We have already seen a piece on one of history’s forgotten heroes, so it only seems fair that I give you one of the villains. It may seem a little creepy, but I have decided to tell you all about Victorian England’s most infamous poisoner. Whilst nowadays, people only remember Jack the Ripper from that time, there were other people with far more prolific sprees that both preceded and followed him. Rugeley is a little town found somewhere in Staffordshire (I’m not sure where, geography has never been a strong point of mine), completely unremarkable nowadays. However, in 1856, it was notorious as the home and killing ground of William Palmer – to the extent that the town council apparently petitioned to change the name of the town to relieve the notoriety.
Palmer was a doctor practicing in Rugeley from 1846-56, married to Annie Brookes and father to five legitimate children and at least one illegitimate one. The family home was on Market Street and is in fact still standing – it has been converted into shops now, but the building is still there. By all accounts, Palmer was a little too fond of gambling on the horse races and complained about the burden of supporting a young family that drained his gambling funds. It seems overly convenient that four of his legitimate children died within a month of their birth and that the illegitimate boy died “mysteriously” after a visit to his father.
It hardly seems surprising that all of Palmer’s debts led to the strange and fortuitous death of someone wealthy. His mother-in-law, a rich woman, dropped dead after declining to move in with her daughter’s family. Not long after, Mr Bladon of Ashby-de-la-Zouch and Mr Bly of Beccles both fell sick and died at the Palmer residence. William’s uncle was next on the list, stricken down by an incurable case of death following a glass of brandy with his nephew. An aunt fell sick whilst visiting, but threw away the pills prescribed to her by Palmer – only to find her chickens dead after they had eaten them.
Annie Palmer (née Brookes) was the good doctor’s next victim, dying only a few days after her husband had taken out an extravagantly huge life insurance policy on her. William’s brother suffered the same fate – though this time, the insurance company suspected foul play and refused to pay up. The final murder, and the one that the police convicted Palmer for was that of John Parsons Cook, a racing acquaintance who he was apparently treating for syphilis. Cook was taken to the pub opposite Palmer’s house, where the doctor treated him with morphine and strychnine-laced beef broth. Twenty hours of convulsions later, Cook was dead. In spite of a lack of clear, factual evidence, Palmer was sentenced to death after a twelve day trial. A crowd of twenty thousand flocked to Stafford to watch the execution.
Despite the hundred-odd years between William Palmer and the more notorious Harold Shipman, it’s impossible to miss the similarities. Most obviously, poison being the method of murder – that and the circumstantial evidence that was all it took for them to be sent to gaol.
What does this little story tell us? Some things really don’t change with time. Least of all, the human fascination with murder.