5 True Crime Books About Nurses Who Killed Their Patients

Updated on November 7, 2018
Kim Bryan profile image

I'm a Tennessee-based freelance writer with a passion for true crime, a thirst for knowledge, and an obsession with lists.

1. Perfect Poison by M. William Phelps

Kristen Gilbert‘s marriage was stale. Her job as a nurse at the Veteran’s hospital in Northhampton, Massachusetts, was an escape and a place where she flourished – especially after she began an affair with James Perrault, a VA campus police officer.

Hospital policy required security personnel to be present at all medical emergencies, i.e. code blues, so looking back, it really comes as no surprise the number of personnel-assisted emergencies increased once Kristen and James became involved.

Perfect Poison by M. William Phelps
Perfect Poison by M. William Phelps | Source

Initially co-workers laughed off the seemingly bad luck attached to Kristen and patients but, within a short time, several colleagues grew concerned and presented their concerns to hospital administrators. They, in turn, dismissed the suspicions of Kristen’s fellow nurses.

Eventually, however, the number of deaths couldn’t be overlooked and family members of patients would demand answers about the death of their loved ones. When all was said and done, Kristen Gilbert would be considered in more than eighty deaths, divorced and without her children, dumped by her lover, and facing a federal death penalty.

The story this heartless killer nurse as told by M. William Phelps in Perfect Poison, is something that hits so close to home. Is there one of us that has not placed our care into the hands of someone who we trusted would ensure our safety and well-being, such as a nurse or doctor?

This was the case of many VAMC patients, and their families, who thought they were being treated for their (sometimes minor) ailments but instead died of sudden cardiac arrest as a result of epinephrine poisoning. And Gilbert was not discriminate in her victims as they ranged from their thirties to those well into their golden years.

The most fascinating aspect of this book is to see the clear evidence of psychosis in this young lady and to ponder how she was able to hide her insanity for thirty plus years.

2. The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder by Charles Graeber

Charles Cullen was considered to be somewhat odd by his colleagues in the nursing field but no one would have ever said he was evil. And his employers found Charles to be a God-send; he was willing to work shifts no one else wanted such as holidays, weekends, and nights.

The Good Nurse by Charles Graeber
The Good Nurse by Charles Graeber | Source

But strange things happened on Charles’ shifts. The code blues were sometimes triple in number on the shifts Charles worked compared to others and whispered rumors turned to questions and vague allegations. The hospitals couldn’t afford the public relations nightmares or lawsuits certain to be brought forth by these implications so facility after facility simply terminated Charles’ employment and sent him off, happy to have washed their hands of him and let the “issues” be someone else’s problem.

Yet as often happens with serial killers like Charles Cullen, his murders became more frequent and more sloppy until the overlooked becomes so obvious no one can deny what’s happening right under their noses.

But it doesn’t mean they won’t try.

Award winning journalist Charles Graeber chronicles the case of angel of death Charles Cullen in his 2013 book The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder. And when I say chronicles, I mean he provides every small details. The result? It’s fascinating from the very first sentence!

3. Fatal: The Poisonous Life of a Female Serial Killer by Harold Schechter

When Jane Toppan confessed to killing eleven people in 1901, she proclaimed her goal in life was “to have killed more people — helpless people — than any other man or woman who ever lived…”

Fatal by Harold Schechter
Fatal by Harold Schechter | Source

Orphaned and adopted by those to whom she was an indentured servant, when Jane reached the age of majority she began training as a nurse at Cambridge Hospital. During her residency, Jane began experimenting on her patients who had been prescribed morphine and atropine by altering their doses to study the effects. It’s unknown whether Jane had sex with any of her patients during their altered states, but she later told police she experienced a sexual thrill during her “experiments.” Many times, Jane claimed, she gave her patients a lethal dose and climbed into bed with them, holding their heads to her chest as they died.

With her training complete in 1889, Jane was recommended for a nursing position at the prestigious Massachusetts General Hospital. She would claim several more victims before her termination the following year.

Jobless, Jane tucked tail and briefly returned to Cambridge but was fired within a short time for recklessly prescribing opiates. Jane then took to private nursing and, despite several complaints of petty theft from her patients, her business flourished. With little to no supervision as a private nurse, Jane was free to begin killing in earnest.

Harold Schechter is a historian of true crime and his stories are always fascinating, Fatal included.

4. The Death Shift: Nurse Genene Jones and the Texas Baby Murders by Peter Elkind

It was the late 1970s in Bexar County, Texas and babies were dying at alarming rate in the pediatric intensive care unit at the Bexar County Hospital. Something was terribly wrong and there had been rumors one of the unit's nurses might have a hand in these strange occurrences but the hospital financially couldn't support a lawsuit from grieving parents. Instead they asked the entire nursing staff of the unit to resign, including the nurse subject of the aforesaid rumors: Genene Anne Jones.

The Death Shift by Peter Elkind
The Death Shift by Peter Elkind | Source

Genene Jones soon found a new position with a sole practitioner pediatric office in Kerrville. Everything seemed to be going well; that is, until 15 month old Chelsea McClellan was brought in to the clinic for routine immunizations in the summer of 1982.

Petti McClellan would testify later about the events of the day her infant daughter passed at Genene's trial, who was accused of murdering Chelsea with the muscle relaxant Succinylcholine which is also used to induce temporary paralysis. "She gave her her first shot in her left thigh and she immediately started gasping for air," said Petti McClellan. "[Genene Jones] gave her another one, and she immediately just went limp and quit breathing."

Little Chelsea's heart had stopped beating.

But an intense and heart-wrenching case of dead infants and a cold-blooded killer nurse had only just begun.

5. Angel of Death: Killer Nurse Beverly Allitt by John Askill

For 59 days between February and April 1991, the pediatric ward at Grantham and Kesteven Hospital in Lincolnshire, England was under attack. A total of 13 child would be overdosed with insulin; four would die as a result.

Angel of Death by John Askill
Angel of Death by John Askill | Source

Autopsies on the young victims revealed the homicides and an investigation led to the arrest of State Enrolled nurse Beverley Allitt.

Beverley's motives have never been fully explained. According to one theory, she showed symptoms of the factitious disorder, also known as Münchausen Syndrome or Münchausen Syndrome by Proxy which may explain her actions. Some, however, declare she's simply evil.

Readers are invited to form their own opinions in the book Angel of Death; The Beverley Allitt Story by John Askill with a treasure trove of about the life of British killer nurse. It's a well-researched piece of work that is extremely difficult to put down.

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Kim Bryan


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