Dr Adams carves into a celebratory roast at his Eastbourne house
Almost from the time of his arrival in Eastbourne in 1922 Doctor John Bodkin Adams made it clear he was most interested in elderly patients who had money and social standing. In the years after the First World War the seaside resort on the Sussex coast became a popular choice for those who were looking for a pleasant retirement home. There was no National Health Service and a doctor's income and practice depended on how willing he was to pay house calls on those who could afford to pay for them.
Born in 1899 Dr Adams, a pious Ulsterman who had answered an advert to join a team of Christian GPs in the town shortly after scraping through his medical degree, proved himself very willing indeed. And over the next 25 years it is widely believed he murdered hundreds of them with injections of morphine and heroin, becoming in the process one of Britain's wealthiest GPs. When he died he left an estate that was worth around £1.5million at today's prices but author Jane Robins, who has conducted the first detailed investigation into the sensational 1957 trial that failed to convict the doctor, believes money was not his motive.
"As I see it Dr Adams liked to preside over death," she says. "He liked control. He arranged dozens of funerals of patients. Maybe he was just being kind but I don't think so. There are too many examples of his explosive anger when someone rejected his 'acts of kindness', when someone rejected his help with their finances or did not allow him to arrange their will."
Her book The Curious Habits Of Dr Adams paints a picture of an insecure, unattractive young man who brought his widowed mother and spinster cousin to live with him in Eastbourne and set about cultivating the richest patients he could persuade to call on his services. First on a bicycle and then a motor scooter, he quickly earned a reputation as a doctor who would come out at any time of the day or night.
He hit the jackpot with the Mawhoods, who had moved to Eastbourne with a fortune made in Sheffield's cutlery manufacturing trade. William Mawhood was 61 and his wife Edith almost 20 years younger and able to tell police about some of Adams' strange habits when he was finally arrested. After being asked to treat her for a broken leg he began to turn up uninvited twice a week "to check on our health". Sometimes he turned up at their 29-room mansion at mealtimes, leaving Edith feeling she had no choice but to ask him to join them. Sometimes he even brought his mother and cousin.
He asked William Mawhood for a £2,000 loan to buy a grand Victorian house for his practice and although he repaid it there were many other small cash loans that he didn't pay back. He even began to go to the shops in town where the Mawhoods had an account and order things, such as a mackintosh similar to one he had seen William wearing, and charge these items to them.
When William died Adams was furious to discover he had been left nothing in his will and shouted at a mourner at the funeral. Later he went to see Edith Mawhood and pocketed a gold pencil that had belonged to her husband, saying, "I will have something of his". She said she didn't feel able to stop him.
Edith Alice Morrell's death sparked the sensational trial
Meanwhile he progressed from a scooter to a car, then to a chauffeur. Many of his patients were impressed by his hard work but others were less sure. An elderly lady called Elsie Muddell recalled being given a mixture to ease her aches and pains but refused to take more after the first dose because she felt it made her worse - "Dr Adams was furious when he knew and prescribed the hot water treatment for me". This involved sitting on a pail of hot water but that treatment was outmoded and regarded as pointless even in the mid-Twenties.
Over the decade the rumours gathered force. Patients lingered in semi-comatose states for weeks, even months, before they died, though they had been in apparently good health before Adams started treating them. Mrs Anne Donnet was hit by a tennis ball in the eye and Adams declared she would not be able to sign cheques so he would take over power of pttorney for her. Her friend Elsie Randall decided to forestall the doctor and helped her give power of attorney to her bank manager instead. Adams was, she said, "very annoyed" when he found he had been cut out of the picture. But while many in the town talked about the "pink, beefy, moonspectacled" doctor and his strange methods, no one dared challenge him. Doctors were respected and there was no real proof he was doing anything more than "easing the passing" of seriously ill patients.
It was the death of Bobbie Hutton, a wealthy widow, in 1956 that focused police attention on him. At her inquest he insinuated that she was suicidal, having never recovered from the death of her second husband. However a post mortem revealed she had died from pneumonia as a result of barbiturate poisoning. She had left Adams £1,000.
Richard Walker, the county's chief constable, said the gossip could be ignored no longer and he called in Scotland Yard. After a lengthy investigation Adams was charged with the murder of Edith Morrell, another widow who had died in 1950 after a long "illness" during which three nurses had seen him administer large doses of morphine and heroin, apparently keeping her in a coma. At his trial it was insisted by his defence he had merely been easing the pain of a seriously ill woman, as any doctor would do. He was acquitted, declared himself vindicated and even managed to start up in practice in Eastbourne again, getting back his licence just three years after being struck off. But the rumours he was a serial killer dogged him until his death in 1983.
While researching her book, Jane Robins spoke to psychiatrist Dr Richard Badcock who spent many hours with Harold Shipman, the infamous doctor who practised in Hyde, Greater Manchester and was convicted in 2000 of killing 15 of his patients with lethal injections of morphine. An inquiry after his trial concluded that he had probably murdered around 250 people, most of them elderly women.
THERE were differences between the two men said Badcock. Shipman injected morphine into a vein, usually killing his victims within minutes. Adams preferred to sedate his victims over many weeks, even months. But both preferred to work alone rather than in a practice with other doctors, both worked extremely long hours, often turning up unannounced at unsociable hours and both had a reputation for being rude. Most tellingly they both paid hundreds of visits to patients who were, as far as their records were concerned, perfectly well and in no need of medical attention. "Shipman's most noticeable characteristic was his self-importance and his ego," says Robins. "Adams' arrogance was not so blatant but was there all the same, thinly masked by ingratiating words and religious pronouncements."
When asked about what motivated such men to murder Badcock was emphatic that both were "straightforward psychopaths". The evidence against Adams in particular shows an inflated sense of entitlement and yet inside he felt empty and lived his life as if he were on the outside looking in.
"There was nothing inside him at all in the ordinary human way," he said. "He was fascinated by the lives of the well-to-do and wanted their life for himself. The key was not money - what he wanted was entry to their society. He struggled for acceptance and recognition, never quite fitting in with the social set he admired. The closest he came to sustaining a relationship was with his mother Ellen, said to be domineering and critical. The remedy for all this was control. When he had it he felt less pain. I now believe he drugged Mrs Morrell because he liked it when his old ladies, particularly the argumentative ones, were semi-comatose.
He liked the feeling of control he had at the moment of death."
Having gone through the evidence Robins believes Adams was a serial killer on an almighty scale. "But there is no single piece of compelling evidence," she says. "Just a mountain of suspicious circumstances."