Dr William Palmer

William Palmer qualified as a doctor at St Bartholomew’s Hospital and in 1846 set up in practice at Rugeley, Staffordshire. Palmer married but he was not a faithful husband and had a number of illegitimate children. He also had what we would now probably recognise as an addiction to gambling and as a result he was in constant financial difficulty. It would appear to be no coincidence that the greater the grip his gambling habit had on him, the more the number of deaths of those close to him increased. This included his mother-in-law, whose fortune passed to her daughter and thereby to Palmer, his wife and brother whom he had insured for large sums, as well as some of his creditors and illegitimate children.

In 1855 Palmer went to Shrewsbury Races with a companion, John Parsons Cook. While Cook won on the bets he placed, Palmer lost. Cook arranged a supper to celebrate his winnings, at which he fell ill. The pair returned to Rugeley where Palmer ministered to him. While Cook was ill, Palmer offered to collect his winnings for him and then used them to pay off his own debts. Cook’s health continued to deteriorate and he died on 21st November.

Cook’s stepfather became suspicious. An autopsy revealed traces of poison. The following inquest returned a verdict of willful murder against Palmer. Local hostility was considerable and as a result Parliament passed the ‘Palmer Act’ which made it possible for an accused person to be tried in London if he was unlikely to get a fair trial in his own county.

Palmer was tried and found guilty of murder at the Old Bailey in May 1856. He was sentenced to death and hanged outside Stafford Gaol on 14th June 1856.

©2019 by Alison O'Leary