Cunning and cold? Or remarkable stoicism?
Mr Pugh reads, as he forks the shroud meat in, from Lives of the Great Poisoners. He has bound a plain brown-paper cover round the book. Slyly, between slow mouthfuls, he sidespies up at Mrs Pugh, poisons her with his eye, then goes on reading.
– Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood
The downtrodden Mr Pugh is not the only person to have been fascinated by serial killers, and poisoners in particular, as the popularity of true crime books, podcasts and dramas attests. And I was urged to write about this week’s subject by my 12-year-old son.
The case of William Palmer even caught the eye of one Sherlock Holmes, in fact, back in 1883:
When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge. Palmer and Pritchard were among the heads of their profession.
– Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’
Edward William Pritchard was a doctor based in Glasgow, and was the last person to be publicly executed in the city (in 1865), for the murder of his wife and mother-in-law. A third victim was also suspected, but this paled into insignificance against the murders attributed to Dr William Palmer – accounts I’ve read vary from alleging 11 to 14 victims.
Palmer was born in Rugeley, Staffordshire in 1824, and spent most of his life in the area. His father, Joseph, was a wealthy timber merchant, but died when William was 12, leaving his wife Sarah with a substantial legacy. William was the sixth of their eight children. At 17, he was apprenticed to a chemist in Liverpool, but only lasted three months, allegedly due to embezzling money. His reputation as a bad lot soon developed – a second apprenticeship, to a surgeon in Staffordshire, led to dismissal for what the Dictionary of National Biography calls “sexual and financial irregularities”. But Palmer went on to study medicine in London and qualified in 1846, returning to Rugeley to practise as a doctor.
He married Ann (‘Annie’) Brookes in 1847, despite her guardians being opposed to the match, and they had four sons and one daughter – all but one of them dying of “convulsions” in infancy. Two illegitimate children (not by Annie) also died mysteriously. In 1849, his mother-in-law Mary came to stay. Within two weeks, she was dead.
Meanwhile, Palmer was developing a passion for horseracing, owning and breeding racehorses, and gambling to excess. One of his creditors, Leonard Bladen, came to stay in 1850 – and died there. It get worse – by 1852, Palmer had abandoned medicine to focus on the races, often borrowing money. In 1854, he insured his wife’s life for £13,000. Yup, not long after, on 29 September, she died, supposedly of ‘bilious cholera’. He had had at least two liaisons with other women while she was still alive.
Palmer was not immune to forgery, either, using his mother’s name to borrow more money. He also insured his brother Walter’s life – yes, look, Walter died soon after, in August 1855, OK? What of it? William’s just very unlucky.
Things came to a head in November 1855, when Palmer ‘acquired’ the betting wins of his friend John Parsons Cook at Shrewsbury races, using the cash to keep the circling moneylenders at bay. On the night of 14 November, Cook became violently sick and was suspicious of Palmer, but was persuaded to return with him to Rugeley. A few days later, Cook was dead. His stepfather was suspicious, his concerns hardly allayed by local rumours of Palmer’s murderous tendencies, and raised the alarm. Palmer had already been put in custody over his debts – and now, on 14 December, he was arrested for murder.
Palmer quickly entered into legend. Such was his local notoriety that it was felt a fair jury could not be found in Staffordshire, and the government hastily passed the Central Criminal Court Act to enable Palmer to be tried in London. But this quickly fed into a media circus, and the show trial which took place over 12 days in May 1856, under Lord Chief Justice Lord Campbell, hit the headlines on a way that would seem familiar today. A biography and account of the trial was rushed out,1 and the hacks had got hold of Palmer’s diary from 1855, printing it in full. I’ll draw upon some of these sources below to get as close as we can to Palmer – which isn’t perhaps that close.
In court, the jury heard a letter written by Palmer to William Henry Jones, Cook’s own doctor, on 18th November:
My dear Sir,—Mr. Cook was taken ill at Shrewsbury, and obliged to call in a medical man. Since then, he has been confined to his bed here with a very severe bilious attack combined with diarrhœa, and I think it advisable for you to come to see him as soon as possible. Signed, William Palmer.
A concerned friend, then? Palmer’s diary is of little help, unless the story is all about what it doesn’t say – it consisted entirely of fairly tedious one-line notes of Palmer’s business dealings, travels, debts and dinners. There certainly doesn’t seem to be much we can learn about Palmer’s interior life from it. Here’s what he wrote on the last days of John Cook in November:
Friday. Cook and Jere dined here. [‘Jere’ is his solicitor and loyal supporter, Jeremiah Smith]
Saturday. Cook ill in bed. Dined with Jere.
Sunday. At home. Cook ill in bed.
Monday. Went to London to pay Pratt £700. Returned home by fly from Stafford. Sat up with Cook all night.
Tuesday. Attending on Cook all day. Dined at the yard. Up with Cook all night.
Wednesday. ++++ Cook died at 1 o’clock this morning. Here and Wm. Saunders dined…
Friday. Cook’s friends and Jones came, and I dined with them at Masters’.
Monday. Attended a P.M. examination [i.e. post-mortem] on poor Cook, with Drs. Harland, Mr. Bamford, Newton, and a Mr. Devonshire.
Another letter heard in court – dated 26th November – suggests perhaps Palmer was trying to control certain things… This was written to the moneylender Thomas Pratt:
Strictly private and confidential.
My dear Sir,—Should any of Cook’s friends call upon you to know what money Cook ever had from you, pray don’t answer that question or any other about money matters until I have seen you. And oblige, yours, faithfully, William Palmer.
The only words that Palmer spoke in court were “not guilty” – it would be 40 years until defendants could be called to the witness box. According to some writers, Palmer passed a note to his counsel saying “I wish there was 2½ grams of strychnine in old Campbell’s acidulated draught solely because I think he acts unfairly”. But those writers should have checked their sources: these words come from Robert Graves’s last novel, They Hanged My Saintly Billy! (The title alludes to what Palmer’s dear old mum allegedly said.)
Graves was a rare voice alleging the trial was a stitch-up (not the only one – a chap called Thomas Wakley wrote a pamphlet criticising the trial as early as 1856, making the fair point that “circumstantial evidence, however apparently strong it may appear, is not to be always relied on for proval of guilt”). In his foreword, penned on the centenary of Palmer’s execution, Graves called the trial “scandalous” and said that although Palmer was a “scoundrel and spendthrift”, he showed “generosity to the unfortunate and… remarkable stoicism when things went wrong”. His theory was that Annie had poisoned herself to rescue Palmer from his debts. Wait, what?
Certainly even back in 1856 there was no shortage of speculation about Palmer and his personality, 40 years before Freud first used the term psychoanalysis. The trial anthology included various snippets about his traits tracked down from anyone who had met him:
“Palmer’s love of order was something unusual—he was extremely neat in his dress—he had a great horror of anything approaching untidiness or slovenliness. ‘He was the cleanest man about a house I ever knew,’ remarked one of his friends.”
A “gentleman in Rugeley” commented “I don’t think Palmer was the clever man the world takes him to be. He was rather a cunning and cold man.”
Other spoke of his generosity, and everyone came out of the woodwork to speculate one way or another. Even Charles Dickens couldn’t resist discussing it all in his essay ‘The demeanour of murderers’ in Household Words:2
The recent trial of the greatest villain that ever stood in the Old Bailey dock, has produced the usual descriptions inseparable from such occasions. The public has read from day to day of the murderer’s complete self-possession, of his constant coolness, of his profound composure, of his perfect equanimity.
Accounts of the run-up to Palmer’s execution on 14 June 1856 are pretty consistent in their depictions of Palmer’s sang froid – and his refusal to confess to Cook’s murder. One legend is that as he stepped up to the scaffold (with as many as 30,000 people watching), he said “Are you sure this damn thing’s safe?” – but this isn’t in any of the early accounts, and feels distinctly apocryphal.
I think it’s interesting that when Major Fulford, governor of Stafford Gaol, asked Palmer to confess and the accused declined, Palmer neutrally commented that Cook did not die from strychnine” but Lord Campbell “summed up for poisoning by strychnine” – in other words, Palmer said what the ruling was without accepting it was true. The toxicologist Alfred Swaine Taylor had not been able to find direct evidence of strychnine anyway. Two chemists had previously admitted to selling strychnine to Palmer on various occasions – including just before Cook’s death. Palmer’s defence lawyer Sir William Shee had called at least 15 medical witnesses to the stand, who said that traces of the poison should have been spotted in Cook’s stomach. Shee summed up: “Never therefore, were circumstances more favourable for detection of the poison and yet none was found.”
But the case was lost given the weight of circumstantial evidence around Palmer’s behaviour. Could Palmer’s comment about Campbell actually have been a pedantry – an implication that strychnine wasn’t the agent, but rather some other poison? We’ll never know, I guess. It feels pretty implausible to imagine that he wasn’t a serial killer, and I suppose we can see signs of psychopathy – but only Palmer knew the truth.
At the same time that Cook was into his last days, a flurry of letters was exchanged between Palmer and one of his mistresses, Jane Bergen, daughter of the local police superintendent. In 1925, George Fletcher described the 34 letters (now in the William Salt Library in Stafford) as “lascivious” and “disgusting”. Thanks to researcher Bill Peschel, we can read the letters (which you might find disappointing!).3 Here’s one with a double entendre:
MY DEAR JANE, Break your journey on Saturday – book – to Rugeley – come to my surgery with your handkerchief to your face – no one will be in but myself. I will perform an operation on you and you can have a snack and go on by the next train.
Here’s a thing. Palmer headed most letters “burn this” – but Jane didn’t, and while he was ‘nursing’ the dying Cook, she was blackmailing him for their return (he coughed up £40, the equivalent of a few grand today).
Bur we should end with the strongest evidence against Palmer, who did his best to interfere with the post-mortem on John Cook. This letter was written to the coroner…
My dear Sir,—I am sorry to tell you that I am still confined to my bed. I do not think it was mentioned at the inquest yesterday that Cook was taken ill on Sunday and Monday night in the same way as he was on the Tuesday night when he died. The chambermaid at the Crown Hotel, Masters, can prove this. I also believe that a man by the name of Fisher is coming down to prove he received some money at Shrewsbury. Now here he could only pay Smith £10 out of £41 he owed him. Had you better not call Smith to prove this? And again, whatever Professor Taylor may say to-morrow, he wrote from London last Tuesday night to Gardner to say “We have this day finished our analysis, and find no traces of either strychnia, prussic acid, or opium.” What can beat this from a man like Taylor, if he says what he has already said, and Dr. Harland’s evidence? Mind you, I know, and saw it in black and white, what Taylor said to Gardner, but this is strictly private and confidential, but it is true. As regards his betting book, I know nothing of it, and it is of no good to any one. I hope the verdict to-morrow will be that he died of natural causes, and thus end it.—Ever yours. William Palmer
To underline his hope, Palmer included a ten pound note.