William Palmer (murderer) : biography
William Palmer (6 August 1824 – 14 June 1856), also known as the Rugeley Poisoner or the Prince of Poisoners, was an English doctor found guilty of murder in one of the most notorious cases of the 19th century. He was convicted for the 1855 murder of his friend John Cook, and was executed in public by hanging the following year. He had poisoned Cook with strychnine, and was suspected of poisoning several other people including his brother and his mother-in-law, as well as four of his children who died of "convulsions" before their first birthdays. Palmer made large sums of money from the deaths of his wife and brother after collecting on life insurance, and by defrauding his wealthy mother out of thousands of pounds, all of which he lost through gambling on horses.
Early life and suspected poisonings
Born in Rugeley, Staffordshire, William Palmer was the sixth of seven children to Sarah and Joseph Palmer. His father worked as a sawyer, and died when William was 12, leaving Sarah with a legacy of some £70,000.
As a seventeen-year-old, Palmer worked as an apprentice at a Liverpool chemist's, but was dismissed after three months following allegations that he stole money. He studied medicine in London, and qualified as a physician in August 1846. After returning to Staffordshire later that year he met plumber and glazier George Abley at the Lamb and Flag public house in Little Haywood, and challenged him to a drinking contest. Abley accepted, and an hour later was carried home, where he died in bed later that evening; nothing was ever proven, but locals noted that Palmer had an interest in Abley's attractive wife.
He returned to his home town of Rugeley to practise as a doctor, and, in St. Nicholas Church, Abbots Bromley, married Ann Thornton (born 1827; also known as Brookes as her mother was the mistress of a Colonel Brookes) on 7 October 1847.Knott (1912) p.14Robert Graves, "They hanged my saintly Billy: the life and death of Dr William Palmer", Doubleday, 1957, p.86Ian A. Burney, "Poison, detection, and the Victorian imagination", Encounters, Manchester University Press, 2006, ISBN 0-7190-7376-6, p.116 His new mother-in-law, also called Ann Thornton, had inherited a fortune of £8,000 after Colonel Brookes committed suicide in 1834. She died on 18 January 1849, two weeks after coming to stay with Palmer; she was known to have lent him money. An elderly Dr Bamford recorded a verdict of apoplexy. Palmer was disappointed with the inheritance he and his wife gained from the death, having expected it to be much greater.
Palmer became interested in horse racing and borrowed money from Leonard Bladen, a man he met at the races. Bladen lent him £600, but died in agony at Palmer's house on 10 May 1850. His wife was surprised to find that Bladen died with little money on him, despite having recently won a large sum at the races; his betting books were also missing, thus there was no evidence of his having lent Palmer any money. Bladen's death certificate listed Palmer as "present at the death", and stated the cause of death as "injury of the hip joint, 5 or 6 months; abscess in the pelvis".
His first son, William Brookes Palmer, was born in either 1848 or 1850. He outlived his father, dying on 29 April 1926. William and Ann had four more children, who all died in infancy, the cause of death listed as "convulsions":
- Elizabeth Palmer. Died on 6 January 1851. She was about two and a half months old at the time of death.
- Henry Palmer. Died on 6 January 1852. He was about a month old.
- Frank Palmer. Died on 19 December 1852, only 7 hours following his birth.
- John Palmer. Died on 27 January 1854. He was three or four days old.
As infant mortality was not uncommon at the time, these deaths were not initially seen as suspicious, though after Palmer's conviction in 1856 there was speculation that he had administered poison to the children to avoid the expense of more mouths to feed. By 1854 Palmer was heavily in debt, and he began forging his mother's signature to pay off creditors. He took out life insurance on his wife with the Prince of Wales Insurance Company, and paid out a premium of £750 for a policy of £13,000. The death of Ann Palmer followed on 29 September 1854, at only 27 years old. She was believed to have died of cholera, as a cholera pandemic was affecting Great Britain (causing 23,000 deaths across the country).
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