It’s lovely when you spot a book and everything falls into place. The title caught my eye, the cover made it look promising, and when I placed that name Jane Robins I knew that I was in safe hands. I had been very taken with her book about the case of the brides in the bath. I’d known of that case – though I’d not known much about it – before I picked the book up, but I had no idea at all who Doctor Adams was.
I was to find out ….
John Bodkin Adams was born and raised in Ireland, the son of a strict, religious mother. He set out to raise himself, and to make his mother proud by going to medical school. It soon became clear that his ambition and aspirations outstripped his talents, but he managed to qualify as a doctor, and to establish himself in a medical practice in Eastbourne.
It did not take very long at all for Doctor Adams to acquire all of the trappings of wealth. He had a grand house; his staff included a chauffeur, gardener and housekeeper; and his fleet of cars included a Rolls Royce. However did a general practitioner fund such a lavish lifestyle?
It seems that Doctor Adams had a particular speciality, a gift for taking care of elderly widows. He knew that most of their problems came from being fragile, from being troubled by their nerves, and so he prescribed them sedatives, in increasing amounts. He visited them daily, he reassured them, looking after their house, their staff, advising their solicitors, relieving them of all their worries. They loved him. At least, most of them did.
In the end though, they all died. And it was natural that there would be a legacy for the doctor ….
There was a great deal of gossip about Doctor Adams, and in time the police became suspicious. The doctor was horribly secretive about how he was treating his patients. He was quick to sign a death certificate that recorded a natural death, declaring that he would not benefit from the deceased’s will even when he knew that he would. And he even organised the funerals, over the heads of family and friends, usually arranging for the body to be cremated.
Jane Robins told the stories of so many women, clearly and lucidly, and with a keen eye for signoficant details. The window left wide open on a cold day, the nurse sent out of the room for no good reason, the valuable ‘gifts’ taken home by the doctor while his patients lay unconscious in their beds. Those details were telling, and at times heart-breaking.
There was no doubt that Doctor Adams was unprofessional and self serving. That he was arrogant, insensitive, hostile to criticism, and driven by a need for money, status and social position. But was he killing his patients? There was a great deal of evidence, so much of it was circumstantial, the situation was sensitive, and it all hung on the doctor’s intent ….
It didn’t help that at the time – after the war but before the NHS – doctors were regarded with great reverence and respect, and that it was unthinkable to question a doctor’s treatment of his patients. Other local doctors – even though they surely must have questioned many aspects of his behaviour – closed ranks and refused to help the police.
A senior officer from Scotland Yard to be assigned to the case, a Home Office pathologist identified 163 suspicious cases, and after many months and two exhumations Doctor Adams was charged with murder. Just one case, the case that police thought most likely to bring about a conviction, but second charge was prepared, and would be made if the first charge failed.
The account of the investigation, the arrest and the trial is just as striking, just as compelling as what came before.
The facts were very well presented, the research was clearly as thorough as it possibly could be, and there were so many questions to be asked about the handling of the investigation and the trial.
I drew my own conclusions, and at the very end Jane Robins drew hers. We agreed.
Though neither of us can ever know …