Introduction

This likeness of Dr. William Palmer was created from a photograph of William Palmer's death mask.
This likeness of Dr. William Palmer was created from a photograph of William Palmer’s death mask.

Dr. William Palmer, born in Rugeley on 6th August 1824, hanged at Stafford 14th June 1856.

Christened by the Newspapers as “The Rugeley Poisoner” and “The Prince of Poisoners”.

Serial killer or miscarriage of justice?

Read all the facts and rumours on this web site and then judge for yourself – Just how many, if any, did Palmer poison?

Around 30,000 people saw Palmer (aged 31 years) publicly executed in Stafford at 8.00 a.m. on Saturday June 14th 1856 for the murder of John Parsons Cook in Rugeley at the Talbot Arms (later the Shrewsbury Arms, now The Shrew). He became known as “The Rugeley Poisoner” and “The Prince of Poisoners”. His effigy stood in London’s Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors for some 127 years.

That he was a rogue, heavily in debt, guilty of attempted bribery, fraud, forgery and overly fond of the ladies and of gambling on the horses is beyond doubt!

But was he a mass murderer who deserved his place in london’s Madame Tussaud’s Waxworks in the Chamber of Horrors? Who did he murder, no one, one person, a few or many?

Read this web site and make up your own mind.

Facts

He was only actually tried for one murder although a Coroner’s Jury found him guilty of the murders, by poison, of his wife Ann and Walter one of his brothers. He was convicted from circumstantial evidence in the absence of concrete facts. Until the very end efforts were made to get him to confess to the murder of John Parsons Cook but he refused, always maintaining that Cook did not die from strychnine. This was the first ever trial in this country for murder by strychnine. In a botched post-mortem no strychnine was found in the body of Cook but it was claimed that he died of symptoms that could have been caused by strychnine.

An Act of Parliament was made, later referred to as “The Palmer Act”, so that the trial could be held in London.

Rumours

Newspapers of the time printed every rumour and accusation that reporters could extract from the local gossips. If the gossips were to be believed, then, Palmer was also guilty of poisoning at least a dozen other human beings. Amongst his alleged victims were his outrageous mother-in-law, four of his five children, his lovely wife, and his drunken bother to name but a few

However, there are a few people who think that he was innocent and well liked in Rugeley, that, in a country which many thought was on the brink of revolution, the notoriety and outrage that the case brought to the nation took much publicity away from the unrest in Britain.

Some would liken it to the situation in 1982 when many believe the Falklands War focused people’s minds away from the state of the country and Margaret Thatcher was saved from losing the election and with it her post as Prime Minister.

Teachers

Teachers might wish to see the teacher resources on this web site, which contains ideas and a few sample lessons.  Updated 1st May 2003

Acknowledgements:

I would like to acknowledge the help I was given by Jim Wheeler (on design and layout of the first version of this website), John Godwin (for his depth of knowledge of Palmer), Kath Smith (for her dissertation claiming his innocence), Tony Stanley (knowledge of the prison history), Mrs. Thea Randall Head of Archive Services, Sarah Williams at Tamworth Castle, Fiona Pirrie (Press Assistant, Madame Tussaud’s), Kevin Smith (owner of ‘The Surgery Cafe Bar & Lounge’) and last, but not least, my long suffering wife and daughter, Chris. and Katie, for putting up with me whilst I have been involved in this long project.

Site author: Dave Lewis