The dark side of medicine: 5 doctors who became serial killers

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published October 22, 2019

Key Takeaways

Do doctors make the best serial killers? Maybe so. Doctors have expert knowledge of the frailties of the human body. They have access to any number of deadly instruments and poisonous medicines. And some have egos that are fed by their feelings of power over life and death.

Fortunately, most doctors have the greatest level of compassion and the strongest desire to cure, not kill. But, in any bunch, there's always a bad apple or two. They simply can't help themselves. Murder is a calling even stronger than medicine.

"I was born with the devil in me," said physician and serial killer H.H. Holmes. "I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing."

Read on to learn more about the diabolical Dr. Holmes, as well as several of his murderous medical colleagues.

H.H. Holmes

One of America's first serial killers, Herman Mudgett—better known as Dr. H.H. Holmes—was born in New Hampshire in 1861. At a young age, he showed an interest in medicine by performing surgery on animals. As a medical student at the University of Michigan, he stole corpses from the medical school, and used them to make fraudulent insurance claims. He may have experimented on the bodies as well.

He moved to Chicago, IL, in 1885, and got a job at a pharmacy. In fear of being exposed by victims of his previous scams, Mudgett took up the alias Dr. Henry H. Holmes—and he eventually took over the pharmacy, after purportedly murdering the original owner and the owner's wife.

While living in Chicago, Dr. Holmes built a house specifically designed for murder, with secret passages, trapdoors, soundproof rooms, locked doors, and gas jets to suffocate his victims. He had a kiln in the basement to incinerate the bodies, though he sold some as cadavers to local medical schools.

During the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, Dr. Holmes lured his female victims from the fairgrounds to his "Murder Castle." He would seduce them with promises of marriage, then steal their life savings, and finally kill them in his house of horrors. When he was eventually caught in 1894 and sentenced to death, he confessed to 27 murders, although experts believe he may have killed as many as 200 people.

In 1896, Dr. Holmes was hanged for his crimes, and his "Murder Castle" was bought and repurposed as a tourist attraction. In a strange twist of events, the house of horrors burned to the ground shortly before opening.

His story was immortalized in the bestselling book The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair That Changed America, by Erik Larson, which is now in the works as a Hulu series produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese.

Michael Swango

Joseph Michael Swango, MD, graduated summa cum laude from college in 1979, fatally poisoned as many as 60 patients and colleagues between 1981 and 1997, and is now in a supermax prison serving three consecutive life terms without parole.

During his surgical internship at Ohio State University Medical Center, nurses took notice that a rising number of apparently healthy patients were dying suddenly. They reported their concerns to administrators; after a cursory investigation, however, Dr. Swango was cleared of any culpability in 1984. After his internship ended, he got a job as an EMT, but was arrested when several of his coworkers became violently ill due to poisoning—apparently, he spiked their coffees with arsenic—and was sent to prison for 5 years.

After his release, he eventually found work at a VA hospital in New York State. But, as before, patients began to die mysteriously. When the VA hospital discovered that he had lied on his application and that he had a poisoning conviction, he was immediately fired—and the FBI had him on its radar.

He fled the country to Zimbabwe in 1994, where he used forged documents to get a job at a mission hospital. Once again, his patients were dying under suspicious circumstances. In 1997, on a layover in Chicago, federal authorities arrested him for fraud. Convinced Dr. Swango was also a serial killer, investigators exhumed the bodies of three of his patients—all were found to have poisonous chemicals in them. Both US and Zimbabwean authorities charged him with multiple murders. He went on trial in the United States, during which prosecutors read excerpts from his notebook in which he described the joy he took in his crimes. Faced with the possibility of the death penalty in both countries, he pled guilty.

Harold Shipman

Everyone knows England's most famous serial killer, Jack the Ripper, but Dr. Harold Shipman ranks as Britain's most prolific serial killer, having murdered an estimated 250 people.

Dr. Shipman was a general practitioner in England who was well liked by his patients. But between 1975 and 1998, Dr. Shipman is known to have murdered at least 215 patients, most of whom were older women. He overdosed them with lethal injections of heroin, and he himself had a dependence on painkillers. According to court reports, he altered patient records to cover his murders. He also stole jewelry from his patients, and either forged their wills or had them sign over their estates to him. He received multiple life sentences for his heinous crimes, and hanged himself in his prison cell in 2004.

John Bodkin Adams

Dr. John Bodkin Adams, another British doctor, may have been the role model for Dr. Harold Shipman's killing spree. Between 1946 and 1956, more than 160 of his patients died suspicious deaths—132 of whom had put Dr. Adams in their wills before passing away. Although he was tried for the murder of one patient in 1957, he was never found guilty of that crime. The question still remains whether he had murdered his elderly victims or had taken it upon himself to euthanize them.

But Dr. Adams was no saint. A later trial found him guilty of 13 offenses, including prescription fraud, lying on cremation forms, obstructing a police search, and failing to keep a dangerous drugs register. He was stripped of his license, although it was later reinstated. He continued practicing medicine until he died of natural causes in 1983.

Linda Burfield Hazzard

Although trained as an osteopathic nurse, Dr. Linda Burfield Hazzard had no medical degree. But a legal loophole in the state of Washington allowed her to obtain a license to practice medicine—which, to her, meant starving patients to death.

She wrote a book in 1908, Fasting for the Cure of Disease—in which she asserted that minimal food consumption was the key to recovery from a range of illnesses—and also opened a "sanitarium" in Olalla, WA, where patients fasted days or weeks, surviving (or not) on a diet of mere spoonfuls of vegetable broth or juice. Many patients praised her abilities, though more than 40 of them died. In 1912, Dr. Hazzard was convicted of manslaughter for the death of a rich British woman who weighed less than 50 lbs when she died. During the trial, prosecutors revealed that Dr. Hazzard had forged the patient's will and had taken her jewelry and other valuables.

Dr. Hazzard was sentenced to up to 20 years of hard labor in prison but ended up serving only 2 years. In 1920, she returned to Olalla, where she opened another "sanitarium," and continued her therapy of fasting, until the institute burned to the ground in 1935. Falling ill in 1938, she took a dose of her own medicine—fasting—and died of starvation.

Yes, doctors excel at many things—and one of them is murder. If only these homicidal healers had remembered their Hippocratic Oath to "do no harm."

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter