The Case of Dr John Bodkin Adams

In the history of British medicine Harold Shipman is the only doctor ever to have been found guilty of murdering his patients. This book describes the life of another doctor who may have had more victims than Shipman – and he had a far more successful career as a serial killer. He practised in a privileged backwater of England during the first half of the twentieth century. His name was John Bodkin Adams.

He was born in rural Antrim in 1899. His father taught him to shoot and ingrained in him a love of motorcars. But his father was also a member of Plymouth Brethren and a ‘fire and brimstone’ lay preacher. Through the prism of his arcane religious beliefs, he perceived the boy’s childish mistakes as evidence of sin, liable to be punished by a beating. The body has a memory; so John Adams was quick to learn the self-preservation skills of lying and deceit along with the tenets of a religious sect, which believed their relationship with God meant they were saved, in spite of their sins. (John George Haigh, the acid-bath murderer was also a member of the Plymouth Brethren.)

A Young AdamsThe Ireland he grew up in had a long history of conflict. It became a bloody battleground, which led ultimately to partition. In Europe, there was a much greater conflict, which claimed the lives of many of his contemporaries. He himself missed the call to arms because, in the tradition of his mother’s family, he was training to be a doctor, though unlike his forebears, he was a plodder, who struggled to pass the exams, never far from failure and consignment to the trenches. His father died when John Adams was still in his teens. His younger brother – perhaps the closest friend he ever had – died not long after, a victim of the Spanish Influenza epidemic, which swept across Europe in the aftermath of the Great War, culling the young and the elderly. He was left alone with his dominant mother.

Eastbourne in the 1920sIn 1922, with the help of his Plymouth Brethren connections and driven by his mother’s vision that he would someday minister to the sick in a distant land, the recently qualified Dr John Adams arrived in Eastbourne, England, attended by his mother and his mouse-like cousin, to start his career as a general practitioner. If St Peter ever had a first class waiting room, Eastbourne surely occupied one corner; it was a retirement haven for the wealthy and influential on the south coast of England, created by successive Dukes of Devonshire. Its residents were the very embodiment of the British Establishment - aristocrats, retired ambassadors, generals, senior civil servants, rich industrialists - leaders who had helped build and defend the British Empire.

Leslie HensenAt first, young Dr Adams cycled to appointments. Thirty-five years later, when standing in the dock at the Old Bailey, accused of murder, he was probably the wealthiest GP in England. The primary source of his wealth (not to mention two Rolls-Royces and other valuable items) was not fees, but legacies left by adoring, elderly, mainly female patients who had generally died not long after the ever-obliging Dr Adams helped them prepare a new will. The wills routinely named Dr Adams sole executor and expressed an unusual preference for cremation. Dr Adams was not noted for his great competence as a doctor. Suspicion and rumours abounded in local professional circles regarding his source of wealth. There were whispers of homosexuality and drug trafficking. He went unchallenged until one day, a popular music hall actor, Leslie Henson, brought the suspicious death of two of Dr Adams’ patients – a husband and wife - to the notice of the Eastbourne police; the rumours broke out in the newspapers and the case was passed to Scotland Yard.

Hannam of the YardAfter a very public and unusual investigation led by the urbane Chief Superintendent Herbert Hannam, who was known by his colleagues as ‘The Count’, Dr Adams was eventually arrested and charged with murder. The Police unearthed records going back over ten and half years. The Home Office pathologist, Dr Camps, designated over 160 of the recorded deaths as ‘suspicious’. During the investigation, Parliament voted to partially repeal the law on capital punishment but not for serial killers. If Dr Adams were found guilty in more than one case, he was likely to hang. Public interest in the trial was intense. Eastbourne was full of journalists from all over the world. Many people – even the staff in his solicitor’s office - believed Adams guilty. The ‘not guilty’ verdict caused a sensation.

Sir Reginald Manningham-BullerPamela Cullen is an historian whose special field is crime. She was granted the first access to Scotland Yard's files on the Adams case, which had been closed since the trial. She has had the opportunity to examine the evidence in case after case – evidence which, in the main, was never produced in court. Her wider research has revealed a skein of connections between Dr Adams and powerful politicians of the day. The Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, and the then Attorney General, Reginald Manningham-Buller, were both related to one of Dr Adams' likely victims. She also discovered that a homosexual relationship existed between Adams and a powerful local politician, who had protected him for over thirty years.

The evidence she has collected supports the thesis, not only that Dr Adams was guilty as charged but also that the case against him was sabotaged. Ms Cullen’s primary suspect is the party then in Government. Certainly, the Attorney General seems to have been particularly concerned that, were Adams to hang, ostensibly on the evidence that some elderly patients had died while in his care, there might have been a doctors’ revolt, which would have damaged the still fragile National Health Service. He went to great and unorthodox lengths to keep the British Medical Association informed and ‘on side’, even sharing with them Hannam’s confidential reports.

The Government was not popular, but had somehow survived the duplicity and resignation of the previous Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, over the Suez fiasco. It might not have survived a long-running, murder, sex – particularly homosexuality - and drugs scandal involving important politicians and members of the Establishment, particularly if it had culminated in the execution of a doctor and caused damage to the NHS in the process. This would have been no fanciful conjecture; Adams had threatened to ‘name names’ during the appeal process if he were found guilty. Some years later, the Profumo scandal, which had many similar potent ingredients, did great damage to the Government’s credibility and contributed to their fall from power at the following election.

The Adams case underscored the blind trust that the British have traditionally placed in their doctors. Though it may fly in the face of evidence from other countries, the assumption is still today what it was 50 years ago that all doctors will remain faithful to the Hippocratic Oath and will do their patients no harm. Apart from the Coroner, there is no official charged with the task of overseeing death. Provided that the death certificate is signed and the cause of death is clear, the Coroner does not investigate except in cases of sudden, unexpected death, suicide or murder. In cases of cremation, the signature of a second medical practitioner is required – the so-called ‘ash cash’ procedure - in many cases, the second signature is obtained and the relevant fee paid but the statutory inspection is cursory at best, the second doctor avoiding criticism of the first.

The Coroner does not compile and track statistics, which might identify high mortality rates in a doctor’s practice. Dr Harold Shipman was exposed as a serial killer not because of the unusually high death rate amongst his patients - the rate in Dr Adams’ case was incidentally higher - but because he made a clumsy job of forging the signature of one of his victims on a bogus will making him the major beneficiary. Even then, his crime might have gone undetected but for the victim’s daughter being a solicitor, who had prepared her mother’s real will, knew her intentions and identified the signature as a forgery.

The Adams case illuminates flaws, not only in the patient/doctor relationship, in the certification of death and the coroners’ system, but, perhaps most importantly, in the adversarial system used in our courts of justice, which does not seek the truth but simply a winner and a loser between the Defence and the Prosecution, as determined by the jury’s vote. Since Dr Adams was found not guilty, there was no impetus to examine the flaws in the system until the Shipman case. Had these issues been addressed earlier, perhaps it would have been more difficult for Shipman. Meanwhile, we are left to speculate how many other doctors like Shipman and Adams have gone undetected, what their real motivation might be and whether their flaws are the product of Nature or Nurture.

Finally, it is a key tenet that, while laws are created by Parliament, it is not within the authority of Government to interfere directly with the actual administration of justice, which is a matter for the courts and the Judiciary. This case is a warning of how easily, in the absence of checks and balances, that tenet can be swept aside.