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Dr. William Palmer (6 August 1824 – 14 June 1856) was an Englishmarker doctor who was convicted of murder in one of the most notorious cases of the 19th century.

Early life

Born in Rugeleymarker, 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 Staffordmarker infirmary, he was accused of poisoning an acquaintance during a drinking competition; although nothing was proven, the hospital imposed 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 Bromleymarker, 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 after just a few months. 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 Shrewsburymarker, 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.

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 (the Central Criminal Court Act 1856) was passed to allow the trial to be held at The Old Baileymarker, Londonmarker, as it was felt that a fair jury could not be found in Staffordshire. His defence was led by Mr Serjeant William Shee who took over the case at the last minute after his previous counsel had fled to France to evade his debts. The defence case suffered adverse comment from the judge because Shee had, against all rules and conventions of professional conduct, told the jury that he personally believed Palmer to be innocent. 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 14 June 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?" After he was hanged his mother is said to have commented: "They have hanged my saintly Billy". 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.

Lord Chief Justice John Campbell, 1st Baron Campbell
Mr Justice Cresswell
Mr Baron Alderson
Prosecution counsel Defence counsel
Attorney-General Alexander Cockburn
Edwin James QC
Mr Bodkin
Mr Welsby
John Walter Huddleston
Mr Serjeant Shee
William Robert Grove QC
Mr Gray
Edward Kenealy
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. 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. Robert Graves's novel They Hanged My Saintly Billy is a re-examination of the case.

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

The film The Life and Crimes of William Palmer was released in 1998.

See also

Other doctors accused or convicted of murder


  1. Barker (2004)
  2. Knott (1912) p.267
  3. Knott (1912) p.12
  4. Knott (1912) p.3
  5. Witticisms Of 9 Condemned Criminals at Canongate Press
  6. Staffordshire Past Track Rugeley's name
  7. Davenport-Hines (2004)


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