5 Of The Most Prolific “Angel Of Death” Serial Killers

These killers devoted their careers to saving lives, but chose to taken them instead.

It’s safe to assume that most people that go into medicine as a career path are interested in taking care of people. Part of the Hippocratic Oath is vowing to treat the sick to the best of one’s ability—but not everyone takes that duty seriously. An “Angel of death” or “Angel of mercy” is a type of criminal offender (often a type of serial killer) who is usually employed as a caregiver and intentionally harms or kills people under their care. Some believe they are helping elderly or sick patients cross to the other side peacefully, but it’s not uncommon for these offenders to target people who would have made a full recovery. Since most Angel of Death killers use injections of common medications found in hospitals and target victims that are already ill, they manage to slip under the radar for a long time before anyone gets suspicious. Here are five of the most prolific Angel of Death serial killers in history.

Charles Cullen
Charles Cullen was a nurse who killed by administering lethal overdoses of medications such as insulin, digoxin and epinephrine to patients. His first murder was in 1988 and he continued to kill for the next 15 years until he was arrested in 2003. After his arrest, he claimed he killed to prevent patients from suffering and “being dehumanized by the hospital personnel”, but many of his patients were on track to make a full recovery before he murdered them.

During Cullen’s long nursing career, numerous colleagues suspected him of murder but hospitals chose to fire him or ask him to resign rather than contact the police. Because of this and a national nursing shortage, Cullen continued to find work—and continued to kill. Although criminal prosecution wouldn’t happen for years, Cullen had a reputation in the industry and in some cases, nurses would band together and threaten to quit en masse if Cullen was hired. Cullen eventually confessed to murdering up to 40 patients but authorities believe he may actually be responsible for hundreds more. He was sentenced to life in prison eleven times over and as part of his plea deal, is still working with authorities to identify more of his murder victims.

Harold Shipman
Harold Shipman holds the distinction of being the only doctor in Britain’s history to be convicted of murdering his own patients. He was found guilty of 15 counts of murder but authorities believe he killed closer to 250, the majority of them elderly women. It took reports from multiple people, including the daughter of one of Shipman’s patients who believed he had falsified her mother’s will, to finally lead to Shipman’s arrest in 1998—over 20 years after he first started killing.

Shipman’s pattern involved giving elderly patients lethal doses of diamorphine, signing their death certificates and then forging their medical records to make it seem like they had been in poor health to avoid suspicion and autopsies. Even after his conviction, Shipman never admitted his guilt. He committed suicide in prison in 2004 only four years into his life sentence. The Shipman Inquiry, a two-year long investigation of all deaths certified by Shipman led to a number of changes to standard medical procedures in the UK including drug dispensing and death certification practices.

Orville Majors
Although he was considered one of the most popular nurses at Vermillion County Hospital in Indiana, Orville Majors began to attract suspicion because of the obvious rise in death rates during his shifts. At first his co-workers joked about what they thought was a morbid coincidence, but one nurse took it seriously enough to look into it and discovered that Majors had been on duty for 130 out of 147 deaths between 1993 and 1995. Relatives of multiple patients reported Majors giving injections moments before their loved ones died and an investigation determined that a patient was 42 times more likely to die if Majors was on duty.

The bodies of 15 former patients were exhumed to confirm they were murdered by a potassium overdose and Majors was arrested in 1997. Majors was adamant that he was innocent and even appeared on talk shows to discuss the case. Although prosecutors believed he was guilty of at least 100 murders, they chose to charge him with just seven. Majors was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

Jane Toppan
Nicknamed “Jolly Jane”, Jane Toppan was a nurse in the late 1800s to early 1900s who, after she was caught, claimed her goal was “to kill more people—helpless people—than any other man or woman who ever lived”. As a hospital nurse, Toppan started experimenting with morphine and atropine on her elderly patients, changing prescribed dosages to see what happened. After being fired from multiple hospitals, she found work as a private nurse and began poisoning people without prejudice. It wasn’t until a family member demanded a toxicology exam on one of Toppan’s victims that people started to catch on that she was poisoning people. By1902, Toppan had confessed to 31 murders.

At trial, Toppan insisted that she was sane and knew exactly what she was doing, but she was still found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to an asylum for life. Considered an “angel of death” because of her occupation and choice of victim, Toppan also poisoned people she wasn’t taking care of and even poisoned herself in an attempt to garner sympathy from men who were courting her.

Donald Harvey
Donald Harvey was 35 years old and had been killing for 17 years by the time he finally became a person of interest in the death of a coma patient at a hospital he worked at as an orderly. An autopsy found that the patient in question had lethal amounts of cyanide in his system and Harvey was brought in for questioning where he claimed he had “euthanized” the patient. A local news anchor at a station in Cincinnati took it upon himself to investigate Harvey further and spoke to several nurses who reported evidence that Harvey had killed many more people.

Harvey claimed he killed out of empathy for the terminally ill but also admitted he killed some—including his neighbour and his significant other’s father—simple because he was angry at them. He used a wide range of methods including arsenic, cyanide, insulin, suffocation, morphine, and fluids tainted with hepatitis B and HIV. Rather than face the death penalty, Harvey took a plea deal of life imprisonment in exchange for confessing to all his murders. He ultimately plead guilty to 37 murders but claims to have killed up to 50. He was murdered in prison by another inmate in 2017.

Courtney Hardwick

Courtney Hardwick is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared on AmongMen.com, 29secrets.com, therichest.com, and ELLECanada.com.  When she isn’t writing about relationships, and the best TV shows and books you should really already know about, she is working on her novel. She hopes to have it published by 2025. You can follow her on Twitter @Courtooo.

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