One of the “Rugeley Tragedies” Walter’s Story:
As a youth Walter worked for Messrs. Procter and Company who were corn merchants in Brunswick Street Liverpool. At the age of twenty-one he inherited £7,000 left to him in his fathers will. With the money he set up his own corn factors in Stafford. Soon after that he married the ladylike Miss Agnes Milcrest who had an inheritance of £450 a year (Fletcher says £500 a year).
He was a popular fellow and friends called him ‘Watty’. Unfortunately Walter began to drink heavily and his business started to suffer and he had less money to gamble. He gave up gambling but drank more heavily.
He was finally declared bankrupt in 1849, and although they still had his wife’s money, he could not afford to pursue his interest in horse racing but his drinking became even worse. His wife finally left him and he became even more of a drunkard and was more heavily in debt.
William Palmer’s New Way of Making Money
William Palmer must have thought that he had found a new way of gambling. With an doctor’s ‘insider knowledge’, insure someone who you knew probably had not got long to live. A natural gamble for a gambling man or a sinister plot where, if they didn’t die quickly enough, you could always finish them of with poison?
Gambling on Walter’s Life
William argued that, the way Walter drank, he couldn’t possibly last ten years, so, as a gambling man, he offered Walter £400 straight away if he would let him insure his life.
In December 1854, less than three months after Palmer had collect £13,000 insurance after his wife’s death, William tried to insure Walter’s life with six different insurance companies for a grand total of £82,000 without telling Walter how much he was to be insured for. One company offered to insure Walter for £13,000 but only if Walter lived for at least five years but William was not interested.
The Solicitors’ and General £13,000
The Prince of Wales £13,000
The Universal £13,000
The Indisputable £14,000
The Athenaeum £14,000
The Gresham £15,000
In the end William Palmer employed a man called Tom Walkenden to keep Walter sober long enough to sign the forms and fool the insurance company’s doctor that he was fit and healthy.
On April 5th 1855 Mr. Waddell, surgeon of Stafford pronounced Walter to be “healthy, robust and temperate” and William was finally able to insure Walter’s life for £14,000 with the Prince of Wales Insurance Company. William Palmer paid the first premium of £710, 13 shillings and 4 pence. Walter did not get the £400 he had originally been promised but William did give him £60 and promised him unlimited credit to get drink from a local innkeeper.
Walter Palmer died on August 16th August 1855. William Palmer’s own diary records that on the 16th August, “Went to see Walter, who was very ill”; and “Walter Palmer died at half-past two, p.m.”. Like Palmers wife before him, Walter died after just one life insurance premium had been paid by William Palmer. Mr. Lloyd, the landlord at the Grand Junction Inn Stafford reported that within an hour William Palmer’s thoughts left his brother and turned to his love of “the turf” when he asked Lloyd to send a telegram to the Clerk of the Course at Shrewsbury – “Please tell me who has won the Ludlow Stakes”.
The Inquest on Walter was started at the Talbot Inn, which stood on the corner of Anson Street and Wolseley Road before being demolished many years later so that the road could be widened to allow through traffic.
After Annie’s coffin had been opened and the body “viewed” it was the turn of Walter’s coffin. Unfortunately he had been buried in a sealed lead coffin. The outer wood coffin was removed and a hole cut into the lid of the lead coffin that encased the body. Immediately noxious gases escaped from the coffin which were so strong that it made most of those present vomit and several of the jury were still feeling sickly up to four days later.
With the lead coffin removed the corpse presented a hideous sight. The face and cheeks were terribly swollen and limbs much distended and described as “a mass of corruption, dropsy and gangrene”.
Dr. Monkton had an almost impossible task of making a post mortem on Walter. The inquests of Annie and Walter were then promptly adjourned much to the relief of the coroner and jury.
The smell from the opening of Walter’s coffin persisted for months and some say even years. They removed the wallpaper and sanded the floorboards in an attempt to rid them of the lingering smell. The publican of the Talbot Inn complained bitterly that it had ruined his trade and eventually the inn closed down. Later, before its demolition, the building was taken over by the army and used as a store for the equipment used in the army training exercises that took place on Cannock Chase during the latter part of the Nineteenth Century.
On Monday 14th January 1856 the inquest on Walter was opened and immediately adjourned to the 15th to await Dr. Taylor’s findings then finally to 23rd January when a verdict of willful murder was returned. The cases for the willful murder of John Parsons Cook, Annie Palmer and Walter Palmer were brought before a grand jury at Stafford Assizes in March 1856. The jury considered that Palmer had a case to answer for the deaths of John Parsons Cook and Annie Palmer but found the case not proven in the death of Walter. Dr. Taylor originally thought the cause of Walter’s death to be poisoning by prussic acid but later changed to agree with the other six doctors who said ‘apoplexy’.
We will never know if Walter was poisoned or drank himself to death.
The Illustrated Times dated February 2nd 1856 gave the following account:
THE LANDLORD OF THE TALBOT INN AT RUGELEY
Mr. John Williss, the landlord of the Talbot Inn, where the bodies of Mrs. William Palmer and Walter were opened, is a stout, jolly-looking man, who is trying to appear unhappy and who talks of ruin, because commercial travellers have of late taken a dislike to his house. We found him sitting in his bar, with a fat child between his knees, and sighing and drinking ale by turns, whilst his wife – a pretty little woman, with a baby in her arms, was endeavouring to reason him out of his despondency.
There was a gun over the fireplace, and he kept his eyes fixed on it like a crow. He occasionally thrust his hand into his brown velvet waistcoat, and glanced round at the rows of ale mugs and barrels of spirits, as though he was calculating what they would sell for, if the worst came to the worst. When a customer entered and called for ale, he rose to draw it with an air of resignation, and it was difficult to tell whether he or the beer-engine was groaning. The fat child was munching an apple, and nearly choked itself; and as Mr. Williss extracted the fruit from its mouth, he muttered something about it’s being perhaps better to die young before it had come to want.
Three commercial travellers with plenty of luggage, would restore Mr. Williss to happiness. There is one good thing; Mrs. Williss doesn’t seem at all anxious on her husband’s account, but appears to know that their sorrows will soon pass away. Mr. Williss made the subjoined communication to us:-
Yes sir, I’m the landlord of the Talbot Inn – not the Talbot Arms – that’s old Masters as is the landlord of that, but I’m Williss.
Some time after the murder of Cook, and while Palmer was under arrest with sheriff’s officers, it was determined to exhume the bodies of Mr. Walter Palmer and Mrs. Palmer. I knew they were going to do so, because two police officers stayed here all night. About seven in the morning, when we were in bed, on a bright frosty morning (it was very bright, added Mr. Williss), one of the policemen, by the name of Chesham who lodged here, came to our room, and says he, “Here you must get up, they are going to bring these bodies into the house; Mr. Bergen says they are to come here.” I told him there was an outhouse and coachhouse where he could take ’em. Then Bergen told me they was to come here, and that he had a letter from the Secretary of State, saying they were to go into the Talbot Inn. We have had the coachhouse all cleared out on purpose; but Bergen says it’s too cold there, the doctors can’t manage their work; they must come here because the Secretary of State says so. I told him we could warm up the coachhouse but he wouldn’t. They brought the corpses here. We were obliged to put ’em into the commercial-room, because that was the only place where the passage would let the coffins enter. Mrs. Palmer was not so bad, but Walter Palmer was shocking. It’s a blessing he was taken away the same night. Only fancy, twenty-three jurymen, and I among the number, for I was a juryman, the coroner, four police-officers, and lookers-on in that little room, as is only about five yards by three. When the lid was lifted up the stench was awful. Captain Whitgreave took his stick and bobbed it through the window to let in the air (it’s a beautiful ventilated room, too); some of the jurymen was sick. I don’t know as ever I smelt anything like it, it was uncommon bad.
In the commercial-room it seemed to soak into everything. It was against the walls, and in the paint, and in the looking glass even. We were obliged to have the passage took down (and it near killed the man as worked), and the wood-work painted, and the ceiling whitewashed. I never see such a thing; it was as if the things had been soaked in a liquor, and took it up in ’em. Of course, the boards where the stuff dropped from the coffin was all done for, and had to be taken up and burned. Ah! It was a nasty business.
The affair has been as good as £200 or £300 out of my pocket. Ah! I can’t say the loss, I don’t know it yet. Commercial gentlemen that used to come here before, and have done, some of them, for 20 years, won’t come to the house now. One of them, only the other day, said to me (he takes a glass of brandy and water just for friendship sake), “I won’t go into the house, and I won’t look at the room; perhaps in a twelvemonth I may.” I used generally to have four or five, and often more commercial gentlemen in a week. Now they don’t come. Worse than that, they have taken away the “rent meeting.” We live under Lord Lichfield, and the tenants used to meet in my house to pay their rents. Now this year, they let me provide the dinner, but they would not come after all, but took what we had provided from here to the Talbot Arms to be cooked. I was brought to this house in arms. My father and mother had it. We’re the Talbot Inn. What’s called the Talbot Arms, used to be the Crown formerly. They didn’t alter it out of opposition, but this is a fact. They held under Lord Talbot, and I under Lord Lichfield, so they thought they ought to change.
There is some talk about getting up a dinner at my house as a recompense for what I’ve put up with. I can’t say if it’ll come off or not; perhaps as I’m in bad luck it won’t; but I hope to Heaven it will, for I’m particular worried about this exhuming business, and wants to see somebody or other in the house.
Palmer tries to trick Walter’s widow
The day after Walter had died William Palmer went to Liverpool to tell Walter’s estranged wife about the death. She naturally wondered why she had not been told that Walter had been so ill. She wanted to go to see his body but was told that the coffin had already been sealed.
After his death on August 16th 1855 Walter was buried in the Palmer Family vault which is in St. Augustine’s Churchyard on the north-eastern side of the church. Once Walter was buried and Dr. Day had supplied a death certificate William Palmer wanted to claim the insurance money. However the insurance company withheld payment. Palmer wrote to Walter’s widow, Agnes (who was then lodging at Edith Lodge, Graham Road, Great Malvern, Worcestershire) asking her to pay £85 he loaned Walter who had said his wife would repay, plus a mysterious £40 and a further bills totalling £200. Agnes replied that Walter had told her that William had insured his life for £1,000 and promised him £500 but that her husband had only been paid a few pound. In those circumstances she, having received no money from her husband in all their married life, felt that she should not be responsible for his debts. It is obvious that neither Walter nor his wife realised how much insurance was taken out on Walter’s life. Palmer sent his friend and family solicitor Jerry Smith to get Walter’s widow to sign a paper surrendering any interest in the life policy. She however wished her solicitor to see the papers and although Smith agreed he took the papers away with him.
Inspectors Field and Simpson
The Prince of Wales Insurance Company who had already paid out £13,000 for the death of his wife were suspicious when Palmer claimed a further £13,000 for the death of his brother Walter. Two Inspectors, Field and Simpson, sent to investigate a proposed insurance of a George Bates, decided to also investigate Walter’s death.
The insurance companies refused to pay the insurance money and this increased William Palmer’s financial worries.
Did Walter drink himself to death or was he poisoned by William Palmer in the hope of collecting the insurance?
“Boots” at the Junction Inn poisoned?
One of the witnesses that Inspector Field interviewed was Tom Myatt the “boots” (a man who polishes the boots of residents) at the Grand Junction Hotel in Stafford. Palmer, finding that the inspectors had spoken to Myatt and wanting to know what had been said bought him his favourite drink brandy. Myatt claims that Palmer bought him a brandy and Palmer mixed it with water. Myatt later claimed that the drink didn’t taste funny but that he was later “took bad” and that he was ill for three or four days. Was he just a simple man inventing a story and enjoying the attention gained by claiming to be a ‘victim’ of the by then famous Palmer or was he really poisoned?