Angel of mercy (criminology)

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An angel of mercy or angel of death 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.[1][2][3] The angel of mercy is often in a position of power and may decide the victim would be better off if they no longer suffered from whatever severe illness is plaguing them. This person then uses their knowledge to kill the victim. In some cases, as time goes on, this behavior escalates to encompass the healthy and the easily treated.[1][2][3]

Characteristics and motivations[edit]

The motivation for this type of criminal is variable, but generally falls into one or more types or patterns:[4]

  • Mercy killer: Believe the victims are suffering or beyond help, though this belief may be delusional.
  • Sadistic: Use their position as a way of exerting power and control over helpless victims.
  • Malignant hero: A pattern wherein the subject endangers the victim's life in some way and then proceeds to "save" them. Some feign attempting resuscitation, all the while knowing their victim is already dead and beyond help, but hope to be seen as selflessly making an effort.

In the medical field[edit]

Some people with a pathological interest in the power of life and death can be attracted to medical or related professions.[5][6][7][8] Killers who occupy the role of a professional carer are sometimes referred to as "angels of death"[3] or angels of mercy. In this role they may kill their patients for money, for a sense of sadistic pleasure, for a belief that they are "easing" the patient's pain, or simply "because they can".[9] In some cases the killer claims the motive is euthanasia when it is not,[10] the difference is that a serial killer lacks a sense of compassion towards the patient which is expected in situations of euthanasia.[11] Most murders committed by nurses are performed by lethal injection.[12] The typical medical professional who murders kills two patients each month.[13] A 2011 study of characterizing 70 female serial killers found that 30% of the offenders were nurses.[14]

One such killer was nurse Jane Toppan, who admitted during her murder trial that she was sexually aroused by death. She would administer a drug mixture to patients she chose as her victims, lie in bed with them and hold them close to her body as they died. Another example is Harold Shipman, an English family doctor, who made it appear that his victims died of natural causes (disease). Between 1975 and 1998, he murdered at least 215 patients; he is suspected of having murdered 250 people.[15] Dr. John Bodkin Adams, meanwhile, though acquitted in 1957 of the murder of one patient, is believed to have killed around 163 patients in Eastbourne, England.[16]

An example of a malignant hero serial killer was Richard Angelo, who was called the "angel of death", or angel of mercy. Angelo devised a plan where he would inject the patient with drugs, then rush into the room and attempt to "save" the patient so that he could be a hero to the patient's family.[9] This motive of excitement from inducing a health crisis for the patient has recently been labeled as a professional version of Münchausen syndrome by proxy, a type of factitious disorder.[17] Richard Angelo confessed to killing 25 of his patients.[9]

A number of medical murderers were involved in fraud. For example, H. H. Holmes was often involved in insurance scams and confidence tricks.[18] Harold Shipman had a previous conviction for prescription fraud and forgery, for which he was fined £600.[19]

More known "Angels of Death" include:

There is concern that legalized euthanasia could enable serial killers, who could use euthanasia to mask murderous motives.[20] Concern over this possibility could fuel mistrust of palliative care practitioners among the general public,[21] and mistrust of government agencies to properly oversee nursing homes.[22]

In popular culture[edit]

The two spinster aunts in Joseph Kesselring's play Arsenic and Old Lace act as angels of mercy for lonely old men, poisoning them with elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine and cyanide.[23]

The character Annie Wilkes in the Stephen King novel Misery seems to be a serial killer of this type.[24] Additionally, "angel of mercy" is mentioned in Agatha Christie's novel By the Pricking of My Thumbs. The novel The 5th Horseman in James Patterson's Women's Murder Club series features an "Angel of Mercy" serial killer. The term is also mentioned in a Fear Factory song "Demanufacture".[citation needed]

In the television series Dexter, Dexter Morgan's first kill is his father's nurse, an angel of mercy, who worked in the fictional Angel of Mercy Hospital.

In season 1, episode 5 of the television series Elementary, "Lesser Evils", Sherlock Holmes solves a series of angel of death murders at a hospital, revealed to be the work of the janitor, himself an ex-doctor.[citation needed]

In season 3, episode 7 of the television series Lie to Me, " Veronica", Dr. Lightman helps a woman with early-onset Alzheimer's disease uncover a traumatic memory from her past, and in the process discovers that there may be an "angel of death" working in her health care facility.[citation needed]

British soap opera Hollyoaks featured a storyline of the "gloved hand killer" featuring Lindsey Butterfield a seemingly hardworking and kind doctor who crumbled under the pressure to be in control. She administered potassium chloride injections to patients to render heart attacks and cover her tracks. She killed seven people and attempted to kill three more, and attempted to kill her younger sister as a young girl.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Vronsky (2007), pp. 1, 42-43
  2. ^ a b Schechter and Everitt, p. 312
  3. ^ a b c "Angels of Death". Crime Library. Archived from the original on 18 December 2008. Retrieved 30 December 2008.
  4. ^ Andresen, BD.; Alcaraz, A.; Grant, PM. (January 2005). "The application of pancuronium bromide (Pavulon) forensic analyses to tissue samples from an "Angel of Death" investigation". Journal of Forensic Sciences. 50 (1): 215–219. doi:10.1520/JFS2003353. PMID 15831022.
  5. ^ Sitpond
  6. ^ Whittle and Ritchie
  7. ^ Linedecker
  8. ^ Hickey (1997), p. 142
  9. ^ a b c Holmes, Ronald, & Holmes, Stephen. (2009). Serial murder. Sage Publications, Inc.
  10. ^ Tilley, E; Devion, C; Coghlan, AL; McCarthy, K; Goy, Elizabeth; Cleary, James (December 13, 2005). "A regulatory response to healthcare serial killing". Journal of Nursing. 10 (1): 4–14. doi:10.1016/S2155-8256(19)30077-8. Retrieved September 18, 2019. and Field, John (October 2007). "Chapter 5". Caring to Death: a discursive analysis of nurses who murder patients (PDF) (Ph.D. thesis). University of Adelaide. Retrieved September 18, 2019.
  11. ^ Field, John (October 2007). "Chapter 6". Caring to Death: a discursive analysis of nurses who murder patients (PDF) (Ph.D. thesis). University of Adelaide. Retrieved September 18, 2019.
  12. ^ Field, John (October 2007). "Chapter 9". Caring to Death: a discursive analysis of nurses who murder patients (PDF) (Ph.D. thesis). University of Adelaide. Retrieved September 18, 2019.
  13. ^ Fox, James Allen; Levin, Jack A.; Quinet, Kenna (March 22, 2018). Will to Kill, The: Making Sense of Senseless Murder, 5th Edition. Newbury Park, California: SAGE Publications. p. 308. ISBN 1506365965.
  14. ^ Maras, Rhianna L. (2014). "Chapter 2: Review of Literature". A Feminist Re-Reading of U.S. Media Depictions of Women Murderers (PDF) (M.A. thesis). San Diego State University. Retrieved September 19, 2019.
  15. ^ "Shipman's 215 victims". BBC News. 2004-01-13. Archived from the original on 2008-09-22. Retrieved 2008-09-24.
  16. ^ Cullen, Pamela (2004). A Stranger in Blood The Story of Dr Bodkin Adams. ISBN 978-1-904027-19-5.
  17. ^ Yorker, B., Kizer, K., Lampe, P., Forrest, A., Lannan, J., & Russell, D. (2006). "Serial Murder by Healthcare Professionals". Journal of Forensic Sciences, 51(6), 1362-1371.
  18. ^ Archived February 1, 2010, at WebCite
  19. ^ Bunyan, Nigel (2001-06-16). "The Killing Fields of Harold Shipman". The Daily Telegraph. London.
  20. ^ Field, John (October 2007). "Chapter 5". Caring to Death: a discursive analysis of nurses who murder patients (PDF) (Ph.D. thesis). University of Adelaide. Retrieved September 18, 2019.
  21. ^ Cohen, Lewis; Ganzini, Linda; Mitchell, Christine; Arons, Stephen; Goy, Elizabeth; Cleary, James (December 13, 2005). "Accusations of Murder and Euthanasia in End-of-Life Care" (PDF). Journal of Palliative Medicine. 8 (6): 1096–1104. doi:10.1089/jpm.2005.8.1096. Retrieved September 18, 2019.
  22. ^ Field, John (October 2007). "Chapter 8". Caring to Death: a discursive analysis of nurses who murder patients (PDF) (Ph.D. thesis). University of Adelaide. Retrieved September 18, 2019.
  23. ^ Wolf, Matt (2003-02-28). "Arsenic and Old Lace". Variety. Retrieved 2017-10-04.
  24. ^ STABINER, KAREN (1987-05-10). "Best Seller Preview : The Misery of Stephen King". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved 2017-10-04.