Thursday, January 14, 2016

I’m looking at dying

Harold Frederick Shipman, one of the most prolific serial killers in modern times, would have turned 70 today had he not committed suicide in prison on the eve of his 58th birthday. Subsequently, the prison authorities produced a report on the circumstances surrounding his death, and this became the source for widespread publication of extracts from a diary, mostly concerning his suicidal thoughts, Shipman had kept while incarcerated.

Shipman was born in Nottingham on 14 January 1946, the son of Methodist parents. His father was a lorry driver, and his mother died of cancer when he was only 17. Aged 20, he married Primrose Oxtoby, and they would have four children. He studied at Leeds School of Medicine, graduating in 1970, and began work at the general infirmary in Pontefract, Yorkshire. Four years later, he took up a GP position at the Abraham Ormerod Medical Centre in Todmorden, and then, in 1977, at the Donneybrook Medical Centre in Hyde near Manchester. While still in Todmorden, he had been caught self-prescribing pethidine, had been fined, and had attended a drug rehabilitation clinic.

In 1993, Shipman set up his own surgery, also in Hyde, at 21 Market Street. It was not until 1998, that concerns were raised about the high number of deaths among his elderly patients. A police investigation in March was abandoned for lack of evidence, but then, in June, after the death of, what proved to be, his last victim, Kathleen Grundy, the police exhumed her body to find traces of diamorphine. They also established that Grundy’s will, leaving everything to Shipman, had been forged by Shipman himself. The police went on to investigate a number of others deaths, and found that Shipman had systematically killed many of his patients and falsified medical records to cover his tracks.

In 2000, Shipman was prosecuted for a sample 15 murders, and found guilty of them all. The judge sentenced him to 15 concurrent life sentences. Subsequently, the government set up an inquiry, chaired by Lord Laming of Tewin, to look into the case. Though it released its findings in various stages, The Shipman Inquiry, which took evidence from 2,500 witnesses and cost £21m, did not conclude its work until 2005. It found that Shipman had probably committed 250 murders in total, but that the true number could be more. Shipman consistently denied his guilt, and declined to comment on his actions. His wife, Primrose, also appears to have considered her husband innocent.

Shipman killed himself, using bed sheets tied to prison bars, in Wakefield Prison on 13 January 2004, the eve of his 58th birthday. Researchers believe he probably committed suicide to ensure Primrose’s financial security: had he lived to the age of 60 she would not have received a full NHS pension. The British press had a field day: The Sun celebrated with the headline ‘Ship Ship hooray’; the Daily Mirror called Shipman a coward and condemned the prison service for allowing it to happen; and the broadsheets proposed there be investigations into prisoner welfare and changes to prison sentencing. For further information see Wikipedia, BBC, or Murderpedia.

Following Shipman’s suicide, the Director General of the Prison Service, asked the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, Stephen Shaw, to look into the circumstances surrounding Shipman’s suicide. He produced a preliminary report in March the same year, and a final report in May 2005 (using the standard procedure of reporting the facts without identifying the person in question). In his report, Shaw notes that the police gave him a summary of everything they had removed from Shipman’s cell ‘including some entries from the man’s diary’. He quotes these diary entries in his report, and makes considerable reference to them.

The Shipman diary extracts were first obtained by The Sunday Telegraph in April 2005, and then they were widely reported in most newspapers later that year, in August. At the same time, the media reported that Shipman, while still alive, had tried to copyright his letters and ‘diary of despair’ in an effort to stop their contents being sold to the press (see the BBC or The Telegraph). 

Shaw’s report is available online, through the BBC website, and is the source of the Shipman diary extracts reproduced below. Apart from these, however, there is no other evidence I can find of what might have been in Shipman’s diary - there is no mention of it, for example, in any of several published biographies of Shipman.

13 January 2001
‘So depressed. If ?[illegible] says no then that is it. There is no possible way I can carry on, it would be a kindness to [].’

14 January 2001 (Shipman's 55th birthday)
‘[My wife] and the kids have to go on without me when it is the right time. Got to keep the façade intact for the time being.’

27 March 2001
‘. . . I’m looking at dying, the only question is when and can I hide it from everyone?’

13 April 2001
‘If I was dead they’d stop being in limbo and get on with their life perhaps. I’ll think a bit more about it. I’m desperate, no one to talk about it to who I can trust. Everyone will talk to the PO’s [prison officers] then I’ll be watched 24hrs a day and I don’t want that.’

26 June 2001
‘. . . As near suicide as can be, know how and when, just not yet.’

14 January 2002
’56 today, cards from everyone - very very sad day, not what life is about at all. [ ] not very good, it must be dreadful for her.’

31 July 2002
‘[Wife] - chat, no notes sent in yet. She’s getting no money off the DHSS, supported by the kids. What a terrible set up. How is she coping?’

17 October 2002
‘No money. [Wife] not able to get DHSS to see the poverty she is in. Only the kids who have been absolutely brilliant - the pension appeal.’

7 January 2003
‘A new year, a visit from [wife]. Still no money off DHSS. . . If this year doesn’t get anywhere I know it is not worth the effort. I have to lock down this overwhelming emotion or else I’d be on a suicide watch or drugs.’

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