He was suspected of killing 163 of his patients between 1946 and 1956. Many died under suspicious circumstances. It was widely believed that his murder weapon was a cocktail of morphine and heroin, administered via lethal injections. What’s more, most of his dearly departed elderly patients included the doctor in their wills; he even assisted in rewriting the wills for some of them. In the process, Dr. John Bodkin Adams became one of Britain’s wealthiest general practitioners. Yet when he was tried in court, in a sensational trial in 1957, a jury found him not guilty of the one murder charge brought against him. The bottom line was that there was a mountain of suspicious circumstances, but not a single piece of compelling evidence. In addition, several witnesses who testified against the doctor, including a nurse, were discredited during his trial, making their testimonies for the prosecution not very reliable or believable. As for the money his dead patients willed to him, the doctor claimed that it consisted of fees he neglected to charge those patients while under his care.
This Doctor Made House Calls Profitable
Dr. Adams cultivated a practice consisting of wealthy elderly patients with high social standing. His practice was in the heart of the elegant East Sussex seaside town of Eastbourne on the south coast of England. First utilizing a bicycle and then moving up to a motor scooter, the doctor had a reputation for visiting his patients in their homes any time they needed him, day or night. His mode of transportation quickly progressed to a car, and then to a chauffeured automobile.
Over the years, weird stories about some of the doctor’s dealings with patients surfaced. For example, one patient, Anne Donnet, was hit in the eye with a tennis ball. Adams suggested that she may not be able to sign her checks, so he recommended that she transfer power of attorney over to him so that he could sign her checks on her behalf. (A friend of the woman intervened and had Anne transfer power of attorney to her bank manager instead of the doctor.)
Even worse, rumors about the doctor being a serial killer continued to build and circulate within the close-knit community. It was whispered that due to his heroin-morphine cocktail injections, his patients would linger in semi-comatose states for weeks or months before they died. It was also noted that Adams had a pathological interest in his patients’ wills.
But there were always 2 camps of believers in town. On one side, there were the people who thought that the doctor was preying on vulnerable wealthy widows. The opposite belief was that the doctor was mercifully practicing euthanasia on his elderly terminally ill patients in order to ease their pain and suffering before their imminent deaths. His patients kept dying and incorporating Adams into their wills, until the gossip in town put pressure on the police to do something about the frequent deaths. At the time, doctors were highly respected, even revered. It took many years and many deaths before Scotland Yard finally got involved and began an official investigation into the doctor’s practice.
Suspicions continued to grow when one patient, Edith Alice Morrell, a wealthy widow, died in 1950. After suffering a stroke, Edith was partially paralyzed and in pain. To ease her discomfort, Dr. Adams concocted a mixture of heroin and morphine not only to manage her pain but to help with her insomnia and “cerebral irritation,” as he described it. When she died, Adams received a little money, expensive cutlery, and a Rolls Royce per the wishes outlined in her will.
Another red flag bringing unwanted attention to the doctor arose in 1956 when the wealthy widow Gertrude Hullett died under his care. However, before Adams took her under his care, she had been prescribed large amounts of sodium barbital and sodium phenobarbital for depression. According to Adams, Gertrude was still suffering deep melancholy from the loss of her second husband and was suicidal. In fact, he said she told him on several occasions that she wanted to take her own life. She wrote a check for 1000 pounds and the next morning Getrude slipped into a coma. A few days later, she died. Coincidently, Gertrude also had left Adams a Rolls Royce in her will. The coroner discovered sodium barbital in her body that was 2 times the fatal dosage, and her death was ruled a suicide.
By this time, the gossip around town was so rampant that residents starting demanding that the police investigate Dr. Adams. It was concluded that their best shot at convicting Dr. Adams of murder was the 1950 death of Edith Morrell, which occurred 7 years previously. But as noted earlier, they were proved wrong, as Adams was acquitted of the murder charge. The jury took only 44 minutes to find Adams not guilty. When Adams was acquitted, he declared himself vindicated.
At the trial, Adams’ defense counsel insisted that the doctor was doing his sworn duty to ease the pain of a seriously ill, dying woman, as any decent doctor would do. Another factor in his favor was that during the trial, it was shown that Dr. Adams carefully followed all standard medical procedures for treating a terminally ill patient; that is, all injections given to Edith Morrell were carefully recorded, as were the details of her condition at each stage of her illness. Other “lucky” occurrences during the trial included the damaging testimony of a nurse that prosecutors wanted to enter into the record but were not allowed. The nurse’s testimony included a question she asked Dr. Adams after one of his patients passed away: “You do realize, doctor, that you have killed her?”
Later in the same year, though, Dr. Adams wasn’t so lucky in court. He was brought up on charges of prescription fraud, falsifying cremation forms, obstructing a police investigation, and failing to keep a dangerous drugs registry. He was found guilty and stripped of his medical license. Four years later, in 1961, after 2 appeals, Adams got his medical license reinstated. In spite of his tarnished reputation, he continued practicing medicine in Eastbourne until he died of natural causes in 1983. Some believe that he was a cold-blooded serial killer, whereas other patients, friends, and family members remained convinced of his innocence. At the time of his death, Dr. Adams’ estate was worth approximately $2,500,000.
- Dr. John Bodkin Adams. Murderpedia website. http://murderpedia.org/male.A/a/adams-john-bodkin.htm.
- Jenkins B. 10 medical professionals who were actually murderers. Oddee website. August 8, 2013. http://www.oddee.com/item_98674.aspx.
- John Bodkin Adams. Biography website. 2014. http://www.biography.com/people/john-bodkin-adams-17172156#awesm=~oG3vcz8qLDNBkT.
- Stonehouse C. Dr Bodkin Adams: the serial killer who got away. Express website. May 25, 2013. http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/402398/Dr-Bodkin-Adams-The-serial-killer-who-got-away.