His Demeanour – the calm poisoner

He was regarded by neighbours as a religious man, he noted down in his diary his attendance at the local parish church and often who delivered the sermon. He made notes in the margins of the family bible. Many, in the early part of his life as a doctor, considered him a generous man ready to give help and advice to the poor and needy without charge.

In the Times Report of the Trial of William Palmer for Poisoning John Parsons Cook printed in 1856 they said the following of Palmer on the first day of the trial:-

The prisoner is described in the Calendar as “William Palmer, 31, surgeon, of superior degree of instruction.” In appearance Palmer is much older, and although there are no marks of care about his face, there are the set expression and rounded frame which belong to the man of forty or forty-five. His countenance is clear and open, the forehead high, the complexion ruddy, and the general impression which one would form from his appearance would be rather favourable than otherwise, although features are of a common and somewhat mean cast. There is certainly nothing to indicate to the ordinary observer the presence either of ferocity or cunning, and one would expect to find in him more of the boon companion than the subtle adversary. His manner was remarkably calm and collected throughout of the whole of the day. It was altogether devoid of bravado, but was respectful and attentive, and was calculated to create a favourable impression. he frequently conversed with Mr. Smith his professional adviser, and remained standing until the close of the speech for the prosecution, when at his request his counsel asked that he might be permitted to sit – an application which was at once acceded to by Lord Campbell

It might seem very strange but in 1856 there was a great deal of comment surrounding Palmer’s hands:-

In the Rugeley Number of the Illustrated Times 2nd February1856 Page 91, under the heading of PALMER’S HAND the following account appeared:

Wherever we went we heard people talk of Palmer’s hand. In the coffee-room of the Talbot Arms three commercial gentleman were chatting together about this terrible hand so white and soft. At the Bell, we are told that Palmer used to hold the wrist of the patient and feel the pulse in such a manner that his delicate hand might be seen to the best advantage.
There is something extremely horrible in the idea, that the hand which drops poison into the cup, and tenders it to the victim, should be round, white, and dimpled – such an one as you could not suspect of doing any injury.
Palmer, we were told by a gentleman who was his intimate friend, had very “pretty” hands, and he was very fond of and careful of them. He would rub them to keep them white, and when talking would sit still picking or trimming his nails, and looking at his fingers. The hand was small, and almost womanly. It was round, plump, and dimpled, and he had a great objection to touching anything which could in any way soil or stain them. He did not wear a ring, or show much of his shirt-cuff; but he was constantly washing his hands, and whenever he did, occupied much time in thoroughly drying them.

Robert Graves in his 1956 book, They Hanged My Saintly Billy, said this of Palmer at his trial:

William Palmer certainly looks at least ten years more than his thirty-one, with which he is credited on the indictment. He is solidly built, very broad-shouldered and bull-necked, though not above the average height. His complexion is florid, his forehead high, his features somewhat mean, yet respectable enough. He has thin, lightish-brown hair; brushed back over an almost bald head, and whiskers inclining to red. Nothing in his appearance suggests either ferocity or cunning; and his manner is exceedingly calm and collected, without a trace of bravado, guilt or remorse. Shrewd observers, however, will notice a remarkable discrepancy between the ruddy coarseness of his face and the extreme prettiness of his hands – which are white, small, and dimpled, almost womanly in their appearance, and which he spends a deal of time admiring as he sits in the box, sometimes picking at his nails for lack of a penknife to trim them neatly. He is no longer allowed to wear wash-leather gloves as a protection for those hands against the sun, but little sunlight penetrated into the County Gaol and House of correction at Stafford this last winter, and their colour seems to afford him great satisfaction.

His Charecteristics

Neat and tidy
He was always an extremely neat dresser and one of his friends described him as, ‘the neatest man about the house I know’.

The Good Host
He gave very good dinner parties and the food and drink were always of a good quality.

Sober
Unlike many of his friends and associates he did not drink heavily and was not seen drunk above once. Often his guests were seen to leave his house less than sober but he drank in moderation.

Well-mannered
People spoke of his good manners and general politeness always pleasant and affable and never lost his temper.

Kind
People regarded him as ‘a decent sort of a fellow’. He was known to be generous and he treated the former workers at his father’s wood-yard well. As a doctor he did not always charge his less well-off patients for their treatment. He was also very affectionate to his family especially towards his mother.

Afraid of sleeping alone
It was said that after his wife’s death he was afraid of sleeping on his own. When he was away at the races he would often share a room with one of his racing colleagues.

From a criminal broadside Published 1856 in Bristol: describing Palmer as Lord Chief Justice Campbell delivered the sentence –

During the whole of his Lordship’s address, the prisoner retained the same composure which he had evinced throughout the whole proceedings, and did not seem, in the slightest degree, moved. At the conclusion of the sentence, he gave a glance at the bench which was occupied by several nobility, and then walked down the steps leading into the prison with a firm step. The Globe states as a fact, that as Palmer was stepping out of the dock, on the adjournment of the court, previous to the conclusion of Lord Campbell’s summing up , he dropped a note into the hands of Mr. Smith, his solicitor, stating that he felt perfectly certain of an acquittal.

Palmer and Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens, the famous author of such books as Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and many other classics, is known to have been fascinated by the Palmer Case just as he had been interested in another famous poisoner Thomas Wainewright. In 1837 Wainewright was transported to Hobart Town, Van Dieman’s Land, not hanged for his crimes like Palmer

In 1856 Charles Dickens wrote an article about Palmer’s Trial for the American weekly journal “Household Words”.In the article Dickens showed his fascination for Palmer’s demeanor which was always calm and controlled, when the verdict of guilty was delivered he seemed interested but unmoved apart from his compulsive toying with his gloves. I have, as yet, been unable to trace a copy of this article but if anyone reading this web site can help me I would be very grateful. They can contact me via e-mail.

In 1859 Dickens wrote a short story for the New York Ledger which was printed in three parts called “Hunted Down” reprinted in All the year Round in 1860. The narrator is a Chief manager of a Life Assurance Office. Another of the characters Beckwith reminds me of Walter Palmer but unlike Walter, Beckwith did not drink all the alcohol supplied by the would-be murderer but pretended to do so to trap him. Another character, the murderer Julius Slinkton, is said to have been modelled on Wainewright, but I feel he also had ‘a little of Palmer’ in his calm manner.

In The Mysteries of Edwin Drood a Dickens character John Jasper shows a calm innocent face his anxiety only shown, like Palmer, by the agitation of his hands.