killing twelve of the patients. The 27-year-old nurse told the court he had acted out of compassion for the dying. In 2006, he was found guilty of 29 murders and sentenced to life.

The Most Prolific Ever

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British physician Harold Shipman may have killed as many as 400 of his patients during his medical career, which would make him the most prolific serial killer of all time. An official audit estimates the number of victims at 236 over 24 years, but the exact number will probably never be known. Shipman was abusing drugs and forging prescriptions early in his career, but went on to treat patients in Hyde, Greater Manchester. Eventually, funeral directors and medical examiners were concerned about the number of deaths under Shipman's care, but an inquiry went nowhere because the doctor had changed medical records after the fact to explain that the patient had been ill. In reality, almost all the patients had been healthy just prior to death. After Kathleen Grundy died in 1998, a suspicious-looking will was produced that left £386,000 to Dr. Shipman. Mrs. Grundy was found to have died of an overdose of morphine. Police investigated the deaths of previous patients, and found many had died of overdoses. Mrs. Grundy's will was linked to Shipman's typewriter, and an examination of Shipman's computer revealed evidence of medical records that were amended after the deaths. He was convicted of 15 murders in 2000 and sentenced to life for each, plus four years for forgery. Shipman proclaimed his innocence until the day he hanged himself in prison in 2004.

Most of the entries in this post were people mentioned in the comments of the previous post on the subject. I have a long list of obscure medical murderers, so there may well be a third installment.

Update: Part three of this series is now available.