On this date in 1856, the Victorian poisoner William Palmer stepped on the scaffold at Stafford prison, eyed the trap suspiciously, and asked, “are you sure it’s safe?”
One of the more notorious characters of 19th century crime, Palmer hanged for poisoning a gambling buddy with strychnine, but he was widely thought to have left many more bodies in the ground. The philandering physician certainly had a knack for having people turn up suddenly dead around him:
The last four of his five legitimate children;
His illegitimate child;
Two people to whom he owed money;
His wife (after Palmer took out insurance on her);
His brother (ditto);
And John Parsons Cook, whom Palmer was finally convicted of killing.
Evidence against Palmer was completely circumstantial, the public mood was completely prejudicial, and the case was completely sensational. It didn’t help Palmer’s cause that future Lord Chief Justice Sir Alexander Cockburn was on the case, inflicting a withering cross on the defendant. Neither did it help his cause as much as one might think having the victim’s body come up negative for any lethal dose of poison. Robert Graves wrote a book about the case, and reckoned it a likely frame-up. Most other popular recollections — like Madame Tussaud’s, where Palmer stood until 1979 — have figured him for the same cold-blooded poisoner his public thought him. Gambling debts on the verge of burying him afforded him very plausible motivation (Cook was supposedly killed because Palmer had fraudulently borrowed a few hundred pounds against his name and was about to be found out).
How quickly “crimes of the decade” fade away. Palmer was the O.J. Simpson of the 1850’s, although his spell in the public eye was only a few months. Parliament had to intervene to move his case from Staffordshire to London for want of an unprejudiced jury; 35,000 people crammed the streets overnight in the rain to watch him swing; and time was you could get yourself the Unabridged Edition of The Times‘ minute-by-minute report on the Palmer trial or bone up on the case in the 19th century’s legal tomes, to say nothing of the requisite (and in this case, poetic) broadsheet and enough cultural ejecta to stock a museum exhibit.
Palmer earned a passing name check in Sherlock Holmes — “When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge.” His case is supposed to be the source of the pub idiom “what’s your poison?”
Legend — scurrilous, of course — has it that his hometown of Rugeley even petitioned the government to change its name for fear of never escaping its association, but that the change would only be permitted if the town named itself after the Prime Minister: Lord Palmerston. Rugeley it remains.
* Notably, Palmer was convicted of poisoning in the face of exculpatory toxicology evidence. He denied the poisoning to the end.