When it comes to murder women are most noted for utilizing a deadly poison to snuff out the life of their intended victim. However, men are not averse to using such a method and when armed with medical knowledge and access to deadly medicines; it is an option that some cannot resist.

Dr. William Palmer was publicly hanged at 31-years-old on 14 June 1856 at Stafford Gaol in England, for the murder of his friend and horse-racing companion John Parsons Cook. Convicted only of one murder, Dr. Palmer was suspected of murdering many others including four of his five children, his wife, and his mother-in-law. It seems he was a doctor whose greed outweighed his desire to preserve life.

Dr William Palmer

Dr. William Palmer

The case of Dr William Palmer has always held a place in the record books of British criminal history due to being the first ever trial for murder by the poison strychnine and, for being the case which saw an act pass through Parliament to allow the trial to proceed at the Old Bailey in London rather than in the local courts. His waxwork stood in London’s Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors for almost 130 years as a result.

Palmer qualified as a medical doctor in 1846 and the following year he opened his own practice out of his home in Rugeley, Staffordshire. While he appeared to be a successful doctor, trusted by those in the town, Dr. Palmer was somewhat distracted by his addiction to gambling. Namely, he was losing large sums of money on a regular basis through bets on horse races and the purchase and upkeep of his own horses. By the end of 1855, it is believed he owed upwards of £16’000 in debts, a colossal amount of money at the time.

28-year-old John Parsons Cook was a friend of Dr. Palmer. The pair often gambled together at the horse races looking to win their bets and line their pockets with cash. In mid-November 1855, Palmer, Cook and four friends had dinner at the Raven Inn near Shrewsbury Races. After drinking a glass of brandy Cook began complaining of feeling unwell. Over the next five days he continued to deteriorate, booking himself into a room at the Talbot Arms Hotel which was directly opposite Dr. Palmer’s home and medical practice, allowing Palmer to visit and treat his sick friend several times a day.

John Parsons Cook died a painful death on 20 November 1855 with the Illustrated Times reporting a few months later:

Wildly shrieking, the patient tossed about in fearful convulsions; his limbs were so rigid that it was impossible to raise him, though he entreated that they would do so, as he felt that he was suffocating.”

The Talbot Arms where John Parsons Cook died in 1855.

The Talbot Arms where John Parsons Cook died in 1855.

It was the suspicions of Cook’s stepfather who arrived in Rugeley soon after the death, which turned attention towards Dr. Palmer when he discovered his stepson’s betting book missing and Palmer providing excuses for its absence. Asking around he learnt Dr. Palmer had been attending to Cook during his illness with a housemaid reporting Palmer had given him pills in the days before his death. Hours before he fell ill, Cook had won a substantial amount of money on a horse race as his companion Dr. Palmer had lost. As rumours began to spread that the well-known Dr. Palmer may have been involved in this young man’s demise, the numerous deaths in his past began to be speculated upon.

His mother-in-law was a wealthy widow with an alcohol problem who died at Dr. Palmer’s house on 18 January 1849. The expected fortune and multiple houses owned by Ann Thornton were not passed down to Dr. Palmer’s wife Annie as expected and were instead going to the next heir of her deceased father. Four of his five children had died between 1851 and 1854 after each suffered convulsions, one son at just 7 hours old, and none of the children reached more than 3 months old.

There was his wife Annie, who he insured for a sum of £13’000 just before she died on 29 September 1854 after a short illness characterized by violent vomiting. In 1856, after the trial of Dr Palmer for the murder of John Cook, the Illustrated Times commented on the death of Palmer’s mother-in-law, “She is reported to have said, that if she went to reside under the same roof with him, she would not live a fortnight. These forebodings proved to be true, for she subsequently went to live with her daughter, and four days afterwards she was a corpse,” adding fuel to the growing speculation that Dr. Palmer was, in fact, a serial poisoner with multiple victims.

On 14 May 1856, Dr. William Palmer went on trial for murder at the Old Bailey in London. The media had swarmed around this case in the prior months, publishing article after article speculating on his guilt. John Cook’s autopsy was an example of incompetence and neglectful duty with mistake after mistake and the involvement of Dr. Palmer himself. The procedure was carried out inside the hotel where Cook had died and Palmer succeeded in getting one attendant drunk beforehand and purposely ‘bumping’ into another as he was carrying the stomach contents of the deceased. It is no surprise then, that no poison was detected in the remains of John Cook, however, it was the opinion of one Dr. Taylor who attempted to analyse the poor quality samples he was sent, that Cook had been poisoned.

The trial of Dr William Palmer at the Old Bailey in 1856.

The trial of Dr. William Palmer at the Old Bailey in 1856. Source: National Library of Medicine

At trial, experts argued over the cause of John Parson Cook’s agonizing convulsions eventually leading to his death. While all agreed they were the product of the central nervous system condition tetanus, they disagreed over the cause with some saying traumatic tetanus or ‘lockjaw’ usually resulting from a wound of some kind and others arguing it was due to the poison strychnine. When the local chemist confirmed that Dr. Palmer had indeed purchased a large volume of strychnine from him in the days before Cook’s death, the jury did not need much more convincing. The 12 men making up the jury decided after 12 days of arguments and testimony that Dr. William Palmer was guilty of murder. On 27 May 1856, he was sentenced to death by hanging.

On 14 June 1856, a crowd of almost 35,000 people gathered at Stafford Gaol screaming ‘poisoner’ and ‘murderer’ at Palmer as he was led to the gallows. The imposing wooden structure had been set up in the street just outside the Gaol to ensure everyone could have a clear view of the execution. Dr. William Palmer maintained to the very end that John Cook did not die from strychnine poisoning. Whether this was an indication that he killed him using another poison or a declaration of complete innocence is unclear but few believed that Dr. William Palmer, a man who was supposed to care for and tend to the sick, did not have a hand in John Parsons Cook’s harrowing death and the demise of many others.