The Marymount Hospital “Serial Killer”

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Donald Harvey escorted from the Laurel County Courthouse by Sheriff Floyd Brummett. Image from the Lexington Herald-Leader, 3 November 1987.

“That little town, they had a lot of guilt to cover up because if they had pursued it further in 1971, the things that happened in Cincinnati would not have come to pass. I would have been arrested then instead of 16 years later.”

-Statement from Donald Harvey at the Warren Correctional Institution, Lebanon, Ohio, 1991.

Donald Harvey was born in Butler County, Ohio in April 1952 but spent his formative years growing up in Owsley County, Kentucky. In May of 1970, Harvey applied for a job as an orderly (hospital attendant) at the Marymount Hospital (later, St. Joseph Hospital) in London, Kentucky. The vetting process for hiring low-level allied healthcare professionals during this time period was not as stringent as they were for physicians or nurses. As such, Harvey was accepted into the position and began working at the hospital. Harvey had been working at Marymount for about two weeks when he began attempting to kill patients. By the next month in June, however, Harvey would be successful and made his first known kill, 42-year-old Elizabeth Wyatt. Wyatt was being treated for cancer and required continuous oxygen. Harvey hooked up Wyatt to a nearly empty oxygen tank essentially cutting off her oxygen supply and killing her as a result. Harvey would later argue that Wyatt’s death was a “propitious” accident. Later in that year, another patient died at Marymount and it was determined that faulty oxygen valves were the cause. Harvey kept the faulty valves to use on other patients; the valves made a hissing noise and appeared to be working when, in reality, they were not.


The Marymount Hospital, London, Kentucky, in 1976. Image from the Advocate-Messenger, 23 August 1987

In July of 1970, Harvey’s next victim became 43-year-old Eugene McQueen. McQueen was hospitalized for “congested lungs” and Harvey turned McQueen face down where he would go on to suffocate because he was unable to move on his own. Later that month, 81-year-old Ben H. Gilbert died from peritonitis. Though his death was not seen as suspicious, Harvey later confessed that he inserted a coat hanger into Gilbert’s catheter puncturing his bladder and later causing an infection bad enough to result in his death. According to Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Handy, Gilbert had complained to hospital staff that Harvey had been rough with him during treatments. A few days later in August, 58-year-old William Bowling arrived at the Emergency Department and was ordered to have oxygen. Harvey never provided the oxygen and, as a result, Bowling died. On August 15, 64-year-old Maude Nichols was brought to the Emergency Department from a local nursing home with bedsores. One of the faulty oxygen valves that Harvey secretly kept was used on Nichols after a failed attempt at trying to kill her by smothering her with a pillow. Nichols died shortly after because of the faulty oxygen valve.

Harvey continued his modus operandi by similarly killing the remaining patients. In November of that year, 63-year-old Viola Wyan, who was diagnosed with leukemia, died as a result of one of Harvey’s faulty oxygen valves. It appears there was a brief lapse in Harvey’s killing until January of 1971 when 62-year-old Silas C. Butner was either suffocated by a pillow or due to Harvey using one of his faulty oxygen valves. Two days later, 84-year-old Maggie Rawlings died as the result of being suffocated from a pillow. The next day, Harvey’s last kill at the Marymount Hospital was 68-year-old John V. Combs who died as a result of Harvey using one of his faulty oxygen valves.

In total, Donald Harvey was charged with eight counts of murder and one count of voluntary manslaughter. Harvey would continue killing patients at various medical facilities in Ohio, including the Veterans Administration Hospital in Cincinnati. In 1987, Harvey was reported as saying, “I wouldn’t do it again… we all have some regrets.” He also said that he “could have been diverted from a life of murder had he received proper psychiatric treatment for what he says was his mental illness in the early 1970s.” Shortly after his last killing at the Marymount Hospital, Harvey left his position as an orderly. In March of 1971, Harvey was arrested for breaking and entering into a neighbor’s apartment where he stole coins, clothes, and jewelry. Additionally, Harvey set a small fire in the apartment but was not charged with arson. Harvey pleaded guilty to petty theft, paid a $50 fine, and was referred to the Cumberland River Comprehensive Care Center in London, Kentucky for mental health counseling. Harvey only went to the outpatient center a few times and left town shortly after.

From the outside, Donald Harvey was a clean-cut and unsuspecting man; just another human being making his way through life. Deep down, however, the reality was that Harvey was anything but just another face in the crowd. Friends and coworkers from Ohio reported that Harvey’s behavior was “odd” at best; he would tell crude or strange jokes for shock value. During his time at the Drake Memorial Hospital in Cincinnati, his coworkers would go as far as getting up and leaving the lunchroom during a break so as to avoid him because of his behaviors. Newspapers reported that a clean-cut Harvey, charming, would talk of country music and going back to visit his mother in Kentucky. However, his darker side would eventually prevail. Harvey reportedly stole human tissue samples from various hospital morgues to “study.” He would jokingly tell nurses, after the death of a patient on his ward, “I got rid of another one for you.”

Little is known about Harvey’s true motives, unfortunately. Harvey claimed, largely, that the deaths were “mercy killings” and he mostly targeted patients that were terminal or near death. There were some patients, he would eventually relent, that he admitted he did not like and ended up killing them. It was this shocking show of revenge and power that Harvey put cyanide in orange juice and arsenic in pudding, poisoning both hospital patients and people he knew. Harvey told his neighbor that, “we all gotta go sometime;” Harvey killed that neighbor’s father by giving him arsenic-laced Pepto Bismol. Psychologists and mental health experts said of Harvey, “Psychologically [Harvey’s] choice of victims was consistent with the needs of many serial killers: They enjoy feeling power over their victims.” Though Harvey would say that he had no specific “criteria” for choosing his victims, most of them were hospital patients; in a practical sense, the death of a hospital patient probably would not have warranted a second thought.


Donald Harvey with his attorney at the Laurel County Courthouse. Image from the Messenger-Inquirer, 3 November 1987.

In early November of 1987, Donald Harvey pleaded guilty in Laurel County Circuit Court to killing nine patients while working as an orderly at the Marymount Hospital in 1970 and 1971. A (then) 35-year-old Harvey was sentenced to eight life terms plus 20 years by Judge Lewis Hopper. Commonwealth’s attorneys and Harvey’s attorneys came to an agreement that the sentence would run concurrently to his sentencing in the state of Ohio where he was charged with killing an additional 25 patients. In total, Harvey was indicted on eight counts of murder and one count of manslaughter; shockingly, Harvey admitted to killing 13 people while he was in London, Kentucky. The remaining names, never released, were never fully connected to Harvey. Harvey said shortly after, “I apologize for the ones I killed out of malice, I’ve been to blame for everything that’s happened to me.” According to newspaper reports, the victims’ families were entitled to $25,000 each for lost wages, funeral expenses, medical costs, and counseling. The full extent of Harvey’s murders is still not fully known; he was convicted for 37 though the final number has varied up to nearly 90 with some estimates.

The Bitter End

On March 30, 2017, 30 years after his initial apprehension, Donald Harvey died. On March 28, The 64-year-old Harvey was attacked and beaten in his prison cell in Ohio.


Author’s note: this posting will only discuss the known murders committed by Donald Harvey in London, Kentucky. It should be important to note that he continued his crimes in the state of Ohio. This post is not intended to diminish the Ohio crimes but rather focus on the Kentucky crimes. Out of respect to the victims’ families, Harvey is referred to as a “serial killer” instead of an “Angel of Death or Mercy.”


Contributed by Shawn Logan | contact@kyhi.org



⁘ Works Cited ⁘

  1. The Lexington Leader, 9 December 1949
  2. The Lexington Leader, 12 December 1952
  1. The Lexington Herald-Leader, 18 September 1987, p. 33.
  2. The Courier-Journal, 20 September 1987, p. 16.
  3. The Courier-Journal, 3 November 1987, p. 1.
  4. Messenger-Inquirer, 3 November 1987, p. 21.

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