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.