Rugeley Poisoner Returns To Stafford For New Exhibition

By David Prudames | 23 June 2004
Shows a line drawing of William Palmer. It depicts his head and shoulders. He is wearing a buttoned up black jacket and a white scarf, which is tucked in.

Photo: William Palmer was the first person to be convicted of murder by strychnine. © Stafford Borough Council.

The infamous case of the Rugeley Poisoner is being revisited at the Ancient High House in Stafford in an exhibition exploring the life and grisly end of Dr William Palmer.

On show until July 31, William Palmer: Trial by Media examines the massive public interest in the case of the first individual to be convicted in Britain for murder by strychnine.

At the age of 32 William Palmer was hanged on June 14 1856 outside Stafford Prison for the murder of one of his patients, John Parsons Cook.

Such was his notoriety that broadsheets and ballads were sold on the streets, the rope-maker sold sections of 'noose' for a guinea and 35,000 lined the streets to see him die.

Shows a photograph of a 19th century medicine cabinet as seen from above. It has been propped open to reveal a range of glass bottles.

Photo: was this the medicine cabinet of a murderer? © Stafford Borough Council.

Although he was only tried for the murder of Cook, it was alleged that Palmer had in fact killed another 15 people, including his wife, four of his children, his brother and mother-in-law.

The Ancient High House has brought together a range of artefacts collected over the years by various museums and record offices. Palmer’s death mask has been loaned by Winchester Museum and a number of Staffordshire flat-back figures have come in from private collections.

One of the most intriguing artefacts on show is a portable medicine cabinet on loan from Tamworth Castle Museum. It was donated by local councillor Frederick Allsopp and said to have belonged to Palmer.

"Cllr Allsopp gave it to us and he was known for collecting curiosities," Tamworth Castle Museum Collections Officer Sarah Williams told the 24 Hour Museum.

Shows a photograph of William Palmer's death mask. It is a raised cast of his head in profile, which has been set in a wooden frame.

Photo: Palmer's death mask makes a particular eery museum exhibit. © Stafford Borough Council.

Although there is no evidence to prove the Rugeley Poisoner once owned it, it is of a type used by medical practioners at the time and as Sarah explained, is certainly of interest to visitors.

"I think people like the gruesome side of things," she said, "they like to be scared."

Drawing parallels with the recent case of the Manchester-based Dr Harold Shipman, Sarah explained how Palmer’s being a medical professional made it an even more controversial affair.

"The fact that he was a doctor added to his notoriety," she said. "How could a doctor who’s supposed to be looking after his patients be killing them?"

Shows a photograph of a 19th century medicine cabinet. It has been propped open to reveal a range of glass bottles.

Photo: museum staff at Tamworth Castle found white powder in one of the drawers of the poisoner's medicine cabinet... tests by chemists proved it was nothing alarming, but they did warn that use of the Tincture of Rhubarb also found inside might assist the bowels of whoever took it. © Tamworth Castle.

Palmer was born in Rugeley, Staffordshire in 1824. As a 'walking student' at Stafford Infirmary concerns were voiced about his interest in poisons kept in the dispensary, but he completed his medical training in London in 1846.

On returning to his home town he set up a medical practice and married a property heiress. However, Palmer ran up huge gambling debts and took out loans to pay off creditors.

In 1849 his mother-in-law died in suspicious circumstances and his wife inherited an annual income. He insured her for £13,000 and she promptly died a few months later.

Next his attentions turned to his alcoholic brother whose life he insured for £14,000 in April 1855. He died in August.

Shows a print of a caricature of William Palmer produced by the Ancient High House for publicity. He is shown in profile wearing a top hat and long green jacket and clutching a bottle containing red liquid.

Photo: Palmer is still a contaversial figure, even today. Click on this link to visit the fantastic Staffordshire Past Track website and read the full facts of the trial and the rumours surrounding this most infamous of characters. © Stafford Borough Council.

On November 13 Palmer went to Shrewsbury Races with friend and patient, John Parsons Cook who won £3,000. On November 21, he died in agony.

Although the bodies of Palmer’s wife and brother were exhumed and an inquest returned a verdict of wilful murder on both, he was eventually tried at the Old Bailey only for the murder of Cook.

After a 12-day trial he was found guilty and sentenced to death. When he was hanged special trains had to be laid on to bring people to watch the spectacle.

A number of events have been organised to complement the exhibition and include a trial re-enactment, illustrated talks by a Palmer expert and a tour of the poisoner’s old haunts ending at the Surgery Bar to the refrain of "What’s your poison?"

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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