We are often at our most vulnerable with physicians and nurses, which might be why stories of crimes committed by medical professionals seem so shocking. Because if you can’t trust your doctor, who can you trust? The answer: probably no one. Below are eight of the most appalling acts of murder, fraud, and grave-robbing associated with the medical community. Patient, beware.
1. BURKE AND HARE: THE BODY-SNATCHERS
In the early 19th century, Edinburgh, Scotland was one of Europe's leading centers of medical study. But there was a problem: The city's medical schools were constantly short on bodies to dissect. The law dictated that only the bodies of executed convicts were allowed to be carved up for science. So fresh bodies, however harvested, could command a princely sum, and there were plenty of local entrepreneurs ready to take advantage. Known as “resurrectionists,” they thwarted graveyard watchmen to plunder the city’s cemeteries, selling the treasure to anatomists.
William Burke and William Hare were a special breed of resurrectionists. In 1827, they began their foray into body-snatching courtesy of one of Hare’s recently deceased boarders. The pair sold the body to a Dr. Robert Knox, one of the city’s leading anatomists. With 7 pounds 10 shillings (about $820 today) in their pockets, they realized they’d stumbled upon a promising enterprise. But like the city's doctors and students, they were frustrated by the lack of bodies. So they decided to create their own supply.
The two soon began murdering other lodgers, travelers, and the generally down-and-out—usually by plying them with whiskey and then suffocating them. Burke and Hare kept Dr. Knox and his students supplied for almost a year, until an acquaintance alerted authorities after stumbling upon one of their victims hidden in a straw mattress. Upon arrest, Hare agreed to testify against Burke, who was convicted of just a single murder, although it is commonly believed the total number killed was at least 16. Burke, whose name became synonymous with his mode of killing, was hanged on January 28, 1829 before a crowd of more than 20,000 spectators. Fittingly enough, his body was donated to science and publicly dissected by one of Dr. Knox's peers.
2. GERALD BARNBAUM: THE FAKE
The vast majority of physicians are highly dedicated individuals. And no one was more dedicated than Gerald Barnbaum, a.k.a. Gerald Barnes. The only problem was, he wasn’t actually a physician. That didn’t stop him from practicing medicine in southern California for more than 20 years, and neither did five convictions and stints in prison for practicing without a license, mail fraud, and manslaughter, among other charges.
Trained as a pharmacist, Barnbaum lost his license in a Medicaid fraud scandal in the mid-1970s. Fascinated by the medical profession since childhood, he decided to follow his real passion, albeit without the pesky education. Barnbaum used a sob story to fool both the California medical authorities and a medical school into sending him the credentials of one Dr. Gerald Barnes, a respected, and real, California MD (he claimed a bitter spouse had destroyed the originals). He then went on to spend more than two decades charming his way from one clinic to another.
He was first caught in 1979, when he misdiagnosed a clear-cut case of diabetes in a young man, who later slipped into a coma and died. He pled down from murder to manslaughter in 1981, and served 18 months of a 3-year sentence before being paroled.
Thus began a bizarre cycle of practice, discovery, conviction, and parole that would repeat four more times. The fifth attempt came in 2000 after Barnbaum escaped custody during a prison transfer. Four weeks later he was caught, of course, practicing at a North Hollywood clinic. He’s currently serving a 10-year sentence for that crime, and is due out in 2019, at the age of 86.
3. HAROLD SHIPMAN: THE LITTLE-OLD-LADY KILLER
One of the world’s most prolific serial killers was considered by most who knew him to be a caring family physician. Harold Shipman spent decades practicing medicine in the small city of Hyde, in Manchester, England. Most loved him, but a few noticed that many of his elderly charges passed away at or around their visits with the good doctor. Once, the coroner’s office was even alerted, but could not find evidence of any foul play.
That’s because Shipman’s weapon of choice was often diamorphine—a medical form of heroin—which he injected into his patients. He’d then alter his records to support whatever cause of death he gave the relatives of the deceased. He also discouraged autopsies and encouraged cremation.
It was his greed that finally undid him. When a healthy 81-year-old widow named Kathleen Grundy died in 1998, her daughter grew suspicious at the appearance of a will that left Shipman much of her mother’s estate. It was an obvious forgery, and her report resulted in a raid of Shipman’s home, which unearthed enough evidence to prompt a deeper investigation. Shipman was arrested on suspicion of 15 murders and one case of forgery. He maintained his innocence, but in 2000 was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to 15 life sentences. Four years later he was found dead in his cell, having hung himself. Subsequent investigations that compared the mortality rate of Shipman’s patients to those of other practices estimated that at least 215 deaths could be attributed to him.
4. NIELS HÖGEL: THE “BAD LUCK CHARM”
Many medical professionals will tell you there’s nothing to match the feeling of saving a life. But for at least one German nurse, the thrill was so addictive there never seemed to be enough desperate cases to quench it.
In 2015 nurse Niels Högel was convicted of two counts of murder and two counts of attempted murder. He’d been caught administering a large dose of an unneeded cardiovascular drug to a patient. His goal: Send the patient into cardiac arrest so he could resuscitate them. Högel claimed that he’d found his work as a nurse boring, but reveled in the glory and recognition that a successful resuscitation would bring. His colleagues saw it differently; at one hospital he’d been labeled a “bad luck charm” for his presence at so many deaths.
If only it had been bad luck. During an initial trial, which covered his employment at a clinic in Delmenhorst, Germany, between 2002 and 2005, Högel admitted to dosing some 90 patients, 30 of whom died. The shocking admission prompted an investigation into 500 former patient cases, and the exhumation of 134 bodies. To date, 84 additional victims have been identified, with others still being tested.
5. JANE TOPPAN: THE NURSE FROM HELL
For the sick and suffering, emotional care can be just as palliative as physical. In 19th century Boston, patients of “Jolly” Jane Toppan received both—and then some. The beloved nurse was known for her boisterous good humor with patients, but those she grew especially close to had a habit of expiring, most likely due to the large and lethal doses of morphine and atropine that Toppan administered.
Born Honora Kelly in 1857, Toppan worked as an indentured servant for the Toppan family until she was 28, at which point she began training as a nurse in the city (her name was changed to Toppan during her time with the family, although she was never formally adopted). It was there she began experimenting on her favorite patients, administering varying doses of morphine and atropine to observe their effect on the nervous system. Later, she would admit to receiving a sexual thrill at being close to her patients as they wavered between life and death; she’d even climb into bed and embrace them as they struggled.
After dismissal from both Cambridge Hospital and Massachusetts General, Toppan spent 10 years as a private nurse in the Boston area. During this time she expanded her pool of victims to landlords, friends, and, on occasion, professional competition [PDF]. Again, morphine and atropine were her weapons of choice, although she occasionally dabbled in rat poison.
Her coup de grâce, however, occurred between in July and August 1901, when she systematically eliminated a family of four on Cape Cod. She started with the matriarch, Mattie Davis, who had visited her to collect rent owed on a summer cottage that Toppan rented from the family. Davis lingered for a week before succumbing, and Toppan traveled with the body to the Cape, under the guise of attending to the grieving family. Davis’s oldest daughter was next to go, followed by Mr. Davis, and finally, the youngest daughter, Minnie Gibbs, all in about five weeks.
Suspicious, Gibbs’s husband contacted a toxicologist, asking him to exhume the bodies and test them. Toppan was arrested and tried for the Davis murders, but found not guilty by reason of insanity. She was committed to a mental institution for the rest of her life. Turns out, Toppan had owned up to at least 31 murders in front of her defense lawyer, and may have been responsible for as many as 100. She died in her 80s in a lunatic asylum.
6. LAINZ ANGELS OF DEATH: THE HEARTBREAKERS
Looking after the ill and ailing is a tough job, an unending litany of needs large and small. That goes double for the ill and elderly. In the 1980s, four Austrian nurse's aides decided to make things a little easier on themselves by eliminating the needy.
Nicknamed the Angels of Death, Maria Gruber, Irene Leidolf, Stephanija Meyer, and Waltraud Wagner shocked Austria when they confessed to having brutally murdered some 49 elderly patients between 1983 and 1989. Wagner, largely believed to be the ringleader, initially confessed to all but 10 of those killings, though she later recanted and placed her total number closer to 10 (and all of those mercy killings).
But as their trials—Wagner and Leidolf for murder, Mayer for manslaughter, and Gruber for attempted murder—progressed, it became clear that while mercy may have motivated the first few killings, later victims were chosen not for their suffering, but because of offenses as small as soiling the bed or snoring. The murders themselves were carried out either through an overdose of drugs like insulin or through the “water cure,” in which the patient’s nose was pinched closed, the tongue held down and water poured into the lungs. And according to at least one member of the group, the total death count could have been more like 200, though that was never proven.
All four women were convicted and imprisoned, Wagner and Leidolf for life, but by 2008, all had been released from prison on good behavior.
7. MICHAEL SWANGO: THE KILLER ON TWO CONTINENTS
While Harold Shipman and Jane Toppan ingratiated themselves with those around them, the brilliant Dr. Michael Swango failed to charm. In fact, some found him downright creepy. He’d often express admiration for serial killers and kept a scrapbook of violent accidents. Yet even as suspicious patient deaths followed him over a decade and a half, he was always able to find work—and more victims.
From the very beginning of his medical training, bodies just seemed to drop around Michael Swango (in med school, he earned the nickname Double-O-Swango, because he had a “license to kill”). The dead followed him through his internship in an Ohio hospital, where nurses reported his uncanny appearance just before or after code blues.
In 1984, Swango was arrested for poisoning six of his fellow EMTs by lacing doughnuts, tea, and soda with arsenic. Damned by a mountain of evidence gathered at his apartment, he was convicted and served two years of a five-year sentence.
After prison, Swango bounced around the country, lying about his past on residency applications. After being fired from a number of programs, he tried to escape the mounting evidence against him by practicing in Zimbabwe, where, again, he couldn’t seem to help himself, and was soon under investigation for several patient deaths.
Finally, in 1997, the FBI—who’d been investigating since the death of three patients at a Veterans Affairs hospital on Long Island years earlier—caught up with him during a layover at Chicago-O’Hare airport. Initially convicted of falsifying his credentials on his VA application, he served several years in prison before being charged with three murders. He pled guilty to avoid a death sentence, and is currently serving time at a supermax prison in Colorado.
While it’s unknown just how many people Swango murdered during his career, conservative estimates put it at around 35, and some place it as high as 60.
8. DONALD HARVEY: THE DIS-ORDERLY
Like German nurse-cum-serial-killer Niels Högel, orderly Donald Harvey was given nicknames by his hospital co-workers—"Kiss of Death" among them. Patients, especially the old and infirm, had a habit of dying on Harvey’s watch. At least 34 of them expired thanks to Harvey’s direct intervention, which he claimed to be an act of mercy.
From 1970 to 1987, Harvey worked in hospitals in Ohio and Kentucky, where he’d often be in close contact with the seriously ill. Almost as soon as he began his first job, he started to kill off patients through methods that included smothering them with plastic sheets and pillows, feeding them cyanide and arsenic hidden in food and drinks, or hooking them up to depleted oxygen tanks. And while he said each was an attempt to end suffering, he would also tell the media that he enjoyed exerting control over life and death.
Later, he escalated to non-patients, again via poisoning, and in one case, attempted to kill his lover’s friend by exposing her to hepatitis serum he’d stolen from the hospital.
Harvey was finally caught in 1987 after a doctor performing an autopsy on his last victim caught the smell of cyanide in the victim’s stomach. An investigation followed, and Harvey was arrested. He’d eventually plead guilty to 37 murders (34 patients at two hospitals, and three non-patients). His lawyer later reported that Harvey had actually admitted to 70 murders, but no further charges were ever brought. In 2017, while the 64-year-old was serving multiple life sentences in a prison in Toledo, Ohio, he was beaten to death by a fellow inmate.