I am delighted to present my very first guest blog by family historian and writer, Debra Watkins aka @Debs_Dwelling. This is a truly fascinating and sinister tale – enjoy!
When I investigated my great-grandmother’s employer, Dr T.G. Brodie, from the 1901 census I never could have imagined that it would lead me to the story of the infamous Victorian murderer, Dr William Palmer, otherwise known as the Rugeley Poisoner.
My great-grandmother Barbara Hargreaves was born in 1877 in a sleepy village in county Hampshire. Sometime after the untimely death of her mother in 1893 and before the census of 1901, Barbara took up a post as a domestic servant in Hampstead. Her employer, Dr Thomas Gregor Brodie, was a renowned physician and professor at St Thomas’s Hospital, London and at the University of Toronto. As I have a background in nursing and domestic hospital employment, as well as a keen interest in all things to do with Victorian medicine, I was intrigued to find out more about Barbara’s employer. My fingers burning at the keyboard, I set about finding out all I could about him, not only as a physician but as a man with a family history of his own.
On a whim I decided to purchase Thomas Brodie’s birth certificate as some facts about the Brodie family line were initially misleading and I wanted to clarify that I was researching the right man. When it arrived, I discovered that his mother was Sarah Brodie, formerly Palmer. I couldn’t stop at researching the Brodie line so naturally I found myself wanting to research the Palmer’s as well. Was I in for a shock? You bet I was. I opened up a huge can of worms that led me to uncover a murder scandal in the Palmer family from Rugeley in county Staffordshire.
It turned out that Sarah Palmer was the sister of Dr William Palmer. The Rugeley Poisoner was Dr Brodie’s uncle. I very quickly discovered that Dr William Palmer killed his patients by poisoning them for financial gain and was responsible for the suspicious deaths of several friends, his brother Walter, his wife, his mother-in-law, and even his own children.
As a seventeen year old, Palmer was an apprentice at a chemist’s in Liverpool but was dismissed on allegations of stealing money. He went to London where he studied medicine, qualifying as a physician in 1846. He returned to Rugeley to practise as a doctor, where he married Anne Brookes-Thornton, in 1847. Their first son, William Brookes Palmer, was born in 1849 (interestingly, he became a solicitor and lived in county Surrey).William and Ann had four more children who all died in infancy: Elizabeth, Henry, Frank and John. The cause of their deaths was each recorded as “convulsions”. As infant mortality was not uncommon at the time, these deaths were not initially seen as suspicious, though there was later much speculation that Palmer had administered poison to the children to avoid the expense of having more mouths to feed. It was alleged that he had illegitimate children through extra-marital affairs, some of who also died at the hands of Dr Palmer’s remedies.
Dr Palmer was attracted to horse racing but quickly became overwhelmed with mounting gambling debts. By 1854 he was heavily in debt, and it is said that he began forging his mother’s signature to pay off creditors. He took out life insurance on his wife and paid out a premium of £750 for a policy of £13,000. The death of Ann Palmer followed on 29 September 1854. She was 27 years old.Her death certificate, written out by Dr Palmer, claims she died of cholera. As a third cholera pandemic was affecting Great Britain, causing at least 23,000 deaths in 1854, this was a rather convenient justification for Palmer to use.
Still heavily in debt, and having succeeded with his wife, William Palmer attempted to take out life insurance on his brother, Walter, for the sum of £84,000. Unable to find a company willing to insure him for that amount, he eventually paid out a premium of £780 for a policy of £14,000.
Walter Palmer was known to be a drunk, and was reliant on his brother William, who readily plied him with bottles of alcohol every day. Walter Palmer died on 16 August 1855, and allegations later claimed that William had given his brother prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide). The insurance company refused to pay up, and instead dispatched inspectors Simpson and C.F. Field* of Scotland Yard to investigate. The pair found that Palmer had also been attempting to take out £10,000 worth of insurance on the life of George Bates, a farmer who was briefly under his employment. Field informed Palmer that the company would not pay out on the death of his brother, and they further recommended an enquiry into his death.
*(I was intrigued to discover that the fictional character of Inspector Bucket in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House was based on Charles Frederick Field, the policeman who investigated Walter Palmer’s death for his insurers. Dickens and Field were firm friends and Dickens would accompany him on nightly rounds.)
John Parsons Cook, a sickly young man with an inherited fortune of £12,000, was a trusted friend of Dr Palmer. In November 1855, the pair attended the Shrewsbury Handicap Stakes and bet on various horses resulting in Cook winning £3,000 but Palmer lost heavily. Cook and Palmer had a celebration party at the Raven public house where Cook complained that his brandy burnt his throat. Palmer responded by making a show of convincing bemused onlookers that there was nothing untoward in Cook’s glass. Afterwards Cook was violently sick, and told two friends that he believed Palmer had been “dosing him”.The following day Palmer and Cook returned to Rugeley, at which point Cook booked a room at the Talbot Arms.
Having seemingly recovered from his illness, Cook later met with Palmer for coffee, but soon found himself sick once again. At this point Palmer assumed responsibility for Cook; Cook’s solicitor, Jeremiah Smith, sent over a bowl of soup, which Palmer had in his possession before he sent it to the kitchen to be reheated. Chambermaid Elizabeth Mills took two spoonfuls of the soup and subsequently fell ill. Cook was given the rest of the soup, and his vomiting became worse than ever.
The next day, Palmer began collecting bets on behalf of Cook, bringing home a tidy sum of £1,200. He then purchased three grains of strychnine and put the grains into two pills, which he then administered to John Parsons Cook.On 21 November, not long after Palmer had administered the two pills, Cook died in agony.
A post-mortem examination took place at the Talbot Arms on 26 November, which was carried out by medical student Charles Devonshire and his assistant Charles Newton. Palmer interfered with the examination, bumping into an allegedly drunk Newton and taking the stomach contents off in a jar for ‘safe keeping’.The jars were sent off to Dr Alfred Swaine Taylor who complained that such poor quality samples were of no use to him and ordered a second post mortem which took place on 29 November.
Dr Taylor found no evidence of poison, but still stated that it was his belief that John Parsons Cook had been poisoned. The jury at the inquest delivered their verdict on 15 December, stating that the “Deceased died of poison wilfully administered to him by William Palmer”. Palmer was arrested on the charge of murder and forgery and detained at Stafford Gaol. The Central Criminal Court Act 1856 was passed to allow the trial to be held at The Old Bailey in London, as it was felt that a fair jury could not be found in Staffordshire, where detailed accounts of the case and the deaths of his children were printed by local newspapers.The Home Secretary also ordered that the bodies of Ann and Walter Palmer were to be exhumed and re-examined; Walter was too badly decomposed, though Dr Taylor found antimony in all the organs in Ann’s body.
The jury deliberated for just over an hour before returning a verdict of guilty. Lord Campbell handed down a death sentence, to no reaction from Palmer. Some 30,000 were at Stafford prison on 14 June 1856 to see Palmer’s public execution by hanging. He was just 31 years of age. 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”.
Many thanks to Debra for sharing her extraordinary story and you can read more of her work at: