Four of five Children – poison from his fingers?

The wagging tongue of Matilda Bradshaw. Four of the “Rugeley Tragedies.”

The fourth child of William and Annie Palmer, John, died. Mrs. Matilda Bradshaw, their cleaning lady, ran in to the Bell public house next door swearing that she would never go into Palmer’s house again and that he’d ‘done away’ with another child. When she was asked how he’d done it she said that she had been upstairs with baby John when Palmer had come in and said that he would look after his son. She said she had gone down stairs when she suddenly heard Baby John screaming. After rushing upstairs she found the baby dead.

She maintained that Palmer poisoned his children because he was heard to say that a growing family was too expensive for his slender purse and that he couldn’t altogether blame providence for his children’s deaths. Mrs. Bradshaw said he murdered them by dipping his finger in poison and then in honey and would make them suck his finger. She was asked if she had ever seen him do it and replied, “No, but I know it in my heart to be true”.

What their Death Certificates stated:-

No When and
where died
Name and surname Sex Age Occupation Cause of Death Signature, description & residence of informant When registered Signature of registrar
211 Sixth
January
1851
Elizabeth
Palmer
Girl 10 weeks Daughter
of William Palmer
Surgeon
Convulsions
2 days Certified
Matilda Bradshaw
present at the death
Little Haywood
Eighth
January
1851
Frederick Crabb
Registrar
342 Sixth
January
1852
Henry
Palmer
Male 1 month Son of William Palmer
Surgeon
Convulsions
2 days Certified
X the mark of
Matilda Bradshaw
present at the death
Little Haywood
Eighth
January
1852
Frederick Crabb
Registrar
471 Nineteenth December
1852
Market
Street
Rugeley
Frank
Palmer
Boy 7 hours Son of William Palmer
Surgeon
Convulsions
7 hours Certified
Wm Palmer
present at the death
Market street
Rugeley
Twenty
first
December 1852
Frederick Crabb
Registrar
169 Twenty
seventh
January
1854
Market
Street
Rugeley
John Male 4 days Son of William Palmer
Surgeon
Convulsions 2 days Certified Wm Palmer
present at the death
Market street
Rugeley
Twenty
eighth
January 1854
Frederick Crabb
Registrar

An Alternative Explanation?

Kathleen Smith in her dissertation “Sinner, Saint or Political Pawn” suggested an alternative explanation for the four children dying in infancy and the subsequent death of their mother:-

“William had appeared a devoted husband and father and a devout churchgoer, were these deaths suspicious as rumoured? It was not uncommon for children to die in infancy at this time without speculation, it is also possible that William could have had RH Positive blood and Anne have RH Negative blood in which case the first born child would live while further pregnancies would be affected by blood poisoning in the womb*1 and after a fifth pregnancy the mother could die. Elizabeth Hamilton*2 in her book about the Mordaunt Family of Warwickshire mentions that the butler Tomlinson had five children who died at under a year old (c.1844). No one seems to have suspected foul play in this case so why in the case of William Palmer?”

*1By May 1968 all RH Negative women were injected with Anti D after giving birth to prevent this.
*2 Life on a Country Estate in the mid-nineteenth century, pub The Dugdale Society 1991.