Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

ANGELS OF DEATH: THE FEMALE NURSES

A Sisterhood

Medical thriller writer Michael Palmer's first novel was The Sisterhood.  It featured a group of nurses who start an underground organization to help people to die in hospitals around the country. "Nurses bound together in mercy," the jacket reads, "pledged to end human suffering."  However, within the organization, some "mercy-killers" take things too far and patients who should have survived end up dead.  What began as a benign act of compassion became a wellspring of evil.

This story is fiction.  What follows is not.

Map of Austria, with Vienna marked
Map of Austria, with Vienna marked

It was a nurse's aide in Vienna, Austria, who started the murder spree at Lainz General Hospital.  Most of the people who go there are elderly, many of them with terminal illnesses.  It's not difficult to hide a murder or two among people who are already at death's door.  Even so, it wasn't as if Waltraud Wagner wanted to kill not at first, anyway.

It started in 1983 and by the time officials began to look into the suspicious deaths some six years later, the death toll stood at 42.  However, an unofficial count was in the hundreds.

Wagner, 23, had a 77-year-old patient who one day asked the girl to "end her suffering."  Wagner hesitatingly obliged by overdosing the woman with morphine.  It was then that she discovered she enjoyed this kind of power, and it didn't take much to recruit accomplices from the night shift.  Maria Gruber, 19, was happy to join.  So was Ilene Leidolf, 21.  The third recruit was a grandmother, 43-year-old Stephanija Mayer.

Wagner was the "death pavilion" leader, and they planned the murders as a group.  She taught the others how to give lethal injections, and she added some fatal mechanisms of her own creation.  The "water cure" involved holding a patient's nose while forcing him or her to drink.  That was an agonizing death that filled the lungs, but undiscoverable as outright murder.  Many elderly patients had fluid in their lungs.

Moving from compassion to sadism, the women took out patients who merely annoyed them by soiling sheets or asking for help too often.  Such people were issued their "tickets to God."

At first, these nurses killed sporadically, but by 1987, they were escalating.  Rumors began to spread that there was a killer on Pavilion 5.       

It was their own carelessness that finally stopped them.  Over drinks one day, they relived one of their latest cases, laughing over the patient's distress and the fact that she deserved her fate.  At a table nearby sat a doctor.  What he overheard sent him scurrying to the police station, and they quickly launched an investigation.  It took six weeks, but all four women were arrested on April 7, 1989.  The doctor in charge of their ward was suspended.

Collectively they confessed to 49 murders, and Wagner took credit for giving a "free bed with the good Lord" to 39 of them.  She had decided that their deaths were long overdue, and she reveled in the fact that the power over their lives rested with her.  However, one of her accomplices believed that Wagner's death count was closer to 200 in just the past two years.

As she sat in prison awaiting trial, Wagner scaled her culpability back to ten murders, all of them for reasons of mercy.

The jury didn't buy it.  Ultimately, Wagner was convicted of 15 murders, 17 attempts, and two counts of assault.  She was sentenced to life in prison.  Leidolf got life as well, on conviction of five murders, while the other two drew fifteen years for manslaughter and attempted murder charges.

As the state attorney put it, "It's a small step from killing the terminally ill to the killing of insolent, burdensome patients, and from there to that which was known under the Third Reich as euthanasia.  It is a door that must never be opened again."

And yet it has been opened again and again.  And not all the nurses are female.

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