Harry’s Ramblings – Eastbourne’s alleged mass murderer
Much you are about to read is based on fact. One of Eastbourne’s general practitioner was tried at the Old Bailey in 1957, accused of murdering one of his patients. The authorities at the time considered over one hundred and sixty such deaths, with one particular demise a particularly strong likelihood of conviction.
Dr. John Bodkin Adams was born in 1899 in Antrim, Ireland, into a strict Plymouth Brethren family, a movement he was to remain a member of throughout his long life. He was the first born, father dying in 1914, younger brother four years later, so when he ultimately moved to the genteel English south coast town of Eastbourne in 1922 he arrived with his mother and female cousin.
The health service in those days was private, National Health not arriving until 1948, so as a paid doctor his advantage was retaining single status, a Christian practice, and a good manner with patients. After seven growing years, he borrowed £2,000 from a patient so he could purchase an 18 room house close to town centre, eminently suitable as a surgery with living accommodation for all.
Dr. Adams, with mother and cousin, would frequently arrive uninvited for meals at this patient’s house, then the doctor would charge items at local stores without any authority. The lady of the house described him as a ‘scrounger’.
Over the next ten years, rumours abounded concerning the early and sudden demise of his patients, who it transpired had left him considerable sums in their wills. He received about four anonymous postcards a year accusing him of assisting them on their early ways, and until WW2 commenced, he was regarded as the wealthiest GP in Eastbourne. He trained as an anaesthetist, but colleagues didn’t enjoy working with him, he was falling asleep, eating cakes, counting money, patients waking up on the table, or they even turned blue.
After WW2, his practice grew considerably, with wealthier patients far exceeding the poor ones. Rumours persisted that he was assisting patients on their way, with financial benefits, but he was such a popular local man with considerable influence in social and legal circles that these doubts were always ignored. Dr. Adams was rarely the sole beneficiary, but the sums were considerable, with legacies in at least 132 recorded wills. Cremation and interment forms were completed for speedy funerals.
It all came to a head in July 1956 when local police received a call from the entertainer Leslie Henson, who was unhappy about the death of his friend Gertrude Hullett, who had died suddenly while under the care of Dr. Adams. After a month, due to local sensitivity, a superintendent and sergeant were assigned the case from Scotland Yard. It was soon obvious that Dr. Adams was guilty of forging prescriptions, making false statements, and mishandling drugs, but other than receiving legacies from grateful patients, there was no obvious case for him to answer. Police enquiries were to be extensive, where it appeared he had administered strong doses of pain killers shortly before death occurred. At his trial the defence would make the case that death occurred coincidentally very soon afterwards, but the injection was given to relieve pain, not cause death. How could he be guilty under these circumstances.
Just because he benefitted financially in the wills did not correlate to murder.
They dragged up his private life, stating that he was a confirmed bachelor in the social company of other single men, holidaying together, influential men in the Eastbourne legal and business profession, which of course was completely irrelevant.
Strangely, despite the case for murdering one of his patients, Mrs. Hullett, was a lot stronger, the decision to prosecute the case at the Old Bailey concerning Mrs. Morrell instead considered bizarre. Mrs. Hullett was a wealthy widow, suffered a stroke in 1950, became a patient of Dr. Adams, who prescribed and administered morphine which she became addicted to. Only expected to live for six months, she survived for two years in increasing pain and morphine dependency. Dr. Adams was present close to her death, on examining her body he slit her wrists to ensure that she had died. Bizarre. He billed for 1,100 visits, when it was estimated he had only called 321 times. Only a small legacy out of an estate over £150,000, but he was ultimately given the Rolls Royce.
After a trial lasting 17 days. Dr. Adams was found not guilty of the murder of Mrs. Morrell when the jury retired for less than ¾ hour deliberations. His medical licence was then withdrawn because of misdemeanours including not maintaining the dangerous drugs register. He was described as the wealthiest GP in the whole of Britain, with two Rolls Royce to drive, a cellar full of vintage wine, and considerable sums of cash.
After four years he was restored as a doctor, with loyal patients paying to be treated, continuing bequeathing legacies until he finally died in 1983. Dr. John Bodkin Adams left an estate of £402,970. Many allegations, nothing major ever proved.