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As the enduring popularity of Hannibal Lecter demonstrates, the public has a dreadful fascination with doctors gone bad. And no wonder—patients approach the medical profession from a position of incredible vulnerability. Your average citizen—who these days has come to regard his own body with the suspicion usually reserved for a poorly manufactured time bomb—places immense reliance on the medical tribe, if only because he has no choice. He may trust a nonprofessional to service his Subaru, but not his spleen. And once dire necessity has delivered him into the hands of modernity’s version of the medieval barber, what does he face? Somebody whose specialized medical training has provided a veritable arsenal of murder weapons, as well as the know-how to employ them without attracting undue suspicion. As Sherlock Holmes says in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” “When a doctor goes wrong, he is first of criminals. He has the nerve and he has the knowledge…” Small wonder, then, that we find the notion of a physician’s casually snuffing out life so unnerving.
But Kenneth V. Iserson’s Demon Doctors: Physicians as Serial Killers, despite its ominous title, hardly points to an epidemic of killers in white coats. Although all of the historical cases recounted within involve medical professionals of some sort, few of them serially dispatched patients. Some of these murderous M.D.s didn’t practice medicine at all. And only one of the cases in Iserson’s book—that of England’s Harold Frederick Shipman, MBChB, the “Dr. Jekyll of Hyde”—involves a modern-day medical doctor who serially murdered his own patients. Most involve nonpracticing physicians whose victims were not under their medical care.
Chicago’s “versatile butcher” Dr. Herman Webster Mudgett, alias Dr. H.H. Holmes, for example, is suspected of having killed more than 150 people during his career in homicide, toward the close of the 19th century. But most of them were young female stenographers (or “typewriters” as they were then called) whom he had lured to work in his various nonmedical businesses; not one was a patient. Indeed, aside from some occasional pharmacy work—which proved quite useful when it came time to perform the odd poisoning—Holmes seems never to have practiced medicine at all.
If these figures suggest a subtle bait-and-switch, Iserson, who in addition to writing numerous books practices emergency medicine and is medical director of southern Arizona’s major search-and-rescue operation, nonetheless delivers the requisite chills. Demon Doctors is worth checking out, if only for the chapters on Holmes; diabolical prostitute-poisoner Dr. Thomas Neill Cream; Paris’ “Vampire of the rue Le Sueur,” Marcel Andre Petiot; and William Palmer, M.D., the “first of the Victorian doctor-poisoners.” Nor will you want to skip the chapter on Linda Burfield Hazzard, D.O., the self-described “starvation therapist” who (unlike plenty of therapists) actually delivered on the goods, starving scores of her patients to nirvana at her “sanitarium” outside Seattle in the early decades of the 20th century. (Her book Scientific Fasting: The Ancient and Modern Key to Health can still be purchased on Amazon.com: the perfect gift for that person standing between you and a hefty inheritance.) Let’s face it—with a ghoulish line-up like this, your true-crime aficionado can hardly go wrong.
Several of the stories are nothing short of unbelievable. Holmes/Mudgett, whom Iserson labels the “greatest serial killer in U.S. history,” was almost certainly also the most systematic, going so far as to build his very own “Murder Castle” on the south side of Chicago in the late 1880s. With its more than 100 rooms (many of which were airtight, soundproofed, and equipped with gas pipes, enabling the doctor to either kill or stun their occupants), specially designed “greased chutes” leading to a cavernous cellar torture chamber/crematorium, and numerous “secret passages, concealed staircases, false walls and ceilings,” the building was something straight out of a horror movie.
Holmes—who murdered scores of mistresses but spared his three wives—was a con man extraordinaire, smooth-talking and persuasive. Unlike your average con man, however, he thought nothing of killing to achieve his ends. Nor was he above stooping to the occasional act of (dis)honest toil, such as selling the skeletons of favored victims to medical schools to make the odd dollar. It was in such a manner that one of his mistresses, former Gibson girl Julia Smythe Conner, ended her days as an anatomical exhibit in the home office of one Dr. Pauling, who would no doubt have been discomfited to know its grisly origins.
In addition to being a murdering con man and sadist, Holmes also seems to have been a bit—well, mad. One of the features of his subterranean torture chamber was what he called an “elasticity determinator,” a racklike device “that he claimed could stretch his victims to twice their normal length. In his mind he could thereby produce a race of human giants.” And in a “confession” commissioned for William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers, Holmes wrote: “My head and face are gradually assuming an elongated shape. I believe fully that I am growing to resemble the devil—that the similitude is almost completed.”
Fortunately, Holmes finally fell afoul of the law after murdering a longtime accomplice, the lugubrious-looking Benjamin F. Pitezel, as part of a convoluted life-insurance scam. After catching up to Holmes in his hometown in New Hampshire, to which he’d returned to the amazement of a family who’d believed him long dead (he fed them a cockamamie story involving a robbery, a head injury, and amnesia), the authorities finally launched him into eternity via the gallows at Philadelphia’s Moyamensing Prison. His final words to the hangman were “Take your time. You know I am in no hurry.”
More frightening in its way—if only because her victim-patients blindly followed her prescription unto death—is the case of that out-of-control osteopath Hazzard. Her regimen for health—which involved “rigid prolonged fasts, frequent enemas, and pseudo-osteopathic manipulations, in which she severely pounded her patients’ backs, heads, and foreheads” is reminiscent of those described by T. Coraghessan Boyle in his novel about the famous Kellogg sanitarium, The Road to Wellville. However, most of Kellogg’s patients survived their treatment. Hazzard’s, on the other hand, had the frequent and unnerving habit of dying; such negative outcomes were, in Hazzard’s expert opinion, “inevitable.” Her “fast cures” often lasted as long as 50 days; when one patient, Dora Williamson, was “wrested” from Hazzard’s care, she weighed 50 pounds. Upon liberating poor Dora, her horrified rescuers were presented with a bill of “$2,000 (about $36,000 in 2002)”—Hazzard’s charge for her “treatment.”
Even more frightening is the fact that Hazzard continued to practice her deadly brand of therapy in the United States until her death, in 1938, despite revocation of her license to practice, several arrests, and a two-year stint of hard labor at Washington’s state penitentiary in Walla Walla following a conviction for manslaughter. (She was pardoned after promising to leave the country; she spent several years practicing in New Zealand before returning to Washington State.)
But Iserson distorts the book’s focus by including separate chapters on the physicians in the Japanese army’s so-called Unit 731, which performed horrifying and deadly experiments on hundreds of thousands of innocents before and during World War II, and, incredibly, the so-called Russian doctors’ plots of the ’30s and ’50s. The chapter on Unit 731 conflates individual serial killers with state-sanctioned murder—a case of mixing Mudgetts and Mengeles if there ever was one. (Speaking of Mengele, if you’re wondering why Iserson doesn’t provide a chapter on Nazi Germany’s better-known atrocities: It turns out he’s saving them for a sequel.)
And if Iserson’s inclusion of Unit 731 is off-topic, his discussion of the Russian doctors’ plots is simply inexplicable. Far from being “demon doctors,” the physicians involved weren’t even guilty of a crime—just a few more innocent victims swept up in the 30 Million Man, Woman, and Child March toward the mass graves filled by Joseph Stalin’s insatiable paranoia. Throw in the tediously pedestrian introductory and final chapters, which are padded with the kind of Serial Killer 101 knowledge familiar to anyone who’s ever watched The Silence of the Lambs, and you’ve got a book that’s in some serious need of a scalpel.
And, of course, Demon Doctors offers disappointingly little in the way of practical advice for eluding homicidal homeopaths. What does Iserson suggest? Avoid doctors with aliases, Japanese army surgeons, and crash diets. Then again, as the success of Lambs and its sequels proves, the last thing the American public is looking for is reassurance. Face it: There’s nothing like the possibility that your doc might be a knife-wielding cannibal to lend a little frisson to that next prostate examination. CP