The Poisoner

Written by Stephen Bates

Review written by Maureen Carlyle


The Poisoner
Overlook Duckworth
RRP: £16.99
Released: June 19th, 2014
Pbk

I am not sure what the actual purpose of this book is.  It might be useful as a textbook for crime writers interested in Victorian poisoners; it is certainly not entertainment.

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.

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 a rudimentary 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 lengthy trial ended with the doctor's conviction and public hanging in his home town of Rugeley, before a capacity crowd.

Stephen Bates describes all these events in minute detail, including interminably turgid 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.  Alas, I found the account incredibly depressing and boring.

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