The “Innocent” Doctor — Was Dr. Adams a Mass-Murderer?
In the eyes of the law Dr John Bodkin Adams was an innocent man. Living a long life to the age of 84 (he died in 1984) Dr. Adams was never convicted of any murders despite a lengthy trial and much suspicion.
And yet, the name of Dr. Adams is synonymous with murderous intent. To this day; historians are still trying to find conclusive proof to tie Dr Adams to murder — murder beyond a reasonable doubt.
This case parallels the later case of serial-killer Dr Harold Shipman. Dr Shipman broke English murder records for the sheer number of victims during his lengthy reign pf terror. Shipman was convicted of fifteen murders but the number could well exceed 200 (possibly 400). He would later cowardly hang himself in his jail cell in 2004 while serving a life without parole prison sentence.
And for 21st Century English readers, it is impossible to think of Adams without thinking of the Shipman tragedy.
Dr Adams however could very well be the doctor that ‘got away with it’ and therein lies the mystery. Was Dr Adams a murderer?
In the mid-50s a rumour hit the genteel English town of Eastbourne like a thunder-strike. The rumour involved local general practitioner Dr John Bodkin Adams. The story went that Dr. Adams was poisoning his patients and pocketing their leftover “legacies”.
Suspicion started in 1950 with the death of Mrs Edith Morrell. It was observed that Dr. Adams had provided Mrs. Morrell with an obscene amount of medication and the old woman soon sank into a deeper sense of unconsciousness and eventual death.
After Morrell’s death Adams received a chest of silver, an antique cupboard and a Rolls-Royce from the deceased’s estate. The Rolls-Royce immediately alerted suspicion.
Dr. Adams was a prolific practitioner of the elderly but once the police got wind of the potential murder-inheritence plot, they listed nine suspcious deaths associated with Dr. Adams.
When the police arrested Dr. Adams — Adams issued a challenge: “I do not think you could prove it was murder.”
At the sensational Old Bailey trial in 1957 (a trial that circulated across the entire globe) — the doctor was said to have been a beneficiary of 132 wills and amassed £45,000.00 in cash.
He was right — they couldn’t prove it.
Dr. Adams had arrived in England in 1922 (having originally emigrated from Ireland). He was a charming man with a strong Irish brogue and he settled into the seaside town of Eastbourne well.
In his spare time Dr. Adams was a Bible carrying man of religious fervour.
But not without his critics, Dr. Adams had irked the local Salvation Army by claiming that he was a direct representative of God. The narcissistic delusions of grandeur would be a typical trait of the transgressive, the greedy and the murderous.
At fifty seven years old (at the time of his charging), Dr. Adams was a bachelor. A pious man of what seemed to be immovable faith. How could this community serving doctor be guilty of murder?
One of the initial tip-offs to Scotland Yard was an anonymous letter which stated that Dr. Adams had benefited from the wills of his own deceased patients.
As the coroners dug deep into Dr. Adams’ history, they had identified that Gertrude Joyce Hullett (a previous patient of Dr. Adams) had been treated with sodium barbiturate. A police pathologist said that there was a fatal dose in Mrs. Hullett’s body. However; the death was ruled as a suicide. The coroner had stated that there was an “extraordinary element of careless treatment” by Dr. Adams.
During the Eastbourne Hearing Superintendent Hannam (the investigating officer) reported that Dr. Adams had benefited from a very large list of legacies from various older patients and that Dr. Adams was often to benefit in one way or another from many of the wills of his patients (often asking for gifts as opposed to ‘fees’).
During questioning with Hannam, the doctor had said “…easing the passing of a dying person is not all that wicked. She wanted to die. That can’t be murder. It is impossible to accuse a doctor.”
And another quote at the time of his arrest was [with regards to Mrs. Morrell] “She was dying in any event.”
The case conducted by the crown was in substance the following:
Mrs. Morrell had suffered from cerebral sclerosis, a hardening of the vessels which supplied blood to the brain, and in June of 1948, when she was seventy-nine, had a stroke which had resulted in some loss of movement on one side of her body. Shortly after which she came into the care of Dr. Adams.
Dr. Adams had begun prescribing morphine for her condition, and later heroin as well…. Dr. Adams had made her a drug addict purposefully and, [Mrs. Morrell] became dependent on him. In this way he had hoped to induce her to provide for him generously in her will…
The case against Adams rested there but it seemed apparent that the Crown’s case stood on shaky ground.
Another suspicious ‘treatment’ provided by Dr. Adams was that on Mr. Hullett (husband of Gertrude), a seventy-one year old insurance worker that was being treated for cancer.
Still convalescent in February 1955, when Dr. Adams was treating Mr. Hullett, his condition suddenly and rapidly worsened. Dr. Adams (according to a nurse) was injecting the patient with hyperduric morphia.
Dr. Adams administered a final injection to Mr. Hullett during an attack of breathlessness on 13th March 1955, and Mr. Hullett died.
Dr. Adams then received £500.00 on Mr. Hullett’s will and had failed to declare his interest on the cremation certificate.
There were three nurses testifying against Dr. Adams during the trial. And one nurse in particular was found to be tripping over her own words during cross-examination by Dr. Adams’ ferocious counsel Sir Geoffrey Frederick Lawrence. Lawrence was a Johnny Cochrane of his day and took to task the ‘prosecuting’ witnesses. Lawrence demolished every statement made by Nurse Stronach.
Nurse Stronach was discredited in front of the jury for her unreliable testimony, narrative and poor memory recall by the shrewd and experienced Lawrence.
At the adjournment for the day, the judge warned the three nurses not to discuss the case between themselves. But on the train home the rabbiting nurses talked and talked about the trial. This was reported by eavesdroppers on the train and brought to the attention of the judge. When the judge addressed this indiscretion, it emerged that some of the answers given by Nurse Stronach were untrue testimony.
Lawrence had a field day with this emerging information.
The remainder of the trial became an interesting topic of debate on the responsibilities towards doctors towards their patience and the ethical dilemmas involved.
But after the defence summarised their points and clung to the unreliability of the nurses’ testimony the jury adjourned.
Forty-three minutes later they returned with a verdict.
Matters of Guilt?
Though not aired in court, the following cases could also link Dr. Adams to that of murderous doctoring.
- Agnes Pike was treated in 1939 by Dr. Adams. While in the treatment of a supervising doctor named Dr. Matthews, Adam had stepped forward out of nowhere and gave Pike an injection or morphine. Asked why he did this Adams replied “because she might become violent.” Matthews interjected in the treatment administered by Dr. Adams and withdrew all previous medication prescribed by Adams.
- In 1950, Amy Ware died — aged seventy-six. Adams had banned Ware from seeing her relatives prior to her death. Adams pocketed £1,000.00 from Ware’s estate.
- Annabelle Kilgour had suffered a stroke in 1950. While in a coma Dr. Adams was administering sedatives. This was another case where a nurse had allegedly witnessed Adams giving the ‘wrong type of injection’. Adams was left £200.00 by Mrs. Kilgour.
- In 1952 Adams purchased 5,000 phenobarbital tablets. When his house was searched by police, none were left.
- Julia Bradnum died at the age of eighty-five in May 1952. Adams received £661.00 inheritance. While treating the patient, Adams was often seen holding her hand, while chatting on one knee. Dr. Adams had listed the cause of death on the death certificate as Cerebral Haemorrhage however this was discounted upon examination by coroner Francis Camps.
- When Julia Thomas, aged seventy-two, came to the doctor in 1952 for depression, she was given sedatives and died the next day. Dr. Adams collected Julia Thomas’ typewriter stating “she promised me [her typewriter].”
- Hilda Miller died after treatment from Dr. Adams in 1953 — she was aged eighty-six. Adams was seen rummaging through Miller’s room after her death and putting her possessions in his pocket.
- Clara Neil Miller, died aged eighty-seven in 1954. Adams was left £1275.00 from Miller’s estate, being the sole executor of her will. Clara was exhumed during the police investigation.
After the acquittal Adams resigned as a doctor and was later struck off the medical registration. Adams sold his story to the newspapers and had made £10,000.00 from the Daily Express. He spent the remainder of his time in Eastbourne, despite the local animosity and left an estate of £400,000.00 in 1983. The trial and accusations had made Dr. Adams a celebrity of the worst kind of notoriety.
In 1955 Dr. Adams hit headlines across the world. It was the OJ Simpson of its era. And it all happened in a small-English town. Today, the case is largely forgotten but the mystery remains — WAS ADAMS GUILTY?
Dr. Adams lived his life as a free man and died having feasted off the inheritance of many of his own patients. But despite a lot of evidence, less than flattering to Dr. Adams — he is an innocent doctor.
But was he actually guilty?
The Ability to Kill by Eric Ambler