KENTUCKY (FOX 56) — “He just liked killing.”
Donald Harvey, known as “The Angel of Death” pled guilty to 37 total murders, but he admitted to killing around 70 individuals in total.
In 2001, Harvey was listed as the worst serial killer in U.S. history, ahead of the likes of John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy.
Harvey was born on April 15, 1952 in Hamilton Ohio but was raised in Booneville, Kentucky.
He was an intelligent child, earning A’s and B’s with relative ease at Booneville High School. It’s believed he just grew bored of his routine, leading to him dropping out of high school.
He moved to Cincinnati to work at a factory there, but when work began to slow down at the plant Harvey was laid off. He left to go visit his sick grandfather, who was being treated at Marymount Hospital in London… setting the stage for his journey to becoming a killer.
Marymount Hospital killings (1970-1971)
Harvey began working at the hospital as an orderly. His day-to-day duties involved changing bedpans, inserting catheters, and passing out medications.
Just a few months into his job, Harvey was working and went to check on a stroke victim when he claimed the patient rubbed feces in his face. Harvey reportedly grew angry and lost control of himself.
In a 1997 interview, Harvey said, “The next thing I knew, I’d smothered him,” he said. “It was like it was the last straw. I just lost it. I went in to help the man and he wants to rub that in my face.”
After that, Harvey cleaned up the patient and hopped into the shower before notifying the nurses.
Around three weeks later, Harvey disconnected an oxygen tank at an elderly woman’s bedside. He proceeded to kill more than a dozen patients in a year with a variety of drugs and even a plastic bag.
on March 31, 1971, things changed for Harvey. He was intoxicated and taken into custody in connection to a burglary. While inside he began talking incessantly about murders he had committed. Officers investigated his claims but found insubstantial evidence to charge him.
Harvey decided to move elsewhere after pleading guilty to petty theft and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. He served less than a year in the Air Force before he was discharged in March 1972.
A period of restraint (1972-1974)
After being discharged from the military, Harvey reportedly dealt with numerous bouts of depression, leading him to commit himself to the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center in Lexington.
He failed a suicide attempt and would receive 21 electroshock treatments before being released in October.
Harvey was said to have tried to rebuild his life in Lexington and found work as a nurses-aide at Cardinal Hill Hospital and even landed a second job at Good Samaritan Hospital. He would keep both jobs until 1974 when he got a clerical job at St. Luke’s Hospital in Fort Thomas.
According to the crime library, during his later confessions, Harvey said he was able to control his urge to kill. That changed in 1975 when he began working in Cincinnati again.
Cincinnati killings (1975-1985)
Harvey got a job working nights as a nursing assistant and autopsy assistant among other duties.
He promptly picked up where he left off years ago. Since he worked at night and had little supervision.
Over the next 10 years, Harvey killed at least 15 patients while employed at the hospital. He even reportedly kept a precise diary of his crimes including detailing how he killed his victims, many of which involved cyanide, poison, and arsenic. He even refined how he concealed his crimes by studying medical journals.
While leaving work in 1985, security guards observed Harvey acting odd and searched a gym bag he was carrying with him. Inside the bag they found a .38-caliber pistol hypodermic needles, surgical scissors and gloves, a cocaine spoon, and various occult books.
He was given the option to resign quietly or be fired and there was no further investigation.
Getting caught in 1987
In February 1986, Harvey was working at Cincinnati’s Drake Memorial Hospital and settled right back into his old routine. Harvey would kill another 23 patients over the next year by disconnecting life-support machines, injecting air into veins, and injecting poisons.
In April 1987, Harvey finally slipped up. After a comatose patient, John Powell, who had begun recovering suddenly died, suspicions were raised. During Powell’s autopsy, someone detected the faint scent of almonds, a sign of cyanide.
Authorities began investigating and the list of people who had contact with Powell was short. Once authorities learned Harvey’s nickname, the “Angel of Death”, due to him always being around when someone died, he became the focus of the investigation.
Authorities executed a search warrant in Harvey’s apartment and a mountain of evidence was found against him, including:
- Jars of arsenic
- Books on the occult and poisons
- A detailed account of the killing written in Harvey’s diary
Harvey was quickly taken into custody and investigators dug into the long list of mysterious deaths at the hospital. Harvey knew the clock was ticking and, on August 11, 1987, he sat down with investigators and confessed to initially committing 33 murders over the past 17 years but the list eventually doubled.
To test his credibility and sanity, Harvey underwent numerous psychiatric tests before a spokesman with the prosecutor’s office said, “This man is sane, competent, but is a compulsive killer. He builds up tension in his body, so he kills people.”
From trial to his death in 2017
According to the New York Times, Harvey showed no remorse for his actions during his Ohio trial. He reportedly chuckled when a list of his victims’ names was displayed. During his trial and time in custody, he maintained his belief he killed as an act of mercy.
“I felt what I was doing was right,” he said in 1987. “I was putting people out of their misery. I hope if I’m ever sick and full of tubes or on a respirator, someone will come and end it.”
In a 1991 interview, Harvey reportedly said, “After I didn’t get caught for the first 15, I thought it was my right. I appointed myself judge, prosecutor and jury. So I played God.” when asked why he felt he had the right to decide who lived or died.
Harvey pled guilty in Laurel County Circuit Court to murdering nine patients at Marymount Hospital in November after pleading guilty to 24 Ohio murders in August.
After all of his trials, Harvey pled guilty to murdering 37 people and was sentenced to 28 consecutive life sentences and would not have been eligible for parole until he was 95 years old.
On March 28, 2017, Harvey was found in his cell severely beaten. He died of blunt-force trauma injuries on March 30.
Editors note: Thank you to The New York Times and Crime Library for their work, which allowed the story of Donald Harvey to be told.