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The Poisoner: The Life and Crimes of Victorian England's Most Notorious Doctor

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In 1856, a baying crowd of over 30,000 people gathered outside Stafford prison to watch the hanging of Dr. William Palmer, "the greatest villain that ever stood in the Old Bailey” as Charles Dickens once called him.

Palmer was convicted of poisoning and suspected in the murders of dozens of others, including his best friend, his wife, and his mother-in-law—and cashing in on their insurance to fuel his worsening gambling addiction. Highlighting his gruesome penchant for strychnine, the trial made news across both the Old World and the New.

Palmer gripped readers not only in Britain—Queen Victoria wrote of ''that horrible Palmer” in her journal—but also was a different sort of murderer than the public had come to fear—respectable, middle class, personable—and consequently more terrifying. But as the gallows door dropped, one question still gnawed at many who knew the case: Was Palmer truly guilty?

The first major retelling of William Palmer’s story in over sixty years, The Poisoner takes a fresh look at the infamous doctor’s life and disputed crimes. Using previously undiscovered letters from Palmer and new forensic examination of his victims, journalist Stephen Bates presents not only an astonishing and controversial revision of Palmer’s life but takes the reader into the very psyche of a killer.

352 pages, Hardcover

First published May 15, 2014

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About the author

Stephen Bates

6 books6 followers
I am a British journalist and author. In a 36 year career in Britain, until 2012, I worked for the BBC, the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail and for the last 22 years for the Guardian. I specialised at various times in covering education, politics, Europe and the European Union, religion and British royalty and I reported from more than 40 countries across the world.
The Photographer's Boy is my first novel and has been more than a decade in the making. Set against the background of the US Civil War, it's a story of journalism, early war photographers, war and politics: there's even a little sex.
I've previously written three books combining my twin interests of history and journalism: A Church at War was about the struggle over homosexuality in worldwide Anglicanism; God's Own Country was about the history of American religion and politics and Asquith was a short biography of the Edwardian prime minister H.H. Asquith. I also edited the Bedside Guardian 2012: the annual anthology of the paper's best articles.
I've been fascinated by American history ever since I was a student more than 40 years ago and have visited (and reported from) the US many times - including the locations and battlefields of my novel.
I have two more books coming out next year: both history and both non-fiction:
An Immense Scheme in View: Britain in 1846 is about the great political, economic and social upheavals at the heart of Victorian politics.
And The Poisoner: The Short Life and Deep Crimes of William Palmer is about a man Charles Dickens called "the greatest villain ever to stand in the Old Bailey dock", a serial killer whose trial transfixed the nation, from Queen Victoria downwards. But did anyone ever really prove that he was guilty? Read the book from next Spring and find out!
I live in Kent, England, have been married to Alice for 27 years and we have three grown-up children. I was brought up a Roman Catholic but covering religious affairs managed finally to kill off my faith, so I am now an agnostic.
Hope this tells you a little bit about me and my latest books!

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 58 reviews
Profile Image for Maureen .
1,294 reviews7,114 followers
February 1, 2022
*2.5 stars*
William Palmer was an under qualified doctor living and practising in Rugeley, Staffordshire.  His family were quite well-off, he was well-known and well-liked locally, mainly because of his enthusiasm for horse-racing, which was ultimately to lead to his downfall.  He not only attended all major race-meetings and bet heavily, along with his racing cronies, but actually owned a string of racehorses himself.

However, he soon got into serious financial difficulties, which he tried to escape by embezzling large amounts of money from his friends.  He took out life insurance on several members of his family, including his wife.  His wife died shortly afterwards.  So did his brother, but as he was a habitual drunkard, the insurance company refused to pay up.

In November 1855 he went to Shrewsbury races with his friend John Cook, whose horse Polestar won the main event.  Cook's financial reward as a result of this win was great, while Palmer, who had backed his own horse, The Chicken, was ruined.  This didn't stop him joining in a very convivial drinking party back in Rugeley with his friends.   Cook got very drunk and was put to bed in the local hostelry.  During the night he became ill and Palmer was called out to attend him. In the following days his condition alternately improved and deteriorated, until he died in agony, his body contorted into a bow.

His symptoms suggested poisoning by strychnine, a substance which was used in very small doses for medicinal purposes.  Palmer was known to have bought strychnine and antimony from the local chemist.  A relative of Cook's pursued the evidence vigorously.  Forensic science was in its infancy, but an autopsy did not reveal any strychnine in the body.  However, the circumstantial evidence was strong, and eventually Palmer was arrested and charged with murder.
His trial at the Old Bailey was the sensation of the year, involved some celebrated lawyers and medical experts, and was followed avidly by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who astonishingly subsequently bought Palmer's horse The Chicken.  The trial ended with the doctor's conviction and public hanging in his home town of Rugeley, before a capacity crowd.

The author describes all these events in minute detail, including inflated quotations from participants in them.  Palmer was almost certainly guilty of Cook's murder, not necessarily by strychnine, and maybe of several other murders as well, but this will always remain unproven.  However , I found the account incredibly depressing and boring.
Profile Image for Helen.
1,279 reviews17 followers
June 7, 2017
Probably a 3.5 really but let's redress the balance a bit - some jaw-droppingly negative reviews here.
This book revisits the crime(s?), trial and execution of William Palmer, the Rugeley poisoner, in 1856, with particular emphasis on the social background of the time. Huge baying crowds attend the public spectacle of judicial murder around once a month; the popular press is keen to condemn before trial, and doorsteps Palmer's mother; medical training is often rudimentary and the way in which the victim's post mortem is conducted leaves a great deal of scope for inaccuracies to say the least. Also part of the social background is the enormous popularity of racing and gambling, the burgeoning life insurance business, and the accessibility of poisons. Until recently I used to think that we were on a trajectory of gradual progress, civilisation, but as that seems to have come to a halt this is a good moment to look at the world of 170 years ago and see the continuity - mob mentality, aggressive prejudicial reporting, a rampant and apparently uncontrolled financial world open to abuse. We are surrounded by the descendants of people whose idea of a good day out was watching somebody being hanged.
William Palmer seems to have been a bad lot (the book includes his letters to a mistress, published for the first time, in which he arranges an abortion for her in rather unpleasant language - and some interesting speculation that she may have double-crossed him and had his baby after all), and the likelihood seems to be that he did poison his friend for money but possibly not with strychnine as accused.
Profile Image for Carolyn Di Leo.
230 reviews5 followers
October 16, 2014
I didn't love this. It had some interesting detail. I do enjoy reading about life in the Victorian Era, but it dragged a bit and got bogged down in the small, unimportant details. I did find the letters quite interesting, but, in the age of Ebola, I was a bit overwhelmed by the descriptive paragraphs of the gruesome deaths.
Historically accurate and well researched, but a bit too long.
Profile Image for Jo.
3,221 reviews116 followers
March 26, 2015
William Palmer liked to poison people for his own benefit and he got away with it for a long time. This is the story of how he was brought to justice. I found the death stuff quite interesting but ended up skim reading the court bits.
335 reviews4 followers
December 25, 2020
Rather heavy on the details and dry. I enjoyed the poison aspects of the book but it was difficult to keep up with who’s who.
Profile Image for Katherine Addison.
Author 12 books2,677 followers
June 11, 2016
"When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge. Palmer and Pritchard were among the heads of their profession."
--Sherlock Holmes, "The Speckled Band," Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
(The Annotated Sherlock Holmes I.257 [the accompanying illustration, btw, has them reversed: Pritchard is the one with the beard; Palmer is clean-shaven])

I'm starting with this quote because (a) it is likely the only time most people in the twenty-first century will have heard of William Palmer and Edward Pritchard, and (b) it's so freaking odd because it's 100% wrong. Neither Palmer nor Pritchard were "among the heads of their profession." Palmer (executed 1856), a surgeon (which wasn't quite the same thing as a doctor in Victorian England), had never been more than a small town GP and wasn't even practicing when John Parsons Cook died, and Pritchard (executed 1865) bought his diploma as a Medicinae Doctor from the University of Erlangen without ever having studied there. And even with the diploma, he, too, was nothing more than a family doctor and nothing to write home about. (Even if you read it the other way, with Holmes considering their profession to be crime, it doesn't help. Neither of them was a professional criminal, and they did a kind of terrible job with the murders they committed.) So, given that Watson notes Holmes' encyclopedic knowledge of crime more than once and thus we cannot believe that Doyle wants us to believe that Holmes is wrong, we have two choices: (1) Doyle, an infamously sloppy writer, didn't bother to check his facts, or (2) Holmes is wrong on purpose, because he's trying to point Watson at a clue. Both Palmer and Pritchard were poisoners, and they both poisoned (or were strongly suspected of poisoning) their friends and loved ones, just as the dreadful Dr. Roylott has poisoned one step-daughter and is trying to poison another. I also find it odd that the Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which is usually all over this kind of thing, doesn't even have a note trying to reconcile what Holmes says with the historical data. My suggestion #2 is pretty much the party-line the A.S.H. would have preached.

I don't have an answer, but that line is certainly where I first heard of Palmer and Pritchard--certainly the reason I was curious about both of them--so I thought I should at least observe that it leaves a notably misleading impression.

There's an account of Pritchard in Classic Crimes. The Poisoner is about Palmer. Bates is trying very hard to be fair and impartial. The case against Palmer was mostly circumstantial, bolstered by some somewhat suspect pieces of witness testimony and the appalling performance of Alfred Swaine Taylor. It's not that Palmer wasn't guilty (his own behavior is the most damning evidence available), but like Luetgert (Alchemy of Bones: Chicago's Luetgert Murder Case of 1897), he did not get a fair trial.

Even trying his damnedest, Bates can't reach any conclusion other than that Palmer murdered John Parsons Cook. For money. Most of which he couldn't commit fraud fast enough to get his hands on. Palmer may not have murdered his own brother (Walter), but as Bates points out, he didn't need to. He just needed to give Walter access to enough alcohol that he could drink himself to death at the age of 32. And then collect on the staggering amount of money he'd managed to insure Walter's life for--which he promptly applied to his even more staggering debts and did not even come close to paying them off. Bates does an excellent job of explaining just how deeply Palmer was in debt (his crimes, which are mostly fraud with some murder thrown in, are all aimed at paying off the money-lenders) and just how futile all his efforts were to extract himself, since he never once tried to give up horse-racing, which was the root cause of all his financial troubles.

This is a very good book, clearly written and easy to follow through the thickets of Palmer's lethal folly.
Profile Image for Alger Smythe-Hopkins.
888 reviews97 followers
July 12, 2014
Please note, strikethroughs are words from my original reaction and review that I retract, and the text immediately following those edits are revisions. These changes I made to reflect a better understanding of Bates' intentions and challenges. *****************************************************************

Egads what a dreary mess of a book this is. So poor that in my mind I had imagined the author a first-time writer of books and a very enthusiastic but very amateur historian. It was only arriving here to review the book that I find that instead Bates is a prolific author of many histories and has written on this era of history before. Thus the very bad rating.

The problems with this book are many, but the main stem of objections are as follows: the hackneyed and often nonsensical prose; the non-linear recounting of events; the over burden of needless detail, especially about people we meet once in the book; the frequent, yet entirely unnecessary weird trips into the present for the current condition of the murderer's house, the names of the grandchildren of people who wrote a book in the 1920s about the case, the cozy mood created by the drop ceiling in the Old Bailey, or a comment on the terrible penmanship of the 1850s; the woodenheaded speculation about little things that simply don't matter, such as the identity of Palmer's mistress which arrives at a complete deadend after he lists every woman between the ages of 20 and 40 within 30 miles of Palmer's home whose surname began with B; and the inescapable fact that we are told at the very beginning of the book that Palmer was found guilty then hung before we looped back to an endlessly detailed hypothetical reconstruction of the crime as it was set out in the trial and newspapers, and from there we move into the trial stage of the book halfway in, where we are retold exactly those same events in exactly the same order and are asked by Bates to forget that we already read that Palmer was found guilty and hung to death back on on page 7 while he muses over the weaknesses of the prosecution.

This book is astonishingly unexpectedly boring, disorganized and cluttered, punishingly stupid aggravating to read, and drained of all narrative tension. Bates is a terrible writer of history who should surrender any claim to his word processor. Upon reflection and discussion with the author if believe now that this is most likely due to Bates' having an embarrassment of riches to communicate and never arriving at a clear structure to hang all this information upon aside from a loosely held chronology that loops and digresses constantly. My enduring frustration with this book is that an author as experienced as Bates should write a much better book than this.


*****SPECIAL BONUS***********************
Please read the attached comments for a conversation with the book's author!
Profile Image for Emily Graves.
54 reviews2 followers
July 24, 2014
I'm a sucker for weird history, historical murders, and Victorian history, so it's actually surprising I couldn't finish this book. The narrative pace is so dreary that, already having some rudimentary knowledge of the Palmer case, I felt like I was reading something written by a student trying to stretch out limited material into as many pages as possible to fit a quota. On top of that, the clumsy prose makes it all feel like a very long, clunky, academic article--not a book anyone outside of academia would pick off the shelf. There's not that much more here than is covered perfunctorily in Flanders' The History of Murder, and that is a much more engaging book. This is the opposite of engaging, which is odd because the subject matter is actually pretty fascinating.

I mean, if you're really interested in the case, I guess, go for it, but it's not a must read by any means.
Profile Image for DeAnna Knippling.
Author 161 books255 followers
July 30, 2016
A book on the William Palmer poisoning case.

Some people are all about "justice," in which the ends justify the means. Who cares if nobody actually proved that William Palmer poisoned anybody? He did it--and the fact that that has to be "proved" gets in the way of justice.

Eeeee, it just creeps me out. I felt like it was never proved beyond a reasonable doubt that William Palmer murdered Cook (or anybody else), and that if he did and were punished for it, it's more due to luck and the madness of crowds than justice.

The ends justify the means. Sure.

Nevertheless, an entertaining read.
74 reviews1 follower
June 15, 2022
This seems to have been very well researched and is a thorough still summary of the records of this case. Of course, this means it includes all the hearsay and rumour of the time and can't really give the truth of the crime. But what it is excellent at is painting a picture of the time in terms of medical knowledge, legal proceedings, horse racing, journalism etc, and there are some interesting details about changes in law as a result of this case. The crime itself didn't seem that remarkable to me, but the circumstances surrounding it just happened to bring it a lot of attention.
Profile Image for Emma C.
39 reviews
June 11, 2020
The research in this book is absolutely phenomenal. It is clear that the author is a journalist as the book is extremely detailed and at times feels more like an article than a book. It didn’t have enough narrative to it and so there were parts that felt like they dragged on for a while.
Overall interesting but perhaps a little dry.
Profile Image for Bill Peschel.
Author 29 books21 followers
July 7, 2014
Dr. William Palmer is mostly forgotten today, but his story deserves to be told. In 1856, with the Industrial Revolution beginning to knit together the world, his 12-day trial for the death of his gambling partner drew worldwide attention. Newspapers devoted multiple pages to the testimony, expert witnesses argued whether Palmer used strychnine (then a relatively unknown poison) on his partner, or did the fellow die of natural causes. Newspapers published every fact they could find (and make up when needed) about the man, his deceased wife, his deceased brother, the deaths of four of his five children, the death of his mother-in-law, all suspicious. They discussed his deep debts and his use of insurance to dig his way out of them. The publicity was so intense and so biased that Parliament passed a law moving the trial to London, the first time pre-trial publicity affected the judicial system.

The last major biography was George Fletcher's "The Life and Career of Dr. William Palmer of Rugeley" in 1925, so Stephen Bates' re-examination is long overdue. Aided by intensive digging in the state archives at Kew, the local archives in Stafford, digitized newspaper archives and conversations with people who have investigated the case, he retells the story with flair and imagination. He ties together all the loose facts and overlays them with a narrative that shows the impact the trial had on its times. The result is a compelling story revealing Palmer, with his soft-soap manners and calm demeanor that hid a serial killer. Given the times, it wasn't a surprise that he killed so many people, it was that one man -- the victim's step-father -- finally took the steps needed to bring Palmer to justice.

Bates -- coincidentally the last name of one of Palmer's near-victims -- has renewed interest in the man Sherlock Holmes put "at the top of his [murderous] profession."
Profile Image for Jill Hutchinson.
1,433 reviews105 followers
December 16, 2015
I'm not sure what to say about this book. I really like Victorian true crime and imagined that this would be a good choice. This was a famous case during the mid-19th century when a doctor named Palmer was convicted and hanged for the poisoning of one of his good friends. He was also suspected of several other deaths but was not tried for them. Sounds intriguing, doesn't it, and maybe it could have been if the author had taken another style in presenting the story. But it is all over the place and some of the information seems to drag on and on.

The story is about Palmer but the author also gives us in-depth profiles of everyone and anyone who had any connection with the murder which really wasn't necessary. That filled many pages as did letters and newspaper articles about the crime/trial. Granted, the author did some amazing research but frankly, I was bored with the whole thing.
Profile Image for Ann.
1,401 reviews
January 23, 2015
In 1856, Dr. William Palmer was arrested and hanged for the murder of his friend, John Parsons Cook. He was the poster boy for murderers of his time and is suspected of killing his brother, wife and 3 of his four children. It seems that Dr. Palmer was deeply in debt and John Cook was a big winner at the races they attended. His winnings were never found but Dr. Palmer suddenly began to repay a few of the debts he owed. He insured the life of his wife and his brother and they conveniently died. This was an interesting book of true crime. The author does a very good job of telling Palmer's story and the coverage of the trial.
Profile Image for Polly Clarke.
201 reviews9 followers
July 18, 2015
In some part, the depth of detail brings a very full picture and feel for the era, which I enjoyed but by half way through I had given up the will to read anymore because it was too detailed. Its very evident that there are plenty of examples of reasons for mistrial in this day and age. That's not to say he wasn't guilty of a murder or two. Fascinating character portrayal in part but soon bores the reader with too much detail.
44 reviews
August 23, 2020
Great stuff. Even the cover art works well. Palmer is a fascinating subject for this sort of treatment; the story has so many aspects that it might make an entertaining film. What we get here is an intricate exposition of a particular sociopath, as well as a glimpse of 1850s England that has tons of detail and nuance.

I like the background and Bates's style so much that I don't care, actually, what he's writing about. This is the sort of book that I wish would just keep going. Our anti-hero, the probable serial-killer Palmer is such a piece of work. The tragic intersection of gambling, high-living, debt, (so-called) medicine, poison, local politics, etc., makes for a combustible spectacle in the sights of this loose-cannon perpetrator. It's almost worse that Palmer could curry favor for so long with so many people; had he been an obvious jerk, no one would make the mistake of trusting him.

As the author points out, the Mid-Victorian era was unique in many respects: poisons were widely available, but newer concoctions, such as strychnine, were not well-understood. And that was owing mostly to the emerging level of scientific knowledge and information.

At the same time, 'sporting' types, such as Cook and Palmer, were increasingly able to indulge their gambling habits by the early adoption of a railway network in England. Many more races could be covered by those with the leisure time. Also, the gambling culture gained steam (as did other social ventures) with more innovations that speeded communication and information: cheap newspapers and the telegraph.

What's fascinating, and well-documented here, are the minutiae of financial arrangements deployed to obtain credit, obtain one's winnings at the track, or post one's debts. In fact, that could be the subject for another book, as I admit that I sometimes lost track of who owed who what, and by what means.

The amounts of money (wagered, won, lost, and owed) we are told were enormous; at least they're comprehensible, thanks to the author's 'translation' into modern sums. In a time that was both more courteous--superficially anyway-- and crueler, its hard to see how a notorious debtor like Palmer didn't receive more overt threats from his creditors. The exchange of letters between Palmer and Pratt is riveting; Palmer's testy annoyance and growing panic makes great reading alongside Pratt's simmering impatience and exacting pursuit of his case. Not to mention the quaint period niceties.

Bates tops this exchange with the even more entertaining exchange of missives between Palmer and his mistress, Jane. I admire Palmer's nerve, while despising the man. His bleating nonsense in these letters is so calculated that it's funny; made even more so by the author's keen dose of relish with each of his introductory comments. The only part of the book that is possibly more fun concerns the attorneys' back and forth with each other and with both sides' witnesses at Palmer's trial, and some of its aftermath.

The author gives some space to the very pertinent question: did Palmer got a fair trial? According to the rules of the day, I agree that he did. It was helpful, and of course interesting, to have the history of the history of the case, so to speak; that is, a rundown of other works on the topic, down through the years. Some reviewers aren't happy with the updates on the lay of the land in Rugeley, I feel that these bits help to define the place, and are inobtrusive anyway.

Not only is Poisoner a glimmering time-capsule, it also tells a complicated story with enough flourishes to capture all of the dark corners in Palmer's life while drawing these vignettes into a picture full of tawdry surprises. The narrative is linear overall, and meanders when it needs to fill us in on this or that gambling buddy, event, or victim of Palmer's.

An excellent read for followers of Victorian true-crime in particular, and of the time and place generally. Well-researched and beautifully written (by turns informative, scholarly, perceptive, and witty), this book is a thorough pleasure.

Profile Image for Cleopatra  Pullen.
1,341 reviews298 followers
September 3, 2018
Dr William Palmer who was tried for the murder of his friend in 1856 by poisoning.

Stephen Bates has compiled his book based on the 12 day trial for poisoning his gambling partner by strychnine, one of the less common poisons to use. On 13 November 1855 Palmer’s friend John Parsons Cook was on a high, he’d managed to win, when he was lucky enough to win £3,000 at Shrewsbury races, Palmer’s horse didn’t win. That night the winner fell ill and the loser tended to him. Dr William Palmer had trained as a surgeon and at best was a small town GP but he’d given up that as a way to make money long ago and now he gambled and part-owned horses to make his living.

In order to set out the facts for us I have to commend the author for the amount of research into this case using amongst other items the newspapers of the day and the archives at both Kew and Stafford, the area in which the death of John Parsons Cook occurred. What follows was even for the day, a large number of deaths including his brother and a number of children, killed for the insurance money the prosecution ascertained. But why did Palmer kill his partner? What was the motive? Well according to the victim’s father it all hinged on his betting book, Cook hadn’t yet collected his winnings before falling ill but if that was the case, Palmer’s scheme failed because he wasn’t able to get his hands on them either.

Sadly the book itself was not written in the most sparkling of prose, it often got bogged down in the particulars losing sight somewhat of the overall story. Yes, it is non-fiction, but a good author, and editor, will keep the narrative moving along. Sadly there was repetition from the early chapters in the later ones, maybe the author was worried we’d lost track by then! The book starts well enough with a description of the day of the race, the subsequent illness and the calling of the doctor for assistance but later on we skip back to the other ‘mysterious deaths’ and a (very) long chapter on the racing world only to pick over the details of the crime again when it came to court. Perhaps a judicial editor could have made the entirety feel slightly less ‘stodgy’. That said, there was an awful lot to enjoy and many parts that I found fascinating, particularly the social history that backs up this particular crime. As always the newspaper coverage was interesting as was their horror at the number of people that turned up at the courts etc… you can always rely on the media to be the most hypocritical bunch. That might also be said about our dear friend Charles Dickens who pops up with regularity in all these Victorian trials, and hangings, bemoaning the popularity of events. It is rumoured that Inspector Bucket from Bleak House was modelled on the tenacious Charles Frederick Field who investigated the insurance angle of the crime.

Facts such as that this was the first trial moved from its home county following the Central Criminal Court Act 1856 being passed by an Act of Parliament due to the belief that the accused couldn’t possibly get a fair trial in Staffordshire; the trial was held at the Old Bailey instead, were stacked high and so on balance it was worth a read for an ardent follower of poisoners through the ages such as myself.
Profile Image for Lynn.
1,416 reviews39 followers
August 16, 2017

Today's post is on The Poisoner: The Life and Crimes of Victorian England's Most Notorious Doctor by Stephen Bates. It is 352 pages long including notes and is published by Overlook Duckworth. The cover is white with a skull under the red title. The intended reader is someone who likes true crime and historical mysteries. There is very mild foul language, no sex, and no violence in this book. There Be Spoilers Ahead.

From the back of the book- In 1856, a baying crowd of over 30,000 people gathered outside Stafford prison to watch the hanging of Dr. William Palmer, "the greatest villain that ever stood in the Old Bailey” as Charles Dickens once called him.
Palmer was convicted of poisoning and suspected in the murders of dozens of others, including his best friend, his wife, and his mother-in-law—and cashing in on their insurance to fuel his worsening gambling addiction. Highlighting his gruesome penchant for strychnine, the trial made news across both the Old World and the New.
Palmer gripped readers not only in Britain—Queen Victoria wrote of ''that horrible Palmer” in her journal—but also was a different sort of murderer than the public had come to fear—respectable, middle class, personable—and consequently more terrifying. But as the gallows door dropped, one question still gnawed at many who knew the case: Was Palmer truly guilty?
The first major retelling of William Palmer’s story in over sixty years, The Poisoner takes a fresh look at the infamous doctor’s life and disputed crimes. Using previously undiscovered letters from Palmer and new forensic examination of his victims, journalist Stephen Bates presents not only an astonishing and controversial revision of Palmer’s life but takes the reader into the very psyche of a killer.

Review- A true crime book that starts very strong but just fizzes out at the end. Bates has an interesting crime with a lots of  details because of all that was written about in its time but he really does nothing to help engage the reader. In addition to that, I felt that he came into the story with an opinion about whether Palmer was guilty or not and I did not think that he was. I think that Palmer was innocent of murder. The newspapers of the time covered this story with great aplomb and that leaves us with lots of rumors and other opinions but very little facts. What facts we can are few but they come from good sources like the other doctors and the like. The book just fizzes at the end because it gets bogged down in all the rumors and the quotes. Good start but the finish is just bland.

I give this book a Two out of Five stars. I get nothing for my review and I borrowed this book from my local library.
Profile Image for Shadira.
640 reviews9 followers
February 27, 2017
Just to fend off any accusations of a spoiler, the fate of Dr William Palmer is probably just as well-known to those with an interest in the subject as that of President Kennedy or Princess Diana. Stephen Bates’ account of ‘the Prince of Poisoners’ starts off, therefore, with an account of the proceedings on 14 June 1856 when over 30,000 people gathered outside Stafford Prison to see him keep an appointment with the hangman after being found guilty of murder.
author then takes us to what looked at first as though it was going to be the best day of John Cook’s life, 13 November 1855, when he was lucky enough to win £3,000 at Shrewsbury races. Unfortunately, at the time he happened to be in the company of Palmer, his friend and much less lucky fellow racing devotee. The latter was deeply in debt, and within a week Cook was dead. He had clearly been poisoned, and suspicion fell on Palmer after evidence emerged of his mounting debts and his recent history. A little further investigation revealed that his children, wife and alcoholic brother had also died suddenly, not to mention other racing friends of his who had passed away strangely soon after placing very successful bets. What added to the case against him was that he had been in the habit of taking out life insurance on some of his victims and then cashing in the policies rather hastily.

As the extent of his apparent infamy became known, Palmer became a national celebrity, and the trial became the event of the year. Newspapers rapidly increased their circulations when they carried details of the case, Queen Victoria made reference in her journal to following the reports about ‘this horrid Dr Palmer’, ballads were composed about him, and he was commemorated in Staffordshire pottery figurines and models. These were not at all lifelike, and in some cases they were merely stock models of a male figure with Palmer’s name inserted on the base, but it made no difference as to their sales. Pottery models of his house in Rugeley were similarly in demand. A print seller, who was unable to obtain a genuine portrait of Palmer and safe in the knowledge that very few people knew what he looked like anyway, obtained an old plate bearing an image of Richard Cobden, the statesman strongly identified with the repeal of the corn laws ten years earlier. He substituted the villain’s name, and sold large numbers of the resulting ‘new’ picture at a penny a time.

How could this ordinary middle-class professional man, who looked so outwardly respectable, be such an evil cold-blooded monster? As evidence of strychnine had never been discovered in Cook’s body, probably as a result of lack of stringent or accurate analysis, was he really guilty? How circumstantial was the evidence? He never confessed to his crime, not even on the gallows – because of the processes of law, he could only be charged with one of the murders laid at his door, that of Cook - and his mother insisted that he was innocent. (She would, naturally, but her own character was hardly virtuous either). If this was the case, there had obviously been a miscarriage of justice. But if he really was guilty, he was probably a serial poisoner on the scale of the equally notorious Mary Ann Cotton just over a decade later, or Dr Harold Shipman, closer to our time.

Bates has reconstructed all different facets of the story, from Palmer’s crimes and supposed crimes, his shady insurance dealings, and the legal proceedings very painstakingly. He has also drawn a picture of the intense interest throughout Victorian England, when news was disseminated through the media much more slowly than it would have been a century later. The role of contemporary newspapers is examined with the same care as the activities of moneylenders, solicitors, lawyers and judges. His research has been thorough, examining contemporary accounts as well as parliamentary papers and modern works on true crime. Even an interview with Emma Price, a local woman who became quite a celebrity as she could remember Palmer from when she was a child and gave her impressions of him on her hundredth birthday in 1944, has been used as source material.

The result is a fascinating and atmospheric look at Victorian England, and in particular the life and death of the man who was for a while its most newsworthy and notorious
he author sifts all kinds of other circumstantial evidence—e.g., Palmer’s purchase of strychnine and his affair with and blackmail by “Jane.” Moreover, Bates considers the role of the rabid press, moneylenders, solicitors, judges and jury—with amusing illustrations.
he first major retelling of William Palmer's story in over sixty years, The Poisoner takes a fresh look at the infamous doctor's life and disputed crimes. Using previously undiscovered letters from Palmer and new forensic examination of his victims, journalist Stephen Bates presents not only an astonishing and controversial revision of Palmer's life but takes the reader into the very psyche of a killer.

A pleasantly instructive social history!!
Profile Image for Jason Speck.
77 reviews4 followers
January 6, 2018
The death of John Parsons Cook in 1855 was undeniably terrible and tragic: days after winning thousands of pounds at the races, he took ill and died in agony. The very night he became sick, he accused close friend Dr. William Palmer of poisoning him. Yet Palmer was there to the end, calling for fellow doctors to save his friend. What killed Cook? Was it the mercury he was self administering for throat pain? His rampant alcohol use? Or was it strychnine, given by a friend who desperately needed Cook's winnings to stave off disgrace?

For whatever combination of reasons, the alleged murder of Cook by Palmer absolutely captivated all of England. The subsequent trial attracted peers and Members of Parliament to the courtroom, along with a former U.S. Vice President and author Charles Dickens. Even her majesty Queen Victoria was following the case, her diary describing it as "horrid" but "most interesting." Since the book begins with Palmer's execution, we know the end, but was justice done? Or was Palmer the victim of a nation-wide hive mind mentality that demanded his guilt?

It's a story that tells itself, but you wouldn't know that from Stephen Bates' tedious and rambling "The Poisoner." Bates robs the case (and the book) of any kind of narrative drive by showing the reader every last bit of research he conducted, a classic mistake for any work of history. When that doesn't suffice, he repeats certain facts or quotes within the text two or three times, suggesting that he either doesn't think the reader is paying attention, or that he may have poisoned his editor. His repeated use of long block quotes is both distracting and frustrating; I expected to see some, but he is over-reliant on their ability to aid the story. The book jacket promise that Bates "presents an astonishing and controversial revision" is much overstated, and the promise of new forensic examination is limited to a handful of pages towards the end of the book.

Bates originally published this work in a limited edition, but was then commissioned to create the current work. One suspects he padded the initial work heavily to get it to publication. Parts of this book are quite good, and Bates has a sly sense of humor. If his editor had done their job this could have been a tight, crisp read. As it stands the reader is left wondering how such an interesting case could be so deadly, and for all the wrong reasons.

Profile Image for Bill Tyroler.
103 reviews
November 27, 2018
No real mystery here: William Palmer, the title's poisoner, murdered his good friend John Cook, and was tried, convicted and hanged. Stephen Bates wisely doesn't try to make this something it isn't, a whodunit. His writing is crisp, his descriptions of early-Victorian life vivid. And his handling of the trial is exceptionally deft. The Crown claimed that Palmer poisoned Cook with strychnine, and possibly antimony, but pathology was in its infancy and the autopsy quite botched (among other things, it was performed by two novices, one a chemist's assistant, the other a medical student); the body yielded no trace of strychnine and the experts at trial disagreed as to cause of death. Nonetheless, the circumstantial evidence against Palmer was overwhelming, and his guilt seems beyond doubt.

It is a testament to Bates's skill that he's able to build suspense and maintain the reader's interest. Some of that is because he fulfills a principal tenet of the true-crime genre, anchoring the event and characters to their time and place. "The Poisoner" is as much excellent history as it is criminal-justice procedural. This isn't to say that the story contains *no* mysteries -- people who came into close contact with Palmer tended to drop like flies: did he kill some if not all of them? Maybe, but at this remove it's impossible to say. And, just before his execution, when implored to admit guilt, Palmer enigmatically responded that Cook hadn't died from strychnine, contrary to the theory on which guilt had been tried: not exactly a ringing denial. Did Palmer poison Cook with some other substance? Bates raises the possibility of death from prussic acid -- cyanide -- but it is just that, speculation. In any event, Palmer's use of a different modality wouldn't make him less guilty.

Judith Flanders has a nicely efficient account of the crime and the sensation it caused ("The Invention of Murder," pp. 258, et seq., https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...). As she points out, "Palmer had erupted into public consciousness just as doctors were beginning to present themselves as professionals .... the idea of the rogue physician was potent." Perhaps that idea was behind the BBC's revival of the story almost 150 years after the fact, with a lavishly produced 3-hour show, "The Life and Crimes of William Palmer," https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0145044/. (It can be streamed on Amazon, https://www.amazon.com/Episode-1/dp/B....) Can't recommend the show, which ham-handedly presents Palmer as too obvious a villain. Bates's book, though, is highly recommended.
Profile Image for Joshua Altman.
Author 3 books3 followers
April 23, 2022
This book has a lot of information... a lot. I dare say, too much. I'm a True Crime fan and Victorian England is a fascinating time and place in history so seeing the two brought together that wasn't Jack the Ripper had me from the jump, though I do enjoy Jack the Ripper books, but anyone who has dug into that bit of history will know of the plethora of books dedicated to that case and how saturated that subject can be.

So, I began this book and was interested from the first few pages until I began to realize that the author started going into details that didn't seem relevant. I took it as creative license and moved on. If he wanted to let you know that one of the men in the story was wearing a bow tie or that Dr. Palmer's, the man for which this book is based, childhood home had a fireplace and where it was in said home, that was his prerogative. But it kind of gets out of hand later on. I read a good number of pages on the ins and outs of horse racing, the betting process and who owned what horses. Pages. About horse racing.

As I said, this book has a lot of information and the tidbits it had were neat and painted the scene for which these crimes, if there were even crimes as the details of the cases against Dr. Palmer are very wishy washy and circumstantial, in a way that put you in to Victorian England. The research was well done and pulling quotes and newspaper articles from the time when the case was happening really pointed out the people's opinion on the matter.

If you're looking for a True Crime book juts about the case of Dr. Palmer, maybe skip this book. If you want a book about a Victorian England with some crime driven intrigue sprinkled throughout, this book is perfect. If info dumping is not a concern of yours and you love random tidbits of information of this time period, give this book a go, but for me, there was too much piled on the pages to keep me interested in any long stretches of time.
87 reviews
October 12, 2021
The Poisoner was quite a detailed look at William Palmer and the news media's response to his crimes. It was a very interesting read and changed my view of Palmer, whom I had always thought of as a serial killer. I liked the inclusion of the line drawings and photos, it helped give a sense of what the paper would have looked like.
From Stephen Bates' account, it's very clear Palmer did poison his friend Cook and it's highly likely he helped his brother to an early grave too. I am less convinced that he killed his wife, I think she died of cholera and that coincided with the life insurance policy being brought. It seems her death and the payout planted the idea to kill for the insurance in his mind. I'm on the fence about his mother in law and babies deaths.
I thought that taking the case to professionals and asking for their modern opinion was interesting. It was nice to see what they thought, though scary that even today Cook's murder could have been missed. I disagreed with the barrister though, I think the Chief Justice behaved very badly and was biased against Palmer from the start. That said they got the right guy and no doubt saved lives.
Overall The Poisoner is a very thought-provoking and well-researched book that I recommend to any true crime fan.
Profile Image for Fraser Sherman.
Author 7 books26 followers
March 24, 2019
I'm often fascinated by how a sensational "crime of the century" fades into obscurity for later generations. Dr. William Palmer is a case in point: Prince of Poisoners, suspected serial killer, he horrified England in the 1850s for his use of strychine (at the time poison was largely untraceable and so an increasingly popular method of murder) and for being the kind of educated, outwardly pious man who was supposed to be above such things (ditto the gambling he engaged in).
Bates looks at Palmer starting with the death of his friend Cook, then following the investigation and trial (and execution) that resulted. As he sees it, Palmer was a financially desperate gambler trying a variety of insurance scams; when things got too tight, he murdered Cook, and possibly a couple of people before her, though not the dozen or dozens some historians assume.
This is interesting, but the blow-by-blow of the court trial does get draggy at times.
Profile Image for Jerianne.
77 reviews34 followers
September 12, 2017
While the subject of this book seems fascinating, the pacing and voice of it is extremely dull. It reads like a poorly written real crime documentary, just without the horrifying, yet captivating, crime scene photos and the horrible switch-the-colors-to-negative transitions. The voice also seems to lack any sense of expertise on the subject matter, for a reason I cannot put my finger on. There is no reason for me to continue reading this, as the apparent motive for the crimes committed are obvious from the very beginning, and so the book lacks the dramatic development or sinister reveal of even the most poorly written real crime documentary. The pacing is slow and the lack of drama makes it an incredibly slow read, and I found it was not worth my time to finish.
Profile Image for Sharon.
35 reviews
February 6, 2020
Found the first part of the book very enjoyable, the life styles around gambling, being a ‘gentleman’ & keeping up appearances etc. The level of financial recklessness so many seem to have in that era was interesting as was realising how shady life insurance was. Never thought I say thank goodness for all the regulators we have now! I hadn’t heard of William Palmer before and enjoyed finding out about him and his crimes. I skimmed the court section though, somehow the detail of the processes and the various barristers etc felt rather laborious to read and almost felt as though that section was a different book.
Profile Image for Mike Bevel.
74 reviews4 followers
February 7, 2018
towards the end I kept thinking, "but how is there ::more book::?"

it's too long by 100 pages and suffers from some repetitiveness: everything from the beginning of the book is essentially repeated in the section about the trial.

there's a whole chapter on horse racing that it turns out i didn't need, and then some general gambling color that i also found myself skimming with only half my attention.

this would have been better, to me, as a longer magazine article; it didn't need to be book-length.
Profile Image for Book Grocer.
1,190 reviews26 followers
September 1, 2020
Purchase The Poisoner here for just $12!

This is a fascinating story of Dr William Palmer, who was hung in front of Stafford jail in 1856 for the poisoning of a friend. If you’re interested Victorian society or just an interesting tale, this book is well worth the read. Very well researched and written.

Alicia - The Book Grocer
Profile Image for Deb Lancaster.
558 reviews1 follower
April 29, 2019
This is more of a dense social study of the time, illustrated partially by William Palmer and his shenanigans. It is not a salacious run down of his gruesome crimes, and actually doesn't really leave you with much of an idea of him as a person at all. But as a view into a particularly seedy and corrupt time it's interesting. Bogged down by weird structure, overly long sentences and the general feeling of words added for length rather than need.
Profile Image for Michelle.
1,077 reviews3 followers
February 15, 2020
Fascinating story, with the added bonus of the social/legal/etc. attitudes of Victorian England. It did drag a bit, especially at the end with the actual trial. Most all of the material had already been covered, so going through the court case step by step seemed a little redundant. But overall, I enjoyed this very much. I also enjoyed the very end, when the author asked modern forensics investigators and pathologists for their take on the case.
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