THE POISON GARDEN website      Arum maculatum berries on a Cannabis leaf 


This free script provided by JavaScript Kit

Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 9th May 2012

Although it is only the second day and I still have about two–thirds of my credits to spend, I’m already very close to deciding that £80 for a year’s unlimited access to the British newspapers archive will be money well spent.

Because this was only a trial subscription, I thought I should research a number of different stories rather than just spending all my time on Dr. Crippen, interesting though many of the stories I’ve found, so far, are.

Today, I thought I’d try and see if I could find any substance to a story I tell when I’m talking about Dr William Palmer, who got a brief mention in Monday’s blog. It is one of those ‘I do hope it is true’ stories even though I’ve always thought it improbable so I knew I was taking a gamble by looking for contemporaneous evidence for it. If I could find it in the newspapers archives, it would greatly add to the weight I could give to it in my ‘Medical Murderers’ talk. If, however, I didn’t find any mention I’d have to think about how to use it in the future.

Briefly, Palmer, although a properly qualified doctor, was, by 1855 spending almost all of his time horse-racing. I don’t know how good a gambler he was because he had always been a heavy spender with most of his life being a bounce from one debt crisis to the next. By November 1855 he had a real problem in that the man who accompanied him to the races, John Parsons Cook, was about to be asked for a great deal of money by Palmer’s creditors after, foolishly, standing surety for a loan Palmer had no hope of repaying.

Palmer’s answer, as it had been many times previously, was to kill and, on the second attempt, Cook died at the Talbot Inn in Rugeley from strychnine poisoning. Strychnine had been identified in 1818 but it had only been isolated from Strychnos nux-vomica a few years before so there was still a lot to learn about it.

Palmer is thought to have killed twelve times in all so he had plenty of experience by the time he killed Cook. That raises the question of why it took two attempts to despatch his final victim. Cook was very ill on the 19th November 1855 but was somewhat recovered on the morning of the 20th before becoming ill again and dying that night.

The case provoked a great deal of interest and the newspaper stories show that there was a plenty of speculation about Palmer and his other possible victims. There were even reports that he had committed suicide whilst awaiting trial.

The matter caused such a stir in Staffordshire that parliament passed a bill allowing Palmer to be tried in London because it was felt that he would not receive a fair hearing in his home county.

It is that local furore that leads to the story I tried to prove from the archives. It is said that the people of Rugeley felt that their town had been permanently tainted by Palmer’s murderous activities so they petitioned the Prime Minister for its name to be changed. The prime minister of the day is said to have agreed on condition that the town be named after him. The people of Rugeley, understandably, felt that calling their town Palmerston would not solve their problem.

So was this true or just some wag taking advantage of the coincidence of names? A fairly thorough search of the newspaper archives turned up no reference to the story leaving it as unproven rather than deciding the issue one way or the other.

What did strike me was the similarity between the reporting in the 1850s and today. Parts of the press carried reports that, after being sentenced, Palmer was afforded special treatment in prison and had been seen walking in the prison yard with one of his many visitors smoking a cigar. Elsewhere, papers carried an interview with the prison governor denying that Palmer was receiving anything other than the norm for condemned men. This meant only very limited visits and no cigars.

There were reports that Palmer had almost been persuaded, by a visiting philanthropist who had government permission to visit any prisoner in any prison, to make a full confession. This led to reports that it was the constant visitors (completely ignoring the governor’s statement on that matter) that had resulted in Palmer having insufficient time to reflect on his actions and make that confession.

And that, in its turn led other papers to mock those who, against the evidence, were claiming that prison, for Palmer at least, was a soft touch with more home comforts than many honest subjects could provide for themselves.

There were also reports that Palmer’s relatives had come up with a plan to smuggle something into the prison for Palmer to use to commit suicide. One paper claimed that it had absolutely reliable information that Palmer was planning to jump to his death from the scaffold.

We tend to think that it is the arrival of instant news by electronic means that has led newspapers to writing ‘embellished’ accounts of events to attract readers. Looking at what happened in both the Palmer and Crippen cases, it seems it has always been the way of the printed media to offer entertainment disguised as news.  


Full Entries


Tuesday 25th October 2016
Saturday 20th August 2016
Sunday 6th March 2016
Wednesday 3rd February 2016


Saturday 28th November 2015
Friday 27th November 2015
Monday 17th August 2015
Wednesday 15th July 2015
Friday 26th June 2015
Thursday 25th June 2015
Thursday 30th April 2015
Wednesday 29th April 2015
Wednesday 11th March 2015
Tuesday 3rd March 2015
Saturday 28th February 2015
Sunday 22nd February 2015

November 2014

Monday 24th November 2014
Saturday 8th November 2014

October 2014

September 2014

Wednesday 24th September 2014
Monday 1st September 2014

August 2014

Tuesday 26th August 2014
Saturday 16th August 2014
Tuesday 5th August 2014
Friday 1st August 2014

July 2014

Sunday 27th July 2014
Wednesday 23rd July 2014
Sunday 13th July 2014
Sunday 6th July 2014
Tuesday 1st July 2014

June 2014

Wednesday 25th June 2014
Tuesday 24th June 2014
Sunday 22nd June 2014
Monday 9th June 2014
Wednesday 4th June 2014

May 2014

Monday 26th May 2014
Sunday 18th May 2014
Wednesday 14th May 2014

April 2014

Sunday 13th April 2014
Saturday 5th April 2014
Thursday 3rd April 2014
Tuesday 1st April 2014

March 2014

Monday 31st March 2014
Tuesday 25th March 2014
Friday 21st March 2014
Monday 17th March 2014
Sunday 16th March 2014
Tuesday 11th March 2014
Tuesday 11th March 2014
Thursday 6th March 2014
Wednesday 5th March 2014
Saturday 1st March 2014

February 2014

Thursday 27th February 2014
Monday 24th February 2014
Wednesday 19th February 2014
Monday 17th February 2014
Thursday 13th February 2014
Monday 4th February 2014
Monday 3rd February 2014
Saturday 1st February 2014

January 2014

Thursday 28th January 2014
Thursday 23rd January 2014
Friday 17th January 2014
Wednesday 15th January 2014
Monday 13th January 2014
Thursday 9th January 2014
Tuesday 7th January 2014
Wednesday 1st January 2014

December 2013

Monday 23rd December 2013
Friday 20th December 2013
Tuesday 17th December 2013
Friday 14th December 2013
Thursday 12th December 2013
Sunday 8th December 2013
Wednesday 4th December 2013
Sunday 1st December 2013

November 2013

Friday 29th November 2013
Wednesday 27th November 2013
Tuesday 26th November 2013
Friday 22nd November 2013
Monday 18th November 2013
Friday 15th November 2013
Thursday 14th November 2013
Sunday 10th November 2013
Thursday 7th November 2013
Wednesday 6th November 2013
Friday 1st November 2013

October 2013

Thursday 31st October 2013
Sunday 27th October 2013
Wednesday 23rd October 2013
Monday 21st October 2013
Friday 18th October 2013
Friday 11th October 2013
Wednesday 9th October 2013
Tuesday 8th October 2013
Monday 7th October 2013
Tuesday 1st October 2013

September 2013

Monday 30th September 2013
Saturday 28th September 2013
Friday 27th September 2013
Monday 23rd September 2013
Sunday 15th September 2013
Monday 9th September 2013
Tuesday 3rd September 2013
Sunday 1st September 2013

August 2013

Sunday 8th September 2013
Tuesday 3rd September 2013
Sunday 1st September 2013

Tuesday 27th August 2013
Sunday 25th August 2013
Monday 19th August 2013
Friday 16th August 2013
Tuesday 13th August 2013
Friday 9th August 2013
Friday 2nd August 2013
Thursday 1st August 2013

July 2013

Saturday 27th July 2013
Sunday 21st July 2013
Wednesday 17th July 2013
Monday 15th July 2013
Saturday 13th July 2013
Friday 12th July 2013
Thursday 11th July 2013
Wednesday 10th July 2013
Tuesday 9th July 2013
Saturday 6th July 2013

June 2013

Friday 28th June 2013
Tuesday 25th June 2013
Friday 21st June 2013
Thursday 20th June 2013
Wednesday 19th June 2013
Saturday 15th June 2013
Sunday 9th June 2013
Saturday 8th June 2013
Saturday 1st June 2013

May 2013

April 2013

March 2013

February 2013

January 2013

December 2012

November 2012

October 2012

September 2012

August 2012

July 2012 blog

June 2012 blog

May 2012 blog

April 2012 blog

March 2012 blog

February 2012 blog

January 2012 blog

December 2011 blog

November 2011 blog

October 2011 blog

September 2011 blog

August 2011 blog

July 2011 blog

June 2011 blog


The POISON GARDEN website is not connected with Alnwick Garden Enterprises Ltd and/or The Alnwick Garden Trust.