originally published February 16, 2014
Once a half-century has elapsed since the final sonorous thump of a trial-ending gavel, one would expect that the truth had found the time to leak out. But the case of John Bodkin Adams remains as cloaked in murk and interpretation as it ever was. Even when the facts are sprawled upon the proverbial table, stripped of the political interference and the scandalous habber-jabber that had mired them in an elusive fog all those years ago, we are left wondering.
Was Adams a greedy mass-murderer? An undiagnosed serial killer? A pre-Kevorkian dispenser of discreet compassion? To muse on these conclusions is a purely trivial endeavor now, as the case and all of its participants are long-buried beneath the gravel of history.
But the facts remain, and speculation can twirl a hundred dance steps in a hundred different directions, landing exhausted in a heap of maybes. For the families of the deceased, those maybes have been perpetual ghosts in the flue for so long, they have become permanently intertwined with the cobwebs of their families’ history.
John’s medical practice began in 1922, based out of Eastbourne, Sussex. He had not been a stellar student at med school but his charm and adept schmoozery helped him establish a solid practice as a general practitioner. On the cusp of the Great Depression, John borrowed £2000 from a patient (that’s over a hundred grand in today’s poundage) to buy an 18-room house in which he’d reside for the remainder of his days. A little weird? Maybe, but let’s not spend all our brow-furrows in one place.
In 1935 John inherited a sum of £7,385 from a patient. This turned a few of his peers’ heads and caused an uproar from the deceased’s family. They contested the will, but the paperwork was solid. It didn’t help with John’s reputation though; when World War II broke out, he was locked out of a pool among local GP’s in which they’d treat one another’s patients when one of them got called overseas. That’s okay – he did his part by becoming an anesthesiologist.
A crappy anesthesiologist.
John fell asleep on the job. He’d mix up the anesthetic tubes; he’d even snack while on duty. This wasn’t his calling. When the war ended, he returned to being a GP and by 1956 he was likely the wealthiest GP in all of England. Not necessarily because he commanded stellar rates for extraordinary care. No, John’s fortune was amassed in a more sinister way. Between 1946 and 1956, 310 of his patients passed away. 163 of those were deemed to have passed away under ‘suspicious circumstances’. Of those, 132 left John money or objects in their wills.
Trying to spin this in a way that doesn’t make John look like a loot-grubbing mass-murderer isn’t particularly easy. But this onion has a few more layers yet.
The police began investigating John in 1956. Detective Superintendent Herbert Hannam of Scotland Yard was leading the charge. He pressured the British Medical Association to ease up on their insistence of doctor-patient confidentiality as it applied to the deceased patients John Bodkin Adams may have worked with. Hannam wanted to pin something on this guy.
When Hannam’s team was searching John’s house, John tried to slip a couple of morphine bottles into his pocket. The names on the bottles were for one patient who had died under his care just nine days earlier and for another whose records stated she’d never been prescribed morphine. Why morphine? In 1952 John had administered an injection to his cousin Sarah just an hour before she lost her lengthy and gruesome battle with cancer. So was John simply assisting with a peaceful transition to the smoky beyond for these terminal patients? Were they thanking him in their wills in a way they couldn’t with quick cash?
Before we drape the fuzzy blanket of palliative Robin Hood over John’s shoulders, we should watch as events get even weirder. There was a rumor of an illicit love triangle between John, the mayor of Eastbourne and the town’s deputy chief constable. Homosexuality was still illegal in England at the time, and while there was never any substantiation to tweak these rumors into public fact, they did suggest that John had some close ties with people of influence. The way the ensuing legal proceedings would unfold would back that up.
John was arrested on December 19, 1956. He was charged with the murder of Edith Alice Morrell – quite possibly one of the most unconvictable suspicious cases in John’s roster.
Edith was a widow – a wealthy one, of course – who had suffered a stroke in 1948. John treated her with morphine, gradually increasing the dose and eventually sprinkling in some heroin. There was plenty to nudge a few eyebrows in the air; John inherited a tidy sum from Ms. Morrell, including a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. Means, motive and opportunity; it could have been a slam-dunk case. But everything about this trial was wonky.
A number of nurses’ notebooks went missing for starters, and the ones that were produced indicated that John was giving out much smaller and more reasonable doses than the nurses’ verbal testimony. Edith’s body had been cremated, leaving no evidence of what had caused her death. Plus, John didn’t keep any log book of the dangerous drugs he’d been giving out. Also, Lord Chief Justice Rayner Goddard, the prosecutor, had been seen dining with the aforementioned Mayor of Eastbourne, the man who was allegedly John’s lover. This could be why John himself was never called by either side to testify – it seems as though there was resistance somewhere up the line to deliver a smooth conviction.
It took the jury 44 minutes to return a verdict of not guilty. John ended up charged with 13 cases of prescription fraud, lying on cremation forms, failing to keep a register of his dangerous drug dispersals, and obstructing justice during that search. He lost his medical license… for four years.
The list of suspicious cases in John’s history read like a horror novel. Patients whose only debilitating malady appeared to be drug addiction (thanks to John) were denied access to their families. People were falling into a coma after being treated for depression with barbiturates. Trips to the bank were taken so that wills could be rewritten with the doctor leaning over the patient’s shoulder. And in the end, John returned to practicing medicine and continued to do so until his death in 1983.
Historian Pamela Cullen gained access to the entirety of John’s police files in 2003. She read everything and concluded that John was acquitted not because he was actually innocent, but because of how the case was handled in court. We’ll never know the full truth about what happened in the twilight hours of these dying patients, whether John was acting with subversive compassion at the behest of some suffering souls, or if he simply struck at the weakened for a quick profit. But 163 patients in ten years?
The court of my own semi-informed opinion is tempted to disagree with the findings of the British legal system on this one.