Harold Fredrick Shipman (1946-2004) also known as DR. Death was an English general physician and one of the most prolific serial murderers in modern history. On January 31st, 2000, Shipman was convicted for 15 murders of his patients where his total victims are believed to be around 250. He was sent to prison for life without bail where he committed suicide in January 2004. According to an investigation on Shipman’s crime, there was a total of 218 victims that identified where 80% were elderly women (Real Stories, 2019). Born on 14th January 1846 in Nottinghamshire England, Shipman the second born out of the three children of Harold Shipman, a truck driver, and Vera Brittan. At a young age, Dr. Death was an excellent rugby player and later the athletics team’s vice-captain. When Shipman was 17 years old, his mother whom he had a close relationship with, died of lung cancer. How her mother died was similar to what later became Dr. Death’s modus operandi (Real Stories, 2017). When his mother was in her later stages of cancer, her doctor administered morphine to her at home, and Shipman witnessed the pain his mother was undergoing subside until she died in 1963.
He studied medicine at the University and after graduation in 1970, he worked at an infirmary and later become a General Practitioner. Shipman married Primrose May Oxtoby in 1966 and they had four children (Real Stories, 2019). One year working as a GP at the Abraham Ormerod Medical Center, he was caught forging his prescriptions of Demerol and was sent to rehabilitation. In 1993, he started his surgery after working as a GP for over 10years and had gained people’s trust for being an excellent doctor. In 1999, Dr. Linda complained to John Pollard about the high death rate among Shipman’s patients (Real Stories, 2019). Police started an investigation on the large numbers of cremation forms for aged women but the case was closed for lack of evidence until three more death occurred and a taxi driver reported his suspicion of Shipman killing 21 patients. According to John Shaw, the taxi driver, the many elderly patients that he took to Dr. Shipman seem to be in good health, but they died under his care. The investigation began after Shipmen killed his last victim and forged her will by making himself the sole beneficially, which led to the imprisonment of the accused (Real Stories, 2017).
Social Bond Theory
The social Bond Theory, which was later developed as Social Control Theory by Travis Hirschi assumes that people have a natural inclination to delinquency. According to the theory, conformity is created by social control. He distinguished four various types of social bonds and their effects on social control that included commitment to the accepted social norms and institutions, involvement in activities, attachment to family, and belief that these things are critical. The theory states that the stronger the levels of social control and the deeper the link of social bond are, the more likely individuals are to act according to standards (Rebellon & Anskat, 2018).
Attachment is the degree of values and norms that a person holds in society and it is crucial when it comes to parental figures. School is one attachment described in the theory as it plays a significant role in conventional society. Students in the middle class seem to demoralize those in the lower classes where the treatment comes from the institution through the teacher. A person starts to resent school and may later drop out. The values and norms installed in children are supposed to help us obey how society functions in normal conditions (Rebellon et al., 2018). The parental bond should be strong enough to make a blueprint of the whole adult life on the child.
The choices a person made are mainly based on his/her knowledge of what is right and wrong. Hirschi believed that when the social bond is broken or is weak, a person tends to behave abnormally. Family attachments are primary and they are used to shape how an individual is committed to activities, their social life, and social location. For a criminal, the theory explains that if he belongs to a weakened group, they depend less on the group, and consequently, they depend more on himself where he does not recognize any other rule of behaviour except what is formed on his private interest (Rebellon et al., 2018).
General Strain Theory (Agnew)
General Strain theory by Robert Agnew is based on three different aspects that include lack of achieving a goal, presence of destructive impulses, and the elimination of positive impulses. Stress leads to negative emotions like depression or anger that promote delinquent traits that lack enough coping skills. Agnew states that the three reasons that cause deviance that produces strain include lack of attaining a goal (good grades), removal of positive impulses (e.g., breakup or death of a parent), and the existence of dangerous impulses (e.g., school challenges) (Bishopp et al., 2018). Strain may happen in all layers of the population and can lead to criminal activities. Agnew stated that crime is caused by strain, the difference between a person’s aspirations and their real means of getting their goals. When a person is not able to attain their aspirations through legal ways, they end up resulting in the illegal means to attain their aims (Bishopp et al., 2018).
Agnew assumes that stress can cause negative emotions such as violent behaviours or depression, which are conducive to different delinquent traits if there are no enough coping skills. The reason why some people react to negative emotions with norm-compliant and others with a criminal trait is the lack of coping skills like creativity, problem-solving skills, and intelligence. Additionally, negative aspects like a criminal character or environment hurt dealing with stress. Also, social inequalities that exist in a community cause higher pressure on a disadvantaged person and hence an added likelihood of becoming a criminal. The loss of positive stimuli and the experience of negative stimuli are key changes in a person’s social environment or can be strengthened or barred by it (Bishopp et al., 2018).
Application of Social Bond Theory in The Documentary of Dr. Death
Dr. Death had very few or no friends and he could be aggressive, arrogant, and conceited. He disliked any person that he considered to be of his intellectual inferior. The arrogance and the overconfidence that Shipman had are a mask for his poor self-esteem. The lack of close friends describes that Shipman lacked commitment to social norms and institutions. It is wrong to look down on others especially those that are less unfortunate and to be arrogant (Morris, 2020). Shipman lacked the norms and values that should have enabled him to obey how society functions. Additionally, Shipman lacked the parental bond after the death of his mother with whom they had a close relationship (Real Stories, 2019). The lack of a strong bond with his parents made Shipman lack a blueprint for his entire life.
When he was young, Shipman saw his mother’s pain diminish being given a painkiller known as morphine. After he graduated and started working, Shipman became an addict to the same painkiller her mother took to a point he was heavily fined by the institution and taken to rehabilitation. According to Hirschi, the choices made by an individual are determined by his knowledge about what is “right” and what is “wrong”(Rebellon et al., 2018). Since he was a teenager, an image of the “right” thing was instilled in her mind when he saw her mother’s pain lessening (Rebellon et al., 2018).
The fact that he took the morphine or used it to kill his patients is explained by Hirschi to be his understanding of right and wrong. Shipman lacked a strong social bond with his family and friends, he was not close to other doctors either. The social life that he led, of lying and killing, according to the Social Bond theory is caused by the lack of attachment and weak bonds. His private interests were to help his patients as his mother was helped by her doctor, and due to coming from a group with weak social bonds, Shipman had no one to rely on and thus ended becoming a chain killer (Morris, 2020).
Application of General Strain Theory (Agnew) In the Documentary of Dr. Death
As mentioned, Agnew proposed that different types of strain caused the individual to experience negative emotions like depression and anger (Bishopp et al., 2018). He mentioned that a crime happened when an individual sought criminal means to cope with their negative emotions. The negative emotions around Shipman mainly began after he saw his mother suffering from lung cancer. The death of her mother led to the removal of positive impulses as she was of value to him. The working environment around Shipman may be the cause of the existence of negative impulses (Morris, 2020). He works around aging women, just like her mother, most of which have terminal illnesses. To end their pain, in most cases, he has to administer morphine to them. The working environment makes Shipman relive his experience with his mother (Morris, 2020). Shipman killed most of the victims at their homes rather than in a hospital. This illustrates that he was doing exactly what happened to his mother, which is caused by the existence of negative impulses (Bishopp et al., 2018).
Social inequality is also another reason that causes pressure on an individual and hence an added advantage of being a criminal. Shipman was also acquisitive and was taking a fancy on his victims’ properties. For an instant, he asked the family of Mrs. Margaret Conway, one of his victims for their auntie’s budgerigar where the request was not granted (Real Stories, 2017). She also lied to Mrs. Joan Sellars, the niece of another of his victim, that it was the will of their auntie for him to have her antique bench. Having a terminally ill mother and his father being a truck driver with three children, it must be hard when he was growing up, making him aim for more money to an extent of forging his victim’s will. According to Agnew, failure to attain a goal, which in our case is financial and having a complete family with his mother, might have led to Shipman killing his patients (Bishopp et al., 2018).
Comparing and Contrasting the Two Theories
The two theories offer somewhat similar explanations for the Shipman killings. The two theories focus on a person’s attachment and environment. According to the two theories, a person becomes a criminal if they lose control of themselves, which is similar to lacking understanding of what is wrong and right. This is caused by a trigger or a strain, which weakens the attachment bond or leads to a negative impulse. In both theories, the triggers are negative and experienced at a younger age such as the death of a parent (Morris, 2020).
One weakness of the social bond theory is that the notion that a person’s social bond changes in the course of their life making them keep building them back up again. According to this idea, the theory does not hold as when a person grows up, he becomes stronger emotionally, and things that happened earlier on becomes trivial. Its strength is that it is simple and the actual application of the social bond may lead to less delinquency happening among youths. The strength of the General strain theory is that it can consider how the structural arrangement and cultural beliefs work (Bishopp et al., 2018). Its weakness is that it mainly focuses on the lower- and middle-class people in the society.
The reason why Shipman was gentle and friendly to his victims is one of the details that cannot be explained by either theory. Many patients stated that Dr. shipman had great bedtime manners as he would visit them and tease them gently (Morris, 2020). This made the patients feel that he was a real friend a caring doctor. He was also blunt when takin to his patients for an instance, he once told a family of one of his victims that they should not buy him any Easter eggs as he would not make it that far, where he killed the victim four days later (Real Stories, 2019).
Bishopp, S. A., Leeper Piquero, N., Worrall, J. L., & Piquero, A. R. (2018). Negative affective responses to stress among urban police officers: A general strain theory approach. Deviant Behavior, 1-20.
Morris, L. (2020). Timeline of Harold Shipman’s crimes – the true story behind the killer. https://www.radiotimes.com/tv/documentaries/true-crime/harold-shipman-true-story-the-shipman-files-bbc/
Rebellon, C. J., & Anskat, P. (2018). Crime, deviance, and social control: Travis Hirschi and his legacy. The handbook of the history and philosophy of criminology, 189-206.
Real Stories. (2018). True Crime Story: Dr. Death – Britain’s Biggest Serial Killer (Crime Documentary) | Real Stories. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-KVuVjmjmU
Real Stories. (2019). Harold Shipman: Doctor Death Who Killed 250 Patients (Crime Documentary) | Real Stories. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_L0M-nZHXY
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