Dr John Bodkin Adams was a British doctor, convicted fraudster, and suspected serial killer. Between 1946 and 1956, 163 of his patients died while under his care, and 132 patients left him substantial sums of money or items in their wills.
"Scotland Yard's murder squad is to investigate the suspected mass poisoning of wealthy women in Eastbourne during the past twenty years. Because the vast extent of the murder suspicions is not yet known they will start by examining the Wills of more than 400 men and women who died in the town, and their investigations may uncover the most sensational episode in British criminal history."
This strange little paragraph appeared in the Daily Mail on 22 August 1956 - strange because it is obviously accusing some person, or persons, of mass murder, while at the same time admits that the inquiry has not yet even begun.
The "mass murderer" was an unprepossessing fat man named Dr John Bodkin Adams, and the Mail paragraph marked the beginning of his trial - not his trial in a court of law, but his trial by the British press. What followed is, in itself, one of "the most sensational episodes in British criminal history..."
"It is expected", added the mail as an afterthought, "that the names of twenty-five people will be picked out as possible victims of a maniac."
Bodkin Adams certainly looked as if he had been specially cast for the role of a maniacal mass murderer, with a figure like that of Sidney Greenstreet, the urbane villain of The Maltese Falcon, and plump, pendulous cheeks that made him look like a rather sinister baby.
The event that had brought Bodkin Adams to the attention of the press - and the police - was the apparent suicide of one of his patients, Mrs "Bobbie" Hullett. Bobbie Hullett had been shattered by the death of her second husband Jack, a rich, retired businessman, who was suffering from cancer of the bowel. This was the second husband that she had lost in five years, and the death of the first had also brought her close to suicide.
In July 1956 Bodkin Adams spent an evening with her, and she gave him a cheque for £1,000 - money that she said her husband had intended to give the doctor for a new car. Two days after this, she retired to bed suffering from dizziness and headache. Bodkin Adams called to see her. The next afternoon she went into a coma and died in hospital a few days later. It looked to the doctors very much like suicide. Bodkin Adams wrote a letter to the coroner, mentioning that he had been prescribing small doses of sodium barbiturate as a sleeping tablet, and added the odd phrase: "She could not possibly have secreted any of this." He added that he had examined her room for empty bottles or cartons, and found nothing to suggest she had any poison.
When the coroner, Dr A.C. Sommerville, read this letter his suspicions were immediately aroused, and he called for a second post-mortem. When that proved inconclusive, he asked for a third post-mortem to be performed by the famous "crime doctor", Francis Camps. Camps took some of Mrs Hullett's organs back to London with him. The coroner made an unusual decision to hold the inquest in private without informing the press. That in itself suggested that he suspected there was "dirty work afoot". When the inquest was adjourned awaiting further information, a journalist for the local newspaper, the Brighton Argus, was informed about the secret investigation. He hurried to the police station for more details but the Chief Constable shook his head saying, "I cannot go into it any further." As he was leaving the police station, a police officer remarked casually, "You on this Hullett job? Well, it's about time somebody caught up with that bloody doctor."
What had "that bloody doctor" done to incur suspicion? He had, to begin with, been phenomenally successful. Adams was an Ulster Protestant, who had arrived in Eastbourne in 1923 in answer to an advertisement for "A Christian young doctor assistant". He started his rounds on a motorbike. Two years later he was driving a two-seater car. And within three years of joining the practice, he was being driven by a chauffeur. Eastbourne was full of rich, retired businessmen, and Bodkin Adams was always a popular guest at their social gatherings.
There were also many lonely but wealthy old ladies in Eastbourne and Dr Adams seemed to have a natural gift for bringing them comfort. In 1935, one of these old ladies, Mrs Matilda Whitton, left him £3,000, a very substantial sum for those days, and equivalent to about £30,000 in the devalued currency of today. He was also the executor of her will, which caused many raised eyebrows. The will was challenged in court by the family, but it was upheld. That was the beginning of the whispering campaign against Bodkin Adams. Then, over the years, the doctor received many more bequests: £1,000 from a spinster, Irene Herbert, £4,000 in shares from Mrs Emily Mortimer, £1,000 from Mrs Amy Ware, a Rolls-Royce from Mrs Edith Morrell, £200 from Mrs Annabella Kilgour, £100 from Mrs Mary Prince, £100 from Mrs Theodora Hullett - the previous wife of Jack Hullett, £800 from Mrs Julia Bradnum, £500 from Mrs Annie Dowding, £5,200 from Mrs Clara Miller, £750 from Mrs Florence Cavill, £100 from Sidney Prince, £250 from George Blunt, and £1,000 from James Downs. These bequests amounted to a total of nearly £22,000, most of it from elderly widows and spinsters, some of whom had left Dr Adams a substantial part of their fortune. (Claire Miller, for example, left Adams £5,200 out of a total estate worth £7,000) Not to mention the Rolls-Royce, silver cutlery, and other such items...
It can be said that Bodkin Adams was both a very charming and a very lucky man. It would not be surprising if overworked police officers felt certain envy as they saw his name figure again and again in reports of legacies in the Brighton Argus. Yet a dozen or so legacies do not constitute proof that the man who received them is guilty of murder. In late August 1956, most of the British press chose to ignore this simple piece of logic. The Bodkin Adams case was discussed as if there could be no doubt that he would shortly be charged with mass poisoning. One of the few sane voices was that of Percy Hoskins, the Daily Express crime reporter. He wrote an article in which he pointed out that so far, it was a case of smoke without fire. It was not true that 400 wealthy widows had been murdered; it was not true that the murderer had been at work for 20 years; it was not true that more than £1 million was involved. But this was not the kind of story that the great British public wanted to read. It was not even the kind of story that Hoskin's boss, Lord Beaverbrook, wanted to read; he told Hoskins that he had better be right, or his head would be on the chopping block.
Bodkin Adams seemed to have a gift for putting his own head on the chopping block. Just before the continuation of the inquest of Bobbie Hullett, he wrote the coroner another letter, admitting that two months before her death he had been on a trip to Dublin with Mrs Hullett and two other ladies. Mrs Hullett had forgotten her sleeping tablets so he had given her eight Barbiturate tablets. Looking back on it now, he realised that she was in possession of more barbiturates than might be good for her - enough to kill herself, for example. The coroner felt that this was highly suspicious. At the inquest, he went out of his way to ask the police superintendent, "Has the Chief Constable of Eastbourne invoked the aid of Scotland Yard to investigate certain deaths in this neighbourhood?"' The superintendent replied that he had done so. The question was totally irrelevant but the coroner seemed to be telling the press to expect further spectacular developments. However, the verdict of the inquest was that Bobbie Hullett had committed suicide.
Two days later, Hoskins travelled up to London on the same train as Bodkin Adams and was startled that the doctor seemed unaware of the seriousness of the situation. He warned him that his whole future, perhaps his life itself, was in danger. Yet Bodkin Adams seemed wholly unconcerned. He was either innocent or supremely confident.
Whether he liked it or not, Bodkin Adams had become a celebrity. Newspaper men from all over the world flooded to Eastbourne. One French newspaper ran a headline: IS THE BLUEBEARD OF EASTBOURNE ABOUT TO BE UNMASKED? The British press had to be slightly more cautious, but the implication was as plain as a banner headline.
Superintendent Herbert Hannam, who was in charge of the Scotland Yard investigation, had a difficult task ahead of him: studying the record of over 100 deaths. But on 2 November 1956, he was ready to present his case against Bodkin Adams. There were 13 charges, nine of them fairly minor accusations about "feloniously" giving drugs to patients who were not supposed to receive them. These were mainly to prepare the ground for the major accusations: that Bodkin Adams had concealed the fact that he had a pecuniary interest in the deaths of Amy Ware, Edith Morrell, James Downs, and Jack Hullett, and had "procured their burial" or cremation. In other words, that Bodkin Adams was anxious to conceal that he was a beneficiary in the wills of these patients until he had their bodies safely buried or burned.
Bodkin Adams may have been unaware that his life was in danger but his solicitor had no illusions about it. He asked the doctor if he had any detailed records about the various cases, particularly the Morrell case. Adams shook his head vaguely. Probably not. All he could remember was that he did receive a parcel of nurses' records after her illness, but he could no longer remember what had happened to it. His solicitor made him search the house. At 3 a.m. they unearthed the missing parcel containing eight small notebooks. It was these that would provide the most dramatic moment of the trial.
On 18 December 1956, Superintendant Hannam arrested Bodkin Adams and charged him with the murder of Mrs Morrell. The solicitor's instinct about her case had been correct. The next morning, Bodkin Adams faced a long list of charges, the last of which was that in November 1950 he did "feloniously, wilfully and of malice aforethought...kill and murder Edith Alice Morrell". Adams was then taken to Brixton prison.
Why was Adams in the dock when there was no real proof against him? Superintendent Hannam's inquiries had led him to believe that he was dealing with a cunning swindler and an infinitely subtle killer. He came to believe that Adams had altered wills on several occasions and the bodies of his patients were cremated instead of being buried. He believed that in the last few days of one woman's life, Adams had forged cheques to the value of £18,000. He uncovered one suspicious deal in which Adams had influenced two women to leave their house and live in a flat. He then sold the house and kept the money for three years until he was forced to reimburse it after a writ was served on him. Whether or not Adams was a murderer, he was certainly a greedy and rather dishonest man. On one occasion, he had been struck by a gold-headed cane and chased out of the house by an indignant husband after saying, "Leave your estate to me and I'll look after your wife" - the man's wife was lying seriously ill in bed at the time.
Then there was the case of Mrs Annabella Kilgour, not mentioned in the indictments. In 1950, Adams called on Mrs Kilgour, and her nurse reported that she was restless. "I'll give her an injection to give her a good night's sleep", said Adams; and, to the nurse's astonishment, gave the old lady an injection with a dose that seemed far too high. Mrs Kilgour fell into a coma immediately and died the next morning. When Adams called that morning the nurse told him, "Mrs Kilgour is dead. You realize, doctor, that you've killed her?" She recalled later, "I have never seen a man look so frightened in my life," Mrs Kilgour left Adams £2,000.
It would appear, therefore, that Hannam had every reason to suspect Bodkin Adams of being a mercenary and greedy man who had no hesitation in administering overdoses to his patients.
The trial opened at the Old Bailey on 18 March 1957. The case against Bodkin Adams was presented by the Attorney General, Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller, and it sounded damning. Mrs Morrell was 81 years old when she died. She was suffering from the hardening of the arteries of the brain and from the effects of a stroke, which had left her paralysed on the left side. She was rarely in any pain - such a condition is seldom attended with pain. Yet Bodkin Adams prescribed huge doses of pain-killing drugs - morphia, heroin, barbiturates, and sedormid. Why should he do that unless it was his aim to make his patient a drug addict, who would be grateful to him for keeping her supplied?
Adams had called on Mrs Morrell's solicitor and told him that Mrs Morrell had promised to leave him a Rolls-Royce and a case of silver cutlery. He also said Mrs Morrell had recollected that she had forgotten to do this, so she wanted her solicitor to prepare a codicil. If it did not meet with her approval it could be destroyed later. The solicitor called on Mrs Morrell and she executed the codicil. It was then that Adams made a tremendous increase in the quantity of drugs he was prescribing her, and she spent much of the time in a coma. It would seem that Adams killed her by giving her these massive overdoses. On the last evening of her life, he had prescribed an injection in a 5cc syringe, instead of the usual 2cc syringe. Three hours later he had repeated the dose. One hour after that Mrs Morrell died.
But for those who, like the reporter Percy Hoskins, felt that Adams was "a dead duck", there was a great surprise to come.
Four of the chief prosecution witnesses were undoubtedly the nurses who had attended Mrs Morrell at the end of her life, and who had provided the prosecution with the evidence about massive overdoses. On the second morning of the trial, the prosecution questioned Nurse Stronach, a stocky woman with a firm jaw. She testified that the patient had been "rambling and semiconscious". She admitted that the patient had told her she was suffering pain, "but I considered it neurotic".
Then the defence, Mr Geoffrey Lawrence, took over. He asked her what injections she had given the old lady and whether it had been a quarter grain of morphia? The nurse agreed. Had not Dr Adams then arrived and given Mrs Morrell a further injection, without telling her what it was? The nurse agreed. Lawrence asked her if it was not the practice that all injections were noted down in a book. She agreed.
The defence now exploded its bombshell. Mr Lawrence produced an exercise book. He asked, "Is that the night report for June 1950? Is that your handwriting?" The nurse had to agree that it was. Lawrence then read aloud a long passage, which demonstrated that Nurse Stronach had, indeed, recorded exactly what she had given the patient - milk and brandy, a sedormid tablet, more milk, and brandy. She had also recorded that the patient had called her a nasty, common woman. Then Lawrence read out another entry - a description of the old lady's lunch consisting of partridge, celery, and pudding, followed by brandy and soda. Hardly the lunch of a semi-conscious woman...
Lawrence pressed home the attack. Nurse Stronach had declared earlier that Mrs Morrell had been dopy and half asleep when Dr Adams had given her an injection; this was because she had already given Mrs Morrell an injection. But the record showed that Nurse Stronach had not given her an injection...
This was, in fact, the turning point of the trial. The defence had established that the nurses were not as reliable as the prosecution believed. The same point was reinforced when the other three nurses were cross-examined. Nurse Randall was asked about the normal dose of paraldehyde, the drug that was supposed to have killed the old lady. She answered, "two cc would be a normal dose." Lawrence pointed out that the British Pharmacopoeia gave the full dose as 8cc, and the embarrassed nurse admitted that she had not known that.
The crucial point, of course, was that last injection of 5cc, which Dr Adams was alleged to have prepared, and which had been given by Nurse Randall. The record showed that no such injection had been given. The trial was to continue for 13 days more; but in effect, it was now over. It was almost a formality for the judge to find Bodkin Adams Not Guilty. When Percy Hoskins returned to his office, Lord Beaverbrook rang him and told him, "Percy, two men have been acquitted today - Adams and Hoskins." After that, Adams and Hoskins left for a secret hideaway, perhaps where Hoskins could write up the story of Dr John Bodkin Adams at his leisure.
But were two men acquitted? Was Hoskins right to believe that Bodkin Adams was innocent? He was possibly right to believe Adams was no sinister Bluebeard who carefully planned the murder of his patients. Yet we must remember that Adams was tried only for one murder. Would the verdict have been the same if the jury had known as much about him as Superintendent Hannam knew? He was found innocent because it was proved that the nurses had been mistaken on so many minor points. But were they lying when they alledged that Bodkin Adams had turned Mrs Morrell into a drug addict?
We know that Bodkin Adams was almost childishly greedy and avaricious. We know he was capable of putting pressure on his patients to make them leave him money in their wills. We know he was capable of giving at least one old lady an overdose that killed her - whether deliberately or out of carelessness. Is is not conceivable that he did the same to others when it suited his purposes? It is difficult to believe that Bodkin Adams was the wronged innocent that Percy Hoskins makes him out to be. In fact, it is hard not to feel that if the jury had found him guilty, no great injustice would have been committed. The Story of Sylvia Likens: A Young Girl Tortured, Abused, And Murdered By Gertrude Baniszewski