The Curious Habits of Doctor Adams - Jane Robins’ new book

The new book

The new book - Credit: Archant

Dr John Bodkin Adams has been hailed as both a mass murderer, believed to have taken as many as 300 lives, and the victim of a vicious whispering campaign. So which is true? A new book about the Eastbourne doctor believes he was guilty as charged.

Asked to name Britain’s most prolific serial killer, most people would probably cite Harold Shipman.

But there is another candidate for that macabre title, and another middle-aged GP to boot, this time living in Eastbourne, whose name dominated newspaper headlines in 1957. He is now largely forgotten, but if anyone can be said, quite literally, to have got away with murder, it’s probably Dr John Bodkin Adams.

‘Probably’ because there was never a single piece of compelling evidence to convict the Sussex GP under whose care a suspiciously large number of rich, elderly women died. In 1957 Adams went on trial at the Old Bailey for the murder of just one patient, a Mrs Edith Morrell.

Privately, police – who had painstakingly investigated the doctor – believed he was responsible for many other deaths. “I am quite confident Adams is a mass-murderer – he has certainly killed 14 people,” one senior police officer told reporters, off the record. A pathologist at the time reckoned the tally might be 163 – or even more. Others estimated he might have claimed 300 deaths over three decades.

Adams’ alleged modus operandi was to target wealthy, often lonely, elderly women, diagnose a condition such as ‘nerves’ for which he would prescribe large doses of morphine, and then take over their financial affairs. Before long, many died, from what the medic would describe on the death certificate as ‘cerebral thrombosis’. They would then be cremated.

Yet Adams had his supporters, who claimed the doctor was innocent; the victim of a witch hunt. Indeed, they were as delighted as the doctor when he was acquitted of Mrs Morrell’s murder after a two-week trial. So, was Adams the Harold Shipman of his day?

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Despite having been left money and gifts in many of his patients’ wills, writer Jane Robins believes that Adams, like Shipman, was driven by the sense of control that came from killing and that they were both psychopaths.

In her new book, she has produced a gripping account of the doctor’s life and career in Sussex. Adams came to Eastbourne in 1922, then a young doctor from Ireland. An overweight, Billy Bunterish figure, he was a social climber and snob. He arrived in town on a bike; 30 years later he sat in the back of a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. From the beginning, he divided opinion. Some found him arrogant, greedy and rude; others were devoted to him.

He died in 1983, aged 84. On his death, a former Eastbourne mayor spoke of “a vicious whispering campaign” against Adams, while a senior policeman said he “was as guilty as hell”. Even today, who knows for sure?