William Palmer (6 August 1824 – 14 June 1856) was an English doctor who was convicted of murder in one of the most notorious cases of the 19th century.
He was born in Staffordshire on 6 August 1824. It is said that his medical training was interrupted a few times with the allegations of stealing money and apparently he was bit of a ladies man.
While working at Stafford infirmary, he was accused of poisoning an acquaintance during a drinking competition; although nothing was proven, the hospital imposed tighter controls on the dispensary as a precaution. Palmer also enjoyed gambling, but his lack of success in this pursuit led him into serious debt.
He returned to his home town of Rugeley to practice as a doctor, and married Ann Thornton, in 1847. The first of several suspicious deaths connected to Palmer was that of his mother-in-law. On 18 January, 1849, Ann Mary Thornton died while visiting her daughter at Palmer's house. She was about 50 years old. On 10 May, 1850, Leonard Bladen died. He was a 49-year-old house guest of the Palmers. Apart from their first son who long outlived his father, William and Ann would have four more children, who all died in infancy:
The only other family member to die in this period was an elderly uncle of Palmer and his death attracted no suspicion, but then followed the death of Ann Palmer. She died on 29 September, 1854, only 27 years old. At about this time, Palmer was involved in an affair with Eliza Tharme, his housemaid.
On, 1855, Tharme gave birth to Alfred. He was an illegitimate son to Palmer. Ann was believed to have died of cholera. Palmer did benefit financially from the death of his wife. He had taken out a £13,000 insurance policy on her life.
Palmer then insured his Brother Walter's life. Walter Palmer died on 16 August, 1855. But Walter died a bit too soon and the insurance company refused to pay up. By this time, Palmer was heavily in debt, and was being blackmailed.
In November, 1855, Palmer and his friend went to bet on some horses. Cook won a large amount of money but Palmer lost heavily. Cook and Palmer had a celebration party at the Raven, a local drinking establishment. On the previous day already Cook was complaining of feeling ill, but he was only thought to have drunk too much brandy. The next day the two gamblers returned to the race track where his friend booked a room.
On 17 November, 1855, two people close to Palmer fell suddenly ill: young Alfred Palmer and John Cook. Alfred died within the day, the fifth child of Palmer to die in infancy. On 19 November, Palmer went to London in order to collect Cook's earnings from the horse races. On 21 November, Cook died at about 1:00 AM. On 23 November. A post mortem examination of Cook's body took place on November 26. An inquest on Cook opened on 29 November, the verdict was delivered on 15 December Deciding that the Cook case concerned "willful murder". Suspicions of foul play were heightened when Palmer tried to bribe several people involved with the coroner's inquest, but the final straw was Palmer's purchase of strychnine shortly before Cook's death.
Palmer was arrested for Cook's murder. The bodies of Ann and Walter Palmer were also exhumed and re-examined, although not enough evidence was found to charge Palmer with their deaths. Palmer was found guilty of murder. Some 30,000 were at Stafford prison on 14 June 1856 to see Palmer's public execution by hanging. As he stepped onto the gallows, Palmer is said to have looked at the trapdoor and exclaimed, "Are you sure it's safe? After he was hanged his mother is said to have commented: "They have hanged my saintly Billy".
The salutation "What's your poison?" is thought to be a reference to the events.