Palmer, William (1824-1856) (DNB00)

PALMER, WILLIAM (1824–1856), the Rugeley poisoner, second son of Joseph Palmer of Rugeley, Staffordshire, a timber merchant and sawyer, by Sarah Bentley, his wife, was born at Rugeley, where he was baptised on 21 Oct. 1824. After receiving his education at the grammar school of his native town he was apprenticed to a firm of wholesale druggists at Liverpool, from which he was dismissed for embezzlement. He was then apprenticed to a surgeon at Heywood, near Rugeley, where he misconducted himself, and ultimately ran away. He afterwards became a pupil at the Stafford Infirmary, and subsequently came up to London to complete his medical studies, and was admitted a student of St. Bartholomew's Hospital. He was admitted a member of the Royal College of Surgeons on 10 Aug. 1846, and was appointed house-surgeon to Mr. Stanley at St. Bartholomew's on 8 Sept. 1846. Resigning this post in the following month, he started as a general practitioner at Rugeley, and on 7 Oct. 1847 married Ann, an illegitimate daughter of Colonel Brookes of Stafford, by whom he had five children, all of whom, except the eldest, died in infancy. After carrying on a very limited practice for several years he took to the turf, and became both the owner and breeder of racehorses. Falling into pecuniary difficulties, he got involved in a number of bill transactions, which appear to have begun in 1853. On 29 Sept. 1854 his wife died of ‘bilious cholera.’ At her death he received 13,000l. on policies which he had effected on her life, though he only possessed a life interest in his wife's property to the extent of 3,000l. Nearly the whole of this insurance money was applied to the discharge of his liabilities, and he subsequently raised other large sums, amounting together to 13,500l., on what purported to be acceptances of his mother's.

Palmer's brother Walter died suddenly in his presence on 16 Aug. 1855. Owing to the suspicious circumstances of Walter's death the insurance office refused to pay Palmer a policy of 13,000l. which he held on his brother's life, and he was thus deprived of the only means by which the bills could be provided for. On 15 Dec. 1855 Palmer was arrested on the charge of poisoning his friend John Parsons Cook, a betting man, who had died at the Talbot Arms, Rugeley, in the previous month. In consequence of the suspicions which were aroused by the evidence given at Cook's inquest the bodies of Palmer's wife and brother were exhumed, and at the inquests verdicts of wilful murder were found against Palmer in both cases. It was also commonly reported that he had murdered several other persons by means of poison. The excitement became so great in the immediate neighbourhood that it was considered unadvisable that Palmer should be tried at Stafford assizes. The lord chancellor accordingly introduced into the House of Lords, on 5 Feb. 1856, a bill empowering the queen's bench to order certain offenders to be tried at the Central Criminal Court, which received the royal assent on 11 April following (19 & 20 Vict. cap. 16). Palmer was tried at the Old Bailey on 14 May 1856 before Lord-chief-justice Campbell. The attorney-general (Sir Alexander Cockburn) and Edwin James, Q.C., assisted by W. H. Bodkin, W. N. Welsby, and J. W. Huddleston, conducted the prosecution; while Mr. Serjeant Shee, W. R. Grove, Q.C., with J. Gray and E. V. H. Kenealy, were retained for the defence. Palmer was found guilty on 27 May, after a trial which lasted twelve days. True bills for the murder of his wife and of his brother Walter had also been returned against Palmer, but, in consequence of his conviction in Cook's case, they were not proceeded with. He was removed from Newgate to Stafford gaol, outside which he was hanged on 14 June 1856. He was buried within the precincts of the prison in accordance with the terms of the sentence.

The trial excited an extraordinary interest, ‘enjoying the attention not only of this country, but of all Europe’ (Life of Lord Chancellor Campbell, 1881, ii. 344). Campbell, who summed up strongly against the prisoner, devoted fourteen continuous hours to the preparation of his address (ib. ii. 345). When the verdict was returned, Palmer wrote upon a slip of paper, which he handed to his attorney, ‘The riding did it’ (Serjeant Ballantine's Experiences of a Barrister's Life, 1890, p. 132). Cockburn greatly distinguished himself by his masterly conduct of the prosecution, and is said to have replied at the end of the case without the aid of a single note. The prosecution had to rely upon circumstantial evidence alone, but it is impossible to suggest any innocent explanation of Palmer's conduct. It was ‘proved to demonstration,’ says Sir FitzJames Stephen, ‘that he was in dire need of money in order to avoid a prosecution for forgery; that he robbed his friend of all he had by a series of devices which he must have instantly discovered if he had lived; that he provided himself with the means of committing the murder just before Cook's death; and that he could neither produce the poison he had bought nor suggest any innocent reason for buying it’ (General View of the Criminal Law of England, p. 271). The theory of the prosecution was based mainly upon the death having been caused by strychnine, though no strychnine was discovered in the body. The fact that antimony was found in the body was never seriously disputed. Probably there was some mystery in the case which was never discovered, for Palmer asserted to the last that Cook ‘was not poisoned by strychnine.’ Indeed, Palmer is said to have been ‘anxious that Dr. Herapath should examine the body for strychnine, though aware that he said he could detect the fifty-thousandth part of a grain’ (ib. p. 271). Possibly Palmer may have discovered some way of administering that drug which rendered detection impossible. His modus operandi throughout bears a curious resemblance to that of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright [q. v.]

In Mansfield and Nottingham there was a general belief that Lord George Bentinck was one of Palmer's many victims (Jennings, Rambles among the Hills, 1880, p. 144), but, beyond the fact that Lord George was in the habit of making bets with Palmer, there does not appear to be the slightest foundation for the belief. The authorship of ‘A Letter to the Lord Chief Justice Campbell,’ &c. (London, 1856, 8vo), in which his conduct of the trial was vehemently attacked, was disclaimed by the Rev. Thomas Palmer, the poisoner's brother, whose name appeared on the title-page.

[Illustrated Life, Career, and Trial of William Palmer of Rugeley, containing an unabridged edition of the ‘Times’ Report of his Trial for Poisoning John Parsons Cook, 1856; Central Criminal Court Proceedings, 1855–6, xliv. 5–225; Stephens's General View of the Criminal Law of England, 1890, pp. 231–72; Taylor on Poisoning by Strychnine, with Comments on the Medical Evidence given at the Trial of William Palmer, 1856; Taylor's Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence, 1883, i. 100, 197, 377, 442–3, ii. 629–30; Pharmaceutical Journal, xv. 532–4, xvi. 5–11; St. Bartholomew's Hospital Reports, v. 241; Annual Register, 1855 Chron. pp. 186–92, 1856 Chron. pp. 387–539; Ill. London News, 24 May 1856; Serjeant Ballantine's Experiences of a Barrister's Life, 1890, p. 132; Staffordshire Advertiser, 15 and 22 Dec. 1855; Simms's Bibliotheca Staffordiensis, pp. 345–6 (with an elaborate bibliography); Greville Memoirs, 3rd ser., 1887, ii. 46–7; Notes and Queries, 6th ser. ix. 69.]

G. F. R. B.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.214
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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166 i 4 Palmer, William (1824-1856): for William read Walter