The Poisoner: The Life and Crimes of Victorian England's Most Notorious Doctor by Stephen Bates

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The Poisoner: The Life and Crimes of Victorian England's Most Notorious Doctor by Stephen Bates

Category: True Crime
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A thorough account of the life and times of Dr William Palmer, the 'Prince of Poisoners', convicted and hanged in 1856 for the murder of a racegoing companion, and suspected of killing several others as well
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 332 Date: June 2014
Publisher: Gerald Duckworth
ISBN: 9780715647509

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Just to fend off any accusations of a spoiler, the fate of Dr William Palmer is probably just as well-known to those with an interest in the subject as that of President Kennedy or Princess Diana. Stephen Bates’ account of ‘the Prince of Poisoners’ starts off, therefore, with an account of the proceedings on 14 June 1856 when over 30,000 people gathered outside Stafford Prison to see him keep an appointment with the hangman after being found guilty of murder.

Having started at the end, the author then takes us to what looked at first as though it was going to be the best day of John Cook’s life, 13 November 1855, when he was lucky enough to win £3,000 at Shrewsbury races. Unfortunately, at the time he happened to be in the company of Palmer, his friend and much less lucky fellow racing devotee. The latter was deeply in debt, and within a week Cook was dead. He had clearly been poisoned, and suspicion fell on Palmer after evidence emerged of his mounting debts and his recent history. A little further investigation revealed that his children, wife and alcoholic brother had also died suddenly, not to mention other racing friends of his who had passed away strangely soon after placing very successful bets. What added to the case against him was that he had been in the habit of taking out life insurance on some of his victims and then cashing in the policies rather hastily.

As the extent of his apparent infamy became known, Palmer became a national celebrity, and the trial became the event of the year. Newspapers rapidly increased their circulations when they carried details of the case, Queen Victoria made reference in her journal to following the reports about ‘this horrid Dr Palmer’, ballads were composed about him, and he was commemorated in Staffordshire pottery figurines and models. These were not at all lifelike, and in some cases they were merely stock models of a male figure with Palmer’s name inserted on the base, but it made no difference as to their sales. Pottery models of his house in Rugeley were similarly in demand. A print seller, who was unable to obtain a genuine portrait of Palmer and safe in the knowledge that very few people knew what he looked like anyway, obtained an old plate bearing an image of Richard Cobden, the statesman strongly identified with the repeal of the corn laws ten years earlier. He substituted the villain’s name, and sold large numbers of the resulting ‘new’ picture at a penny a time.

How could this ordinary middle-class professional man, who looked so outwardly respectable, be such an evil cold-blooded monster? As evidence of strychnine had never been discovered in Cook’s body, probably as a result of lack of stringent or accurate analysis, was he really guilty? How circumstantial was the evidence? He never confessed to his crime, not even on the gallows – because of the processes of law, he could only be charged with one of the murders laid at his door, that of Cook - and his mother insisted that he was innocent. (She would, naturally, but her own character was hardly virtuous either). If this was the case, there had obviously been a miscarriage of justice. But if he really was guilty, he was probably a serial poisoner on the scale of the equally notorious Mary Ann Cotton just over a decade later, or Dr Harold Shipman, closer to our time.

Bates has reconstructed all different facets of the story, from Palmer’s crimes and supposed crimes, his shady insurance dealings, and the legal proceedings very painstakingly. He has also drawn a picture of the intense interest throughout Victorian England, when news was disseminated through the media much more slowly than it would have been a century later. The role of contemporary newspapers is examined with the same care as the activities of moneylenders, solicitors, lawyers and judges. His research has been thorough, examining contemporary accounts as well as parliamentary papers and modern works on true crime. Even an interview with Emma Price, a local woman who became quite a celebrity as she could remember Palmer from when she was a child and gave her impressions of him on her hundredth birthday in 1944, has been used as source material.

The result is a fascinating and atmospheric look at Victorian England, and in particular the life and death of the man who was for a while its most newsworthy and notorious villain.

If this book appeals then we can also recommend:

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

A Very British Murder: the Story of a National Obsession by Lucy Worsley

Buy The Poisoner: The Life and Crimes of Victorian England's Most Notorious Doctor by Stephen Bates at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Poisoner: The Life and Crimes of Victorian England's Most Notorious Doctor by Stephen Bates at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Poisoner: The Life and Crimes of Victorian England's Most Notorious Doctor by Stephen Bates at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Poisoner: The Life and Crimes of Victorian England's Most Notorious Doctor by Stephen Bates at Amazon.com.


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