Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Angels of Death: The Doctors

Motives: Part 2

Certain doctors actually exploit their position for the express purpose of murder, such as those who kill for the following reasons:

  1. Experimentation: People become doctors because they're innately curious about the human body and the only way to experiment with it without being discovered is to kill the victims. H. H. Holmes is a good example, and if Jack the Ripper was a physician, as some suspect, this may have motivated him, too. Obviously, Joseph Mengele had this motive, although he did not have to find ways to cover it up. He was free to experiment all he wanted on creatures that were considered less than human.
  2. Financial profit: Some doctors participate in schemes to defraud insurance companies by killing people and sharing in the death benefits. Dr. Morris Bolber organized a partnership for this type of crime in Philadelphia in the 1930s. It is estimated that he and his partners killed around fifty people before they were stopped.
  3. Bloodlust: For some, committing a violent death is as exciting as a sexual encounter. They want the heightened feeling that comes from the excitement that results from killing or watching others react to a death. Michael Swango, for example, described a major fatal accident as an ultimate fantasy and also admitted how much he loved coming out of the ER with an erection, knowing he was about to tell parents that their child is dead.
  4. Dr. Frank Sweeney
    Dr. Frank Sweeney
    Dr. Francis E. Sweeney was the prime suspect and man who super cop Eliot Ness believed was guilty in a series of thirteen Depression-era murders in Cleveland. Still officially unsolved, the killer was believed to have medical knowledge and, almost uniquely in serial killer history, killed men and women equally by expert decapitation. Sweeney, a brilliant but twisted surgeon, taunted Ness for years about not having sufficient evidence to convict him.
  5. Visionary purposes: Mengele believed that his experiments with people were a way to put science into the service of the Nazi goal of evolving a superior human race. He had a mission to kill.
  6. Punishment and power: Dr. Thomas Neill Cream poisoned four women in part for sadistic pleasure and in part to be their judge and executioner for their immoral behavior. Going to medical school in Canada, he was forced to marry a woman he'd aborted, so he left for England. Then he returned to Canada and that's where he killed a chambermaid who came to him for an abortion. He moved to Chicago where another woman fell victim to his abortion methods. He then killed a man while "treating" his epilepsy because he coveted the man's wife. For that he went to prison for ten years. (Although he claimed as he was hung years later that he was Jack the Ripper, he was in fact behind bars in 1888.) Going to London in 1891, he poisoned four prostitutes with strychnine. Identified and arrested, he was hanged in 1892.
  7. Dr.Harold Shipman
    Dr.Harold Shipman
    Relief for inner conflicts: Dr. Harold Shipman was convicted in England of 15 counts of murder in 2001. In court, he displayed indifference to the suffering he'd caused many families and contempt for the prosecution, which is indicative of sociopathy. However, according to Dr. Chris Missen, head of forensic psychology at Anglia Polytechnic University, Shipman actually had a secret self that was awash in monumental self-pity. He had watched his mother die when he was seventeen, which he may have interpreted as rejection and abandonment. He wanted the jury to believe that he had an impulse control problem, but in truth, he had been highly organized in the way he altered medical records and adopted the pretense of making proper arrangements. He'd even typed up a will for his last victim and forged her signature. "What might have been perceived as a deep inner hypersensitivity," says Missen, "may have been no more than a swollen ego, in danger of imploding at the least pinprick." Shipman could not handle potential rejection from women the age his mother would have been had she lived, so his older female patients brought out his inner conflicts. That means that what may have become suicidal despair in others turned into a homicidal rage in Shipman. He killed patients to keep from killing himself. If the estimates that his victims number nearly 300 are correct, then he killed an average of one patient a month since his medical career began.

The question can be asked whether it's the position of power that shapes them into killers or whether they're just sociopaths who managed to become doctors. A close look at one of the most flagrant offenders in American history may offer some clues.

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