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13 November 2014

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You are in: Stoke & Staffordshire > History > Local Heroes > William Palmer

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William Palmer

William Palmer

Known as 'The Rugeley Poisoner' and 'The Prince of Poisoners', William Palmer is Staffordshire's most notorious doctor. This account comes from the archives of the historic Surgery Bar in Stafford.

On June the 14th, 1856, the notorious Victorian doctor - William Palmer was hanged outside Stafford Prison for the murder of John Parsons Cook. Palmer was accused of poisoning Cook by strychnine. He denied the crime but was found guilty at the Old Bailey in London and sentenced to hang at Stafford Gaol.

Thirty five thousand spectators crammed the streets of the town to witness the grisly spectacle – some spending the whole night in pouring rain to secure their place.

Prince of Poisoners

Such was his notoriety that broadsheets and ballads were sold on the streets as souvenirs and even the rope-maker produced extra rope and sold sections of the noose for a guinea.

It was alleged that Palmer had been responsible for as many as fifteen murders, including those of his wife, four of his children, his brother and his mother in law. Dubbed the Rugeley Poisoner or the Prince of Poisoners Palmer has continued to hold the fascination of the media and of the public ever since.

The full story

In 1845 upon leaving finishing school Anne Thornton met the charming Dr William Palmer. She was the heiress to the Noah's Ark hostelry in Stafford; but she was warned against him by her guardian, and so refused his first offer of marriage.

Palmer pursued her - seeing here as a pretty, wealthy and fascinating young lady of nineteen - and they eventually married in 1847 at St. Nicholas in Abbots Bromley.

Money "worries"

Within a year Palmer was borrowing money from his mother in law Mary Thornton (who hated Palmer). She was persuaded to stay with William and Anne - and within two weeks had taken ill and died.

Palmer was expecting £12,000 upon her death but was bitterly disappointed with the money gained, and not satisfied with the allowance paid quarterly to his wife by the trustees.

By 1854 Palmer was deeply in debt and, seeing no chance of ever getting clear, decided to kill his wife, but before doing so insured her for £13,000.  After paying the first and only premium... Anne Palmer died.

Insurance scams

Early in 1855, Palmer again raised money by insuring his brother Walter for £14,OOO - a deed ending with the same deadly results.

But Doctor William Palmer's career ended in 1856 outside Stafford Gaol, where he was hanged for the murder of John Parsons Cook. His effigy stood in the Chamber of Horrors, Madame Tussaud's, London for 127 years.

It is generally supposed that Palmer poisoned at least eleven victims; and as many again carry all his hallmarks.

Despite his killing two of its licensees, the Noah's Ark never did become his property, but his descendants did come to own it eventually.

The later history of the Noah's Ark inn was that it was sold to the Corporation in 1877, who within a few years took down part of it and rebuilt it as it stands today. It was renamed the Surgery during the 1990's.


What do you think about Staffordshire's most infamous villain?...

If you've got something to say about Palmer, or any of of our local heroes and heroines, check out our message board by clicking on the link below.

William Palmer
Dear BBC I have just seen your website, through a google search.
I am almost certain that Dr. Palmer had 2 children by my Gt. Gt. grandmother Ann Palmer, nee Peck. I think she took the surname as I can trace no marriage details for her. She moved from March in Cambs. to North Street (now Basil Street), Kensington, a stone's throw from Tattersalls ring. I have seen old maps to prove that. The premises are described as forge, which may have dealt with Dr. P's racehorses.
With many veiled hints from my father years ago, and some old aunts having newspaper cuttings that they would never let anyone see, try as I might, I can find no trace of the William Palmer who is supposed to be my legitimate Gt. Gt. grandfather.
Their first son Charles Benjamin must have died very early on, as I didn't know about him until I saw the 1851 census return. In successive census returns Ann is back in the March/Turves area of Cambs. and described as widow. I can't find a death certificate anywhere for her 'husband' either. All of this plus other little things which I won't go into now lead me to believe that I may be right.
I have emailed some-one in Rugely, who has a website, but heard no more. I really would like to know, I would be rather pleased if it was true in a peculiar sort of way but I don't think that other than doing DNA tests on Dr. Palmer's family remains in Rugeley and checking that way, I can ever prove one way or another, however that is probably going a bit too far. If you have any ideas, I would be extremely grateful. Many thanks
Eileen Palmer (maiden name)

William Palmer
I have a book, "Stafford Gaol and its Associations" by W. Payne, printed and published by J.Hitchings of Hanley in 1887. ..
Chapter headings:- Crime & its treatment; Debtors' Prison; Record of County Crime; Palmer's crimes, trials, life in gaol & execution; the Pottery Riots; the County Industrial Schools; -- followed by 20 pages of ads. for local companies of the time!!! ... an interesting book ... a little dilapidated but intact and very readable.
I don't suppose this would add to the information you have, but thought you may be interested to know of its existence. It was sold by Vodrey booksellers of Tunstall.
Joan Welsh

last updated: 10/12/2008 at 08:53
created: 11/04/2006

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