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

3.22  ·  Rating details ·  197 ratings  ·  52 reviews
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 o
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published May 15th 2014 by Harry N. Abrams
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Average rating 3.22  · 
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May 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
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
Oct 16, 2014 rated it liked it
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.
Mar 07, 2015 rated it liked it
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.
Dec 25, 2020 rated it it was ok
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.
Katherine Addison
"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
Alger Smythe-Hopkins
Jun 28, 2014 rated it did not like it
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 a
Emily Graves
Jul 24, 2014 rated it did not like it
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 a ...more
DeAnna Knippling
Jul 30, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
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 c
Emma C
Jun 11, 2020 rated it liked it
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.
Bill Peschel
Jul 07, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Jill Hutchinson
Dec 11, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: biography
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 a ...more
Jan 22, 2015 rated it liked it
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. T ...more
Polly Clarke
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. ...more
David Carniglia
Aug 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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
Cleopatra  Pullen
Sep 02, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: own, mount-tbr-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

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 gathere
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
Jason Speck
Jan 05, 2018 rated it it was ok
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 C ...more
Bill Tyroler
Nov 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: crime
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 ...more
Fraser Sherman
Mar 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, law
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
Sep 12, 2017 rated it it was ok
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 obvio ...more
Sharon Jones
Feb 06, 2020 rated it liked it
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 ...more
Mike Bevel
Feb 06, 2018 rated it liked it
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
The Book Grocer
Aug 31, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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
Deb Lancaster
Mar 06, 2019 rated it it was ok
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. ...more
Feb 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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.
Parts of this are very well written, and for those parts I would give a higher rating, but the second half gets tangled up in too much detail, with long extracts taken from court speeches. Every possible aspect of the event is covered, sometimes twice. For an enthusiast of the Palmer case, this book is for you, but for a more general reader it is too drawn out.
Kerri Simpson
Jun 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Not notoriously known but still a good read. It covers alot of detail over the horrible crimes. I love to read about that. I enjoyed this book alot well worth a read for me anyways.
Apr 13, 2019 rated it it was ok
Literally falling asleep reading this! The telling of the murder was good but the court case was too heavy with unnecessary information and lots of name dropping.
Apr 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
A fairly standard historical true crime book.
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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 fir

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