Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Angels of Death: The Doctors

Motives: Part 1

Killers in the medical profession seem especially heinous because while they take an oath to do everything in their power to keep someone alive, they tend to see their patients as guinea pigs. Their motive for becoming doctors seems to be more about power, control, and gain than about healing and helping. Victims are readily available and it's not that difficult to cover up certain types of murders in a major hospital, especially if the patients are elderly or have a serious illness. What's one more injection?

While nurses tend to be mercy killers, that's been true of few doctors. Some of the more mundane motives include:

  1. Heroism: They find a way to turn a medical case into a dramatic emergency in which they play the lead role. Even if the person dies, they appeared to try as hard as they could to be the rescuer, which wins accolades from colleagues and staff.
  2. Marcel Petiot
    Marcel Petiot
    Misplaced compassion: Dr. John Bodkins Adams was charged with 21 counts of murder in 1957 when it was found that some forty of his elderly female patients had died under mysterious circumstances. While Adams was acquitted, it was clear that he had built up severe dependency in his patients of morphine or barbiturates as a way to "ease" the passage. He did not consider this to be murder.
  3. To cover up another crime: While it hasn't been proved that he actually molested them, oral surgeon Tony Protopappas fatally overdosed three young female patients, and all of them were attractive. Dr. Marcel Petiot, who was executed for murdering twenty-four people (though he claimed it was sixty-three), apparently did away with a girl in his employ who got pregnant. He also murdered wealthy Jewish patients in the 1940s with strychnine to get away with stealing their worldly goods.
    William Burke & William Hare
    William Burke & William Hare
  4. Harvey Hawley Crippen
    Harvey Hawley Crippen
    Murder by tacit consent: During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the medical establishment needed corpses to train students. It became a practice to rob fresh graves, and eventually when that activity became difficult, some people supplied the freshest of bodies by simply killing them. One such person was William Burke. Together with his partner William Hare, he would get his victims drunk and then either grab them from behind in an arm lock around the throat or sit on their chests while holding their nose and mouth closed. In nine months, these two managed to kill 16 people and then sold them one after another to the medical school in Edinburgh, Scotland, for an average of ten pounds. While physician Robert Knox noticed how fresh the corpses were and that they obviously had not been buried, he didn't ask questions. He just paid for the bodies. By doing so, he participated in murder---and got away with it.
  5. Domestic issues: Harvey Hawley Crippen killed his wife in England in 1910, in part to escape her domineering ways and in part because he was in love with his young secretary. One night he poisoned Belle, shot her in the head, dismembered her, and buried her parts in his cellar (or tossed some into the canal.) He told her friends that she had left him to join a lover in America, but a Scotland Yard inspector didn't buy it. He questioned the dentist, who subsequently fled, leaving his house available to the detective's search. Bell's parts were found and Crippen was caught, tried, and hanged.

Dr. Sam Sheppard
Dr. Sam Sheppard

Another case of domestic motives was Dr. Sam Sheppard, which dominated the news at various times from the 1950's, when the murder of his wife Marilyn occurred in the Cleveland area, to a couple of years ago. Handsome, athletic, and philandering Dr. Sheppard claimed that a bushy-haired intruder broke into his home, bludgeoned his pregnant wife to death and knocked him unconscious in two separate incidences, all without waking his young son and the family dog in a nearby bedroom. Police, judge and jury did not believe his incredible story and Sheppard went to prison. Given the prejudicial newspaper coverage at his trial, super lawyer F. Lee Bailey won Sheppard a second trial after which the doctor was acquitted. A sympathetic television series and movie called The Fugitive gave Dr. Sheppard an additional publicity boost. In the late 1990's, his son attempted to have the State of Ohio declare his late father innocent using the latest DNA techniques, but was unsuccessful. Many of the people involved in the original murder investigation, as well as many people in the Cleveland area where the murder occurred, believe that Sheppard was very guilty of murdering his wife so that he could then marry his girlfriend.

Much more disturbing are those motives that involve real pleasure in the killing, and for those we turn to the next list.

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