Dr. John Bodkin Adams ‘One of the greatest murder trials of all time.’

By Elizabeth Wright

Bodkin Adams after the trial
Bodkin Adams Waves after the Trial

On the 19th December 1956, Eastbourne doctor, John Bodkin Adams was charged with the murder of wealthy widow, Edith Alice Morrell. After a trial lasting 17 days, the jury took just 44 minutes to find him ‘not guilty.’

Having obtained special permission in 2003 to read the police files on the case, which were initially closed to the public for 75 years, historian Pamela Cullen wrote ‘Adams may have had more victims than Shipman.’ John Emsley, author of ‘Molecules of Murder,’ commented ‘It now seems almost certain that over a 30 year period he killed 160 of his patents.’ And Katherine Ramsland, author of ‘Inside the Minds of Healthcare Serial Killers,’ records, ‘Adams is nevertheless believed to have repeatedly committed what the law regards as murder?’

Others held the opposite view; many years later, the presiding judge, Sir Patrick Devlin, stated, ‘Adams may have been a mercenary mercy killer.’ Writer and journalist Percy Hoskins concluded that Adams was not guilty of murder, but was simply ‘naïve and avaricious.’

It is on record that 160 of Dr. Bodkin Adams patients died in suspicious circumstances, 132 of them left him money or goods in their wills and by 1956 he was probably one of the wealthiest GPs in England. His patients included rich and famous people including the 10th Duke of Devonshire and Admiral Robert Prendergast. A high percentage of those in his care were frail, wealthy widows and his wining bedside manner was repaid with bequests ranging from valuable household effects, shares, large sums of money, furniture and from Edith Morrell, a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, and silver cutlery in an antique chest. After her death he billed her estate for £1,674 for over one thousand visits, although police investigation revealed the true figure was 321. Gertrude Hullett gave Adams a cheque for £1,000 and left him her Rolls Royce Silver Dawn in a will written just 5 days before she died. The bank clerk was suspicious of the feeble signature, but when reassured by Adams that Hullett was very ill, accepted it. The cheque was swiftly cashed and the car sold. For many years there was gossip of his manipulation and manner of persuasion, getting elderly patients hooked on heroin, offering to rewrite their wills, (350 in total) cutting them off from their families, and finally administering mysterious, and often lethal injections whilst nurses were out of the room. A story circulated that once you had made out a will in Dr. Adams favour, your days were numbered. The hangman’s noose loomed.

John Bodkin Adams was born on the 21st January 1899 to Samuel and Ellen Bodkin in Randalstown, County Antrim, (now Northern) Ireland. This deeply religious family were members of Plymouth Brethren. Both parents were domineering, his father often beat him, perceiving any childish mistake was a sin, so Adams soon learnt to get out of trouble by deceit and lying. Having spent a number of years attending Coleraine Academical Institution, at the age of 17, Adams matriculated at Queen’s University Belfast, barely scraping a pass. Labelled ‘a lone wolf’ and ‘a plodder,’ he spent a year at Bristol Royal Infirmary as assistant houseman.

Dr Bodkin Adams as a young man
As Young Man

In 1922, accompanied by his widowed mother and mouse-like spinster cousin, Sarah Henry, he moved to Eastbourne, in East Sussex, to start his career as a general practitioner. It soon became clear that he was most interested in cultivating private patients from the rich and the elderly to call on his services. He earned a reputation as a doctor willing to visit at any time of the day or night, cycling to these wealthy patients, and from the payments he received for these house calls, he upgraded to a motor scooter, then a car and was eventually able to afford the luxury of a chauffeur.

His unconventional behaviour began to show when he persuaded one of his patients, William Mawhood, to lend him £2,000, so he could purchase an 18 room house, Kent Lodge, in a road in the town now known as Trinity Trees. Mawhood had made a fortune in Sheffield’s cutlery manufacturing trade and Adams began buying items and charging them to the Mawhood’s accounts with local stores. After treating Mawhood’s wife, Edith for a broken leg, Adams often invited himself to dinner, saying he was just wanting to check on her health. When William died, and Adams found out he hadn’t been left anything in his will, he turned up at the Mawhood’s house and helped himself to a gold pen, telling his astonished widow he wanted ‘something of her husband’s.’

By 1935 rumours began to circulate that Adams was ‘bumping off patients’ and benefitting from huge legacies left to him. In his defence Adams said, ‘A lot of these were instead of fees. I don’t want money. What’s the use of it?’ In his dealings with feeble, elderly patients, he pointed out to them that any payments for his services would be highly taxed, but bequests were not.

Other gossip emerged about drug dealing, and in a time when homosexual acts were illegal, there were suggestions that relationships were being carried out between Adams, Sir Roland Gwynne, Mayor of Eastbourne, who holidayed regularly with him, and Alexander Seekings, Deputy Chief Constable of Eastbourne. Adams appeared to have powerful protectors in Eastbourne; he had threatened to ‘name names’ if he was convicted, so, in spite of reservations from families of the deceased, a growing number of suspicious deaths and death certificates, followed by a high number of cremations, no action was taken for a number of years.

Eventually the police were forced, by overwhelming public pressure, to launch an investigation. A phone call from a music hall performer, Leslie Henson, concerned about the unexpected death on 23rd July 1956, of friend Gertrude Hullett, 50, finally brought things to a head. According to Adams, Hullett had suffered a brain haemorrhage. He had been treating her for depression, because she had talked of suicide after the death of her husband. She gave Adams money to buy a sports car, which her husband had promised to buy him, and wrote him into her will. He gave her a number of pills and the following morning she was found in a coma. She died from a fatal dose of sodium barbitone. The inquest concluded she had committed suicide.John Bodkin Adams

The county’s Chief Constable, Robert Walker, called in two officers from the Metropolitan Police Murder Squad on the 17th August 1956. Detective Superintendant ‘The Count,’ Herbert Hannam of Scotland Yard was assisted by Detective Sergeant Charles Hewett. At the start of their investigation, they discovered that all the doctors in Eastbourne had been sent letters on the 24th August by the British Medical Association reminding them of ‘patient confidentiality’ if interviewed by the police. The BMA Secretary, Dr. Macrae, refused to move the ban; this deadlock continued until the 8th November, until the Attorney-General, Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller, met with Macrae, and to emphasise the importance of the case, handed him a confidential 187 page document that Hannam had put together about Adams. The President of the BMA also viewed it and in all likelihood, handed a copy to the defence. Having read it and realising the seriousness of the situation, Macrae dropped his opposition to doctors talking to the police. This was the prosecution’s most valuable document, which had been freely handed over to the defence. Home Secretary, Lloyd George, was furious, stating that the document should never have been shown since its disclosure ‘is likely to cause me considerable embarrassment. As you know, police reports have always been treated as highly confidential documents and it has been the invariable practice to refuse to disclose their contents to Parliament or to individual members. Indeed, I should have no hesitation in claiming privilege if their production was required in a court of law.’’ Questions were asked in the House of Commons concerning ‘reports had been sent to the GMC in the last 6 months.’ Manningham-Buller sidestepped the question, saying, he ’had no communication with the GMC, only with an officer of it.’ He made no mention of the report, but investigated how the news had leaked out, concluding Hannam had passed information onto a Daily Mail journalist.

On 1st October Hannam happened to meet Adams, (at the trial it was suggested that he had ‘waylaid’ him,) and Adams asked, ‘You are finding all these rumours untrue, aren’t you?’ When Hannam mentioned about a forged prescription, he replied, ‘That was very wrong…I have God’s forgiveness for it.’ Further questioning from Hannam about false entries on cremation forms stating he had not inherited from the deceased, Adams dismissively replied, ‘Oh, that wasn’t done wickedly, God knows it wasn’t. We always want cremations to go off smoothly for the dear relatives. If I said I knew I was getting money under the Will they might get suspicious and I like cremations and burials to go smoothly. There was nothing suspicious really. It was not deceitful.’

The following month Hannam, now determined to ‘get’ Adams, obtained a warrant, under the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1951, to search Adam’s house, assisted by Hewett and head of Eastbourne CID, Detective Inspector Pugh. Adams denied having any drugs, or a Dangerous Drugs Register, on the premises. But when confronted with evidence that he had prescribed drugs to Edith Morrell, Adams replied, ‘Poor soul, she was in terrible agony.’ Later on, at the police station, he added, ‘Easing the passing of a dying person isn’t all that wicked. She wanted to die. That can’t be murder. It is impossible to accuse a doctor.’

Whilst officers were inspecting the contents of one cupboard, Adams was seen to take two objects out of another cupboard. When challenged he showed them two bottles of morphine. One, he said, was for Annie Sharp, the owner of a guest house where two sisters, Hilda and Clair Neil Miller, both Adams patients, had died in mysterious circumstances. Considered by the police to be a major witness, Annie too, had died suddenly before they could interview her. Adams had diagnosed cancer, and had prescribed hyperduric morphine and pethidine tablets. A hasty cremation followed, denying any chances of investigation into her death.

Having gathered enough evidence regarding the deaths of Claire Neil Miller, Edith Morrell, Gertrude Hullett and Julia Bradnum, Adams was arrested on the 19th December 1956, and charged with the murder of Edith Morrell. A second case, that of Gertrude Hullett, was to follow.

The committal hearing at Lewes, East Sussex, on the 14th January 1957 brought about the stepping down of Sir Roland Gwynne, Chairman of the magistrates, because of his close personal association with the accused. Then a vital piece of evidence went missing, a cheque to Adams from Gertrude Hullett, for £1,000, which Scotland Yard suspected was ‘misplaced’ by the Deputy Chief Constable of Eastbourne, Alexander Seekings, another ‘close friend.’ Sir Roland Gwynne had been seen dining with Lord Chief Justice Rayner Goddard at the White Hart hotel in Lewes, who had by then appointed Mr. Justice Patrick Devlin to preside over the case. This brought about concerns of prejudice and political interference at ‘the highest level,’ right up to the recently elected Prime Minister, Sir Harold Macmillan. His wife was the sister of the 10th Duke of Devonshire, who, under Adams care, had died 13 days after Edith Morrell. Further investigation was discouraged as the now unpopular Government was in a shaky position, having only just survived the Suez fiasco, and resignation of the former Prime Minister, Anthony Eden. It might not survive when the court case later revealed politicians and those in trusted ‘high places’ had been involved in scandals of sex, especially homosexuality, drugs and the cover-up of murder. If found guilty, and therefore likely to be hung, Adams death could possibly result in a doctors’ revolt, and damage the National Health Service.

Both Hannam and Hewett were astonished to find that the Attorney-General, Sir Manningham-Buller, had decided to charge Adams with the murder of Morrell. Because she had been cremated there was no evidence to present before the jury. A stronger case could have been brought concerning the death of Gertrude Hullett.

The trial went ahead in March 1957 at London’s Old Bailey. Devlin commented, ‘It is a most curious situation, perhaps unique in these courts, that the act of murder has to be proved by expert defence.’ The prosecution was led by Manningham-Buller, (who was related to one of the victims). He was known as ‘Sir Bullying Manner’ from the way he treated witnesses. Sir Frederick Geoffrey Lawrence QC defending Adams was the complete opposite. Although this was his first murder trial, he specialised in divorce cases, he was a brilliant cross examiner, quiet and polite, getting the witnesses just where he wanted them and then throwing in the stick of dynamite.

He emphasised to the jury, that there was no proof that Mrs Morrell had been murdered; she had been given morphine and heroin ‘to ease the pain of a seriously ill woman.’ The charge, he pointed out, had been based mainly on testimonials from the three nurses who had been attending her. Cross examining one of the nurses involved, Nurse Stronach, she stated that after some 7 years she could not remember exactly which drugs Adams had given Morrell. She added that a record had been kept of every injection given and Morrell’s condition noted during the 24 hour care was receiving during the time she was terminally ill. But unfortunately, ‘all the notes had been destroyed after this patient died.’

Geoffrey Lawrence led her further on; ‘And as distinct from your memory of six years ago, these reports would be absolutely accurate?’

‘Oh yes.’

With that, Lawrence produced the ‘missing’ notebooks, eight in total, which had been recorded in pre-trial police records but had since ‘disappeared.’ To the embarrassment of the nurses and the prosecution, the evidence from their collective memories turned out to be far from correct. Manningham-Buller made no effort to find out how the books had got into the hands of the defence, and did not ask for an adjournment so he could study them. Although various tales were aired as to where and how they were found, the notebooks were clearly mentioned amongst the list of exhibits for the Committal Hearing given to the Director of Public Prosecution’s office. Manningham-Buller must have been well aware they existed. The evidence from he nurses could no longer be believed.

The prosecution’s main medical witness, Dr. Arthur Henry Douthwaite of Harley Street, was closely questioned by Lawrence. Having stated that Mrs Morrell had suffered a stroke and had been given morphia by Adams, he went on to say, ‘this could only have been prescribed with murderous intent.’ Lawrence then produced a record book from Chester Hospital, where Morrell had suffered her first stroke, and pointed out that two separate doctors working there, had each prescribed morphia.

He threw in another stick of dynamite; ‘Would you therefore conclude that these physicians also had murderous intent?’

Adams had been persuaded by the defence not to appear in the witness stand, it was said, to avoid the loquacious doctor ‘from chatting himself to the gallows.’

Lawrence decimated the prosecution. The presiding judge, Patrick Devlin, summed up, ‘Members of the jury, there are three points, the Crown must convince you that she did not die from natural causes; second you must be convinced there was an act of killing, and thirdly, if there was such an act, was it with the intent of killing.’

In the short time the jury were discussing the verdict, Lord Chief Justice Rayner Goddard phoned the judge, Devlin, and said that if Adams was found not guilty, he was to be allowed bail before being tried for the murder of Gertrude Hullett. But this was all dropped after the jury took just 45 minutes to find Dr. John Bodkin Adams ‘not guilty.’ Devlin later wrote ‘this is an abuse of process.’

Immediately after the verdict, Adams was spirited away to a safe house in Westgate-on-Sea by the Daily Express Chief Crime Reporter, Percy Hoskins, who was adamant that Adams was no murderer. Telling his life story brought Adams the reward of £10,000. He was forced to resign from the NHS, and later in the year was charged with forging prescriptions, making false statements on cremation forms and three offences under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1951. He was fined £2,400. On 27th November he was struck off the Medical Register by the GMC, because, ’this was due to the unnecessary extra publicity.’ But such was his charisma that many still believed he had never committed any murders; ‘Angel of Mercy’ he was often called, and although struck off, continued to practice, prescribing ‘over the counter’ medicines.

On the 4th July 1983, Adams died from a chest infection after sustaining a fractured hip. Scotland Yard and the DPP took the unusual decision of closing all their files on this case until 2033.


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