Donald Harvey was born on April 15th, 1952 to married parents. After his birth, the family relocated to Booneville, Kentucky, a small town in the Appalachian Mountains. Donald’s mother, Goldie, recalled (for a newspaper interview), “My son has always been a good boy,” and stated that he was raised in a loving home. Martha D. Turner (Donald’s elementary school principal) spoke of him similarly, “Donnie was a very special child to me. He was always clean and well dressed with his hair trimmed. He was a happy child, very sociable and well-liked by the other children. He was a handsome boy with big brown eyes and dark curly hair he always had a smile for me. There was never any indication of any abnormality.” In short, there appears to have been no abuse, neglect, or other issue that would have predicted what Donald Harvey would ultimately become: one of the most prolific serial killers of all time.
During his school years, Donald Harvey was described as a bit of a loner, or a “teacher’s pet.” He fared well in his classes and achieved high marks quite easily. This may have actually led to some boredom for Harvey, as he apparently lost interest in his formal education and dropped out of Booneville High School, opting to go to work instead. After being laid off from a factory job, Harvey had little to do except for visit his ailing grandfather who was ailing in Marymount Hospital in London, Kentucky. This would prove to be a fateful event.
While visiting the hospital, Harvey became well-liked by the nuns who worked there. When one particularly kind soul learned that he was out of work, she offered Harvey a job as an orderly. Although he wasn’t medically trained, much of this work would require Harvey to be alone with patients. And, in the 1970s, some of those duties included changing bedpans, passing out medications, and even inserting catheters.
During Harvey’s first few weeks at the hospital, things were uneventful. However, during an evening shift just a few months after beginning his job as an orderly, Harvey committed his very first murder. Reportedly, after walking into a private room to check on a stroke victim, the patient rubbed feces in Harvey’s face. Enraged, Harvey smothered him to death with a pillow.
Following the murder, Harvey cleaned up the patient and hopped into the shower before notifying the nurses.
A mere 3 weeks after committing his first murder, Harvey struck again, this time disconnecting an oxygen tank from an elderly woman’s bedside. When no one detected this murder either Harvey became bolder, using items such as a plastic bag, morphine, and even a coat hanger stabbed into a catheter (which caused infection and death).
Fortunately for the patients at Marymount, Harvey was arrested on March 31st, 1971 for a burglary (he was also drunk). Harvey began babbling incoherently about the mmurders he’d committed. Officers reportedly looked into it, but found no evidence, so they let Harvey go. Even the burglary charge was reduced to “petty theft.” Even so, Harvey thought it would be best if he got out of dodge.
Harvey joined the Air Force, but was released from the service less than 12 months later. By July of 1972, Harvey was spinning out of control and committed himself to a VA hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. Following a botched suicide attempt, he was placed in restraints and received 21 electroshock therapy treatments.
Harvey spent the next few months trying to get his life back in order and eventually found his way to Cincinnati, Ohio by 1975. Within a couple of weeks, he obtained a job working the night shift at the Cincinnati VA Medical Hospital. He worked as a nursing assistant, housekeeping aide, cardiac-catheterization tech, and autopsy assistant. And, since he worked at night, he had the run of the hospital, with very little supervision.
Over the next decade, Harvey murdered at least 15 patients, keeping a precise diary of his crimes and taking notes on each victim. His methods included: pressing a plastic bag and wet towel over the mouth and nose; sprinkling rat poison in a patient’s dessert; adding arsenic and cyanide to orange juice; injecting cyanide into an intravenous tube; injecting cyanide into a patient’s buttocks.
These crimes escalated as Harvey’s confidence grew, an included poisoning neighbors, his gay lover, his lover’s parents, and others. At long last – in April of 1987 – there was enough suspicion of Harvey that a police search warrant was filed.
In Harvey’s apartment, investigators found a mountain of evidence against him: jars of cyanide and arsenic, books on the occult and poisons, and a detailed account of the murder, which he had written in a diary. By that August, 25-year-old Harvey confessed to committing 33 murders in the past 17 years, and as his confession went on, the number of deaths increased to 70.
Donald Harvey pled guilty to 24 counts of aggravated murder, four counts of attempted murder, and one count of felonious assault. And just four days after his initial plea, a 25th guilty plea earned him a total of four consecutive 20-years-to-life sentences. In addition to his life terms, Harvey was fined $270,000.
On July 23, 2001, the Associated Press printed an article listing the worst serial killers in the United States. Donald Harvey was rated number one, followed by John Wayne Gacy, Patrick Kearney, Bruce Davis and Dean Corll.
Harvey was incarcerated in Ohio’s Toledo Correctional Institution. On March 28th 2017, authorities found Harvey beaten in his cell. He died from his wounds 2 days later.
In a 1991 interview with a reporter from the Columbus Dispatch, Harvey gave a rare glimpse into his mindset:
Reporter: “Why did you kill?”
Harvey: “Well, people controlled me for 18 years, and then I controlled my own destiny. I controlled other people’s lives, whether they lived or died. I had that power to control.”
Reporter: “What right did you have to decide that?”
Harvey: “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.”
The quotes above very clearly indicate the psychopathy in Donald Harvey. Only a person with a very high score on the Psychopathy Checklist would state that it was “their right” to choose who should live or die. As narcissism is part and parcel of psychopathy, it isn’t surprising that Harvey’s statements sound quite grandiose as well.
However, Harvey’s narcissism was decidedly fragile. This bears itself out in the reasons he gave for the attempted murder of his gay lover and his lover’s parents. Essentially, he was afraid that his lover was going to leave him. Thus, Harvey was likely cycling from feeling invincible to feeling woefully inadequate and depressed. Killing, in all likelihood, made him feel powerful (“good”) again. In fact, we see this in his very first murder where the patient “insults” Harvey by smearing feces on him and Harvey reacts with rage, in an attempt to “correct” the imbalance of power that occurred. You see, in Harvey’s mind, he was always in control – always manipulating others – always on top of the situation. And – when he felt as though that power was slipping, all he had to do was kill to reassert himself.
Unfortunately for Harvey, he couldn’t remain on top forever, as the other prisoners at Toledo were quick to remind him.