The Doctor Who Used His Patients’ Deaths to Get Rich
Society places significant trust in doctors. It’s a job with a high degree of training and accountability, one that is granted a high degree of prestige. My father worked until a couple of years ago, when he was 51 years old, to become a doctor. It wasn’t the money that appealed, because what he made as a resident and during his training led us to move around one-floor apartment complexes.
It was the prestige. And it broke his heart as well as the rest of my family when I decided I wanted to be a teacher, not a doctor.
One doctor who undermined that prestige was John Bodkin Adams. Adams is, according to Cameron Mitchell at BBC, the subject of the “murder trial of the century.” It was a case so sensational that in 1986, Timothy West starred in the docudrama “The Good Doctor Bodkin-Adams,” which featured accusations of the doctor killing his patients and stealing their money for personal gain.
Adams was a British general practitioner and convicted fraudster. He is also suspected of being a serial killer, but the case is especially notable since Adams was never actually found guilty of murder or professional negligence.
According to Richard Bevan at The Crime & Investigation Network, there is substantial dispute over whether John Bodkin Adams used painkillers to carry out mercy killings for his patients, or whether he murdered them. This is his story and his legacy.
Early in his life, John Bodkin Adams was raised in Ulster in Northern Ireland, and he was born into an intensely religious family. His father, Samuel Adams, was a preacher of the local congregation. Their family was part of a sect of Christianity known as Plymouth Brethren, which was a very strict Protestant denomination.
Samuel Bodkin Adams had a big interest in cars, which he passed on to his son, and since the family couldn’t make a living from preaching, he was a watchmaker in his day job. John had one younger brother, William Samuel, who died in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
John went to The Queen’s University of Belfast at 17. At university, according to Cullen, professors often called John Bodkins Adams a “lone wolf” who didn’t have many friends. He graduated from university in 1921. He spent one year working as an assistant horseman at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, but he didn’t spend a very long time there.
The next year, he got a job as a general practitioner in Eastbourne, a town on the south coast of England. Dr. John Cocker notes it’s a place where the elderly usually retire, and where taking care of female retirees is usually very lucrative.
Eastbourne would be where Adams would make his career and his wealth.
According to Emily Webb in Angels of Death, Dr. Adams had the luck of the Irish. He had a reputation for being a very attentive doctor with great bedside manner.
Starting out, he wasn’t known to have the best of medical skills. Joining a Christian hospital, Adams fit right in due to his faith.
But eventually, Adams was very successful at Eastbourne. When he was 30 years old, he purchased a villa for £3000 (about £130,000 today), borrowing the money from a patient, putting some money from his own savings into a vacation home. He furnished it very lavishly and made a lounge in the villa decorated with violet chocolates.
Cocker says he became a senior partner by 1936. But rumors started circulating that Adams profited off rich, elderly widows, through unscrupulous means. And once he started to profit, he started flaunting himself, being driven by a chauffeur in a Rolls-Royce.
While working at a private Christian hospital, Adams was known to be kind and generous to all his patients. His reputation started to attract wealthy patients, which made other co-workers very jealous of his success. He ignored local consultants, and often referred his patients to specialists in London, taking them in his Rolls-Royce. Cocker acknowledges that Adams wasn’t a particularly attractive man, but he treated his patients very well.
He was often on-call all day and all night, and the reputation for his bedside manner only grew and grew. While he was a doctor, however, Adams had obsolete practices like using hot water treatment for pain. He would also over-prescribe painkillers and administer them while kicking nurses out of the room.
Since he dealt with many patients close to death, he often persuaded them to remember him in their wills. He convinced them that bills he sent them were highly taxed, and money sent to charity would often be subject to scams. And since he was so charitable himself, he would give the money to good causes.
Adams was wildly effective in getting patients to write him their wills. He received money from 350 wills and accrued a great amount of private wealth. Other doctors were very jealous.
“It was medical gossip that once you had made out a will in Dr Adams’ favour, you would not live long,” Cocker says.
Webb says in one particularly lucrative will, Adams was paid £7000 (£300,000 today) by a widow in Eastbourne. While the widow’s relatives would contest the will, Adams would win the court battles.
These rumors would lead to a police investigation over two patients in particular. One patient, Mrs. Hullett, died one year after she received bowel cancer surgery. She left John Bodkin Adams £500. But the cause of death, according to his widow, was a barbiturate overdose. She gave him a £1000 check in her will. The day after she died, Dr. Adams cashed the check. When she gave the bank clerk the check, the clerk questioned the signature, but Adams convinced the clerk to cash it due to her sickness.
The widow who raised suspicion
In 1950, the death of an 81-year-old widow named Edith Morrell would raise suspicion. Her body was cremated, and Webb notes her death was known as the “murder without a body.” The police sent a warrant to search Adams’s house for drugs.
Morrell was known as an emotional woman, but in 1948, after a stroke, Adams prescribed her morphine. Soon, Morrell became addicted to morphine and other pain medication. Only Adams was in control of her prescriptions, and while she was sick, she gave Adams multiple wills, with one will bequeathing a Rolls-Royce to Adams, as well as a chest of silverware and Elizabethan Court cupboard.
But at one point, Morrell and Adams had a falling out. In her final will, she cut Adams out of her will, with the help of her lawyer. Adams tried to convince the lawyer, Hubert Sogno, to include him in the final will.
“Adams said Mrs. Morrell had promised many months previously that she would give him her Rolls Royce car in her will. He said she had forgotten to include him,” Sogno said.
Although he wasn’t included in her will, Morrell’s son, Arthur, gave Adams what he asked for.
The total number of women who died under Adams was 400 by 1956, which raised much alarm for detectives. According to Webb, many sent anonymous letters about his conduct.
Hullett, when she died, had been found with 20 barbiturate tablets when she died. Adams said Hullett was particularly depressed and not very fond of life after her husband died, and gave her barbiturates to cope with the pain.
But there was significant suspicion not only because Adams cashed the check right after she died, but because of the circumstances of her husband’s death. He died from complications of bowel surgery, treated by Adams in 1956. Her signature seemed forged on the check, and in Hullett’s will, she left Adams a Rolls Royce.
However, the coroner’s jury said Hullett died by suicide. Adams was cleared.
Although he was relieved at being cleared for Hullett’s death, Morrell’s was another story. Adams was arrested on November 25, 1956, for murdering Morrell. It was enough to push investigators to get people to dig up graves of people Adams was suspected of murdering.
The chief investigators went through many wills of Eastbourne residents treated by Adams. It would quickly become a media sensation. One journalist, Tom A. Cullen, said:
“Certainly no writer could have dreamed up a more unlikely killer than short, bold, bespectacled Dr Adams, with his celluloid collars, who has been the town’s leading physician for 33 years. And not only physician. Dr Adams, a 57-year-old Ulster-born bachelor, was president of the Eastbourne Y.M.C.A.”
What also attracted significant media attention was the reputation of the lead investigator, Bert Hannam, who was known as a very competent chef. He made had a career as a chef before joining the police, and he was known to make pastries on the weekends, as well. Hannam was also well-known for his efforts investigating the murder of two teenage girls in Richmond, England, and secured a conviction for the perpetrator.
Webb notes the evidence against Adams was damning. One nurse told Adams to stop giving morphine to Morrell when it was clear she was addicted. Other nurses said they weren’t allowed in the room with him when he was administering painkillers and injections. For Morrell, he was consistently giving heavier doses of painkillers.
During the court hearings, Hannam asked Morrell to reveal what was in his pocket. Adams took out two bottles of morphine.
The trial would last for 17 days, which was the longest murder trial in English history. Adams never took the stand in his own defense, and Adams’s lawyer thought it was best for him not to testify because the jurors would find him unlikeable. When the judge read the charges against him, Adams said:
“I am not guilty, my lord.”
The first witness was Dr. John Harman, who said Morrell’s death could have been heart failure since it’s common for old patients over 80.
The case would become sensational. Hundreds of journalists in Great Britain would watch the trial. Alfred Hitchcock would even be in attendance and be entranced by the case.
The jury deliberated for 44 minutes, and would immediately declare Adams innocent of murder against Morrell and Hullett. According to the United Press International, he didn’t seem too happy.
“When the verdict was announced, he remained motionless, staring ahead of the judge. The only sign of emotion was a deep flush,” the news report said.
Adams remained vindictive against news organizations that printed negative press on him. But he sold his version of events for £10,000. One legal committee in 1957 recommended newspapers not report preliminary hearings until it was decided whether someone should go to trial.
Webb notes Adams would have a ruined medical career. He was fired from his hospital after being fined for forgery. The General Medical Council, the British version of the American Medical Association, suspended him. He would be reinstated by the General Medical Council in 1961 to practice medicine, but his reputation was ruined. Another doctor, Brian Valentine, who bought his vacation home, said:
“Fear and anxiety haunted Adams for the rest of his life.”
Adams would up the security on his home, paranoid his house would be firebombed. He included fire extinguishers in his house and screwed his windows shut. In 1983, Adams died after falling and breaking his hip at 84.
So was Adams a serial murderer or an innocent man who just had a terrific bedside manner, subject to the jealousy of his peers? The legal system sided with the latter interpretation.
However, that was not the interpretation of the media and press. Adams is often compared to Harold Shipman, who was convicted of 16 murders and is known as “Doctor Death.” And Shipman would even be partly inspired by what Adams was said to have done. A relative of a partner of Shipman, Dr. Grieve, had been a patient of Adams, and Grieve said after his relative saw Adams, his condition never improved.
“I never knew whether Bodkin Adams was poisoning him,” Grieve said.
Regardless, no matter what the truth is, Adams was a very lucky man who was proclaimed innocent. And no matter his actions, his reputation is his legacy, as the man who exploited and profited off of his patients’ deaths.