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

Overview

In 1856, a baying crowd of over 30,000 people gathered outside Stafford prison to watch the hanging of Dr. William Palmer, “the greatest villain that ever stood in the Old Bailey” as Charles Dickens once called him. Palmer was convicted of poisoning and suspected in the murders of dozens of others, including his best friend, his wife, and his mother-in-law—and cashing in on their insurance to fuel his worsening gambling addiction. Highlighting his gruesome penchant for strychnine, the trial made news across both ...
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Overview

In 1856, a baying crowd of over 30,000 people gathered outside Stafford prison to watch the hanging of Dr. William Palmer, “the greatest villain that ever stood in the Old Bailey” as Charles Dickens once called him. Palmer was convicted of poisoning and suspected in the murders of dozens of others, including his best friend, his wife, and his mother-in-law—and cashing in on their insurance to fuel his worsening gambling addiction. Highlighting his gruesome penchant for strychnine, the trial made news across both the Old World and the New. Palmer gripped readers not only in Britain—Queen Victoria wrote of “that horrible Palmer” in her journal—but also was a different sort of murderer than the public had come to fear—respectable, middle class, personable—and consequently more terrifying. But as the gallows door dropped, one question still gnawed at many who knew the case: Was Palmer truly guilty?
The first major retelling of William Palmer’s story in over sixty years, The Poisoner takes a fresh look at the infamous doctor’s life and disputed crimes. Using previously undiscovered letters from Palmer and new forensic examination of his victims, journalist Stephen Bates presents not only an astonishing and controversial revision of Palmer’s life but takes the reader into the very psyche of a killer.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
06/01/2014
Charles Dickens once called William Palmer "the greatest villain that ever stood in the Old Bailey [court]" and journalist Bates (A Church at War; God's Own Country) attempts to prove that statement true. In 1855 England, medical science was in its infancy and horse racing was unregulated and fixed. Palmer, both a doctor and a gambling addict, lost frequently at the horse tracks, forcing him to borrow money with a 60 percent interest rate. When Palmer's best friend John Parson Cook, who won a large sum at the horse race, died suddenly after a celebratory drink with Palmer, Cook's stepfather was suspicious and demanded an inquiry. It was Palmer's purchase of the poison strychnine that sealed his fate. It is believed that he poisoned at least 13 people, including two to whom he owed money, as well as his four infants (fearing another mouth to feed), his mother-in-law, his wife, and his brother; the last two he insured so that he could collect after their deaths and pay off his gambling debts. This book has the ingredients of a mystery novel—love affairs, poison, gambling, blackmail, bribery, forgery, embezzling, and a murder trial. Sadly, this is a true story of a person who had an addiction to horse racing and was heavily in debt. VERDICT With his methodical research, Bates provides readers with an understanding of what it was like to live during Victorian times. Recommended for those who have an interest in the era as well as murder in an unregulated past.—Michael Sawyer, Pine Bluff, AR
Kirkus Reviews
2014-04-02
Sprightly look at the parochial mid-19th-century England that produced an infamous serial poisoner. Guardian journalist Bates (The Photographer's Boy, 2013, etc.) displays his fine understanding of Charles Dickens' world in his portrayal of roguish, wayward Dr. William Palmer, whose mounting gambling debts caused great mental anguish and eventually prompted him to poison several people dearest to him. Since Bates begins with Palmer's public hanging on June 14, 1856, having been handily convicted by jury of the poisoning death of his racing buddy John Parsons Cook, there is no peril of spoiling the ending, and therein lies the author's challenge: how to maintain the tension and suspense of a murder tale. Bates succeeds with his lively characterizations and by sprinkling some hints of doubt on Palmer's guilt: He never confessed, and evidence of strychnine was not discovered in the corpse (probably from lack of stringent or accurate analysis). Palmer makes for a curiously bland, hence chillingly ordinary and indifferent villain. A resident of his provincial hometown of Rugeley, he had been trained as a doctor, but his family inheritance allowed him to fall into rascally ways, from heavy drinking to seducing young ladies to betting on horse racing. At the time of Cook's death, after a day and night of winning and drinking at the races, Palmer had two other recent questionable deaths to explain: his alcoholic brother, Walter, and Palmer's wife, Ann. In both cases, just before their deaths, Palmer had taken out an insurance policy on their lives from the Prince of Wales Insurance Office. The author sifts all kinds of other circumstantial evidence—e.g., Palmer's purchase of strychnine and his affair with and blackmail by "Jane." Moreover, Bates considers the role of the rabid press, moneylenders, solicitors, judges and jury—with amusing illustrations. A pleasantly instructive social history.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781468309119
  • Publisher: Overlook Hardcover
  • Publication date: 5/15/2014
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 326,780
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen Bates is a journalist who has written for the BBC, Daily Telegraph, and Daily Mail for the last twenty years, the Guardian. He lives in Kent, England.
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