Reasons for doubting the safety of the verdict

An 1856 Pamphlet

Cover of an 1856 pamphlet the property of the Trustees of the William Salt Library: Ref. pbox R/2/3
Cover of an 1856 pamphlet the property of the Trustees of the William Salt Library: Ref. pbox R/2/3

Even back in 1856 not all were convinced by the reporting of the the case in the newspapers or by the verdict of the jury. In the William Salt Library there is a copy of a 16 page pamphlet, priced one pence, that was produced in the month between the verdict and the hanging. The pamphlet was written by a coroner Mr. Thomas Wakley and entitled ‘THE CRIES OF THE CONDEMNED OR PROOFS OF THE UNFAIR TRIAL AND (IF EXECUTED) THE LEGAL MURDER OF WILLIAM PALMER, LATELY SENTENCED TO DIE ON A CHARGE OF POISONING AND Reasons why he should not be HANGED, From circumstances that have since Transpired, unknown to the Public, and which were not mentioned at his trial. with suggestions as to WHAT SHOULD BE HIS PROPER FATE INSTEAD OF SUFFERING DEATH. Including a Strong Parallel Case of the Uncertainty of Circumstantial Evidence, the Weakness of Human Judgment and the Danger of Sacrificing Innocent Life.

It was published in 1856 by C. Elliot 2 and 3 Shoe Lane, Fleet Steet.

A selection of additional Points made in the pamphlet:

  • ‘ In his case, the old axiom – ‘Give a dog a bad name, you you had better hang him at once,” has been too truly realised.’
  • ‘Newspaper articles and correspondent’s letters, and even pamphlets entitled, “An account of the Life of the Notorious Murderer,” have inundated the country, until the tables and sideboards of almost ever household have been covered with expurte and unreasonable appeals to the passions.’
  • ‘… a man is tried and condemned by mob-reasoning and brutal prejudice, before the time of his legal trial. In that case, who can deny the glaring fact that an individual charged with a serious offence like the one attributed to Palmer, is often found guilty and bespoke for the gallows before an impartial jury has had the opportunity to calmly and dispassionately investigate every circumstance bearing upon the case, according to true evidence, on the oath of trustworthy witnesses?’
  • ‘the condemned man has not yet had a fair trial.”
  • ‘… that circumstantial evidence, however apparently strong it may appear, is not to be always relied on for proval of guilt.”

Reasons for doubting Palmer’s guilt

  • Strychnine was never found in the body of John Parsons Cook, although at the time, the fact that no trace of strychnine was found was blamed upon a poorly conducted post-mortem. Palmer always insisted that Cook did not die of strychnine.
  • Medical experts could not agree that Cooks death was caused by strychnine. At least 19 so-called experts were called and were split in their opinions as to why Cook died with nine stating that strychnine was the cause.
  • Dr. Jones, a long time friend who was Cook’s own doctor, was present at his death and under oath gave the cause of death as ‘tetanus’.
  • The newspapers of the time had virtually tried him and found him guilty. It would have been impossible to find a jury who could not have been influenced by what had been reported in the newspapers. The scandal was the talk of the country.
  • Much was made of Newton’s evidence that he had sold Palmer 3 grains of strychnine at 9.00 p.m. on 19th November 1855. However Palmer’s train from London did not arrive at Stafford Station until 8.45 p.m. and it is unlikely that a fly, the horse drawn equivalent to today’s taxi, could reach Rugeley in just 15 minutes. It should be remembered that Newton was one of the two men who carried out the botched post-mortem on Cook.
  • Why was the driver of the fly never called as a witness? Mr. Bergin, a constable from Stafford, had given the driver of the fly a temporary job in a remote part of the county where he could not easily be contacted. Neither was the station ticket collector was called to give evidence. Had there been a conspiracy to keep a vital witness away?
  • Another witness who made an impression upon the jury was Elizabeth Mills the chambermaid at the Talbot Arms where Cook died. She claimed to have been sick after sampling some broth sent to Cook from Palmer’s house. She had not mentioned this at the time of the post-mortem or inquest. She also had not commented on the manner of Cook’s death but, at the trial, stated that Cook was ‘twitching’ in the time leading up to his death. When questioned at the trial she claimed that she had not mentioned these things at the inquest because she was not asked.
  • After the inquest Mills got a job as a hotel maid down in London. Here she was visited by Cook’s stepfather, Mr. Stevens, Captain Hatton of Staffordshire Police, solicitor Mr. Gardner and a maid from the Talbot Arms Lavinia Barnes. She claimed that on these visits, the only topic of conversation was the question of whether she enjoyed living and working in London. Under cross-examination she eventually agreed that Cook’s stepfather had visited ‘about ten times’ in the five-month period leading up to the trial. Ten visits and not discussed the case, is this likely? Had Mills been ‘coached’ in the evidence she was to give?

Reasons for a guilty verdict

  • Strong circumstantial evidence.
  • The symptoms of death were regarded as being consistent with strychnine poisoning.
  • Cook had claimed that he had been ‘dosed’ by Palmer.
  • Motive – his heavy debts.
  • The number of suspicious deaths around Palmer.
  • Palmer had the medical knowledge and access to poisons.

The coroners jury felt that he had a case to answer and the jury at the Old Bailey found him guilt of the crime. It was strongly believed that he was responsible for Cook’s death even if there was doubt as to if the poison used had been strychnine.