The Fractured History of the Hemlock Society

hemlock poisonous flower, the hemlock society


A judicial determination should be made when it is necessary to hasten the death of an individual, whether it be a demented parent, a suffering, severely disabled spouse or a child.

~ Former Hemlock Society Executive Director Faye Girsh.1


British journalist Derek Humphry had a bit of a problem on his hands in early 1975.  His wife Jean was suffering from incurable bone cancer, and he could not bear to see her in such pain.  So, after much discussion between them, he handed her a cup of coffee loaded with barbiturates and pain killers.  She drank this concoction and died within minutes.

Less than a year after Jean died, Humphry married Ann Wickett.  With her help, he wrote the book Jean’s Way, describing the ordeal he had shared with his first wife.  The media was actively seeking ways to promote euthanasia, so the book was soon made into a pro-euthanasia television movie and a stage play entitled Is this the Day?, the last words Jean Humphry allegedly spoke before she killed herself.

In 1980, Humphry moved to Los Angeles, where he founded the Hemlock Society, aptly named after the cup of poisonous herbs that the Greek philosopher Socrates was forced to drink by his Athenian enemies (perhaps it is significant that Socrates was the victim of involuntary assisted suicide).  Humphry also founded a pro‑euthanasia political group named Americans against Human Suffering (AAHS) to promote the legalization and social acceptance of assisted suicide.

hemlock death of socrates jacques louis david

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David

What was Humphry’s goal?  Like all leading euthanasists, he despised true religion, boasting, “We are trying to overturn 2,000 years of Christian tradition.”2

The Deaths of Ann’s Parents

In 1986, Ann Wickett Humphry’s parents took their own lives, assisted by her and Derek Humphry.  The Humphrys impersonated doctors in order to obtain lethal doses of Vesparex, a powerful barbiturate.  They then mixed the crushed tablets into applesauce and ice cream.  Ann spoon-fed her mother the deadly ice cream, and Derek watched her father feed himself the applesauce.  Both of Ann’s parents died minutes later.3  Technically, Derek Humphry assisted in a suicide while his wife actually committed a homicide.

The Humphrys knew that they had committed serious felonies, so they covered up the evidence of their crimes.  Ann put the dishes in the dishwasher and buried her handbag, containing the unused Vesparex, in the garbage.  The Humphrys also destroyed any other evidence of their participation in the deaths, including all correspondence between themselves and Ann’s parents regarding assisted suicide.  To top it all off, Ann told the coroner that her sister was their parent’s primary caregiver, thereby attempting to implicate her in the deaths!3

Following her husband’s lead, Ann Humphry soon authored a book about her parent’s death entitled Double Exit (perhaps the title was in deference to Britain’s Exit Society, another “right‑to‑die” group).

Ann’s Turn to Die

Unfortunately for Ann, what goes around always comes around….

Ann Wickett Humphry was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 1989.  Derek Humphry, the leader of the “compassionate” Hemlock Society, responded to this situation by labeling her a mental incompetent and then dumping her.

Robert W. Stone, Ann’s son, defended her and revealed some of the inner machinations of the Hemlock Society when he wrote:

Having to respond to Derek Humphry’s claims of my mother’s “mental illness” is both humiliating and insulting.  Anyone who knew Ann Wickett realizes how courageous and sensible she was, and how preposterous such claims are.  And no one better than Humphry himself.  Death for Humphry’s Hemlock Society is strictly business, and to him his wife simply became bad business, to be discarded.  What he did to my mother disgusts me.  To top it off, he had no qualms about printing a eulogy in The New York Times, then later openly admitting its purpose was damage control.4

Ann then publicly charged Derek with gross hypocrisy.  Where was the caring, nurturing attitude so prevalent in Hemlock Society literature?  Ann said, “I am an embarrassment to them.  I was dumb enough to get cancer.”3  She wrote a short suicide letter to her husband before killing herself:

Dear Derek:

There.  You got what you wanted.  Ever since I was diagnosed as having cancer, you have done everything conceivable to precipitate my death.

I was not alone in recognizing what you were doing.  What you did — desertion and abandonment and subsequent harassment of a dying woman — is so unspeakable there are no words to describe the horror of it.

Yet you know.  And others know too.  You will have to live with this until you die.

May you never, ever forget.

despairing woman dark

Ann added a hand‑written note to this suicide letter and sent it to her friend, anti‑euthanasia campaigner Rita Marker.  This note said, “My final words to Derek.  He is a killer.  I know.  Jean [his first wife] actually died of suffocation.  I could never say it until now; who would believe me?  Do the best you can.”5

After writing down her despairing thoughts, Ann Humphry rode her horse into a remote Oregon wilderness and killed herself.

The Hemlock Society and Assisted Suicide

Ann Humphry charged that the Hemlock Society had become a “parasitic organism,” taking dues from tens of thousands of members and returning very little (Derek Humphry’s salary was at least $65,000 in 1985 ― $145,000 in today’s dollars ― not counting travel expenses and many other perquisites).  Additionally, Humphry retained full control of Hemlock Society finances, and authorized illegal transfers of Hemlock money to non-tax exempt satellite organizations such as Americans against Human Suffering, which he also founded.3

Although it does not flatly say so in public, the Hemlock Society has as its ultimate objective the enshrining of euthanasia on demand in the United States in the same manner that abortion on demand is now so honored. Speakers at Hemlock Society conferences and meetings frequently urge members to work towards this goal.

As Derek Humphry has made perfectly clear, the Society intends to use the virtually infallible strategy of gradualism to achieve its ultimate goal.  The leader of another pro-euthanasia group, Concern for Dying, describes how gradualism works:

You are right when you say that our people believe rational suicide to be acceptable ― our position is that individuals make their own decisions and that those decisions should be honored by others.  We also know from experience that if we try to foist our ideas too strongly and too soon on a society not yet ready to consider them, we will damage if not destroy our effectiveness.  By moving cautiously and without stridency, we gain a larger audience for our views.6

First the euthanasiasts pushed for the Living Will, and then the durable power of attorney.  Then it was doctor‑assisted suicide, and finally it will be euthanasia on demand.

In support of its goals, the Hemlock Society and its members actively counsel people to take their own lives.  Their purpose in doing so is not only to relieve the suffering of individuals; they correctly assume that widespread flouting of the law is a powerful propaganda tool.  After all, if a law is widely ignored, why retain it?  It’s outmoded and antiquated, after all, and society has matured beyond such meaningless restraints.

Does all of this sound familiar?

If it doesn’t, it certainly should!

The Hemlock Society published a book entitled Compassionate Crimes, Broken Taboos, which is a detailed anthology of mercy killings and assisted suicides.3  Members of the Society joked that libraries have a real problem in getting people to return this book (after all, dead people don’t worry much about nickel-a-day fines).

Disturbingly, the Hemlock Society experienced a large influx of new members in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including many AIDS sufferers.  If American society continues to follow the utilitarian Hemlock lead, we may soon find a cheap, easy, and efficient way to avoid the expense of caring for all of those stigmatized “AIDS sufferers.”

Even more unsettling is the fact that the “Right to Die” movement is spreading all over the world.  Derek Humphry is a past President of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies, which currently claims a million members in 23 countries.

Today’s Hemlock Society

After Humphry left the Hemlock Society, its leadership renamed the organization End-of-Life Choices in 2003.  Shortly thereafter, End-of-Life Choices merged with Compassion in Dying and became known as Compassion & Choices.  Soon after, Compassion & Choices of New York State renamed itself End of Life Choices New York.

Compassion & Choices (C&C) — the former Hemlock Society — is a $25 million a year organization currently comprised of (1) the C&C national headquarters, located in Denver, Colorado; (2) the C&C Action Network, its legislative advocacy arm; and (3) state chapters in California, Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota and Washington State.

Compassion and Choices states that its mission is to “improve care” and “expand end-of-life options.”  Unsurprisingly, its website has very little information on the first element of this mission and is dedicated almost entirely to pushing physician-assisted suicide.

Final Thoughts

The Hemlock Society may now have a name that implies that it is much more caring and gentle, but at its core it is the same old lethal Hemlock Society, for which death is simply a matter of economics and a tool to enhance the comfort and convenience of those who are still alive and healthy.



[1] Hemlock Society Executive Director Faye Girsh, December 3, 1997 quote.  “Ten Pro-Life Activists Charged.”  LifeSite Daily News, January 26, 1998.

[2] Derek Humphry, quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, August 28, 1992, page A25.

[3] Thomas W. Case.  “A Requiem for the Hemlock Society.”  Fidelity Magazine, June 1990, pages 24 to 32.

[4] Robert W. Stone, son of Ann Wickett Humphry, in a letter to Vanity Fair, March 1992.

[5] Excerpts from Anne Wickett Humphry’s suicide note, addressed to her husband Derek Humphry, founder of the Hemlock Society, before she killed herself in 1991.  Quoted in “Final Exit.”  Arlington Catholic Herald, November 4, 1993, page 4.

[6] Mrs. A‑J. Rock‑Levinson, Executive Director of Concern for Dying, in a 1978 letter replying to a pro‑lifer’s question.  Quoted in Father Paul Marx’s  And Now…Euthanasia.  Gaithersburg, Maryland: Human Life International, 1985, page 23.  Second revised edition.

1 Comment

  1. Wynette Weaver on July 22, 2022 at 9:05 PM

    There’s such a stigma about suicide in the United States. In Switzerland, the Swiss find comfort knowing a peaceful death is possible if their personal life has become unbearable. There are no limiting restrictions, like only those people with a terminal illness with six months to live can qualify and an MD is present. In Switzerland “Existential Suffering” can qualify. An example might be a person who is physically active, loves swimming and the great outdoors, is social, belongs to clubs, etc. Suddenly, an accident leaves the person incapacitated, dependent on caregivers, confined to their house. This person doesn’t want to learn to paint with their toes. After years of suffering, the person is begging for release from this current life. In the US, rather than receiving support, everyone is horrified. This is why suicide is a surprise to all
    The suicidal person knows telling anyone means that they will end up in the psych ward. The Suicidal Hotline is useless. There is no real help. Strangely, there are no Suicide Prevention Groups for those who need to meet other people in the same state of mind, but many groups for those who have lost someone from suicide.
    A man in Australia, age 104, an academic who was a mentor for young students, finally did not want to continue living a useless life. He flew to Switzerland where his situation was understood and accepted. The man felt it was unconscionable that he had to fly to Switzerland to be helped.

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