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The Life and Trial of Palmer (1856)

Murder Ballads
Secret London

Boozy, gambling doctor poisons family and friends to clear his debts. Hanged at Stafford Gaol, but survives as footnote in the Sherlock Holmes stories.

The Broadside
The British Library has two Palmer broadsides telling his story in verse, and David Lewis' book The Rugeley Poisoner finds five more. His case was a particularly notorious one, and his hanging attracted 35,000 spectators, so the number of ballads about him is no surprise. This one's my favourite.

The Ballad
Listen unto William Palmer,
Anguish makes me sore bewail,
Guilty they at last have found me,
Sent me back to Stafford jail,
Everyone appears against me,
Every person shows me hate,
What excitement is impending,
At poor William Palmer's fate.

My trial causes great excitement,
In town and country everywhere,
Now guilty found is William Palmer,
Of Rugeley town in Staffordshire.

Many years I was a sportsman,
Many wondrous deeds I've done,
Many races I've attended,
Many thousands lost and won,
They say I killed my wife's mother,
Took away her precious life,
Slew poor Cook and my own brother,
Poisoned my own lawful wife.

Everything looks black against me,
That I freely do confess,
Each new thought that comes now to me,
Causes me pain and distress,
Quick the jury did convict me,
Proved I did commit the deed,
Sentence passed on William Palmer,
Sent me back to jail with speed.

Back at home I was respected,
A gentleman, I lived at ease,
Noblemen with me connected,
Sporting men of all degrees,
As a doctor no-one knew me,
To do anything amiss,
Now they all strive to undo me,
Never thought I'd come to this.

My poor mother back in Rugeley,
Her son's end must now bewail,
Knows her boy must die with scorn,
A felon's death in Stafford jail,
Every charge alleged against me,
I have strongly it denied,
Twelve long days my trial lasted,
Now I am condemned to die.

Dreadful is my situation,
Here before the trap I stand,
Might have filled a noble station,
Might have been a happy man,
Children yet unborn will mention,
When to manhood they appear,
The name of Dr William Palmer,
Of Rugeley Town in Staffordshire.

No-one cares a jot for Palmer,
Though each charge I strong denied,
No-one doubts that I am guilty,
By a jury I've been tried,
My fate now must make me tremble,
Borne down with much grief and care,
Here's the end of William Palmer,
Of Rugeley Town in Staffordshire.

The Facts
William Palmer was a doctor in the Staffordshire town of Rugeley, where he spent most of his time gambling, boozing and running up debts. By the time he was 20, he'd already been forced to leave two jobs after stealing money from his employers, and secured a reputation for impregnating local girls and then deserting them.

Palmer was deep in debt, facing fraud charges and being blackmailed by an old girlfriend

He studied to become a doctor at Staffordshire Infirmary and St Bart's in London, then returned home to set up his own practice. Increasingly, he left this to be run by Benjamin Thirlby, his assistant, while Palmer bet on his own horses at Shrewsbury Races. By 1855 - the year of John Cook's death - Palmer was deep in debt to various loan sharks, being blackmailed by an old girlfriend he'd pressed into having an abortion, and facing the possibility of fraud charges over forging his mother's signature to get himself yet another loan. "His answer was to continue desperately gambling in the hope of winning enough money to pay back what he owed," says Lewis.
On November 13, 1855, Palmer went to Shrewsbury Races with Samuel Cheshire, Rugeley's postmaster, and another friend called John Parsons Cook. Cook had been articled to a Watling solicitor until he inherited 12,000 (worth about 1m today) and embarked on a career of riotous living. He was a pale, sickly fellow, whose new habits damaged his health even further, and there were rumours that Palmer treated him for syphilis.
At the races that day, Cook won 3,000 when his horse Polestar won the Shrewsbury Handicap. Palmer returned to Rugeley, but Cook stayed on in Shrewsbury, where he hosted a celebration dinner at the Raven Inn.
Next morning in Rugeley, Palmer received a letter from a money-lender demanding payment, and travelled back to Shrewsbury again, where he dined that evening with Cook's party at the Raven Inn. Part way through the evening, he stepped back into the housemaid's pantry, where another race fan called Ann Brookes saw him pour liquid from a small bottle into a tumbler, shake it and hold it up to the light. He seemed quite unperturbed at being seen doing this, and calmly told Brookes he'd be back at the table in a moment.
A few minutes later, a tray of brandies was brought in. "When Cook drank his brandy, he jumped up and complained that it burnt his throat," says Lewis. "At this, Palmer took the tumbler and drank from it, then handed the glass to (George) Read saying 'Taste it, there's nothing in it. Cook says it's drugged.' Read replied: 'What's the good of giving it to me when you have drunk the very dregs?'"
Cook retired to bed, and was well enough to eat a little breakfast next morning. Palmer lost heavily at that day's races, and then returned to Rugeley with Cook, who booked himself a room at the Talbot Arms. Palmer visited him there almost every day of the following week, dining with him, ordering coffee for him, and providing some broth which made chambermaid Elizabeth Mills sick when she tasted it.
Cook was still alive on Monday, November 19, when Palmer took his - Cook's - betting books to London, where he managed to obtain most of the other man's winnings. Returning to Rugeley, he found Cook slightly recovered and - according to testimony from an assistant in Rugeley's pharmacy - bought three grains of strychnine there.
Palmer called on Cook at about 11:00 next morning, giving him two tablets which he said were morphine. Cook awoke awoke a little after midnight, calling out for Palmer, and Palmer gave him two more tablets, this time saying they were ammonia pills. "A terrible scene now ensued," The Illustrated Times reports. "Wildly shrieking, the patient tossed about in fearful convulsions; his limbs were so rigid, it was impossible to raise him, though he entreated that they should do so, as he felt that he was suffocating. Every muscle was convulsed; his body bent upward like a bow; they turned him over on his left side; the action of the heart gradually ceased; and he was dead."
Cook died in agony at about 1:00am on the morning of Wednesday, November 21. On the Friday, his stepfather William Stevens arrived in Rugeley and was annoyed to discover Palmer had already ordered a coffin. When he asked to see Cook's papers, the betting books could not be found, and Palmer waved off queries about them with airy unconcern.
Stevens was becoming suspicious by now, and wrote to Stafford's coroner demanding an inquest. He found a consulting physician called Hartland to conduct the post-mortem, appointed a solicitor to investigate Cook's finances and arranged for Dr Alfred Taylor of Guy's Hospital to examine specimens from the autopsy. He also had several meetings with Mills, the chambermaid, leading to later charges that he'd coached her what to say if the case came to court.

Songs menu: A feast of facts and all the lyrics

The menu below lists a few of my favourite ballads from the British Library's collection and elsewhere. Click on any title to find the full lyrics and my account of the case that inspired them. And, if you haven't already read it, do take a look at my background essay describing the London industry which produced these songs.

Part One (April 2010)

Mary Arnold, The Female Monster

The Execution of Nathaniel Mobbs

Mrs Dyer, The Old Baby-Farmer

The Gallows Child

Part Two (June 2010)

The Life and Trial of Palmer

The Silent Grove

The Liverpool Lodger

The Unnatural Murder

Part Three (Oct 2010)

Murder at Westmill

Streams of Crimson Blood

The Murdered Maid

Cruel Lizzie Vickers

Part Four (Feb 2011)

Jones and Harwood

The Sister and the Serpent

Jealous Annie

The Foreigner's Downfall

Bonus songs

The Tyburn Jig

Corkery's Farewell

The Gallows Ballads Project: Musicians wanted
If you'd like to help PlanetSlade bring these gallows ballads back to life as fully-performed songs, why not set one of the 16 ballads' public domain lyrics to your own music and record yourself singing and playing it?
   Any music you write would remain your own property, of course, as would the recording itself, and I'll make sure that all writers and performers are fully credited.
   There's no money in this for anyone - least of all me - but I think it's a worthwhile project nonetheless. There are several ways to get your song heard:

1) Send a digital recording to me, and I'll post it online with the other free downloads listed in PlanetSlade Music, together with a link from your chosen song's page here.

2) Post the recording online at your own site or the hosting service of your choice. Let me know where it can be found, and I'll add a link telling people where to go. Please remember that some hosting sites allow access to members only.

3) Film yourself performing the song, and post the video to YouTube. Once again, I'd be delighted to add a link here telling people where to find it.

4) Write your own song from scratch, based on the true story that inspired one of the ballads, then follow whichever of the above options suits you.

   Check PlanetSlade Music for a taste of what I have in mind. I spent all of 2012 recruiting contributors for this little project, and I've now accumulated at least one new recording of each of the 16 original ballads I selected. You can find links to all this audio on the PlanetSlade page above, or hear the whole "album" in the Soundcloud set here.
   The styles people have chosen range all the way from unaccompanied traditional folk singing via acoustic guitar ballads to full-on rock workouts with a whole band.
   Contributors so far include Sean Breadin of Rapunzel & Sedayne, The Jetsonics, Pete Morton, Fred Smith, Tim Radford, Big Al Whittle and South County.
   Three continents are represented in all, and at least one of the songs has already made it into the contributing band's live set. None of the tracks have achieved a commercial release yet, but I dare say a couple will make that leap eventually.
   We've already got multiple versions of several songs up there, including Nathaniel Mobbs and The Murdered Maid, so please don't feel you're too late to make your own contribution.
   I'm all for people adding second, third or even fourth interpretations of a single song, using as many different musical genres as we can muster. Many, many thanks to all those who've already taken part.
   You can reach me with any questions here