The infamous Rugeley Poisoner, also known during the 19th century as the ‘Prince of Poisoners’ was born plain William Palmer in Rugeley on the 6th August 1824 to Sarah and Joseph Palmer. One of eight children, William seemed to have an unremarkable childhood until the age of 12 when his father died, leaving his mother a considerable legacy.
In light of William’s alleged murderous career that has seen him implicated in at least 14 deaths, it’s tempting to speculate that this death and the inheritance money it subsequently showered on the family provided a template for all the murders to come.
At just 17 William was already proving to be a ‘chancer’ and was dismissed from his position as a dispenser’s assistant in Liverpool after being accused of stealing from the till. Despite this setback, in 1847 William returned to Rugeley a qualified doctor.
For a few months in 1846, before returning home, William worked as a ‘walking doctor’ at Stafford Infirmary. At that time he would regularly drink at The Lamb and Flag pub in Little Haywood. One night he met there George Abley and his good-looking wife and regulars at The Lamb noticed that William seemed very taken with her. Some reports claim that William had previously met her when she attended the Infirmary and had tried to seduce her but she had refused his advances. During the evening he challenged George to a drinking competition, but just a short while into the contest George felt ill and wandered outside to get some fresh air. When he was found later that night he had collapsed on to some old sacking in the yard. He was carried to bed where he died later that night. Was this in fact William’s first murder? It’s thought that this incident may be the origin of the phrase “What’s your poison?”
In 1847, William married a young woman called Ann Thornton in St Nicholas’ Church, Abbots Bromley. At first glance this might seem a strange match for an ambitious man as it was well known that Ann’s mother, Mary, had been the housekeeper and suspected mistress of a Colonel Brookes for many years. William’s new wife had also sometimes gone by the surname Brookes, strongly suggesting her illegitimacy. In the Victorian period illegitimacy was a terrible stigma, its taint would make a woman all but unmarriageable. If I was being uncharitable I would say that the mystery surrounding the match lessens however when you consider the legacy of £8,000 Ann’s mother had received on the death by suicide of Col Brookes in 1834, from which she gave Ann £250 a year, and the monies and several houses Ann herself received on the death of her father.
Sadly, Mary was an alcoholic and Ann spent her childhood under the care of a guardian at Miss Bond’s School in Haywood, where she met William Palmer on one of his trips to see an unwell pupil. They fell in love and married, despite her guardian’s mistrust of William and there are touching love letters between the two still in existence. On an unrelated by very sad point, Colonel Brookes was one of five brothers, all but one of whom committed suicide. What on earth had gone on in that family?
It has been speculated that William knew his mother-in-law had money, but not how much. This may have proved the death-knell for Mary as two weeks after coming to stay with the new couple (and lending William money) Mary Thornton died. Dr Bamford, an elderly fellow doctor of over 80 years who also practiced in Rugeley recorded the cause of death as ‘apoplexy’. This was a cover-all and unspecific term that referred to many causes of sudden death. In other words, the cause of death, was death. Not the most precise of diagnoses. However, at the time of her death Mary had been living a life of squalor and alcohol dependency in her house behind St Mary’s Church in Stafford. It seems that she was only in the Palmer house after she had been discovered insensible through drink and in a bad way. Was her death a result of years of heavy drinking, and a sudden cessation in her alcohol intake?
William Palmer was an inveterate gambler, with a love of horse racing (maybe inspired by the famous Rugeley Horse Fair?) that got him further and further into debt. In 1850 William borrowed £400 from Leonard Bladen, a man he had met at the races. William and Leonard must have been on friendly terms as Leonard came to stay at the Palmer’s house after the ‘meet’ had finished. Shortly after arriving, Leonard died a terribly painful death whilst under the care of William. Bladen’s widow remarked at the time that she was mystified by the fact that her husband had only £15 in his possession, as he had just won a substantial amount at the races and had written to her to state that he was going to Rugeley to collect his debts, and should have about £1,000 to bring home with him. Leonard’s betting books had also disappeared, so she couldn’t prove any outstanding debts, William’s included. Once again, nothing was proved with the death attributed to an abscess in the pelvis and it is true that some days before Leonard had been hit by a cart and advised not to go to the races. He went anyway. Leonard’s death certificate states that William was ‘present at the death’.
One of the most utterly incomprehensible aspects of William Palmer’s alleged murderous nature is the successive deaths of four of his five children. On 6th January 1851 Elizabeth Palmer died aged 10 weeks, in 1852 on the 19th December Frank died after just seven hours, on the 6th January 1852 Henry died aged 1 month, and in 1854 on the 27th January he was followed by John who survived just three days. At the time, with infant mortality so high the deaths were generally unremarked, but surely the coincidences in the dates of death, all either on the same day or a few days apart must have stirred some terrible suspicions in the mind of their mother? The Palmer’s cleaning lady Mrs Matilda Bradshaw is on record as being convinced of their father’s guilt, but she had no evidence and had seen nothing. Only one child survived. William Brookes Palmer, a London solicitor who died on 29th April 1926 aged at least 76 years old. Strangely, he was asphyxiated after a gas tap was left on. Were the other children killed to save their father money?
During all of this time, William was having affairs with his housemaid and the daughter of a Staffordshire policeman to name but two. He had several illegitimate children and is thought to have been blackmailed by at least one of the women.
To stave off his increasingly anxious creditors to whom he now owed tens of thousands of pounds (to give you an idea of the seriousness of his debts, the average yearly wage of a shop-keeper in 1850 was under £50. Even bankers and industrialists could only hope to make £1,000 a year) in 1854, William took out a life insurance policy on his 27 year old wife Ann with the Prince of Wales Insurance Company. He paid out a premium of £750 to insure her life for £13,000. As Ann was in good health and a young woman (although surely the successive deaths of her children must have had a terrible effect on her mental health), he had no problem arranging the cover. On the 29th September that same year Ann died. The cause of death was listed as ‘cholera’, and in fact during that year 23,000 people in the UK died of this disease. Although William was said to be distraught at her death, was she one of his victims?
Shortly after this windfall, William was threatened by two of his creditors to whom he owed just short of £23,000. He had for some time been forging his wealthy mother’s signature to keep them off his back. The creditors had had enough and threatened to tell her if he didn’t cough up. William responded by going to the races, where he lost.
William’s attention then fell on his brother Walter, once a successful businessman but now an alcoholic who William brought under his protection, supplying him with bottles of spirits every day. It must have been obvious to William that Walter’s life would not be a long one if given this much booze, and he cast about for several insurance companies that would jointly insure his brother’s life for the staggering sum of £84,000. Unsurprisingly there were no takers apart from the Prince of Wales Insurance Company who insured Walter for £14,000 (one company offered to cover Walter for a higher sum on the understanding that they would not pay out of he died within 5 years, William refused the policy). Walter died on 10th August 1855 in terrible pain, and this time the insurers refused to pay out. After sending a couple of investigators down they recommended an enquiry into the death, especially after they learnt that William Palmer had also tried to take out a life insurance policy on a chap called George Bale who had worked for him on a casual basis for a brief period.
It was at this time that the finger of local suspicion started to point firmly at Dr Palmer.
In November 1855 William went to the races in Shrewsbury with a friend named John Parsons Cook, with whom Palmer part-owned several race-horses. John was never of particularly robust health, but he had an eye for the horses and won £3,000 over the two day meet. Palmer, predictably enough, lost heavily after betting on a horse named ‘the chicken’.
After each race day, the two would celebrate at a pub called ‘The Raven’. It was here that Mrs Anne Brookes saw Palmer pour something from a small bottle into Cook’s glass, mix it, and hold it up to the light presumably to check its clarity. She had also witnessed John complaining that his brandy was burning his throat, and William making a scene, theatrically declaring that there was nothing wrong with it. Later that evening Cook was spectacularly sick, perhaps purging himself of any contaminants in the drink. He also told two friends he thought: “That damn Palmer has been dosing me.” It seems probable to assume that Cook was either joking, or thought that William had done it as a practical joke. As we know from the case of Dr Harold Shipley, no-one tends to be suspicious of a doctor.
On the 15th November, the pair returned to Rugeley and John Cook booked into room 10 of the Talbot Arms, a pub that faced the Palmer’s house.
On the 17th, the friends met for coffee, and John was taken seriously ill. Left alone in his hotel room with Palmer, John Cook got progressively worse. At one point, Cook’s solicitor sent over a bowl of soup for the patient. Palmer got hold of it first and had it sent down to the kitchens to be warmed up. When a chambermaid tried a couple of mouthfuls to make sure it was hot enough, she was violently sick. Tragically after John was given all of the soup he went rapidly downhill.
In the meantime Palmer was coolly collecting Cook’s debts, coining in £1,200 and allegedly openly purchasing strychnine from the local dispenser. On the 21st November John Cook died a terrible death.
This time however the deceased was not a stranger of lower social status, a child or a relative, but a well-loved (if fast-living) young man of means. As soon as the family heard the sad news John’s stepfather William Cook arrived in Rugeley.
When Palmer informed him that John’s betting books had again gone missing, and that John owed £4,000 (no doubt to be paid to Palmer) William Cook became suspicious and demanded an inquest. He was not satisfied with the death certificate, once again filled out by Dr Bamford, giving the cause of death as ‘apoplexy’.
The post mortem on John’s body took place at the Talbot Arms on 24th November. It was carried out by two medical students and a Dr Newton, who arrived drunk. It was a shambles, the public crowded into the room and William Palmer ‘helped’ during the procedure, knocking Newton’s arm and reportedly trying to bribe the ‘pot boy’ to drop the jar containing the vital stomach contents etc. When the samples were sent to a specialist, they proved too damaged to asses.
In an odd little story related at the time, Palmer also sent the coroner a letter asking him to return a verdict of death by natural causes, and included a tenner!
On the 15th December the jury at the inquest returned their verdict, that: “The deceased died of poison wilfully administered to him by William Palmer.”
Palmer was arrested and taken to Stafford Gaol. In 1856, an act of Parliament was passed to allow the trial to take place at the Old Bailey, as local newspaper coverage of the case had made finding an impartial Staffordshire jury an impossibility.
Shortly afterwards, William’s wife Ann was exhumed, and her body was found to contain traces of the poison antimony, but was it administered as a medicine or in a large enough dose to kill?
The evidence against Palmer was circumstantial. Dispensers came forward to say that they had sold Palmer strychnine, his bank manager confirmed that he had just £9 in the bank and his terrible debts were revealed. Despite the fact that there was no hard evidence, the jury returned the verdict of guilty. Palmer took the news serenely.
The prosecutor in the case Alexander Cockburn was even congratulated by Palmer after the verdict was handed down. William told him that: “It was the riding that did it”, a racing term referring to Cockburn’s skilful handing.
At 8am on the 14th June 1856 a crowd of over 30,000 people, many of whom had walked from Rugeley, gathered in the rain at Stafford Gaol to watch the hanging. He apparently showed no fear approaching the gallows, even taking care to avoid the puddles. Some reports state that he indulged in a little gallows humour asking: “Are you sure this damn thing’s safe?” as he stood over the trap door though which he was about to drop. He had repeatedly been asked to admit his guilt, and made a strange answer, neither confirming nor denying. He made no speech from the gallows and died quickly.
He was buried next to the gaol church. On hearing the news of his death his mother cried: “They have killed my saintly Billy”.
Over the years it’s been suggested that William Palmer may have been falsely accused, and it’s true that a modern jury would be unlikely to convict on such circumstantial evidence. If William was not guilty, then he was prey to the most remarkable set of co-incidences. If he was indeed guilty, then he is perhaps the most perfect example of a sociopath that I’ve ever come across, a man utterly without empathy.
Years after his execution another strange twist in the story came to light when in 1946 The Sentinel newspaper published a note discovered by the wife of a London coroner and not submitted in Palmer’s trial. The note was a prescription in Palmer’s handwriting that had been presented to a local chemist to be filled out, presumably by Palmer himself. The prescription was made out for 10d (ten old pence) worth of strychnine and opium. The question has be asked, what did Palmer want with such a large quantity? We’ll never know, but his story has repelled and fascinated in equal measure for 157 years, and I suspect will continue to do so for decades to come.
Story by Joss Musgrove Knibb – Deputy Editor.
palmer.staffscc.net, executedtoday.com, williampalmer.co.uk, staffspasttrack.org.uk, murderpedia.org, census-helper.co.uk, wikipedia.org, Barker, G. F. R. (2004) Shee, Sir William (1804–1868), Rev. Hugh Mooney, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Davenport-Hines, R. (2004) The Rugeley Poisoner (1824–1856), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Knott, G. H. (1912). The Trial of William Palmer. Edinburgh: William Hodge & Co. The Trial of William Palmer for the Alleged Rugeley Poisonings. London: James Gilbert. 1856.
Pictures: Dr William Palmer – Drawing by Joseph Simpson
Dr Palmer’s Medicine Chest – Copyright J Musgrove Knibb.