The Trial of the Century

The Prisoner Palmer, in the Dock at the Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey from the Illustrated and Unabridged Edition of The Times Report of the trial of William Palmer Pub. Ward and Lock, 1856
The Prisoner Palmer, in the Dock at the Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey from the Illustrated and Unabridged Edition of The Times Report of the trial of William Palmer Pub. Ward and Lock, 1856

Twelve days that sealed Palmer’s fate, ‘The Trial of the Century’ started on May 14th 1856.

A new Act of Parliament was rushed through so that the trial could be held at the Old Bailey in London as it was felt that he would not receive a fair trial at the Stafford Assizes.

Robert Graves in his Foreword in his book ‘They Hanged My Saintly Billy’ (first published in 1957 now published in paperback by Xanadu Books ISBN 1-85480-004-3), started his book with the following words:-

Today is the centenary of Dr Wm Palmer’s public execution for the alleged poisoning of his friend John Parsons Cook; and all opponents of capital punishment should be wearing black. “I am a murdered man,” Dr Palmer told the Prison Governor after his twelve-day trial, one of the best attended, and most scandalous ever staged at the Old Bailey; which was the truth. The medical evidence against him had broken down completely, and the circumstantial evidence conflicted, but the Lord Chief Justice and the Attorney General were both out to secure a verdict of guilty from the handpicked jury.

Dudley Barker in his book Palmer, The Rugeley Poisoner, one of the Rogues Gallery Series published in 1935 wrote:-

The trial of Palmer was one of the greatest trials in the whole of English law, if not the greatest. Certainly there have been few trials that have aroused such tremendous interest, not in this country only, but all over the civilised world. And yet two-thirds of the evidence of expert witnesses was highly technical, and consisted of the evidence of expert medical witnesses as to the symptoms of the administration of strychnine.
It is interesting to analyse the cause of the excitement that the trial produced. First of all, it was due to the social position of the characters involved, all middle-class people, well-educated and apparently in respectable positions in life. There is no class of murder that arouses as much public interest as this. A murder in the slums, no matter how sensational, has always an atmosphere of sordidness; a murder in high society is scandal enough, but it seems a little remote, a little too much on the plane of history. But a murder among the middle class is both “respectable” and familiar. It is happening to people whom one might meet and mix with in the ordinary. It is drama set on a stage that everybody knows.
Palmer’s case had that element of popular appeal very strongly, for was not Palmer himself a doctor in practice, and his victim a young fellow with a slightly discreditable and wild reputation for gaming and racing and other interesting vices? But the case had much more than that as well. It became almost a State trial, it involved a special Act of Parliament, it drew to itself some of the most eminent scientists of Europe as witnesses, and even Royalty as audience, and it evoked some of the finest examples of legal oratory in the whole of the English literature of the Bar.

Outside of Central Criminal Court during Palmer Case from the Times Report of the Trial of William Palmer 1856
Outside of Central Criminal Court during Palmer Case from the Times Report of the Trial of William Palmer 1856

The build up to the trial was sensational and covered in great detail by the newspapers. Firstly there was the suspicious death of Cook, then a stepfather ordering an inquest and getting the famous Dr. Taylor to provide evidence. This was swiftly followed by the coroners verdict of murder, Palmer’s arrest and the Home Secretary ordering that two more bodies be exhumed. Stories of other suspicious deaths and Palmer’s debts were unearthed by keen reporters. Then there was another court hearing at Westminster involving admissions of forgery. There followed an Act of Parliament which allowed the trial to be switched to London where in became a ‘showcase’ trial.

The newspapers in those days could legally comment, sub judice (before trial), far more than would be permitted now. Reporters tracked down witnesses and their statements were printed in the newspapers long before the trial. Palmer was portrayed as a cold blooded, and mercenary killer. The number of so-called ‘Rugeley Tragedies’ grew as people told of the deaths of four of his children, his mother-in-law and other acquaintances. The words of the gossips
were given space in the newspapers and, by the time of the trial, the whole nation was talking about the notorious Palmer case.

Spectators at the Trial

As one of the most famous in trials English criminal history it attracted many famous spectators who huddled into the court to see the drama unfold. Politicians including Mr. Gladstone, the Lord Mayor of London, famous doctors, judges and even the Nobility including Prince of Saxe-Weimar, the Dukes of Cambridge and of Wellington, the Marquis of Anglesey, the Earl of Derby (our Prime Minister three times), the Earls of Albemarle and of Dufferin and the Chief lord of the Admiralty Sir John Parkington all were present at Palmer’s trial.