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Pinning it on the poison

12 Jan 2007

The murderous antics of one of the 19th century's most infamous killers are the subject of a new book entitled Poison, detection, and the Victorian imagination.

Dr William Palmer's arrest, trial, conviction and subsequent execution, attracted massive media attention, not least because of Victorian England's growing fear over a new form of homicide - criminal poisoning 'by science'.

Anonymous and coldly calculating, poisoners were drawing on the advances made by modern science to inflict an insidious form of violence against their victims.

To counter this threat, Victorian society looked to the emergent field of toxicology to enable poisoned bodies to tell their tales from beyond the grave by bringing invisible deeds to light by recourse to the test tube.

Yet poison detection in practice was no easy matter and its findings were subjected to searching questions by an anxious, and often sceptical, public. At no time did these new scientific methods come under closer scrutiny than during the trial of William Palmer.

Born in Rugeley, Staffordshire, in 1824, Palmer was a doctor with a reputation as a ladies man whose unhealthy addiction to gambling and the horses resulted in serious debt problems.

He first came to notoriety while working at Stafford infirmary when, during a drinking game, he was accused of poisoning an acquaintance. Although nothing was ever proven, the hospital tightened up its controls on the dispensing of medicines as a result.

Palmer returned to his home town where he was to meet his future wife, Ann Brookes. The couple married in 1847 and had their first child the following year. But their happiness would be short lived as all four of their subsequent children would die in infancy.

Several other people connected to Palmer also died in his presence, including his step-mother and at least two other associates, both of whom he owed money.

In 1854, after Palmer had taken out a life insurance policy on her, Ann also died, reportedly of cholera. Nine months later, Palmer had a sixth child, this time to his housemaid, but this too died just months after being born.

Still heavily in debt, Palmer next insured his brother, Walter, but when he too was found dead not long afterwards the insurance company refused to pay out.

However, it was not until the death of one of his horse-racing friends, John Cook, that the net finally closed in on Palmer. Knowing that Cook had won a large amount of money, Palmer invited him for dinner to celebrate. It would be the last meal he would ever eat.

At his trial at The Old Bailey in London, Palmer was found guilty of Cook's murder. But the conviction was based entirely on circumstantial evidence, primarily the similarity between Cook's death and that of known strychnine victims, even though no trace of the poison had been found in Cook's body.

Palmer was hanged at Stafford prison on June 14, 1856, watched by some 30,000 onlookers. But despite attempts to elicit a confession out of the condemned man, Palmer took his plea of innocence to the grave, leaving doubts over poison detection for others to ponder long after he had gone.

In this challenging and entertaining new book, author Dr Ian Burney, a medical historian at The University of Manchester, embeds discussions about the relationship between medico-legal expertise and its wider cultural context.

Lucidly written and blending rigorous scholarship with riveting stories from the annals of crime, Poison, detection and the Victorian imagination will appeal to an interdisciplinary professional audience as well as to those interested in the darker side of Victorian society.


Notes for editors:

Dr Ian Burney is Senior Lecturer at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at The University of Manchester.

Poison, detection and the Victorian imagination is available from Manchester University Press, priced £35.00

Review copies for journalists available on request.

For further information contact:

Aeron Haworth
Media Officer
Faculty of Life Sciences
The University of Manchester

Tel: 0161 275 8383
Mob: 07717 881 563