The Law

The Murder Trial of Dr John Bodkin Adams (Part I)

On January 9, 1957, the British Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, laid down the seals of office for the last time. His physical health was wretched. His political health was worse. The previous year had been full of startling events. On February 11, 1956, two diplomats, Burgess and MacLean, who had been missing for five years, informed a press conference in Moscow of their careers as Russian spies. On February 25 the Soviet strongman Khrushchev delivered a highly hypocritical speech denouncing his predecessor Stalin as cruelly repressive. In April Khrushchev and his colleague Bulganin visited Britain: Sir Anthony had to apologise for an unauthorised examination by an eccentric Royal Navy diver of the hull of the Soviet cruiser on which they travelled. By the autumn, Eastern Europe was affected by revolutions in Poland and Hungary, put down brutally by Khrushchev, the liberal reformer of February. And relations with the United States had degenerated after Britain, France and Israel had invaded Egypt to secure the Suez Canal. That invasion had been conducted even though the Attorney-General, Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller, had advised it would be illegal. Autres temps, autre moeurs. 

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Who was to take over? The 5th Marquess of Salisbury conducted soundings among the Conservative ministers to ascertain whether the Queen should be advised to appoint the appeaser “Rab” Butler or the anti-appeaser Harold Macmillan. His famous question was: “Which is it to be? Wab or Hawold?” The majority answer was Harold. 

Macmillan succeeded in initiating a period of political peace. He was assisted by the fact that for six months there had been intense publicity about supposed mass murder in Eastbourne, Sussex. 

Then a celebrated murder trial took place in Court No 1 at the Old Bailey from March 18 to April 9, 1957. The trial was before Mr Justice Devlin and a jury of ten men and two women. To that point it was the longest murder trial to have taken place in that courtroom. The accused was a general practitioner, John Bodkin Adams. The alleged victim was his eighty-one-year-old patient, Edith Alice Morrell, a wealthy widow. 

Morrell (left) died on November 13, 1950. The prosecution case was that, without medical warrant to relieve extreme pain, Adams ensured that she became addicted to drugs, and in the last twelve days of her life increased the doses so radically as to kill her. The press was largely against Adams but one of his few champions was Percy Hoskins, chief crime reporter of the Daily Express, published by Lord Beaverbrook. Adams was acquitted. 

I remember well the coverage given in the Sun-Herald over successive weekends. From 1964, as a law student compelled to read many of Devlin’s judgments, I developed intense respect for his legal ability. 

In 1967 I first read Sybille Bedford’s brilliant eyewitness account of the trial called The Best We Can Do (1958). Then I read an extraordinary memoir of the trial by Mr Justice Devlin published twenty-eight years later: Easing the Passing: The Trial of Dr John Bodkin Adams. Its picture of Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller QC, the prosecuting counsel, is a brutal example of what under the Roman empire was called “damnatio memoriae”. Devlin repeatedly made contemptuous references to the Attorney-General as “Reggie”—for example, that he “was called Reggie by friend and foe alike because he was the sort of person who obviously ought to be called Reggie”.

In 2020, my recollections of the case were stirred by Lord Devlin, the first biography of Devlin—a very fine book by Justice Sackar of the Supreme Court of New South Wales.

The trial involved a clash between six strong men who came from very different segments of Anglo-Irish society. At the time, the men were in their late forties or fifties, at the crest of their careers. Fairly or not, the case damaged the reputation of all six, save possibly the leading defence counsel, Geoffrey Lawrence QC, but even he can now be seen as partially flawed.

Devlin said of Manningham-Buller and Adams that it “was a curious chance that had brought two of the most self-righteous men in England into silent confrontation”. Lawrence did not lack self-righteousness either. Douthwaite and Hannam were, if not self-righteous, well endowed with self-confidence. And Devlin possessed all these qualities, together with vanity, although he did have a great deal to be vain about. 

Who were the six strong men? 

Dr John Bodkin Adams: Born in 1899, he was the son of an Ulsterman—a jeweller, a JP and a member of the Plymouth Brethren. He studied medicine at Queen’s University, Belfast, becoming a Doctor of Surgery in 1926, gaining a Diploma in Anaesthetics in 1941 and holding appointments in Eastbourne hospitals as an anaesthetist. 

In 1922, Adams moved to Eastbourne, an elegant seaside spa built and still dominated by the Dukes of Devonshire. Favoured by good weather, it was a place to which wealthy and moderately wealthy people retired. 

The doctor worked hard and prospered. From 1926, he had a chauffeur. Other servants accumulated over the years. In 1930, he bought a large three-storey house. He began to move in superior social circles. He was the medical adviser to the 10th Duke of Devonshire. The Duke was father-in-law of the widowed Kathleen Kennedy, one of John F. Kennedy’s sisters. The Duke was brother of Lady Dorothy Macmillan, unhappily married to the Prime Minister. The Duke was uncle of Elizabeth Cavendish, later John Betjeman’s companion. Adams was summoned when the Duke suddenly fell ill in 1950. He was present when he died.

In 1957 it seems that Adams’s investments were bringing in at least £2000 per annum. He may have had as much as £35,000 on deposit with banks. He kept large quantities of cash at home. He collected expensive cars and made money trading them. He was an excellent shot. He liked photography and fishing. He dressed expensively. He was a bachelor. As the years passed, he became quite fat. He participated in many community organisations. He was a personable man, retaining an Ulster accent all his life. He was not reluctant to make night visits if required. Many patients remained loyal to him even after his troubles began in 1956. 

He saw rich patients every day, sometimes several times. With them he had an excellent bedside manner. He was less cordial with poorer patients. There were tales of gluttony, greed for money he did not have, meanness with the money he did have, pilfering the possessions of deceased patients as souvenirs, over-familiarity with elderly female patients, shortness of temper when defied, and a habit of sending nurses out of the bedrooms of his patients so that he could discuss their money in private. In the mid-1930s he fought and won a High Court case establishing the validity of a patient’s will under which he received £7000. To him was attributed the maxim: “You don’t pay tax on bequests.” He developed a reputation for excessive administration of drugs, perhaps to stimulate this bounty.

Herbert Hannam: The Detective Superintendent had his admirers, but Lawrence was not among them. Nor, initially, was Devlin, who complained of Hannam’s “flamboyance and his cultivation of the press”, writing somewhat snobbishly:

“Sartorially elegant”, with expensive tastes especially in cigars, he was nicknamed “The Count”. He came into fame in 1953 in the Teddington Towpath Murder when he was created by the press “Hannam of the Yard”, the title that corresponds to the de and von of Continental nobility. He had a good opinion of himself.

Photographs do not support these fashion notes, at least in 1956 and 1957, when he dressed in accordance with what he was—a senior plain clothes detective. He could make no credible claim to Sir Anthony Eden’s title as the best-dressed man in Europe. Photographs do suggest that he was tough and determined. The main bump in his career had been the trial of the Teddington Towpath Murder. A confession by the accused was objected to on the ground that Hannam had invented it. He was cross-examined with much vigour for four hours by a young barrister, Peter Rawlinson, later a Tory Solicitor-General and Attorney-General who, when he was made a peer, was nicknamed Lord Raw-Haw due to his plummy tones. But, despite Rawlinson’s efforts, the judge believed Hannam. Thereafter his career thrived. He was regarded as thorough, patient, cunning and thoughtful. He had beautiful handwriting (like Adams and unlike Devlin).

Devlin seems to have warmed to Hannam as the trial proceeded. He and Detective Inspector Pugh declined to press some of Adams’s incriminating statements as admissions on the ground that when he made them he was too upset to make that course just. In Easing the Passing, Devlin said Hannam and Detective Sergeant Hewitt were “both sound policemen who would keep ardour within bounds. They knew the rules and would obey them.” He also said: “Hannam’s approach was sensible and skilful.” And at the end of the trial Devlin commended the three detectives for the honesty and fairness of their work.  

Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller was the son of a Northamptonshire baronet and became the 4th Baronet. Like Adams, he had a link with the Dukes of Devonshire, being a remote cousin of the Prime Minister’s wife, Lady Dorothy Macmillan. Like Devlin, he had an undistinguished academic record. As Devlin never tired of pointing out in Easing the Passing, Sir Reginald was educated at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford. Devlin was educated at equally prestigious institutions, Stonyhurst and Christ’s College, Cambridge.

He entered the House of Commons in 1943 as a right-wing Conservative and held office in the brief Conservative caretaker government in 1945. In 1951 Manningham-Buller (right) became Solicitor-General. In 1954, he became Attorney-General. He was physically imposing—a “somewhat massive figure” according to Bedford. In one of the cruel analyses with which Easing the Passing is peppered, Devlin said:

What was almost unique about him and makes his career so fascinating is that what the ordinary careerist achieves by making himself agreeable, falsely or otherwise, Reggie achieved by making himself disagreeable. Sections of the press, which he permanently antagonised, liked to parody his name by calling him Sir Bullying Manner. This was wrong. He was a bully without a bullying manner. His bludgeoning was quiet. He could be downright rude but he did not shout or bluster. Yet his disagreeableness was so pervasive, his persistence so interminable, the obstructions he manned so far flung, his objectives apparently so insignificant, that sooner or later you would be tempted to ask yourself whether the game was worth the candle: if you asked yourself that, you were finished …

He was neither a saint nor a villain. But since most of his convictions were wrong-headed, he was unluckily a do-badder, by which I mean a person whose activities bear the same relation to villainy as those of a do-gooder to sanctity.

His dislikes, however strong, seemed to be impersonal. They did not exclude many kindnesses and courtesies. There was no malice in him. At least I do not think there was. Clumsiness? Almost invariably. Stupidity? Yes, from time to time. Amounting to perversity? I think that it must be conceded that sometimes it did. And might there have been on occasions only a dim perception, as Melford [Stevenson] might have put it, of the borderline between perversity and malice? Possibly. 

This hatchet-job culminates with a comparison with Widmerpool, the villain in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.

In this way Devlin endeavoured to provoke contempt for Sir Reginald by recourse to derision. He also scattered half-compliments about major things and direct compliments about minor things as modest qualifications to the bile. The very old man who finally published Easing the Passing, with all its primness, prissiness, name-dropping, Latin tags, literary allusions and elaborately strained witticisms seemed to wish to protect himself from the charges of bias which inevitably came his way. An early speech by Devlin as an undergraduate at the Cambridge Union was described as “practically devoid of bitterness and spleen”. No one could ever say that of Easing the Passing.

Geoffrey Lawrence was of slight build, a pale, grey man, habitually attired in black, wearing a hat in the style of Sir Anthony Eden. His strenuous labours during the trial exhausted him by the end. He was a keen violinist and a gentleman farmer. Devlin described him as “a quiet and conscientious barrister who had acquired a high reputation in what was called ‘local government work’, principally rating cases, but embracing also every sort of dreary dispute in which local authorities and their natural opponents engage”.

Why was a man of his inexperience in criminal law selected? Adams’s defence was funded by the Medical Defence Union—an experienced serial litigant in defending medical negligence cases. It is likely that someone influential in its ranks had seen, or knew someone who had seen, Lawrence cross-examine expert witnesses effectively, a skill that was vital in the Adams case, as expert evidence was central. His victory gave him super-hero status. In both questioning and address he displayed formidable ability.

Patrick Devlin was the son of an unsuccessful Irish architect married to a relatively wealthy Scotswoman. He had lost a Dominican vocation at the age of seventeen and thereafter lost his faith completely, until his death-bed. 

He enjoyed no triumphs academically. Indeed he suffered the ignominy of failing constitutional law in the bar exams. (The only comparable rise from humiliation to glory was the failure in Roman law of a great barrister-judge, Lord Sumner. His excuse was that he had intended to work the subject up on the train from Liverpool to London, but unfortunately it turned out to be an express train, not a “stopper”.) 

At Cambridge Devlin befriended Rab Butler (the loser to Eden in 1955, Macmillan in 1957 and the Earl of Home in 1963, but highly influential in politics). Devlin was an excellent debater. He became President of the Cambridge Union. He went to the bar at the age of twenty-four. He married early—and wisely, since his wife was an Oppenheimer of diamonds fame. By the time of the Second World War he was developing an excellent commercial practice. He took silk at thirty-nine and was appointed to the King’s Bench Division at the young age of forty-two. 

At once he revealed himself to be a brilliant and efficient judge. By the time of the Adams trial he had started to develop a sub-career—the delivery and then publication of elegant speeches on legal topics, the first being on the jury, comprising the Hamlyn Lectures, delivered just before the Adams trial. The event which contributed most to his eventual status as a celebrity was the Adams trial.

At school he had suffered from rickets, which left him with a small frame and a stoop. Any active frontline war service was out of the question. Yet Easing the Passing is full of martial metaphors, images and allusions.

He made a great impression on Bedford. She introduced him and Adams in The Best We Can Do thus:

The Judge came on swiftly. Out of the side-door, an ermined puppet progressing weightless along the bench, head held at an angle, an arm swinging, the other crooked under cloth and gloves, trailing a wake of subtlety, of secret powers, age: an Elizabethan shadow gliding across the arras.

The high-backed chair has been pulled, helped forward, the figure is seated, has bowed, and the hundred or so people who had gathered themselves at split notice rustle to their feet, rustle and subside into apportioned place. And now the prisoner, the accused himself is here—how had he come, how had one missed the instant of that other clockwork entry?—standing in the front of the dock, spherical, adipose, upholstered in blue serge, red-faced, bald, facing the Judge, facing this day …

Above on the dais the Judge is listening. Full face and immobile, the robed husk has taken on a measure of flesh and youth. The black cloth and the delicate pair of gloves have been deposited. The face is not the profile; gone is that hint of cunning. This is more than a supremely intelligent face, it is a face marked with intellectual fineness. The Judge sits quite still in easy absorption. Startling Mandarin hands flower from wide sleeves.

Various criticisms of Devlin follow. But there is one achievement those criticisms do not undermine. A distinguished American academic lawyer, Karl Llewellyn, said that the English judge, Lord Justice Scrutton, who sat from 1910 to 1934, was the greatest commercial judge in the common law world since Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench from 1756 to 1788. I believe it to be true that Devlin was the greatest commercial judge in Anglo-Australian jurisdictions since Lord Justice Scrutton. That was a title to which Devlin could have laid claim at the time of Adams’s trial after eight and a half years on the bench. He was able in other fields too. At his best he was a master of English prose. But his behaviour at the trial and later saw him falling below these standards. 

Arthur Douthwaite was a leading physician, expert in opiates. Bedford described him as six foot six—“a most handsome man—profile, greying hair, handsome in the way of the good-looking soldier who has reached, perhaps, the rank of Lieutenant-General”. Devlin called him a “man of rigid integrity … He was just over sixty, very tall, very handsome, very commanding but very courteous, always frank, never evasive. Also very decisive. Things either were or they were not.” This judgment must be qualified in at least two ways. 

First, just before Adams’s arrest, Douthwaite expressed doubts about the wisdom of charging Adams with murdering Morrell. She may not have been in pain, but she could have been very irritable to the point at which Adams was justified in stepping up drug doses even though he knew this was hastening death. 

Second, Douthwaite changed his opinion on how Adams’s treatment could be seen as homicidal in the days preceding death. He created agitation in Adams, who kept shaking his head as a sign of strong disapproval during parts of Douthwaite’s evidence about the proper treatment of stroke victims.


Police investigations

On July 23, 1956, one of Adams’s patients, Mrs Hullett, died. An energetic police investigation began. From August 17 it was headed by Hannam. An inquest was held on August 21. It found that Hullett had committed suicide but the coroner criticised the treatment administered by Adams. This pushed the Suez Crisis off the front page of the Daily Mirror. Curiously, it was the coroner who introduced Hannam to Adams at the end of the inquest.

The police team was put under considerable political pressure to conduct a speedy inquiry because of the storm of publicity that had blown up and not just in Britain. The headline in the German magazine Revue in September 1956 read, with Teutonic directness: “Eastbourne: No Place for Rich Widows, and The Deadly Prescription”. French papers produced something more louche—a cartoon showing the promenade at Eastbourne with empty deckchairs revealing shapes in the curves of female bodies, titled: Where are the ladies of Eastbourne? “Comic” verses about the murder of rich widows circulated and were read out at public dinners. The wildest of the rumours accused Adams of killing hundreds of victims. 


The death of Mrs Morrell 

In June 1948 Mrs Morrell suffered a stroke while visiting her son in Cheshire. Initially she was treated at a hospital in Cheshire, but she became a patient of Adams in Eastbourne. Bedridden, she was cared for at home by day and night nurses. From July 1948 she was given numerous doses of morphia and heroin. A key problem for the prosecution related to proof of motive, not essential in law, but highly material in fact. 

For a rich man like Adams, the items which Morrell may have intended to bequeath to him were not valuable. In June 1949 she made a new will. She left Adams a cabinet of silver, valued for probate at £276. On March 8, 1950, Adams told Morrell’s solicitor that she wished to make a new will leaving him her Rolls-Royce. On August 24, 1950, she did so, together with an Elizabethan cupboard—but only if her son predeceased her. On September 12, 1950, Adams angered Morrell by going on holiday to Scotland without her permission; on September 15 she thereupon made a codicil cutting him out of her will. On September 16 Adams broke his holiday for two days and began attending Morrell again. On October 23 the codicil was torn up—an act which was insufficient to revive the prior gifts. It is not clear how much Adams knew about these seesaw changes in testamentary bounty or their significance. But it cannot be said that a strong motive was proved. On the other hand, it is undoubtedly correct that some people commit very grave crimes for motives which others believe to be trivial.

Hannam and Adams met again on October 1, 1956, outside Adams’s house. Devlin seemed to accept that it was a chance encounter. Adams claimed to have been told by Morrell that she would leave him the chest of silver, the Rolls-Royce and the Elizabethan cabinet. In a “life story” which Adams published in the Daily Express after his acquittal, he said that when he returned from holiday Morrell told him of the codicil removing him from the will, and said “at the time of her death I knew I was not legally entitled to any benefit”—a statement which Hannam regarded as diametrically opposed to what Adams told him on October 1, 1956. On October 1, Hannam accused Adams of having committed a serious offence in filling in cremation certificate forms for Morrell and Hullett, which falsely stated that he was not aware of being a beneficiary under their wills. Adams said, in his inimitably unctuous style, that this was not done wickedly: “We always want cremations to go off smoothly for the dear children.”

On Saturday November 24, 1956, at 8.30pm the police executed a warrant to search Adams’s house for dangerous drugs. Despite having been told not to make a statement, Adams said a number of damaging things. One was that he “very, very seldom ever” used morphia and heroin—a lie. He admitted that, contrary to law, he had no register of the dangerous drugs he used—a crime. He distinctly admitted four times that he administered most of the drugs he had prescribed. He said all, or perhaps almost all, of the seventy-eight and three-quarter grains of heroin prescribed in the period from November 9 to 12, 1950, were used on Morrell, and any tablets left over would have been destroyed. 

Then, though this was not given in evidence at his trial, while a cupboard in the surgery was being searched, Adams took two bottles of morphine from another cupboard and put them in his pocket. He initially denied this, but on challenge by Hannam admitted what he had done.

On November 26, 1956, Adams was arrested in relation to the false cremation certificate charges. He asked what other charges there might be. Hannam said he was inquiring into the death of some of Adams’s patients, and Morrell’s was one. Adams said: “Easing the passing of a dying person is not all that wicked. She wanted to die—that cannot be murder. It is impossible to accuse a doctor.”

On December 18, Hannam was directed to go to Eastbourne at once and charge Adams with the murder of Morrell. After the trial Hannam and Detective Sergeant Hewitt claimed this was a mistake, since stronger murder cases existed in relation to other deaths.

On December 19, on being told by Hannam that he was under arrest, charged with murdering Morrell and cautioned, Adams said: “Murder. Murder. Can you prove it was murder? I did not think you could prove murder.” It was these statements which Hannam and Pugh, perhaps over-generously, testified should not be regarded as admissions. After a nine-day committal hearing that began on January 14, 1957, the magistrates committed Adams for trial.

Dyson Heydon served as a judge of the High Court of Australia from 2003 to 2013. This is the first part of a three-part series


One thought on “The Murder Trial of Dr John Bodkin Adams (Part I)

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Interesting article Dyson and a bit hard to come to any definitive position on it all, which I remember reading about years ago, and of course in the context of today, when it seems to me that all sorts of very obvious assaults that result in death can be excused for all sorts of reasons. Deaths that would definitely have had the guilty person on the scaffold in times gone past.
    I seem to remember thinking once that Dr. Adams was nasty & guilty, but this could have been influenced by the press.
    Now I would think that the jury got it right.
    I should add, reflecting on the personalities you describe, that I can’t help agreeing once more with Shakespeare….untempered ambition is a flaw……. in most people.

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