British General Practitioner and alleged Serial Killer
Born 1899 Died 1983
John Bodkin Adams was a doctor who practised as a general practitioner at Eastbourne on the south coast of England for many years. He was tried and acquitted of the murder of one of his patients in 1957, but is nevertheless regarded by some as a serial killer who provided the model later followed by the infamous Dr Harold Shipman.
The Good Doctor Adams
John Bodkin Adams was born on the 20th January 1899 at Randalstown in County Antrim, the elder son of a watchmaker named Samuel Adams and his wife Ellen Bodkin. The family later moved to Ballinderry Bridge, County Tyrone, where Adams attended the local Methodist day school, although the family were in fact Plymouth Brethren, and his father was even a lay preacher. In 1911 the family moved to Coleraine so that Adams could attend the local academy, and from there he went to Queen's College, Belfast in 1917 where he read medicine. After graduation in 1921 Adams moved to Britain and was employed as an ophthalmic house surgeon and casualty officer at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, although he failed to settle into the job and after responding to an advertisement that asked for a 'Christian doctor assistant', he became the junior partner in a general practice in Eastbourne.
Whatever might be said regarding the general competence of John Bodkin Adams as a doctor (and there is much to suggest that he wasn't a particularly capable general practitioner), it seems that Adams possessed an excellent bedside manner, being particularly adept at charming his women patients, and over the succeeding years built up a lucrative private practice attending to the needs of the many wealthy elderly patients that retired to the south coast. Certainly many of them seemed to be grateful for his kind attentions, and in 1935 one of his patients the seventy-two year-old Matilda Whitton died and left him the sum of £3,000. Her relatives challenged the bequest but it was upheld by the courts, and proved simply to be the first of many such gifts. Indeed between the years 1944 and 1955 Adams received fourteen legacies totalling £21,600 from his former patients, and as a doctor in receipt of such bounty he became the subject of much gossip in the town, with various rumours circulating to the effect that Dr Adams was responsible for finishing off a number of his patients in order to collect the aforesaid bounty.
The death of Gertrude Hullett
Amongst the good doctor's patients was a certain 'Bobbie' or Gertrude Joyce Hullett, who suffered from depression as a consequence of the death on the 14th March 1956 of her second husband Jack or Alfred John Hullett, and so Adams prescribed her barbiturates, or barbitones as they were known at the time, to help her sleep. On the 22nd July 1956 she lapsed into unconsciousness and Adams thought she had suffered a brain haemorrhage or stroke, and called the Coroner to arrange for a post-mortem. When the Coroner then established that Mrs Hullett was still very much alive he was naturally rather put out and accused Adams of "extreme incompetence".
Notwithstanding this false alarm, Gertrude Hullett later died on the 23rd July 1956, and although Adams recorded the cause of death as having been the result of a brain haemorrhage, the post-mortem later established that she had in fact died after taking an overdose of barbiturates. The subsequent inquest held on the 21st August concluded that she had committed suicide "of her own free will", having heard evidence that she had repeatedly confided in her solicitor and friends of her intention to take her own life. However the East Sussex Coroner, AC Somerville did note that Gertrude had experienced "an extraordinary amount of careless treatment" and that the doctors attending her had failed to realise they were dealing with a case of barbiturate poisoning until it was far too late to administer the antidote. It was also noted that Adams had been left a Rolls-Royce car in Gertrude's will having received a cheque for £1,000 only days before her death which had been specially cleared.
The first unusual feature of the hearing was the appearance of Detective Superintendent Herbert Hannam of Scotland Yard, who was even asked by the coroner if there were any reason why the inquest should be adjourned (there weren't), with the coroner explaining that the Chief Constable of Eastbourne "had invoked the aid of Scotland Yard to investigate certain deaths in the neighbourhood". It is not known for certain why the Chief Constable decided to take this step or why he thought it appropriate for this decision to be announced during the course of an inquest into what appeared to be a straight-forward case of suicide. However it seems that amongst the friends of the Hulletts was a music hall performer by the name of Leslie Henson, and it has been suggested that it was he who contacted the Chief Constable to express his concerns. Henson was later to claim that Adams was responsible for turning his friend Gertrude Hullett into a drug addict, and that it was his treatment that "sent her nearly mad" and was the cause of her death.
The second most unusual feature was the extraordinary amount of interest shown by the national press in what otherwise would have been an unremarkable inquest. It was fairly obvious that the press had had been tipped off that there was a story brewing in Eastbourne; indeed the Daily Mail of the 22nd August 1956 ran its report on the Hullet inquest on the same page as a more lurid report under the headline 'Yard Probes Mass Poisonings: Twenty Five Deaths in the Great Mystery of Eastbourne'. Although the latter report didn't mention Adams by name, it was nevertheless pretty clear who they were talking about. Subsequent reports in the press followed the same sensationalist pattern, with further headlines such as 'Enquiry into Four Hundred Wills : Rich Women Believed to Have Been the Victims' from the Daily Telegraph, all creating the general impression that there was a mass murderer on the loose on the south coast.
The Police Investigation
The investigation was led by Detective Superintendent Herbert Hannam, popularly known as Hannam of the Yard, a former expert in currency fraud who had achieved a certain popular fame in 1953 by solving the Teddington Towpath Murders. Together with Detective Sergeant Charles Hewitt and Inspector Brynley Pugh of the Eastbourne Police, he launched a detailed investigation into Dr Adams's professional activities. Hannam arranged for the aforementioned Home Office pathologist Francis Camps to examine some 310 death certificates that had been signed off by Adams over the ten years between 1946 and 1956. Camps concluded that 163 were "suspicious", whilst noting his opinion that an unusually high proportion of the deaths certified had cerebral haemorrhage or cerebral thrombosis entered as the cause of death.
Hannam apparently came to the conclusion, as he informed one reporter, that he was "quite confident" that Adams was "a mass-murderer" and further claimed that he had "certainly killed fourteen people" and that had he been called in a few years ago he would have been able to have said that he killed more. The theory being that Dr Adams made his victims dependant on drugs, persuaded them to change their wills in his favour, and then finished them off with an overdose. In pursuance of this belief Hannam contrived a meeting with Dr Adams on 1st October 1956 by the simple means of wandering past his home at Trinity Trees in Eastbourne. During the conversation Hannam brought up the matter of a legacy that Adams had received from a certain Mrs Edith Morrell and asked why Adams hadn't declared he was a beneficiary under her will on the cremation form. Adams replied that it "wasn't done wickedly" and that he had only done so to allow the cremation "to go off smoothly for the dear relatives".
Having thus established that there were certain irregularities in Adams's professional activities, the police obtained a warrant under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1951, and arrested Adams on the 24th November 1956 as they executed a search of his home and surgery. Adams was taken to Eastbourne Police station where he was charged with eight offences under the Forgery Act 1913, four under the Cremation Act 1902, and one under the Larceny Act 1956. Many of the charges related to the forging of National Health Service prescriptions, a number of which rather strangely related to the provision of elastic knee stockings, whilst the charges under the Cremation Act related to the fact that he had made false representations on death certificates that he had "no pecuniary interest" in the deceased's estates, when in fact he did. Adams duly appeared at Eastbourne Magistrates on the 26th November when he was remanded on bail of £2,000 and was required to surrender his passport. Back in the police station dealing with the formalities of his bail, Dr Adams asked whether there would be any further charges. Detective Superintendent Hannam told him that they were looking into the deaths of a number of his patients and again mentioned the name of Mrs Morrell, to which Adams replied, "Easing the passing of a dying person is not all that wicked. She wanted to die. That cannot be murder. It is impossible to accuse a doctor."
Nevertheless Adams was arrested for the second time on the 19th December 1956 when he was charged with the murder of "Edith Alice Morrell against the peace" on "a day in November 1950", to which he responded by saying, "Murder? Murder? Can you prove it was murder? I did not think you could prove murder. She was dying in any event." For good measure the police also threw in two further charges under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1951 relating to his attempt to conceal drugs and obstruct Inspector Brynley Pugh during the police search back in November, together with a further charge of failing to keep a register of drugs as required by the Dangerous Drugs Regulations 1953. It seems that as the headline in the Daily Mail had suggested, the police had concluded that there were indeed twenty-five cases where Dr Adams was suspected of murdering his patients, and that it had since been decided to proceed to trial with the Morrell case.
Edith Alice Morrell was another 'wealthy widow' who had been partially paralyzed after suffering a stroke, after which she had been treated by Adams with regular doses of opiates, apparently to ease her discomfort, treat her insomnia, and to
alleviate what was described as "cerebral irritation". When she died on the 13th November 1950 at the age of eighty-one, Adams cited the cause of death as cerebral thrombosis; no post-mortem was carried out and her body was later cremated. During the period of her treatment, Edith made several wills in which Adams benefited and several in which he didn't, but in the end Adams inherited a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and an oak chest containing some Georgian silver.
The committal proceedings on the charge of murdering Edith Morrell lasted a full nine days between the 14th January until the 24th January 1957 and yielded a further crop of sensational headlines. During the course of the proceedings the prosecution outlined its case against Adams for the murder of Edith Morrell, and also alleged that both Mr and Mrs Hullet had died in "similar circumstances" as Morrell. The defence made an application for the committal hearing to be heard in private, believing that it would be prejudicial for the defence to have the prosecution evidence on the Hullet case made public when Adams was only facing the charge of murdering Edith Morrell. The magistrates however turned down the application, although the trial judge later offered the opinion that that it would have been wiser if the hearing had been in private, and their decision was later the subject of much criticism.
The Trial of John Bodkin Adams
Described by Rupert Furneux in his Famous Criminal Cases as "one of the greatest murder trials of all time", and by The Times as "the murder trial of the century", the trial of John Bodkin Adams opened at the Old Bailey on the 18th March 1957. The Attorney-General himself, Reginald Manningham-Buller appeared to lead the prosecution (it being regarded appropriate at the time for the Attorney-General to personally prosecute all cases of poisoning) with Geoffrey Lawrence QC appearing for the defence, courtesy of the Medical Defence Union. The trial was presided over by Lord Justice Patrick Devlin, who noted that the case presented the "most curious situation" which was "perhaps unique in these courts, that the act of murder has to be proved by expert evidence".
It was this "most curious situation" which at least partially explained why the trial was to last seventeen days which, at the time, made it the longest murder trial in English criminal history. What the Lord Devlin meant by these remarks was that the first task of the prosecution was to convince the jury that Edith Alice Morrell had in fact been murdered, a far from straightforward task, since they had no body, and the formal cause of death had already been recorded as cerebral thrombosis, albeit by the very person now accused of murdering her. Essentially the prosecution argument was that Morrell had in fact died as a result of the various drugs given to her by Adams. In order to demonstrate this, the prosecution relied firstly on the testimony of the nurses who had attended Morrell during her last days as to what drugs they had actually administered to her on Adams's instructions, and secondly on the expert medical evidence that it was this course of drugs that killed Edith Morrell.
To support the first stand of their case the prosecution produced three witnesses in the form of the nurses Helen Stronach, Helen Mason-Ellis and Caroline Randall, all of whom who had attended Edith Morrell during her last days. Whilst their evidence initially appeared to damn Dr Adams, the defence produced a set of books in which the nurses had recorded details of their treatment, which had apparently been overlooked by the police during their search of Adams's surgery. (Or at least this is what the defence claimed at the time, see note (1) below). The evidence given in court by the nurses was at variance with these contemporary records; a state of affairs which later led the Lord Devlin to conclude during his summing up "that two of the nurses told lies about this matter in the witness box". The prosecution case was further weakened when it was revealed that the nurses had been overheard discussing their evidence and newspaper reports of the trial on the train, and that one nurse had even said to another, "Don't say that or you will get me into trouble".
As far as the second strand of the prosecution case was concerned, the first of their medical experts was Dr Arthur Henry Douthwaite, senior physician at Guy's Hospital. However although Douthwaite believed that Adams had prescribed "the wrong line of treatment from the very beginning" because "he did not understand the right use of dangerous drugs like heroin and morphine", he denied that this showed that Adams intended to commit murder, and would only go so far as say that the later increases in doses prescribed by Adams were designed to accelerate the death of the patient. It also didn't help when Douthwaite was seen to change his mind in open court when presented with the reports of three other doctors in Cheshire who had in fact started off Mrs Morrel on the course of heroin and morphine which Adams had merely continued. The prosecution case was further weakened when the second expert medical witnesses produced by the prosecution, a Dr Michael Ashby said that he couldn't rule out death by natural causes. To cap it all the defence produced their own expert witness, Dr John Harman who testified that whilst Adams's treatment was "unorthodox", it was quite proper.
Nevertheless the prosecution continued, with the Attorney-General apparently believing that he could turn the case around by his cross-examination of Adams himself, only to find that the defence spiked that particular gun when it was decided not to call Adams to the witness stand. Adam's barrister Geoffrey Lawrence apparently concluded that there was no need to take the risk of placing his client on the stand after his own demolition job on the prosecution case, and relied therefore on his closing argument that "trying to ease the last hours of the dying is a doctor's duty" which had "been twisted and turned into an accusation for murder" by the prosecution. Lawrence was no doubt then gratified when the Lord Justice Devlin took the trouble to remark that the defence had put forward a "strong case" in his summing up of the trial. The jury duly took the hint and on the 15th April 1957 took a mere forty-four minutes to return a verdict of not guilty.
After the trial
Given the evidence presented at the trial the verdict was really no surprise, however it was something of a blow to the British press who had been almost unanimous in their belief that Adams was guilty. The notable exception being the Daily Express, who had been convinced of his innocence all along and later paid Adams £10,000 to publish his life story. It was also of course, something of a disappointment for the Attorney-General who then announced that "in view of the length and publicity of the trial, the ordeal which Dr Adams had undergone, and the nature of the evidence", that the Crown did not propose to proceed with the indictment charging Adams with the murder of the Hulletts. Devlin was later to claim that this was "an abuse of power", although it is difficult to see what other course was open to the Attorney-General in the circumstances, since proceeding with a further charge against Adams of murdering a woman whom it had previously been determined had committed suicide had clearly little chance of success.
Adam's solicitor announced that his client was contemplating proceedings against a number of newspapers, and on the 26th April 1957 duly issued writs against the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror and the News Chronicle. Adams also later made a complaint to the Press Council regarding a report in the Daily Herald of the 4th March 1959 that he had taken a holiday in Madeira at the same as a Mrs I.A. Mills and claimed that he was being persecuted by the paper. Although the Press Council held that the Herald had been "seriously at fault" in publishing certain inaccurate information, it didn't uphold the complaint of persecution mainly because it was Mrs Mills that had volunteered much of the information relied upon by the Herald. Adams was however more successful with his libel claim against Associated Newspapers, the publishers of the Daily Mail). This was eventually settled in May 1961, when the defendants apologised and paid damages and costs. Since Adams agreed not to proceed against any other newspapers as part of the settlement, it is almost certain that they also contributed to the overall settlement.
Despite his acquittal on the charge of murder John Bodkin Adams duly resigned from the National Health Service on the 30th June 1957, no doubt in anticipation of his appearance at Lewes Assizes before Justice Pilcher on the 26th July 1957, when he pled guilty to fourteen out of the sixteen sundry other charges that had been laid against him. (The prosecution accepted his plea of not guilty on the two other charges, being one of the four offences under the Cremation Act together with the single charge under the Larceny Act.) Adams was fined £150 in respect of the eight counts of forging prescriptions, £500 on each of three counts of making false statements on cremation forms, £250 for the two offences under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1951, and another fined £500 for failing to keep a register of drugs as required by the Dangerous Drugs Regulations 1953, being a total of £2,400 plus costs.
One could have bought a house for that kind of money in 1957, however according to Time magazine, Adams simply wrote out a cheque on the spot. It turned out that Justice Pilcher had intended imprisoning Adams in respect of the false statements he had made on the cremation forms, but was apparently impressed by the defence evidence that it was almost unheard of for a doctor to answer the question on the cremation form in any way other than Adams had done, irrespective of the circumstances.
Having been convicted of these offences the judge was obliged to refer the matter to the General Medical Council. Adams later appeared before the Disciplinary Committee of the General Medical Council on the 27th November 1957 and was struck off the Medical Register with effect from the 30th December 1957. He subsequently applied to be reinstated to the Medical Register in both 1959 and 1960 but failed on both occasions. He was however successful on the 22nd November 1961, when it was said that it was intention to pursue only research and consultancy work, since his health wasn't strong enough to return to general practice having had a kidney removed in the previous year. He nevertheless continued to receive a steady stream of legacies from his former patients, such as the legacy of £1,000 left to him by an Alice Eugene Williams in 1965 "in gratitude for his great kindness".
Adams spent much of the rest of his life indulging in his favourite hobby of clay pigeon shooting and served as both President and Honorary Medical Officer of the Clay Pigeon Shooting Association. Ironically it was whilst he was out shooting at Battle that he broke his leg on the 1st July 1983. Complications set in and he was admitted to Eastbourne General Hospital where he died on the 4th July 1983 of heart failure. He was cremated and ashes were later buried in the graves of his parents at Coleraine. He left an estate of £402,907 nett, and the major beneficiaries of his will were the twenty women friends "who stood by him in his time of trouble" including his onetime fiancée Nora O'Hara. Adams did not however forget to leave bequests for his housekeeper, chauffer, grocer as well as of course his own doctor. Indeed his housekeeper, Doris Sellens, spoke fondly of her former employer, and told the Argus after his death, that he "was a true Christian and it was only his faith in God which brought him through all those years. Dr Adams was kind to so many people, not only medically but financially as well, if they got into trouble. He was the kindest man in the world."
The Consequences of the Trial
Although the Adams trial generated a great deal of coverage in the press, it wasn't of any great political significance at the time, if only because everyone had more important things to worry about such as the Suez crisis. George Wigg, the Labour member for Dudley did make a call for an independent inquiry into conduct of the case on the 10th April 1957, although none was forthcoming, and whilst the case was debated by Parliament, it was only in order that the opposition might use it as a stick to beat the Attorney-General.
The major political consequence of the trial was the widespread concerns that the press coverage of the committal hearing had indeed prejudiced the subsequent trial. On the same day as Wigg was calling for an independent inquiry, one Ronald Bell, the Conservative member for Buckingham South announced his intention of introducing a private members' bill under the ten minute rule that would prohibit the reporting of a case during the magistrates hearing. Although nothing came of this initiative, the Home Secretary later established the Tucker Committee to look into the whole question of proceedings before examining justices. Its report delivered on the 29th July 1958 recommended that although committal proceedings should continue to be held in public, the reporting of such hearings should be restricted only to the publication of certain limited information such as the name of the accused and the charges they faced. As things turned out the Home Office took its time over this recommendation and it wasn't until the Criminal Justice Act 1967 that this was put into effect. (Although in the interim it became far more common for magistrates to agree to defence requests for private hearings.)
There were also various concerns expressed regarding the reporting of the case by the foreign press, who generally speaking felt free to print what they liked. In particular the European edition of Newsweek, published on the 1st April 1957, contained certain paragraphs which were regarded as being in contempt of court. Of course the British were unable to prosecute the American publishers of the magazine, but they did however prosecute Eldon Griffiths, Newsweek's European correspondent, together with the Rolls House Publishing Company Ltd and WH Smith and Son Ltd for distributing the offending magazine. As it turned out Griffiths was acquitted, whilst the two corporate entities were fined £50 for contempt of court. The government subsequently made attempts to persuade the publishers of various foreign periodicals to voluntarily agree to abide by the British rules for the reporting of trials. However the general response to the request was a blunt refusal.
The Narrative of the case
The first book to be published on the case was The Best We Can Do by Sybille Bedford which appeared in 1958, later reprinted with a new introduction in 1989. (Bedford believed that Adams was indeed innocent of murder.) As it turned out, Bedford's book remained the only work available for many years, as one of the consequences of Adams's successful libel action against Associated Newspapers was that it put paid too much speculation about the case. This all changed when Adams died in 1983 (since the dead cannot sue for defamation) and within a matter of months Rodney Halworth, crime journalist for the Daily Mail, published Where There's A Will: The Sensational Life of John Bodkin Adams in 1983. Halworth alleged that Adams was a compulsive legacy hunter, that he was guilty of a number of murders, and that the whole prosecution had been mishandled by the Attorney-General. The book clearly derived much of its information from the police in general and Herbert Hannam in particular, and has been described as "a sloppy production, careless with detail, presented suspicion as fact, poorly written, and unconcerned about its bias".
This was followed in 1984 by Percy Hoskins's Two Men Were Acquitted. Hoskins was the former crime correspondent of the Daily Express, and regarded himself being one of the 'two men', since Adams's acquittal was also a vindication of his own belief in Adam's innocence. He nevertheless took the view that Adams was a "smug and acquisitive man" who manipulated his patients into rewriting their wills in his favour. He did however reveal that much of the anti-Adams coverage in the press had been planted there by Scotland Yard. The trial judge Patrick Devlin also wrote his own book on the case, Easing the Passing(1985), which was largely concerned with the various legal and technical issues involved in the trial. The case also made it onto television with The Good Doctor Bodkin-Adams in 1986 which featured Timothy West in the title role. The scriptwriter Richard Gordon said at the time that his view was that Adams was innocent, although he did concede that he "was a very bad doctor" who "never kept a proper register of drugs" and "put his patients on morphine far too early", and concluded that the "you could say about him was that he was a bit of a rogue".
Interest in the case rather died down after this brief flurry of excitement but was later revived when Dr Harold Shipman was convicted of the murder of fifteen of his patients on the 31st January 2000. This reawakened interest in Dr Adams's case and gave rise to such newspaper headlines as 'Did Dr Bodkin Adams murder 400 patients?' from the Daily Mail of the 31st December 1999 and 'Copying the model medic who got away with murder' from the Daily Express of the 1st February 2000, all based around the notion that Adams had in some way provided the model for Shipman's campaign of murder. It also inspired a new rash of books, the first of which was The Strange Case of Dr. Bodkin Adams by John Surtees which appeared in 2000 and bore the subtitle 'The Life and Murder Trial of Eastbourne's Infamous Doctor and the Views of Those Who Knew Him'. Surtees is said to have been "even-handed" in his treatment of Adams's life and noted that at the time he was practicing it was commonplace for a doctor to receive bequests from their private patients, particularly in situations like those that Dr Adams found himself in where he was often the only person that many of his elderly patients ever saw.
What might be called the case for the prosecution was re-presented by Pamela Cullen whose A Stranger in Blood: The Story of Dr Bodkin Adams appeared in 2004. She was the first to be granted 'official' access to the Scotland Yard case files, although it is clear that Halworth had previously been given 'unofficial' access to much of the same material. Indeed Cullen largely took the same line as Halworth, and the book was similarly marred by the tendency to treat suspicion as fact, enlivened this time around by the introduction of certain conspiracy theories. The existence of a note regarding the suggestion of a homosexual relationship between a doctor and Roland Gwynne, who had previously been the Mayor of Eastbourne from 1929 to 1931, was taken as 'proof' that Adams was a homosexual, whilst the fact that Adams attended the 10th Duke of Devonshire during his last days and that Harold Macmillan who became Prime Minister on the 10th January 1957 was married to the Duke's sister, is taken as evidence of some connection between Adams and the Conservative government (2) .
Adams the killer?
The first thing to note is that John Bodkins Adams undoubtedly killed many of his patients. He admitted so himself, although from his point of view he was simply "easing the passing" of his dying patients. As far as the medical profession was concerned at the time there was nothing particularly unusual in this, indeed no less a personage than George V himself was helped along the way by his doctor Bertrand Edward Dawson back in 1936, when the king was injected with a speedball of morphine and cocaine, primarily so that he would die in time to meet the deadline for the first edition of the following day's Times. No prosecution was ever brought against Dr Dawson for this act of euthanasia. He was made a viscount.
Certainly the British Medical Association (BMA) saw nothing untoward in Dr Adams's professional behaviour. Their major concern at the time of the Hullett inquest was to ensure that its members paid due heed to the matter of client confidentiality, and a letter was sent to doctors in the Eastbourne area on the 24th August 1956 to remind them of their duty in this respect. (In response, one imagines, to the fact that the police were knocking on surgery doors in an attempt to gather evidence against Adams.) This letter certainly annoyed Scotland Yard who complained to the Attorney-General. He in turn gave the BMA sight of Herbert Hannam's one hundred and eighty-seven page report on the investigation in an attempt to get them to change their minds. However the BMA remained unconvinced and believed the report contained no information that justified any charges being brought against Adams. (The Home Secretary, Gwilym Lloyd-George, was later to express his unhappiness at this decision to allow a third party access to what should have been a confidential document.)
If nothing else this shows that there was a divergence of views between the medical profession and certain members of the police, and indeed the debate about whether or not Adams was a murderer comes down to an argument about medical ethics and the question of euthanasia.
There were certainly those that believed Adams to be a killer. The barrister Milford Stevenson (who led the prosecution at Adams's committal hearing,) was of the opinion that he was "incredibly lucky to have literally got away with murder", whilst Sergeant Charles Hewitt, whose views were given prominence in The Times on the 11th July 1983, claimed that Adams was "without doubt a mass murderer who deserved to be hanged 20 times over". On the other hand Judge Patrick Devlin was to write that "I certainly don't believe that he was a mass murderer" and the he would "best describe him as a mercenary mercy killer", and Charles Aldous, a former mayor of Eastbourne claimed that Adams was merely "the victim of a vicious whispering campaign of rumour and vilification".
As to how many he might have or have not killed, claims that he killed four hundred people are entirely fanciful and relate back to newspaper headlines which mentioned four hundred wills. As noted above Francis Camps believed that there were one hundred and sixty-three "suspicious" cases, the police apparently regarded twenty-five of these as being "stone bonkers", whilst the aforementioned Milford Stevenson, claimed that "there was hard evidence of six cases of murder, and sufficient evidential material to frame a murder charge in something like half a dozen cases". Unfortunately, as we have seen, much of the 'hard evidence' in the case of Edith Alice Morrell turned out to be false evidence. However it is likely that the nurses who perjured themselves at the trial had no intention of so doing. Having been asked to recall the details of the treatment of a patient who had died almost six years previously, (who was likely simply one more patient amongst hundreds), no doubt the nurses tried to be as helpful as possible to the police, and told them what they wanted to know. One suspects that much of the rest of the police investigation was similarly marred by the selective memory of witnesses prompted by leading questions from the detectives concerned, and that much of the 'evidence' gathered would similarly have self-destructed once tested in court.
Charles Hewitt believed (at least with the benefit of hindsight) that the prosecution should have charged Adams with the common law offence of gross negligence manslaughter rather than murder, on the basis that Adams "was a menace" and needed to be "put away", and manslaughter would have been easier to prove than murder, but that the Attorney-General wanted the "kudos and the glory" of a murder conviction in order to further his ambition of becoming Lord Chief Justice (3). There is certainly some merit in this claim, as Mannigham-Buller did aspire to that particular office, and it was widely believed that his less than stellar performance at the Adams trial did indeed count against him when the time came, although whether the prosecution would have fared any better with a charge of manslaughter given the divergence of expert medical opinion is another thing entirely. However one also suspects that the police themselves wanted the "kudos and the glory" of prosecuting a doctor for murder; of course they failed in this regard and had to wait another forty years before Harold Shipman became the first doctor to be successfully prosecuted for homicide.
John Bodkin Adams was undoubtedly an incompetent doctor who had little understanding of the addictive nature of the drugs that he supplied to his patients who, at least as far as current medical standards and expectations are concerned, should not have been permitted to practise. However, he was not so out of step with the standards that applied at the time so as to incur the displeasure of the British Medical Association, and he was likely no better and no worse than many of his peers. He might well have been a greedy and manipulative rogue, but the 'evidence' supporting the claim that he was a serial killer amounts to little more than gossip and innuendo.
(1) In the most recent book on the case, the author Pamela Cullen produced evidence that the police had indeed collected the notebooks from Adam's surgery at the time of their search and that they were logged in as evidence and disclosed as such during the committal hearing. The implication being that these notebooks were subsequently only obtained by the defence by means of some underhand skulduggery involving the possible collusion of some member of the prosecution team. However the point about these notebooks was that they demonstrated that two prosecution witnesses lied in the witness box at the trial, and secondly that taken as a whole, they showed Edith Alice Morrell was indeed a sick woman at death's door as the defence alleged, rather than the otherwise healthy individual struck down by a deliberate drug overdose as the prosecution would have it. It would therefore seem rather beside the point to worry about exactly how the defence got hold of them, particularly since the prosecution would now be required to both disclose their existence to the defence and hand them over on request. The real question is why the prosecution failed to consider this evidence, and whether this failure was simply incompetence or a deliberate attempt to pervert the course of justice.
(2) The inneundo being that Adams would have therefore discovered that the Duke's sister was conducting an affair with Rab Butler and would have used this to blackmail the government into sabotaging their own prosecution. Not that there is any evidence that the Duke of Devonshire ever imparted this knowledge to Adams which was, in any case, common knowledge throughout Fleet Street, Parliament and Society in general.
(3) Charles Hewitt was also of the opinion that it was "bonkers" for the prosecution to "go for one without a body". However it would have been even more "bonkers" to have gone to trial with one 'with a body', unless the exhumation of that body had resulted in clear evidence of foul play. Four bodies were indeed exhumed, although this failed to produce any particular evidence that incriminated Adams. One suspects the prosecution picked a case without a body precisely because the absence of a body made it easier to allege murder given the lack of any substantive evidence.
- Much of the above is based on the contemporary reports of the case in The Times, which in its pre-Murdoch days, produced detailed coverage of the case, including more or less verbatim accounts of both the committal hearing and the trial.
- Kieran Dolin, The Case of Dr. John Bodkin Adams; a "Notable" Trial and Its Narratives from
REAL: Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature, Volume 18, Law and Literature,
edited by Brook Thomas, (Gunter Narr Verlag, 2002)
- Dr. John Adam Bodkins
- Dr John Bodkin Adams
- The Case of Dr John Bodkin Adams
- The Good Doctor Bodkin-Adams (1986) (TV)
- Acquitted, but a trial of the century refuses to end, The Argus, January 3 2000