John Cook’s stepfather Mr. William Stevens

William Stevens - from the Times Report of the Trial of William Palmer published 1856
William Stevens – from the Times Report of the Trial of William Palmer published 1856

Cook’s nearest relative was his stepfather Mr. William Stevens a retired merchant.

It is safe to say that, without the intervention of Mr. Stevens, Palmer would not have been brought to trial for the murder of John Parsons Cook.

Cook died around 1.00 a.m. on Wednesday 21st November 1855 and later that same day Dr. Jones left Rugeley and took the train to London to tell Stevens that his stepson had died. On the Thursday Stevens, accompanied by Dr. Jones, went to Lutterworth to find Cook’s will. On Friday they travelled to Rugeley arriving in the middle of the morning and proceeded straight to the Talbot Arms where they met Palmer and went to view Cook’s body.

It appears that Stevens took a dislike to Palmer. Stevens had often lectured Cook on the dangers of wasting his time and money on gambling and horse racing and associated Palmer with his stepson’s wayward lifestyle. He was surprised and a little annoyed to find that Palmer had ordered a coffin without first asking him.

Was this the action of a thoughtful friend or the action of someone trying to quickly dispose of any evidence?

Stepfather grows suspicious of Palmer

After viewing the body Stevens asked Palmer if he knew about Cook’s business affairs. Steven’s was alarmed when Palmer told him that he held legal papers which showed that there were outstanding bills totaling £4,000 that Cook alone had been responsible for paying. Stevens replied that there wouldn’t be even 4,000 shillings in Cook’s estate with which to pay the bills.

Later Stevens ordered lunch for Doctors Bamford and Jones and, finding Palmer still loitering, felt obliged to extend an invitation for him to join them. After the meal Stevens asked Dr. Jones to go to Cook’s room and bring down Cook’s papers and his betting book. Palmer accompanied Jones but they returned after ten minutes without the betting book. Palmer said that it did not matter as all bets were void when someone died but Stevens was suspicious and insisted that the betting book should be found. Palmer replied in an off-hand manner, “Oh I dare say they will turn up”. Stevens ordered Cook’s room to be locked and that no one be given access until he returned from London. He then travelled to London where he sought advice from a solicitor.

Stepfather insists upon a post-mortem

Dr. Taylor & Dr. Rees performing their analysis.
Dr. Taylor & Dr. Rees performing their analysis.

Stevens returned from London the next day and met Palmer, who had been to London to see the money-lender Pratt, they were both returning to Rugeley on the same train. It was then that Stevens informed him that he intended to insist upon a post-mortem. It was reported that Palmer did not seem upset by the news but asked who would be conducting the post-mortem. Stevens also appointed a solicitor to investigate Cook’s financial affairs. Steven’s also arranged for the specimens taken at the post-mortem to be sent for analysis by Dr. Alfred Swaine Taylor (Fellow of the College of Physicians) at Guy’s hospital who considered himself to be an expert in poisons. See Inquest on Cook web page.

Death Certificate

On Sunday 25th November 1855 Palmer got a death certificate from Dr. Bamford
which stated that Cook had died from apoplexy.
Later in the day Palmer tried to get Cheshire the postmaster to sign to say
that he was witness to Cook having signed, before his death, the bills for
£4,000 that Palmer claimed Cook had been responsible for. Cheshire refused
to do this and Palmer is reputed to have said, “Oh, it doesn’t matter, as
Cook’s friend’s will never think of disputing it”.

Newton a reliable character?

In court Charles Newton (assistant to Mr. Salt, chemist) claimed that on the same night Palmer sent for him and after Palmer had given him a brandy and water he claimed that Palmer asked him how much strychnine it would take to kill a dog and what the stomach would look like after death from strychnine. Newton claims he told Palmer that the stomach would not be inflamed and that the strychnine would not be traceable. When I read this I found it hard to believe that Palmer, a qualified doctor who the newspapers were claiming to be a serial poisoner, would need to ask Newton such a detail. Newton was the next day to assist in the post-mortem operation.

Letters to the Times Newspaper

Stevens was very active before the trial and wrote several letters about the case which were printed in the Times newspaper and which suggested that Palmer should be brought to justice for murdering his stepson. He also met with many of the prosecution witnesses.