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Dr. William PALMER

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 


A.K.A.: "The Rugeley Poisoner"
 
Classification: Serial killer
Characteristics: Poisoner - Pecuniary gain
Number of victims: 13 +
Date of murders: 1846 - 1855
Date of arrest: January 1856
Date of birth: August 6, 1824
Victims profile: Men, women and children (friends and relatives)
Method of murder: Poisoning (strychnine)
Location: Staffordshire, England, United Kingdom
Status: Executed by hanging at Stafford prison on June 14, 1856
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Dr. William Palmer (August 6, 1824 – June 14, 1856) was an English doctor who was convicted of murder in one of the most notorious cases of the 19th century.

Early life

Born in Rugeley, Staffordshire, he had an extravagant lifestyle; his medical training was constantly interrupted by allegations of stealing money, and he also had a reputation as a ladies' man.

While working at Stafford infirmary, he was accused of poisoning an acquaintance during a drinking competition; although nothing was proved, the hospital put tighter controls on the dispensary as a precaution. Palmer also enjoyed gambling and horses, but his lack of success in this pursuit led him into serious debt.

Murder spree

He returned to his home town of Rugeley to practice as a doctor, and, in St. Nicholas Church, Abbots Bromley, married Ann Thornton, also known as Brookes (b.1827) in 1847. The marriage took place on 7 October, 1847. Their first son, William Brookes Palmer, was born either in 1848 or 1850. He would long outlive his father, dying on 29 April, 1926.

The first of several suspicious deaths connected to Palmer was that of his mother-in-law. On 18 January, 1849, Ann Mary Thornton died while visiting her daughter at Palmer's house. She was about 50 years old. On 10 May, 1850, Leonard Bladen died. He was a 49-year-old house guest of the Palmers. William and Ann would have four more children, who all died in infancy:

  • Elizabeth Palmer. Died on 6 January, 1851. She was about two months and a half old at the time of death.

  • Henry Palmer. Died on 6 January, 1852. He was about a month old.

  • Frank Palmer. Died on 19 December, 1852, only 7 hours following his birth.

  • John Palmer. Died on 27 January, 1854. He was three or four days old.

The only other family member to die in this period was an elderly uncle of Palmer. Joseph Bentley died on 27 October, 1852. He was 62 years old and his death attracted no suspicion. But then followed the death of Ann Palmer. She died on 29 September, 1854, only 27 years old. At about this time, Palmer was involved in an affair with Eliza Tharme, his housemaid. On 26 June/27 June, 1855, Tharme gave birth to Alfred. He was an illegitimate son to Palmer.

The sequence of events did not attract much attention. Ann was believed to have died of cholera. In 1853-1854, the so-called third cholera pandemic was affecting Great Britain. There were 23,000 cholera-related deaths on the island. But Palmer did benefit financially from the death of his wife. He had taken out a £13,000 insurance policy on her life.

Palmer then insured his brother Walter's life. Walter Palmer died on 16 August, 1855. But Walter died a bit too soon and the insurance company refused to pay up. By this time, Palmer was heavily in debt, and was being blackmailed by one of his former lovers, the daughter of a Staffordshire policeman.

In November, 1855, Palmer attended the Shrewsbury Handicap Stakes. He was accompanied by a friend. John Parsons Cook. Both bet on various horses between 13 November and 15 November. Cook won a large amount of money by betting on "Polestar"; Palmer lost heavily by betting instead on "the Chicken". Cook and Palmer had a celebration party at the Raven, a local drinking establishment. Already on 14 November, Cook was complaining of feeling ill, but he was only thought to have drunk too much brandy. On 15 November, the two gamblers returned to Rugeley. Cook booked a room at the Talbot Arms.

On 17 November, 1855, two people close to Palmer fell suddenly ill: young Alfred Palmer and John Cook. Alfred died within the day, the fifth child of Palmer to die in infancy. On 18 November, a chambermaid sampled the broth prepared for Cook. She too fell ill. On 19 November, Palmer went to London in order to collect Cook's earnings from the horse races. On 21 November, Cook died at about 1:00 AM. On 23 November, Mr. Stevens, Cook's stepfather, arrived to represent the family. A post mortem examination of Cook's body took place on November 26. An inquest on Cook opened on 29 November, the verdict was delivered on 15 December. Deciding that the Cook case concerned "willful murder". Suspicions of foul play were heightened when Palmer tried to bribe several people involved with the coroner's inquest, but the final straw was Palmer's purchase of strychnine shortly before Cook's death.

Arrest and trial

Palmer was arrested for Cook's murder. The bodies of Ann and Walter Palmer were also exhumed and re-examined, although not enough evidence was found to charge Palmer with their deaths. An Act of Parliament was passed to allow the trial to be held at The Old Bailey, London, as it was felt that a fair jury could not be found in Staffordshire. Despite the evidence being circumstantial, the similarity between Cook's death and that of known strychnine victims was enough for the jury to find Palmer guilty of murder.

The prosecution team of Alexander Cockburn and John Walter Huddleston possessed fine forensic minds and proved forceful advocates. Palmer expressed his admiration for Cockburn's cross-examination after the verdict through the racing metaphor "It was the riding that did it."

Some 30,000 were at Stafford prison on June 14, 1856 to see Palmer's public execution by hanging. As he stepped onto the gallows, Palmer is said to have looked at the trapdoor and exclaimed, "Are you sure it's safe?" Some scholars believe that the evidence should not have been enough to convict him, and that the summing up of the judge, John Campbell, 1st Baron Campbell, was prejudicial.

The notoriety of the case alarmed many of eminent men in Rugeley, who were worried that their town would forever be linked with "Palmer the Poisoner". There is a persistent urban myth that they petitioned the Prime Minister of the day to change the name of the town. He reputedly said he would accede to their request, but only if they would name it after himself...Palmerston. This story is now generally thought to be untrue.

Cultural references

  • Arthur Conan Doyle's detective Sherlock Holmes remarks on Palmer in The Adventure of the Speckled Band.

  • Robert Graves's novel They Hanged My Saintly Billy is a re-examination of the case.

  • The Life and Crimes of William Palmer at the Internet Movie Database

  • The salutation "What's your poison?" is though to be a reference to the events.

  • The fictional character of Inspector Bucket in Charles Dickens' Bleak House is reputed to be based on Charles Frederick Field, the policeman who investigated Walter Palmer's death for his insurers.

Bibliography

  • Davenport-Hines, R. (2004) "Palmer, William [ the Rugeley Poisoner] (1824–1856)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, accessed 20 July 2007 (subscription required)

  • Knott, G. H. (1912). The Trial of William Palmer, Notable English Trials, Edinburgh: William Hodge & Co..
     

 
 

William Palmer

Born in 1824, Palmer took to crime at an early age. By the time he was seventeen had been dismissed from one apprenticeship for embezzlement and fled from another after having been discovered running his own abortion service.

In 1846, however, Palmer qualified as a doctor from St Bartholomew’s Hospital. He settled down to working in a modest practice in Rugeley, Staffordshire, and married. His domestic life was not quite as respectable as it appeared and one of the servant girls had his child while he preferred a life of horses and gambling to one of caring for the sick. 

Palmer’s constant gambling took him into debt and to ensure an upturn of his finances he disposed of his mother-in-law, so that her fortune would pass on to his wife. By 1855, in addition to his wife who had been insured for £13,000, four of his legitimate children, several of his illegitimate offspring, his brother, an uncle and several of his more persistent creditors had gone the same way as his mother-in-law.

In November 1855 he attended Shrewsbury Races. With him was John Parsons Cook, a fellow gambler who had enjoyed considerably more success than Palmer. At the meeting, Palmer lost all his bets while Cook won a considerable amount of money. After the meeting the party retired to the Talbot Arms Hotel, Rugeley, to celebrate Cook’s success. At the party Cook became ill and Palmer offered to collect the man’s winnings. Once he had got his hands on the money Palmer used it to pay off his own debts. Palmer attended Cook during his illness and, on 21st November, Cook died. Cook’s stepfather was suspicious and demanded a post-mortem. An examination showed that the man had been poisoned with antimony and Palmer was arrested. 

Because of hostility against him in his home county, Palmer was tried at the Old Bailey in May 1856. He was duly found guilty and was hanged outside Stafford Gaol on 14th June 1856 in front of a large crowd.

 
 

Dr. William Palmer (1824 – June 14, 1856) was an English doctor who was convicted of murder in one of the most notorious cases of the 19th century.

Born in Rugeley, Staffordshire, he had an extravagant lifestyle; his medical training was constantly interrupted by allegations of stealing money, and he also had a reputation as a ladies' man. While working at Stafford infirmary, he was accused of poisoning an acquaintance during a drinking competition; although nothing was proved, the hospital put tighter controls on the dispensary as a precaution. Palmer also enjoyed gambling and horses, but his lack of success in this pursuit led him into serious debt.

He returned to his home town of Rugeley to practice as a doctor, and, in St. Nicholas Church, Abbots Bromley, married Ann Brookes in 1847. After the birth of one child the following year, their next four children all died as babies. Several people connected to Dr. Palmer died in his presence, including his mother-in-law, and at least two other people to whom he owed money.

In 1854, Ann Palmer died, apparently of cholera, after William had taken out a £13,000 insurance policy on her life. His housemaid bore him an illegitimate child nine months later, but this baby died just a few months later. Palmer then insured his brother Walter's life, but when Walter died very shortly after, the insurance company refused to pay up. By this time, Palmer was heavily in debt, and was being blackmailed by one of his former lovers, the daughter of a Staffordshire policeman.

When one of Palmer's horse racing friends, John Parsons Cook, won a large amount of money at Shrewsbury, he and Palmer had a celebration party before returning to Rugeley. The following day, Palmer invited Cook to dinner, after which Cook became violently ill, and died two days later. Suspicions of foul play were heightened when Palmer tried to bribe several people involved with the coroner's inquest, but the final straw was Palmer's purchase of strychnine shortly before Cook's death.

Palmer was arrested for Cook's murder; the bodies of Ann and Walter Palmer were also exhumed and re-examined, although not enough evidence was found to charge Palmer with their deaths. An Act of Parliament was passed to allow the trial to be held at The Old Bailey, London, as it was felt that a fair jury could not be found in Staffordshire. Despite the evidence being circumstantial, the similarity between Cook's death and that of known strychnine victims was enough for the jury to find Palmer guilty of murder.

Some 30,000 were at Stafford prison on June 14, 1856 to see Palmer's hanging. Some scholars believe that the evidence should not have been enough to convict him, and that it was his reckless reputation that had swayed the jury's minds.

The notoriety of the case alarmed many of eminent men in Rugeley, who were worried that their town would forever be linked with "Palmer the Poisoner". They petitioned the prime minister of the day to change the name of the town, who said he would accede to their request, but only if they would name it after himself... Palmerston.

 

 

 
 
 
 
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