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William Palmer- the Rugeley Poisoner

Updated on August 21, 2011
The Old Bailey Court Room
The Old Bailey Court Room

William Palmer

William Palmer was born on the 6th August 1824. His father died when he was aged 13 and his mother subsequently spoiled the child. Aged 17 he was sacked from his first job for stealing and again his mother was there to comfort him.

From the age of 17 to 22 Palmer worked as a doctor's apprentice. His extra curricula activities included paid work as an abortionist (illegal) and the fathering of 14 illegitimate children! Palmer finished his medical studies in London and qualified as a doctor.

In 1846 he started a practice in Rugeley , Staffordshire but although he generated a good income it could not compete with his gambling. Palmer had been left the sum of £9,000 , an inheritance which he gambled away to nothing.


In October 1847 Palmer married Anne Thornton and fathered five children by her. Four of these children died in infancy and it was never proven if he had propelled them to their deaths.Elizabeth Palmer died aged 2 1/2 months old on 6th January 1851, Henry Palmer died on 6th January 1852 at a month old, Frank Palmer died aged just 7 hours old on 19th December 1852 and the last of Anne's children to die was John at 3 days old on 27th January 1854.

In December 1848 his mother in law Mary Thornton came to visit for Christmas, she died in January.

In May 1850 Palmer murdered Leonard Bladon a man to whom he owed a large amount of money- this was followed by the death of another creditor to whom he owed £800. He entertained an uncle , Joseph Bently, one night, plying him with large amounts of alcohol, he died the next day on 27th October 1852 aged 62. There were no suspicions raised about any of these deaths. Deaths amongst children and older people were not uncommon at the time.

The Talbot Arms
The Talbot Arms
A likeness taken at the trial
A likeness taken at the trial


In 1854 Palmer insured his wife's life for £13,000, payable if she died. He paid the first premium on the policy and then she died, of cholera, according to the death certificate. Her death on 29th September 1854 at the age of 27 years was during the 3rd cholera pandemic which affectedthe United Kingdom and caused at least 23,000 deaths. At the time Palmer was having an affair with the housemaid ElizaThorne who gave birth to a son Alfred on 27th June 1855.

Having succeeded with his wife, Palmer insured his brother Walter's life for the sum of £82,000. He was an alcoholic and Palmer may have thought that he would die soon but he had to help him on his way with a strong dose of prussic acid in August 1855. The insurance company refused to pay out on the death much to Palmer's annoyance as he was being blackmailed by a former lover the daughter of a policeman so recourse to the police for help was not an option available.

Palmer then killed John Parsons Cook . His family insisted that his body was exhumed and examined. No traces of poison were found but Palmer was arrested for murder on 15th December 1855. The bodies of Walter and Anne were exhumed but it was impossible to confirm the cause of Walter's death. He was convicted on murdering Cook by strychnine poisoning although the evidence was mainly circumstantial

At his trial at the Old Bailey it was described how Palmer had been celebrating with Cook following a win by his horse Polestar at the Shrewsbury Races.Cook had won a lot of money betting on his horse "polestar" whilst Palmer had bet on his own horse "chicken" on which he had lost badly. Whilst staying at "The Raven" Palmer had passed Cook a glass of brandy which he had taken in one swift drink and within minutes he felt very ill. After sending for a doctor Cook told the witness that he felt that Palmer had put something in his drink, although Palmer clearly denied this to the witness.Both men returned to Rugeley on the 15thNovember withCook somewhat recovered and whilst Palmer went home, Cook stayed opposite his house at the Talbot Arms. Palmer then tried to poison Cook with some broth that he sent over from his own kitchen. At the trial the serving girl at the Talbot Arms said that she had tried a little of the brothand had subsequently been taken very ill with violent vomiting which took her to bed for the rest of the day. At the same time Palmer's son Alfred fell ill and died, whether there was any connection is not known but it seems a long coincidence. Palmer went to London to collect Cook's winning as he was too ill to do it himself. There was a lot of debate at the trial as Cook's betting book could not be found. Without this any winnings could not be claimed , if of course the bets were still valid as Cook was dead. On the night before his death Cook was found shivering and shouting in pain in his bed and Dr Palmer was sent for. He gave him some pills which Cook could hardly swallow because his throat was so swollen and then died later that 1:00am on the 21st November 1855.

After his deatha post mortem took place but Palmer was in attendance and there were allegations at the trial by the other doctors that he tampered with the evidence. The post boy James Myatt stated that he was offered £10 by Palmer to upset and break the exhibits as he was putting them on the coach. A second post mortem took place after the arrest of Palmer when the spinal cord was investigated as well and the physicians could find no evidence to account for the spasms and rigidity in the spine. The inquest into the death of Cook delivered its verdict on 15th December 1855 that Cook was killed by "willful murder".

An Act of Parliament, the "central Criminal Court Act 1856" was passed so that the trial could be held at the Old Bailey in London as it was felt that Palmer would not receive a fair trial in Staffordshire as he was not liked and it would be impossible to find a fair jury.

The evidence given at the trial was purely circumstantial. It is unlikely that he would be convicted on the same evidence in today's courts. Palmer's defence was weakened when he had to appoint a new leading barrister as the previous barrister fled abroad to avoid debts. His new barrister was not impartial and in his closing speech advised the jury he thought Palmer did it. The judges summing up at the end of the trial was biased against the defendant, The evidence was purely that Cooks death appeared as if it may have been caused by strychnine poisoning whilst Palmer had been seen to purchase some strychnine some days earlier.

Palmer was hanged outside Stafford Prison on 14th June 1856.watched by an enormous crowd of some 30,000 people. As he stepped onto the rather rickety gallows he turned to his gaoler and said "Are you sure it's safe?"


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