The Prince of Poisoners, William Palmer
Born in Rugeley, Staffordshire, on 6th August 1824 William Palmer was the sixth of eight children to Sarah and Joseph Palmer. His father worked as a sawyer, and died when William was 12 years old, leaving Sarah with a legacy of some £70,000.
As a seventeen-year-old, Palmer worked as an apprentice at a Liverpool chemist, but was dismissed after three months following allegations that he had stole money. He then studied medicine in London, and qualified as a physician in August 1846. After returning to Staffordshire he met plumber and glazier George Abley at the Lamb and Flag public house in Little Haywood, and challenged him to a drinking contest. Abley accepted, and an hour later was carried home, where he died in bed later that evening, nothing was ever proven, but locals noted that Palmer had an interest in Abley's attractive wife.
He returned to his home town of Rugeley to practice as a doctor, and, in St. Nicholas Church, Abbots Bromley, married Ann Thornton. His new mother-in-law, also called Ann Thornton, had inherited a fortune of £8,000 from Colonel Brookes who committed suicide in 1834. She died on 18th January 1849, two weeks after coming to stay with Palmer; she was known to have lent him money. Palmer was disappointed with the inheritance he and his wife gained from the death, expecting it to be much greater.
Palmer then became interested in horse racing and borrowed money from Leonard Bladen, a man he met at the races. Bladen lent him £600, but died in agony at Palmer's house on 10th May 1850. Bladen's death certificate listed Palmer as ‘present at the death’, and stated the cause of death as ‘injury of the hip joint, 5 or 6 months; abscess in the pelvis.’
His first son, William Brookes Palmer, was born in either 1848 or 1850. He outlived his father, dying on 29th April 1926. William and Ann had four more children, who all died in infancy, the cause of death listed as ‘convulsions.’ Elizabeth Palmer died on 6th January 1851. She was about two and a half months old at the time of death. Henry Palmer died on 6th January 1852. He was about a month old. Frank Palmer died on 19th December 1852 seven hours following his birth. John Palmer died on 27th January 1854. He was three or four days old.
As infant mortality was not uncommon at the time, these deaths were not initially seen as suspicious.
By 1854 Palmer was heavily in debt, and he began forging his mother's signature to pay off creditors. He took out life insurance on his wife with the Prince of Wales Insurance Company, and he paid a premium of £750 for a policy of £13,000. The death of Ann Palmer followed on 29th September 1854, at only 27 years old. (She was believed to have died of cholera, as a cholera pandemic was affecting Great Britain).
Still heavily in debt, with two creditors who threatened to speak to his mother (thereby exposing his fraud), Palmer attempted to take out life insurance on his brother, Walter, for the sum of £84,000. Walter was a drunk, and he was readily plied with several bottles of gin and brandy a day. Walter Palmer died on 16th August 1855. However the insurance company refused to pay, and dispatched inspectors Simpson and Field to investigate. The pair found that William Palmer had also been attempting to take out £10,000 worth of insurance on the life of George Bate, a farmer who was briefly under his employment.
Around this time, Palmer was involved in an affair with Eliza Tharme, his housemaid. On 26 /27 June 1855, Tharme gave birth to Alfred. He was an illegitimate son to Palmer, increasing the financial burdens on the beleaguered physician. With Dr. Palmer's life and debts spiralling out of control, the physician then planned the murder of his erstwhile friend John Cook.
They had gone racing together, Cook took a drink of brandy and claimed it was burning his throat, he later told friends he believed Palmer had tried to poison him. A friend sent soup over to help his recovery, the chamber-maid had 2 spoonfuls and was ill, but the soup still made its way to John cook who was consequently violently sick. When the soup was delivered, it was Palmer who first held it. Palmer gave Cook a couple of pills, to aid his recovery, the pills contained strychnine that Palmer had brought earlier that day from some of Cooks betting winnings. Within hours of taking the pills Cook complained he was suffocating, he died in agony at about 1am. Mr Cook's wealthy family demanded an autopsy. Poison was found and Palmer was duly accused of murder.
Palmer was arrested on the charge of murder and forgery (a creditor had told the police his suspicions that Palmer had been forging his mother's signature) and detained at Stafford Gaol; he threatened to go on hunger strike, but backed down when the governor informed him that this would lead to his being force fed.
December 15th 1855, An inquest found no evidence of poison, but the leading doctor still stated that it was his belief that Cook had been poisoned. The jury at the inquest delivered their verdict stating that the ‘Deceased died of poison wilfully administered to him by William Palmer. On the 26th May 1856, the jury took just an hour to find Palmer guilty of murdering John Cook. The judge sentenced him to death. Saturday 14th June 1856 he was hanged at Stafford jail in front of an audience of more than 50,000 onlookers, hanged by chief executioner George Smith.
William Palmer was buried beside the prison chapel in a grave filled with quicklime. After he was hanged his mother is said to have commented: "They have hanged my saintly Billy".