A HERITAGE plaque marking the birthplace of a local GP suspected of hastening the deaths of scores of his patients has been raising eyebrows in his native Randalstown.
Decades before ‘Doctor Death’ Harold Shipman was exposed as the most prolific serial killer in history there was the chilling story of Dr John Bodkin Adams.
The plaque, which bears the names of Randalstown Historical Society, Tidy Randalstown and the National Lottery’s Heritage Fund, states that the local man was ‘notorious for being tried and acquitted of murdering his patients in 1957’.
He died 38 years ago an innocent man. Apart from the murders, that is. And there were many, many murders.
Even his most fervent supporters have been forced to concede that for a mild-mannered man, he certainly had a knack for losing his patients.
Down the years his international reputation as a serial killer has grown. There have been books and articles galore all pointing to the local man’s guilt.
Innocent until proven guilty be damned, it is now widely accepted that when the roly-poly Randalstown man finally breathed his last in July 1983 he had perhaps hundreds of deaths on his conscience. But then he was never big on conscience. From an early age excess was his thing, and he liked to indulge himself at every turn.
It would have come as a terrible surprise to his parents, who scraped a meagre existence as Plymouth Brethren. How could they have created a bloated, greedy monster prepared to go to any depths to fund his extravagant lifestyle?
Yet somehow, here was a man who munched on violet creams by the case and who demanded a steady supply of cake in the operating room.
When he passed away at the grand old age of 83 he was a contented, not to mention very fat man - with a bank balance to match.
So how did this son of a Randalstown watch maker, and a fire and brimstone preacher to boot, manage to accumulate an estate worth over £400,000 after a lifetime of epic excess - and in the days when doctors were comfortably off, but certainly not earning the salaries enjoyed by medics today?
Adams studied at Coleraine Inst before going to Queen’s University in Belfast and while his academic career was far from distinguished, he finally graduated in 1921 without Honours.
After an unsuccessful stint as assistant houseman at Bristol Royal Infirmary, his career took another turn when he applied for a job as a GP in a Christian practice in Eastbourne.
If St Peter ever had a first class waiting room, Eastbourne would surely occupy one corner. It was a retirement haven for the wealthy and influential on the south coast of England and its residents were the very embodiment of the British establishment - aristocrats, retired ambassadors, generals, senior civil servants and rich industrialists.
Rich pickings indeed.
At first the nice 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 richest GP in England. The bicycle clips were long gone, replaced by a series of chauffeur driven cars. He was particularly partial to a Rolls Royce. Or two.
Over the ensuing years, the self-confessed euthanasia enthusiast was found to be the beneficiary in no fewer than 132 of his patients’ wills.
In this cynical age, the pattern seems clear but back then there was an obstinate refusal to believe that the family doctor was anything other than a force for good.
The parallels with Shipman are also disturbingly vivid. Here we have a charmer using drugs to control patients, maintaining poor records; a man who would turn up unannounced to check up on patients, a man taken to pocketing precious knick-knacks, and ultimately a man who enjoyed the sense of power over life and death.
Yet in the early days the practice flourished, to such an extent that three extra medics were needed to help shoulder the workload. Dr Adams’s star was on the rise and there was no shortage of patients eager to meet him. As luck would have it, many of them were elderly. And rich.
In 1935 the good doctor received the first of his many ‘anonymous postcards’ - the phrase he later used to describe news of a bequest from a dearly departed friend. That year he inherited £7,385 from Mrs Matilda Whitton. It was a huge chunk from her £11,465 estate - the equivalent of almost half a million pounds today.
The will was contested, but was upheld by the courts. The template, it seems, had been set.
This heralded the start of a productive spell for the enterprising Ulster man. From this time onwards, the primary source of his wealth was not his fees, but the legacies left by the adoring old dears who had sadly died not long after the ever-obliging Dr Adams had helped them prepare a new will.
These wills routinely named Dr Adams sole executor and expressed a preference for cremation, even though he had signed the box on the cremation form declaring that he did not expect to gain from the death.
But gain he did. In the 10 years between 1946 and 1956 dozens of patients left him money generating an annual income of £3,600. In modern money he was trousering around £100,000 a year.
Such conspicuous wealth eventually set tongues a-wagging, and the police finally closed in on July 23 1956 when they received a call about a suspicious death. The caller was fading music hall star Leslie Hanson, who was deeply disturbed by the sudden decline of his friend Gertrude Hullett.
Adams was eventually arrested and said, after caution: “Murder? Can you prove it was murder? I don’t think you could prove murder. She was dying in any event.”
He did, however, accept he had been ‘easing the passing’.
How many others had he helped over the finishing line? Of the 310 death certificates he had issued over that period, Home Office pathologist Francis Camps reckoned at least 163 were ‘suspicious’.
Between 1946 and 1956, more than 160 of his patients died in suspicious circumstances. Of these, 132 left him money or items in their wills.
Among the contest cases was Amy Ware. Dr Adams had banned the 76-year-old’s family from seeing her, so they did not have the opportunity to bid farewell before she suddenly died in February 1950. The local man received £1,000 from her estate.
Nine months later Annabelle Kilgour died immediately after her Adams gave her an injection. He received £200 and a clock for his troubles.
In May 1952 Julia Bradnum had just returned from a brisk walk when the doctor called. “It will be over in three minutes” he was heard to say before brandishing his faithful syringe. His prediction was correct and he pocketed £661 from the will - which he had helped her pen the previous year.
In November of the same year he was treating Julia Thomas for depression following the death of her cat. After administering some ‘medication’ he left, telling a member of the lady’s staff that he had been promised her new typewriter. He took it with him, and she signed off at 3am the following morning.
Clara Miller passed away in February 1954. Adams was a regular visitor in the weeks leading up to her death, locking the door to meet with her for up to 20 minutes at a time. When a friend enquired why that was, the 87-year-old explained that he was ‘assisting her in personal matters’. She left him £1,275. He also submitted a bill for £700 for his services.
In May 1955 James Downs, brother-in-law of Amy Ware, died. He had lapsed into a 36-hour coma after Dr Adams’ final visit. The doctor inherited £1,000, as well as £216 for services rendered in those difficult final days.
In 1956 it was the turn of Gertrude Hullett. A nurse looked on in horror as the Ulsterman administered the final deadly dose and uttered the immortal line: “You do realise, doctor, that you have killed her?”
Public interest in the trial was intense. If Adams was found guilty he would hang. The final verdict, however, created a sensation.
He could well have stepped from the pages of an Agatha Christie novel - but this time the larger than life villain got away scot-free.
The Old Bailey had never seen anything like it.
The public gallery was packed for the trial which ran for a then record-breaking 17 days.
There were numerous suspicious deaths to chose from, but the prosecution decided to proceed with the case of Edith Morrell. Another case was kept in reserve in a second indictment.
Accused of callously killing an elderly patient because he knew he would benefit from the terms of her will he spoke six words in his broad County Antrim accent: “I am not guilty, my Lord.”
But by his own admission it was not as simple as that. When pressed on the death of Mrs Morrell by police he insisted that ‘easing the passage of a dying person isn’t all that wicked’.
The wealthy widow had suffered from brain thrombosis, was partially paralysed and had severe arthritis when she came under Adams’ care in 1949.
During the trial it was established that in the 10 months leading up to her death Adams had administered 1,629 half grains of barbiturates, 1,928 grains of Sedormid, 1,641 half grains of morphia and 139 half grains of heroin.
The elderly lady had made several wills. In some Adams received large sums, in others nothing. On August 24, 1950 she added a codicil stating that under no circumstances should he receive anything. Yet when she died three months later, he drove off in a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost with an antique case of silver cutlery.
Within hours of her passing, Adams arranged for her to be cremated and by dusk her ashes had been hastily scattered into the English Channel.
The case was circumstantial, but the prosecution felt it was strong - until the court ruled that they could not introduce evidence linked to other cases. Then came the news that the doctor would not be taking the stand.
The jury had to decide, and after just 44 minutes they found the Randalstown man not guilty.
In the aftermath of the trial he was convicted of eight counts of forging prescriptions, four counts of making false statements on cremation forms and three offences under the Dangerous Drugs Act. He was also struck off as a doctor.
But he soon bounced back, selling his story to the Daily Express for £10,000 and taking several papers to the cleaners through the libel courts.
Incredibly, by 1961 he was reinstated as a GP and he built up a new practice.
Indeed many of his patients were kind enough to leave him money in their will...