William Palmer – 1850-1855

By | December 19, 2016

“Are you sure it’s safe?”



William Palmer

It is thought that as many as 14 people met their deaths at the hands of The Rugeley Poisoner. Born on 6 August 1824, Palmer was spoiled by his mother after his father died when the boy was 13. Four years later Palmer was sacked from his first job for stealing. He spent the next five years as a doctor’s apprentice during which time he fathered 14 illegitimate children and worked as an abortionist. He got a job at the Stafford Infirmary where he poisoned a man with strychnine to see its efficacy and then completed his studies in London.

In 1846 he began to practise in Rugeley, Staffordshire and although he was quite successful he also gambled, a habit he could not break. He gambled away a £9,000 inheritance. In October 1847 at St Nicholas in Abbots, Bromley he married Anne Thornton, who had been born illegitimately, and fathered five children by her. Four died in infancy and it is a matter of debate whether he had a hand in their deaths.

In December 1848 his mother-in-law, Mary Thornton (who hated Palmer), came to visit and died a fortnight after, in January 1849. In May 1850 Palmer murdered Leonard Bladon, to whom he owed a considerable sum of money. Another creditor who was owed £800 also died. An uncle died after a heavy drinking session. By 1854 Palmer was heavily in debt and so insured his wife’s life for £13,000. He paid the first premium and then she died in September of cholera, according to the death certificate.

Later investigation revealed that antimony poisoning caused her death. Palmer insured his alcoholic brother, Walter, for £82,000 hoping he would die of the drink but years of drinking had strengthened his constitution so Palmer killed him with prussic acid in August 1855. To Palmer’s annoyance, the insurance company refused to pay out.

Palmer next killed John Parsons Cook after Polestar, a racehorse he owned, won several thousand pounds at Shrewsbury races. Cook died six days later on 19 November 1855 but his family insisted on his body being exhumed and examined. No evidence of poison was found but Palmer was arrested for murder on 15 December.


Rugeley, Staffordshire, England


1850—Monday 19 November 1855


The bodies of Walter and Anne Palmer were exhumed but it was impossible to discover Walter’s cause of death. William Palmer was the first Englishman convicted of a strychnine murder, albeit on mainly circumstantial evidence, and he was sentenced to death. He was hanged outside Stafford Prison on 14 June 1856. As he stepped onto the gallows, Palmer is said to have looked at the trapdoor and exclaimed, “Are you sure it’s safe?”


Palmer was tried at the Old Bailey because of local prejudice, a decision that necessitated a change in the law (the Central Criminal Court Act 1856).

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