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Dr William Palmer - did he use strychnine in his mass murders?

Propelled by the bizarre murder story of Burke and Hare, I became interested in the equally bizarre story of William Palmer (1824-56) who studied medicine in London, and qualif­ied in Aug 1846. He returned to his Midlands home town of Rugeley to pract­ice as a doctor, and married Ann Thornton in Oct 1847. His new mother-in-law had inherited great wealth from her late husband, but died in Jan 1849 from apoplexy, two weeks after coming living with the Palmers. But the gambler Dr Palmer was disappointed with the inher­it­ance he and his wife gained from the death, having expected much more.

There were many other unexpected deaths in the Palmer family. After just one premium was paid on her life insurance, his 27 year old wife Annie sick­ened from cholera and died in 1854. Only the first child of the Palmers’ five babies survived inf­an­cy, and outlived his father. The next four babies died of convul­s­ions.

Soon after William bought a new life policy for his alcoh­olic older brother Walter, Walter also died. But the insurance com­p­any refused to pay out, threatening a crim­in­al investigation (which they failed to pursue). It is uncertain how many of William Palmer’s illegitimate babies also took ill and died unexpectedly.

In Nov 1855, close friends 31-year-old surgeon William Palmer and rich 28-year-old horse-owner John Cook went to the Shrews­bury races. Cook’s horse won the huge sum of £3,000, at the same time that Pal­mer’s failures pushed him deep­er into debt. When John Cook went into con­vul­sions while celebrat­ing, Dr Palmer supervised the medical care.

Back in Rugeley, John Cook’s stepfather William Stevens already dist­rust­ed Palmer, especially once he found his stepson’s betting papers were miss­ing. The housemaid said Pal­mer had given Cook pills and had also sent him a poisoned broth. After suffering a week of excruciating pain, Cook accused Palmer of poisoning him, then died. No one yet knew that Palmer was already cl­aiming Cook’s recent winnings as his own, but people were already gossiping.

William Stevens requested that his stepson's body be exhumed, due to the long list of earlier deaths, Pal­mer’s large debts, angry creditors and Cook's stolen horse-money.

The autopsy was performed by local pathologists, with Palmer pres­ent as a colleague, not as a suspect. During the examin­at­ion, Palmer tampered with Cook's stomach by “accid­entally” bump­ing into a physician as he was lift­ing out the stomach. The remain­ing mat­er­ial was placed in a sealed jar, but Palmer slit open the seal as well. Then a pharmacist admitted selling Palmer strychnine the week before. As sus­picion bloomed, wife Annie and brother Walter’s bodies were also exhumed.

In Dec 1855, Dr Palmer was arrested and charged with Wilful Pois­oning. The 1856 trial was held at Old Bailey.

Drs Alfred Taylor (L) and Rees, testing for traces of poison. 
Engraving, in The Times report of the trial of William Palmer 
National Library of Medicine

At the 12 days trial, the coroner called toxicologist Dr Alfred Taylor who tested the small remaining sample of Cook's stomach contents. He found only a small, non-lethal amount of antimony, the act­ive ing­redient of normal medicines. But on the basis of reported sym­p­toms prior to death, Dr Taylor concluded that Cook had been poisoned by strychnine. Taylor was already renowned as a great authority on forensic medicine, so he was not afraid to make grand claims for toxicology in his textbooks and in court. 

The prosecution noted that Dr Palmer's tampering at the autopsy made thorough chemical analysis impossible. Furthermore Palmer's medical expertise made him a very devious poisoner, cap­able of mur­dering with minimal doses of strychnine, a hard-to-trace poison. 

The defence put toxic­ol­ogy expertise on trial. Palmer's law­yers put opposing toxicological experts on the stand, and claimed that arrogant Dr Taylor had made damaging statements to the press.

Trial of William Palmer 
In the Illustrated Times, May 27 1856

Dr Palmer was found guilty and sentenced to be hang­ed. Dr Taylor was be­sieged by public criticism, but he maintained his standing as an auth­or­ity. In his 1859 book On Poisons in Relation to Medical Jur­is­pru­d­ence and Medicine, he justified himself in the Palmer trial.

Palmer’s trial had been one of the great Victorian legal shows, publicised in Britain & out. Scrutiny of the case was all the more intense because a public fear of poisoning had grown into a national paranoia by mid-century. Remember that the doctor had purchased large amounts of it, so strychnine was recorded as his favourite murder technique.

Dr Palmer was sus­pected of poisoning more than a doz­en other people before Cook, but he was only ever tried for one murder. The jury found him guilty of Cook’s murder and he was quickly returned to Stafford to hang.

In 1856, 30,000 people gathered in a festive atmosphere outside Staf­ford prison, to watch the execution of the local town doctor. This Rugeley Poisoner was one of the last people to be publicly hanged in Britain.

Murder pamphlet

In the excellent book The Poisoner: Life and Crimes of Victorian England’s Most Notorious DoctorStephen Bates provided a broader portrait of Victorian England, the minimal training and often dangerous influence of doctors, the chaotic legal system and the class-spanning tug of horse racing. Alongside these came the emergence of new finan­cial products such as life insurance, which featured centrally in some of Palmer’s plots. But without DNA analysis or detailed toxicology reports, what was it all worth?

In the C19th were respectable, middle class, person­able and educated men ever believed to be murderers? Were doctors particularly prot­ected from public scrutiny by their status and income? 4 out of the 5 Palmer babies died – was this normal? Why did the in­surance com­panies sensibly not pay Dr Palmer out, yet the hospital and police did nothing? How did the Poison Panic influence the popul­at­ion in 1855-56?


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