by Bill Monson


Does the name "Dr. Harold Shipman" mean anything to you?

No, he wasn't a scientist. He didn't discover a disease or a cure for one. What he did was kill. Dr. Harold Shipman murdered over 200 people-- 215 for sure, but maybe more. He was Britain's most prolific serial killer.

A general practitioner, he injected his victims, mostly older women living alone, with the heroin substitute diamorphine. Because he was a doctor, he signed the death certificates, thus avoiding autopsies which would have revealed his crimes. He was tripped up when he forged a will for one of his victims that was challenged by her relatives.

Four years ago, he was tried and convicted of killing 15 women. He denied the charges even though an inquiry in 2002 concluded he had committed 215 murders and possibly 240 across 23 years as a doctor.

Such a slaughter shocked Britain. No real motive was ever determined. Shipman's medical training foiled any attempts by psychiatrists to penetrate his mind. Shipman's wife Primrose insisted he was innocent and incapable of such deeds.

On January 13 of this year, the day before his 58th birthday, Shipman killed his last victim - Himself.

He tied his bed sheets to the window bars of his Wakefield Prison cell and hanged himself. Guards found him on an hourly check at 6:10 a.m. and took him down. They tried to resuscitate him, but he was pronounced dead by a doctor at 8:20. His suicide caused a media flurry in Britain. Some of his victims' relatives were angry because he died without ever showing remorse or revealing his motives. They felt he had escaped his punishment of 50 years to life.

Others questioned why he was not on a suicide watch. Wakefield staff responded that he was on hourly observation and had showed no sign of suicidal tendencies. With his cool, controlling character and his medical training, he was the equal or better of any mental health expert on staff. One columnist called Shipman's self-execution "the ultimate act of will," suggesting that Shipman chose it over the psychological annihilation that would come as his years in prison broke down his fantasies of innocence. Dying as he did when he did would create a fascination with him which would give him renewed prominence as authors and experts tried to find clues to the workings of his mind. And because he left no suicide note and never made a confession, he still retains an air of control. Only he knows why he did it.

That's a clue to our fascination with serial killers and mass murderers. The why of life and death. There was a pattern to Shipman's murders just as there was to Ted Bundy's here in the U.S.--but what we want is a rationale. We don't like random, unexplained death. We want a reason. Death without reason diminishes us.

So we cling to conspiracy theories in the death of John F. Kennedy and "God's will" in the death of others.

That's how people like Dr. Harold Shipman maintain such a powerful hold on our interest. They represent a chaos in life that none of us wants to accept.