29 December 2018

Dr William Palmer - did he use strychnine in his mass murders?

Propelled by the bizarre murder story of Burke and Hare, I became interested in the equally bizarre story of William Palmer (1824-56) who studied medicine in London, and qualif­ied in Aug 1846. He returned to his Midlands home town of Rugeley to pract­ice as a doctor, and married Ann Thornton in Oct 1847. His new mother-in-law had inherited great wealth from her late husband, but died in Jan 1849 from apoplexy, two weeks after coming living with the Palmers. But the gambler Dr Palmer was disappointed with the inher­it­ance he and his wife gained from the death, having expected much more.

There were many other unexpected deaths in the Palmer family. After just one premium was paid on her life insurance, his 27 year old wife Annie sick­ened from cholera and died in 1854. Only the first child of the Palmers’ five babies survived inf­an­cy, and outlived his father. The next four babies died of convul­s­ions.

Soon after William bought a new life policy for his alcoh­olic older brother Walter, Walter also died. But the insurance com­p­any refused to pay out, threatening a crim­in­al investigation (which they failed to pursue). It is uncertain how many of William Palmer’s illegitimate babies also took ill and died unexpectedly.

In Nov 1855, close friends 31-year-old surgeon William Palmer and rich 28-year-old horse-owner John Cook went to the Shrews­bury races. Cook’s horse won the huge sum of £3,000, at the same time that Pal­mer’s failures pushed him deep­er into debt. When John Cook went into con­vul­sions while celebrat­ing, Dr Palmer supervised the medical care.

Back in Rugeley, John Cook’s stepfather William Stevens already dist­rust­ed Palmer, especially once he found his stepson’s betting papers were miss­ing. The housemaid said Pal­mer had given Cook pills and had also sent him a poisoned broth. After suffering a week of excruciating pain, Cook accused Palmer of poisoning him, then died. No one yet knew that Palmer was already cl­aiming Cook’s recent winnings as his own, but people were already gossiping.

William Stevens requested that his stepson's body be exhumed, due to the long list of earlier deaths, Pal­mer’s large debts, angry creditors and Cook's stolen horse-money.

The autopsy was performed by local pathologists, with Palmer pres­ent as a colleague, not as a suspect. During the examin­at­ion, Palmer tampered with Cook's stomach by “accid­entally” bump­ing into a physician as he was lift­ing out the stomach. The remain­ing mat­er­ial was placed in a sealed jar, but Palmer slit open the seal as well. Then a pharmacist admitted selling Palmer strychnine the week before. As sus­picion bloomed, wife Annie and brother Walter’s bodies were also exhumed.

In Dec 1855, Dr Palmer was arrested and charged with Wilful Pois­oning. The 1856 trial was held at Old Bailey.

Drs Alfred Taylor (L) and Rees, testing for traces of poison. 
Engraving, in The Times report of the trial of William Palmer 
National Library of Medicine

At the 12 days trial, the coroner called toxicologist Dr Alfred Taylor who tested the small remaining sample of Cook's stomach contents. He found only a small, non-lethal amount of antimony, the act­ive ing­redient of normal medicines. But on the basis of reported sym­p­toms prior to death, Dr Taylor concluded that Cook had been poisoned by strychnine. Taylor was already renowned as a great authority on forensic medicine, so he was not afraid to make grand claims for toxicology in his textbooks and in court. 

The prosecution noted that Dr Palmer's tampering at the autopsy made thorough chemical analysis impossible. Furthermore Palmer's medical expertise made him a very devious poisoner, cap­able of mur­dering with minimal doses of strychnine, a hard-to-trace poison. 

The defence put toxic­ol­ogy expertise on trial. Palmer's law­yers put opposing toxicological experts on the stand, and claimed that arrogant Dr Taylor had made damaging statements to the press.

Trial of William Palmer 
In the Illustrated Times, May 27 1856

Dr Palmer was found guilty and sentenced to be hang­ed. Dr Taylor was be­sieged by public criticism, but he maintained his standing as an auth­or­ity. In his 1859 book On Poisons in Relation to Medical Jur­is­pru­d­ence and Medicine, he justified himself in the Palmer trial.

Palmer’s trial had been one of the great Victorian legal shows, publicised in Britain & out. Scrutiny of the case was all the more intense because a public fear of poisoning had grown into a national paranoia by mid-century. Remember that the doctor had purchased large amounts of it, so strychnine was recorded as his favourite murder technique.

Dr Palmer was sus­pected of poisoning more than a doz­en other people before Cook, but he was only ever tried for one murder. The jury found him guilty of Cook’s murder and he was quickly returned to Stafford to hang.

In 1856, 30,000 people gathered in a festive atmosphere outside Staf­ford prison, to watch the execution of the local town doctor. This Rugeley Poisoner was one of the last people to be publicly hanged in Britain.

Murder pamphlet

In the excellent book The Poisoner: Life and Crimes of Victorian England’s Most Notorious DoctorStephen Bates provided a broader portrait of Victorian England, the minimal training and often dangerous influence of doctors, the chaotic legal system and the class-spanning tug of horse racing. Alongside these came the emergence of new finan­cial products such as life insurance, which featured centrally in some of Palmer’s plots. But without DNA analysis or detailed toxicology reports, what was it all worth?

In the C19th were respectable, middle class, person­able and educated men ever believed to be murderers? Were doctors particularly prot­ected from public scrutiny by their status and income? 4 out of the 5 Palmer babies died – was this normal? Why did the in­surance com­panies sensibly not pay Dr Palmer out, yet the hospital and police did nothing? How did the Poison Panic influence the popul­at­ion in 1855-56?


Deb said...

I don't understand. If strychnine was always deadly, why were doctors given access to this drug at all?

Andrew said...

I suggest he was guilty of more than with what he was charged. The deaths just had to be all put together by someone who had the resources and interest.

Hels said...


Strychnine was discovered in 1818 and eventually became available in a tablet form, to treat heart and respiratory complaints in very small quantities. Even then doctors were fully aware of how deadly strychnine was. These days a rigorously strict strychnine permit is only provided for baiting wild dogs and foxes at a specific location, for a short time. Occasionally it has been used for killing rat colonies.

So by the late 1840s, Dr William Palmer knew _exactly_ what he was doing!!

Hels said...


I agree. A doctor who uses strychnine to kill close family, colleagues and friends would do so only because he enjoys seeing people die hideously, or because he wants to gain (eg financially) from each death.

In Dr Palmer's case, we only know of the deaths of his close relatives and colleagues because they were the only names raised in the court case: starting with his wife, brother, mother-in-law, most of his children and uncle. But Palmer was so deeply in debt (from gambling?), he may have poisoned many other people who were not later exhumed.

bazza said...

I think the numbers of patients killed by Dr Harold Shipman ran into the hundreds. And, again, there are probably other deaths for which he is responsible. I wasn't really aware of Palmer's crimes but I do remember the times when doctors used to make you better instead of killing you!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s technically tremulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


do you remember the post on Dr Harold Shipman?

Spot on with the number of Shipman's victims! An inquiry after his conviction confirm­ed he was responsible for 218 deaths and there may have been other elderly patients who didn't have children to alert the authorities. But now I have to reconsider the doctor's motive for the killings. Dr Shipman did NOT want to watch his beloved patients did in misery; in fact he tried to make them as comfortable as possible. And he did NOT insure his elderly patients to make a fortune after they died.

Instead Dr Shipman was acting as an angel of mercy, killing his patients now, to prevent pain later on. Trouble was... he made the decision to kill them, without asking the patient's opinion :(

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It is not a good idea to cheat an insurance company. They normally investigate and prosecute thoroughly. So that is why I find it strange that people kill repeatedly to collect on insurance, or even once for a high-value or oddly timed policy. That's partly why I find it odd that multiple-murderers get away with their crimes for so long, with very suspicious patterns and often detectable trails of evidence. Perhaps some people like Dr. Palmer think their high position will deflect suspicion or investigation--wait, that sounds like certain government officials, whose crimes are perhaps other than murder.

Hels said...


you touched on my final question exactly: were respectable, middle class, well connected and educated men, especially doctors, ever believed to be murderers? Even when the evidence was clear? It took 10 years and lots of bodies before Dr Palmer was charged, and even then only for one murder. Yes he was eventually hanged, but I wonder if the insurance companies alerted the police during that decade. Perhaps they just refused his claims and kept their commercial mouths shut.

Joseph said...

Hel have a look at Visible Proofs: Forensic Views of the Body is about the history of forensic medicine. Over the centuries, physicians, surgeons and other professionals have struggled to develop scientific methods that translate views of bodies and body parts into "visible proofs" that can persuade judges, juries, and the public. Dr William Palmer was one of the cases they covered. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/visibleproofs/galleries/cases/index.html

Hels said...


thank you for a fascinating blog that I had never heard of.

Pathology determines the cause and nature of diseases by examining body tissues and bodily fluids. Pathology tests results help doctors diagnose and treat patients correctly, essential but not necessarily of great interest to my unscientific mind.

Forensic medicine, on the other hand, is an application of medical jurisprudence that I find fascinating. So would Annie Palmer and all her children have wanted forensic evidence back in 1854.