Podcast Episode 294: ‘The Murder Trial of the Century’


In 1957, an English doctor was accused of killing his patients for their money. The courtroom drama that followed was called the “murder trial of the century.” In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the case of John Bodkin Adams and its significance in British legal history.

We’ll also bomb Calgary and puzzle over a passive policeman.


In 1959, James Sellers proposed installing microphones in baseball bases.

In the Strand, Henry Dudeney offered a puzzle about asparagus bundles.

Sources for our feature on John Bodkin Adams:

Patrick Baron Devlin, Easing the Passing: The Trial of Dr John Bodkin Adams, 2004.

Sybille Bedford, The Trial of Dr. Adams, 1962.

Percy Hoskins, Two Men Were Acquitted: The Trial and Acquittal of Doctor John Bodkin Adams, 1984.

Kieran Dolin, “The Case of Dr. John Bodkin Adams: A ‘Notable’ Trial and Its Narratives,” in Brook Thomas, ed., Law and Literature, 2002.

Jonathan Reinarz and Rebecca Wynter, eds., Complaints, Controversies and Grievances in Medicine: Historical and Social Science Perspectives, 2014.

Russell G. Smith, Health Care, Crime and Regulatory Control, 1998.

Gail Tulloch, Euthanasia, Choice and Death, 2005.

Rt. Hon. Lord Justice Munby, “Medicine and the Law of Homicide: A Case for Reform?”, King’s Law Journal 23:3 (December 2012), 207-232.

Percy Hoskins, “Points: Dr John Bodkin Adams,” British Medical Journal (Clinical Research Edition) 287:6404 (Nov. 19, 1983), 1555.

“Trial of Dr. J. Bodkin Adams,” British Medical Journal 1:5020 (March 23, 1957), 712-713.

“Trial of Dr. J. Bodkin Adams,” British Medical Journal 1:5021 (March 30, 1957), 771-772.

“Trial of Dr. J. Bodkin Adams: Expert Evidence,” British Medical Journal 1:5022 (April 6, 1957), 828-834.

“Trial of Dr. J. Bodkin Adams: Expert Evidence Continued,” British Medical Journal 1:5023 (April 13, 1957), 889-894.

Daniel E. Murray, “The Trial of Dr. Adams,” University of Miami Law Review 13:4 (1959), 494.

A.W. Simpson, “Euthanasia for Sale?”, Michigan Law Review 84:4 (February-April 1986), 807.

J.E. Hall Williams, “The Report of the Tucker Committee on Proceedings Before Examining Justices (July, 1958: Cmnd. 479),” Modern Law Review 21:6 (November 1958), 647-652.

Caitlin Mahar, “Roy Porter Student Prize Essay, 2012: Easing the Passing: R v Adams and Terminal Care in Postwar Britain,” Social History of Medicine 28:1 (2015), 155-171.

Peter Ranscombe, “Shipman and Bodkin Adams in the Dock,” Lancet Psychiatry 2:11 (November 2015), e32.

“Crown vs. Dr. Adams: A Majestic Trial in Old Bailey,” Life 42:16 (April 22, 1957), 30-37.

Amanda Poole, “Did Antrim’s Notorious ‘Doctor Death’ Go to His Grave With 300 Murders on His Conscience?”, Belfast Telegraph, May 21, 2013, 3.

Joyce Galbraith, “What Happens When Doctors Play God …,” Irish Medical Times 40:14 (April 7, 2006), 28.

Jeremy Laurance, “Serial Killers ‘Attracted to Medical Profession,'” Independent, May 10, 2001, 10.

Ian Starrett, “Ulster’s Notorious ‘Mercy’ Killing Doc,” Belfast News Letter, Feb. 2, 2000, 13.

“Dr. John Bodkin Adams Is Buried, and So Is Answer to Patients’ Deaths,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 22, 1983, C.18.

“Hearing for Dr. Adams Opens,” New York Times, May 21, 1957.

“Dr. Adams — One Month After Acquittal,” New York Times, May 5, 1957.

“Adams Acquitted,” New York Times, April 14, 1957.

Kennett Love, “Adams Case Due to Go to Jurors,” New York Times, April 8, 1957.

Kennett Love, “Murder Defense May Call Adams,” New York Times, April 1, 1957.

Kennett Love, “The Trial of Dr. Adams,” New York Times, March 31, 1957.

Kennett Love, “Dr. Adams’ Trial Enters 2d Week,” New York Times, March 25, 1957.

Kennett Love, “Suicide Bid Cited in Poison Hearing,” New York Times, Jan. 24, 1957.

Kennett Love, “Aim of Addiction Linked to Doctor,” New York Times, Jan. 23, 1957

Kennett Love, “Britain’s Doctor’s Plot Already a Classic Case,” New York Times, Jan. 20, 1957.

Kennett Love, “Unusual Request Linked to Doctor,” New York Times, Jan. 19, 1957.

Kennett Love, “Evidence Is Gone, Britons Testify,” New York Times, Jan. 18, 1957.

“Murder by Narcotic Addiction Is Charged to a British Doctor,” New York Times, Jan. 15, 1957.

Percy Hoskins, “Adams, John Bodkin (1899–1983),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Sept. 23, 2004.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, “Before Present” (accessed April 25, 2020).

Wikipedia, “Radiocarbon Dating” (accessed April 25, 2020).

Erin Blakemore, “Radiocarbon Helps Date Ancient Objects — But It’s Not Perfect,” National Geographic, July 12, 2019.

Mindy Weisberger, “Nuclear Fallout Exposes Fake ‘Antique’ Whisky,” Live Science, Jan. 27, 2020.

David Williams, “Scottish Scientists Use Radioactive Isotopes From Old Nuclear Tests to Find Counterfeit Whisky. More Than 40 Percent of What They Tested Is Fake,” CNN, Jan. 24, 2020.

“Cal Cavendish, the ‘Mad Manure Bomber,’ Tells His Story,” CBC News, May 7, 2015.

Heath McCoy, “A Buzz From the Past,” Calgary Herald, Jan. 31, 2009.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Chris Pallant.

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!