A letter from some relatives who live in Eastbourne reminds me that on a recent trip there we were shown the premises once occupied by Dr John Bodkin Adams, who is regarded in some quarters as a forerunner of the medical mass murderer Dr Harold Shipman.
Eastbourne has for many decades been a favourite retirement town. Set in Sussex, beside the sea, it is where you go to spend the last years of your life – especially if you have money. It is a genteel, relatively quiet place, the very opposite of a rough-arsed northern holiday resort such as Blackpool.
It was here that, in the 1950s, Dr John Bodkin Adams practised medicine. And, because the population of the town was then, as now, heavily skewed towards the elderly and the well-to-do, his patients included a large number of wealthy widows.
What happened to Bodkin Adams is a longish story, and it is well told in The Strange Case of Dr. Bodkin Adams, by John Surtees. The subtitle is ‘The life and murder trial of Eastbourne's infamous Doctor and the views of those who knew him.’ The author, it seems, is an Eastbourne man, and he has traced and interviewed many of those who knew the doctor. I was not too impressed by the production values of the book; but never mind, the story carries one along.
In the 1950s, the gossip in Eastbourne was that Bodkin Adams’s technique was to persuade a wealthy widow to write a will which left him her money, and then to do her in with an injection of powerful drugs. This gossip eventually reached such a crescendo that the police seem to have felt forced to launch an investigation. While the investigation continued, the press took over the role of spreading the word – ‘Inquiry into 400 wills’ was one gleeful headline. Bodkin Adams was eventually arrested and was prosecuted for the murder of just one rich old lady: Mrs Edith Morell. He was put on trial at the Old Bailey in 1957.
Every aspect of the criminal investigation and the trial is fascinating, and perhaps the most interesting aspect of all is the brilliant cross-examination of some of those who gave evidence against the doctor. Mrs Morell had been cared for on a 24-hour basis by a team of four nurses, and they had all been closely questioned by the police. They had testified that yes, it had been Dr Bodkin Adams’s practice to inject his patients with grossly excessive doses of pain-killing drugs such as morphine. They, the nurses, had been deeply shocked and suspicious, of course. But they were mere nurses; what could they do? That was the general tenor of their evidence.
As the trial proceeded, the outcome looked increasingly bleak for the Doctor. But then the defence counsel rose to cross-examine the first of the nurses who had given such apparently devastating evidence. Questioning her in the mildest of manners, he elicited the information that, during Mrs Morell’s last illness, all injections given to her had been carefully recorded in a notebook, together with details of her condition at any given time. This was standard practice for any terminally ill patient. Would this book, defence counsel casually inquired, support every detail of what the nurse claimed to remember? Oh yes, was the confident, and foolish, answer.
Whereupon defence counsel produced the actual notebook. There were eight of them all told, and they proved, on examination, to contain every detail of Mrs Morell’s treatment for several years before her death. The police had overlooked them, but Bodkin Adams’s solicitor had found them bundled behind a desk at the doctor’s home. And guess what – when the court came to examine these carefully maintained records, the nurses who had written them found, to their deep embarrassment, that their memories were all too fallible. The truth was, of course, that they had allowed themselves to be infected by the rabid dog of Eastbourne gossip. At least one of the nurses was shown to have told an outright lie.
In the end, the jury took only 45 minutes to find Bodkin Adams not guilty, and a number of legal reputations were made and lost as a result.
What was the truth of the matter? Was Bodkin Adams a mass murderer or not? You will have to read the record and make your own judgement. The police certainly thought he was guilty of many murders, as did the press. I had a friend at the time whose father was a Fleet Street journalist, and he told me that the word on the Street was that Adams had killed so many, and seemed so likely to kill so many more, that the police had been obliged to prosecute even though their case was ‘not quite ready’.
My own view is that Bodkin Adams was not a mass murderer at all. But he was, I would say, very definitely a mercy killer.
Remember the circumstances of the time. Bodkin Adams had been trained in the 1920s, when doctors really had very few effective remedies in their bags. What good they did was mostly achieved through a confident bedside manner, reassuring the patient that all would be well. By the 1950s doctors had acquired the early antibiotics, but for many terminal diseases they still had little that was of much use, apart from pain-killers.
And consider the nature of the Doctor’s practice. He was largely concerned with elderly patients who had led very comfortable lives. What did these patients fear most? They feared an agonising and prolonged death. So they would have talked to the Doctor about this possibility, over and over again, urging him to promise that he would not let them suffer. And he, I am quite sure, would have promised. It was how he earned his fee.
When the time came, it seems more than probable that Bodkin Adams did ease his patients’ passing into the next world. And if they, in anticipation of their gratitude, had left him something generous in their will, what was he supposed to do? Send it back?
The practice of mercy killing is seldom discussed in public, but it is a problem which faces every doctor. And it is not as if Bodkin Adams had no precedents. There is, for example, the well-documented case of King George V.
In January 1936, after several months of ill health, the King contracted bronchitis. It soon became obvious that the end was inevitable, and on the evening of 19 January the King drifted into a coma. The court officials realised that, if he lived past midnight, the announcement of his death could not be included in the next morning’s edition of The Times. And so, in view of the old man’s suffering, and in view of the passing time, the King’s doctor (Lord Dawson) decided to inject three-quarters of a grain of morphine and one grain of cocaine into the jugular vein. It was obvious what effect this would have, and the nurse in attendance refused to do it. Lord Dawson did it himself, and within fifteen minutes the King had died.
I do not suggest that Bodkin Adams knew about the death of George V. I merely point out that many a doctor has given a similar injection to patients in a similar position, without any publicity and without being prosecuted for it.
Mr Surtees is not the first author to write about this case of Bodkin Adams, of course. Sybille Bedford wrote an account of the trial in 1958: The Best We Can Do (Collins). And after the Doctor died, in 1983, we had a little flurry of books: Where There’s a Will, by Rodney Hallworth and Mark Williams (Capstan Press, 1983); Two Men Were Acquitted, by Percy Hoskins (Secker and Warburg, 1984); and Easing the Passing, by Patrick Devlin (Bodley Head, 1985). Perhaps it is a measure of the fascination of the case that all of these books appear to be readily available from Amazon.co.uk, even today.
You can also read an account of the affair online.