CAN A SERIAL MURDERER BE FUNNY?
In January 1968 I was an intern at Los Angeles County USC Medical Center, the largest county hospital in the USA. By that time I was one month past the half-way mark of my first year out of medical school. I was a real doctor! I had a so called “rotating internship”; that is I spent one or two months on a service like Obstetrics or Surgery then I rotated to another service. That January I was on the jail service. This was the most coveted by all the interns because we had no supervision there. Well almost no supervision. Once a week a lady internist, Dr. McCarron, made rounds with us on Monday mornings for a couple of hours. We would present our patients to her, and she would make suggestions, critique our handling of the case, and give motherly advice to us, her fledgling doctors. These were heady times for me. I was 25 years old, somewhat nerdish (with horn-rimmed glasses) and shy but not unattractive. I had a white Porsche, for which my father had to co-sign, since my pay as an intern was room and board plus $100 a month. I rarely got to drive it because I was always working! At that time there were no duty hour restrictions for interns and residents. We worked 24 hours on and 12 off on many of the services, sort of like slaves. Life and death was in our hands and we knew it. There were literally hundreds of medical students, nursing students, interns, and residents around the hospital day and night 24/7. Twenty admissions per intern a night was not unusual. Gunshot wounds, traffic accidents, severe heart failure, a spontaneous pneumothorax (collapsed lung), end stage liver failure with massive ascites (an abdomen that was full of fluid and looked like a full term twin pregnancy), botched criminal abortions bleeding to death and much more was the daily (and nightly) fare. Dr. Kildare and Dr. Casey were our Hollywood role models. Occasionally we got a Saturday off, and that was often a shameless bacchanalian event that was instrumental in helping me get over my shyness (keep in mind it was the sixties). The jail service admitted anybody who needed hospital care whether medical or surgical who was also incarcerated in the LA jail system. We had a steady census of around thirty to forty patients. When I first started on the service, the word got out that a new and very green intern was on the service and a whole slew of inmates arrived having eaten light bulbs, chewed up and swallowed. That is one thing they never taught us in medical school. What do you do with people that eat light bulbs? My best education came from a John Wayne movie, when a cowboy was surreptitiously fed ground glass mixed in with his food. He died a horrible agonizing death. Well I assumed that light bulbs, chewed up, would produce the same results. My first patient with this problem had very special care: very close observation of pulse and blood pressure, monitoring his Hematocrit (the percentage of red cells to serum) to see how much blood he lost, having lots of typed and cross matched blood available in case he started to hemorrhage massively. I stayed up with him all night and guess what? Nothing happened. The next patient who had eaten a light bulb made me less anxious, I didn’t monitor him quite as closely, only typed and cross matched him for a couple of pints of blood and again nothing happened. The third patient I just took an occasional blood pressure. By the fourth patient I sent him back to jail. I learned that the eating ground glass business was overrated, another one of Hollywood’s inaccuracies. Nothing happens. At that point it dawned on me that the inmates monitor when a new intern comes on the service, because they want to be on the jail service at LA USC Medical Center, better food, nicer surroundings, softer beds, no harsh guards barking at them, etc. and eating light bulbs was an easy way to buy a few days of respite. They knew that nothing happens. I didn’t.
William Dale Archerd was a special case. He was brought in one morning about 10:00 AM from the LA Court House. He was ashen gray, sweaty, and had low blood pressure. He clutched his chest and complained of pain. I was his doctor on the jail service. He was on trial for murder. The accusation was that he had killed three people, but in fact he was involved with many more, as many as twenty people had died in his vicinity- all mysterious, all unknown cause, all had been his friends, relatives, and wives. The trial was not going well for him. The District Attorney had a very good case against him, and he was facing the death penalty. During the proceedings he became ill and had to be brought to us at LA USC County jail service. My quick exam revealed a middle aged man, rather distinguished looking, with white well groomed wavy hair who looked for all intents and purposes as a man that was having a major heart attack. William Dale Archerd had been a bad boy most of his life, spending time in Jail for narcotic charges on multiple occasions at Chino State Prison from which he escaped, and then at San Quentin. He was born in 1912 and had a lifelong fascination about medicine. He didn’t have the money, or persistence, to pursue a career as a physician, but he hung around hospitals and became a medical attendant at the largest mental hospital on the West Coast, Camarillo State Hospital. At that time shock therapy was in vogue for most of the psychopathologies. This could be by electroshock or by chemically induced hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) which would induce a seizure. Patients would have violent convulsions, but after it was all over their psychosis was better. William learned how to calculate and administer the correct amount of insulin to produce a seizure without killing the person in the process. He also experimented at home with rabbits to see what a lethal dose would be. He married multiple times and his wives all seemed to die of mysterious illnesses. They were all well insured, and as they died off he became more and more wealthy. A teenage cousin of his died for no apparent reason, as well as several “friends”. At that time routine blood panels were not the standard of practice when a patient was admitted to the hospital, but if by chance a blood sugar was done on these victims, in all cases it was very low. That was easily treated with intravenous sugar, but William would always make sure that an extra dose of insulin was injected while no one was watching. The person would then expire under the currently best medical care that was available. One of his little tricks he added later in his crime spree was to knock them out first with a sharp blow to the head, something he claimed was due to a fall down a staircase, but most likely was delivered by some blunt instrument such as a baseball bat. He would then shoot the insulin to keep them unconscious caused by the very low blood sugar; the last step was to put a drop of atropine in one eye. Atropine dilates the pupil of the eye. When an unconscious person with recent head trauma presents with one dilated pupil, any neurosurgeon worth his weight in salt would immediately diagnose an epidural hematoma, a blood clot on the brain. In the 50’s and 60’s brain scans were still a decade off. The next best thing was to trephine the skull (put a hole in the skull) to let out the blood clot and release the pressure. But none of these patients had such a blood clot. The neurosurgeon scratched his head and assumed that the dilated pupil was from some internal damage to the brain. William was right there with more insulin and next morning the patient was dead. William always made sure that the victim died in the hospital under the care of experts. This would divert attention from him. It was a district attorney, who was a diabetic himself, who noticed that people died around William Dale Archerd. The astute District Attorney figured it out. As far as he was concerned, the low blood sugar that was noticed in some of the victims when it was checked, was due to too much insulin, something with which he was quite familiar. The DA had actually arrested William several years before on suspicion of murder, but because of lack of evidence had to let him go. This didn’t faze William at all, he kept up his murderous activity with insulin. At that time all the injected forms of insulin where obtained from pork and beef. Around the mid-sixties one of my medical school professors was working on a test that could determine what level the insulin in the blood was and more importantly if the insulin was human or animal. The DA had the bodies exhumed and low and behold they all had extremely high levels of animal insulin. The motive was money, the most common reason for murder; but the murder weapon was insulin. William is the first recorded person in US history to use insulin as a murder weapon. There was one other person in the world who used this unusual method of dispatching their victim, a nurse in England.
As the days went by William made a very speedy recovery. He looked very good …too good. None of the tests for heart attack were positive. His EKG was entirely normal. Slowly the pieces started to fit. He was seen taking some pills just before the event where he fainted and turned grey. The pills turned out to be Nitro-glycerin, a drug that dilates blood vessels. An overdose of Nitro-glycerin could well make your blood pressure low and turn you ashen grey. I came to the conclusion that he had faked his heart attack chemically, just as he had used medication to kill, pretty clever for a high-school dropout. If his trial was delayed several weeks, it would be declared a mistrial and the whole process would have to start all over. Bodies had been exhumed and might have to be re-exhumed, witnesses from all over the world would have to be recalled. Perhaps the next trial would go better for him. That was his game plan. The DA was anxious for that not to happen and wanted him discharged so that the trial could proceed. I was his doctor and had the authority to discharge him, but William was a lot more clever. He outsmarted the DA and me. He was a very wealthy man, and even though he was hospitalized and incarcerated on the jail service under my care, he could hire any doctor he could afford to provide a second opinion. He hired the most prominent cardiologist in LA. The cardiologist came up with a different “presumably unbiased” conclusion from the intern, namely me. He diagnosed that Mr. Archerd had had a heartattack that strangely had no EKG or blood test evidence. He recommended 6 weeks of bed rest for Mr. Archerd. That was the standard of care for heart attacks in 1968. That made for a mistrial and Bill got his new trial. I got to know him very well over the next six weeks. We developed a bond that was more than I would have liked. Ironically I almost killed him using another drug, Penicillin. He had a positive VDRL, a test that means the person has or has had Syphilis. He needed to be treated for it, even if he had been treated before, because the little spirochete bacteria that causes Syphilis might have invaded his brain and spinal cord. One would need to do a spinal tap and examine the cerebrospinal fluid to tell for sure, something he refused. Neither one of us knew that he was highly allergic to Penicillin. The first shot of the wonder drug and he went into the worst anaphylactic shock I had ever seen. He was dead! His heart had stopped! I did all the things I knew to do, even a shot of adrenalin directly into his heart. Amazingly, he responded just like the books say you are supposed to respond- he returned from the nether world without turning a single hair on his meticulous coiffure. This was more proof to me that he had never had a real heart attack. He would never have survived this if he had a damaged heart. After that episode our relationship was rather unusual. I almost killed him with a drug, just like he killed twenty other people, but unlike his victims, I brought him back to life. I saw him several times a day on rounds for the six weeks he was supposed to rest. He was highly intelligent and well read, and we had long conversations about life, philosophy, and even his trial. He all but confessed his crimes to me. Of course none of that was admissible as evidence, besides he would just have denied it. The above cartoon is one he made for me, along with several others that I could not print because they were rather obscene but still funny. I have learned my lesson regarding putting things in print with a suggestion of anything sexual. Search engines are unfairly strict regarding such content. My first book, Price of a Penis and other Tales of a Country Surgeon, had lost some stature and was kicked out of more than one bookstore because it was often wrongly classified along with porn by search engines, not the best literary category in which to be. At his second trial in March of 1968, he was convicted and sentenced to death, a sentence that was upheld by the California Supreme Court. But in 1970 the sentence was commuted to a life sentence without parole because California decided that death was a cruel and unusual punishment even if you did kill twenty people. While serving his life sentence, he collaborated with Hollywood in making a movie about him. Of course he was depicted as being framed. He died in prison of pneumonia in 1977 at age 65.
Bill taught me several lessons. Some people don’t need to have a formal education to be very smart and become fabulously wealthy. Intelligence does not equate with being a decent person. Appearances can be very deceiving. People can be vicious killers and devious liars, and yet appear very mild mannered and kind. Always check and check again about a person’s allergic history before you inject anything into them, and yes a serial murderer can be funny.
Gosta Iwasiuk is the author of three books – Tales of a Country Surgeon (memoir), The Jesus Gene (commentary on genetics and religion) and Vladimir’s Visions (a coffee table book featuring the artwork of Vladimir Iwasiuk).