Dr William Palmer 182456

As a result of William Palmer's murderous schemes, an Act of Parliament was passed that was commonly referred to as Palmer's Act. It made it unlawful to take out an insurance policy on someone else's life, unless the death of that person would cause the insurer financial loss. In other words it was no longer legal to do what Palmer had done, which was to insure third parties, some of whom were unaware they were being insured, and then poison them in order to collect the insurance. What was unusual about Palmer was that he employed a variety of poisons, but the one that finally brought him to his public execution was antimony.

William Palmer was born on 6 August 1824, the son of a very rich timber merchant and his wife who lived in the town of Rugeley in the English Midlands. Palmer's father was keen for his son to enter a profession and apprenticed him to a pharmacist in Liverpool, but there he stole money from his master and was sent back to Rugeley after only a year or so; in the meantime his father had died, leaving a fortune of £70000, making him the equivalent of a multi-millionaire today. His mother now apprenticed William to a local doctor, Dr Tylecote, but that situation did not last and he was dismissed because of his sexual improprieties. His mother next enrolled him as a student at the Stafford Infirmary but that ended in disgrace when he challenged a 27-year-old plumber, George Abley, to a brandy-drinking contest which resulted in the man's death from alcoholic poisoning.

Palmer went back to Rugeley but was not there for long before his mother persuaded him to register as a student at the famous St Bartholomew's Hospital in London. For two years he kept out of trouble and ended with a medical diploma which qualified him to practise as a doctor, and this is what he did when he returned to Rugeley in 1846. Soon he was courting Annie Brookes, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy ex-officer of the Indian Army. Annie's late father had provided generously for her in a will that left a considerable amount of money in trust, money that had previously been looked after by nominees, but was now handed over to Palmer after they were married. Most of it was to be spent in drinking and gambling. Yet despite his dissolute lifestyle Palmer was not without friends and he regularly went to church with his wife and took Holy Communion. Today he would no doubt be thought of as a likeable rogue. And he was not unattractive to, as well as being attracted by, the opposite sex.

It is still a matter of debate how many people Palmer poisoned, and there are even apologists who think that he has been much maligned. He almost certainly disposed of ten of the illegitimate children that he fathered by various women across the county of Staffordshire. In some cases he invited the child to come and stay with him in Rugeley whence the child would invariably be taken ill and die. What poison he used we will never know but he kept buying various toxic compounds from his local pharmacy, particularly strychnine and potassium antimony tartrate. It was the latter of these with which he disposed of his mother-in-law.

Palmer believed that his father-in-law Colonel Brookes had left a great deal of money in trust to his wife and that this would come to Annie should her mother die. Nor would the cantankerous old lady be missed: she was often drunk and lived in a house overrun with inbred cats. On 6 January 1849 she was found unconscious due to too much gin and Palmer had her brought to his home where she died 12 days later, aged 50, after a brief illness in which she displayed all the symptoms of antimony poisoning. Her death certificate was signed by an 80-year-old local doctor, Dr Bamford, whom Palmer often turned to for help in such matters and who was grateful for the small gratuity that Palmer paid him for performing this service. Unluckily for Palmer his gamble failed and he discovered that Colonel Brookes's will was under the control of the Chancery Court and that the members of that legal body decided that ownership of the nine houses that formed the bulk of the colonel's estate should pass to another of the colonel's heirs who was legitimate. Annie got nothing.

Palmer next poisoned 45-year-old Leonard Bladon to whom he had lost several hundred pounds while they were at the races. He too was staying with Palmer when he conveniently took ill and suddenly died on 10 May 1850, ostensibly of an abscess of the pelvis from which he had been suffering. The notebook in which he had recorded Palmer's debts was never found. Despite this piece of good fortune, Palmer's debts with other bookmakers continued to mount reaching many thousands of pounds, but then he devised a plan that would not only pay them all off but leave a little over. In April 1854 he insured his wife with the Prince of Wales Insurance Company for £13000 (equivalent to £250000 today), paying a premium of £760. Six months later he poisoned her with antimony and collected the insurance.

Annie caught a cold while attending a concert at Liverpool's St George's Hall on 18 September, and when she returned to Rugeley she took to her bed, but soon started vomiting. Dr Bamford was called to attend her, diagnosed English cholera and when she died on 29 September, aged only 27, he signed the death certificate to this effect. There are those who think she might have committed suicide, depressed by the fact that four of her five children were already dead. There are others who think she was poisoned by Palmer and that he was also responsible for her babies dying. Baby Elizabeth died in January 1851 aged ten weeks, baby Henry died exactly a year later aged four, baby Frank died after only four hours, and baby John died after four days, and all died of 'convulsions'. (Popular lore had it that Palmer dipped his finger into poisoned honey and allowed the baby to suck it.) Although the insurance company suggested that an official enquiry into Annie's death should be held, they did not press the point and paid up. Not that it solved anything for Palmer because he was soon in debt again as he continued gambling recklessly.

If £13 000 had been a nice windfall, £82 000 would be even nicer - which is what Palmer next tried to insure his brother Walter for. No insurance company was willing to issue such a policy and the most he was able to insure his brother's life for was £13 000, and then only with the help of one of the men to whom he was deeply in debt, who would benefit should the ailing Walter die, and indeed there was every likelihood that might happen because Walter was an alcoholic. A policy was taken out in January 1865 and in August that year Walter dutifully died, but the insurance company refused to pay up. Palmer was outraged but before he could press the matter through the courts he was himself arrested and charged with the murder of someone else.

The man he murdered was 28-year-old John Parsons Cook, a racehorse owner whose mount, Polestar, won him around £2000 at the Shrewsbury Races on 13 November 1856. On the following Monday, 19 November, Cook collected his winnings and that same night he was taken ill at the Raven Hotel where he and his new found friend Palmer were staying. A woman guest at the hotel had seen Palmer with a glass of brandy and water in the hotel foyer and he appeared to be dissolving something in it. That something was potassium antimony tartrate because the effect of the drink was to make Cook vomit copiously. The next day he felt well enough to move to the Talbot Arms in Rugeley, a pub opposite Palmer's home. There Palmer was able to doctor a cup of coffee which again made Cook very sick. Over the next few days Palmer visited Cook at the pub seemingly attending to his friend, and on one occasion he sent him some broth which not only made Cook ill, but also a maid who ate some of it. Cook finally died a day or so later, probably of strychnine poisoning, whereupon his money and little black book of betting transactions and debts had mysteriously disappeared.

Cook's stepfather was soon on the scene and, his suspicions aroused, he demanded a post-mortem. Palmer was delighted when no strychnine was detected but there was now enough doubt about the deaths of others that the bodies of his wife and mother-in-law were exhumed and indeed antimony was detected in their remains. His brother Walter's body yielded nothing, suggesting that he died of strychnine which does not survive for long in the body.

Palmer was arrested and so strong was local feeling against him that his trial was transferred to London. Not that it saved him. The jury found him guilty and he was returned to Stafford for execution and hanged there at 8 a.m. on Saturday, 14 June 1856 before a crowd of 30000. Such was Palmer's notoriety that his waxwork stood in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud's in London for 127 years.

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