Home » OL Weekly

Book Review: The Poisoner

By (June 7, 2014) No Comment

The Poisoner:the poisoner cover
The Life and Crimes of Victorian England’s Most Notorious Doctor
by Stephen Bates
Overlook Duckworth, 2014

During the tense courtroom climax of his novel Phineas Redux, Anthony Trollope indulges in a bit of po-faced humor by revealing that his archetypal Victorian barrister, the disheveled and irascible Mr. Chaffanbras, doesn’t actually much believe in the British trial system or the presumption of innocence. In a hilarious scene of private confession (not for the ears of his forlorn client, of course), he talks about the charade of his trade: “A man will go on swearing by his God that he is innocent till at last, in a moment of emotion, he breaks down, and out comes the truth,” he says. “In such a case as this I do not in the least want to know the truth about the murder.”

“That is what the public wants to know,” he’s reminded, which provokes a little speech that Trollope clearly intended to prod the moral complacency of his readers:

“Because the public is ignorant. The public should not wish to know anything of the kind. What we should all wish to get at is the truth of the evidence about the murder. The man is to be hung not because he committed the murder – as to which no positive knowledge is attainable; but because he has been proved to have committed the murder – as to which proof, though it be enough for hanging, there must always be attached some shadow of doubt. We were delighted to hang Palmer – but we don’t know that he killed Cook. A learned man who knew more about it than we can know seemed to think that he didn’t.”

The “Palmer” mentioned is Dr. William Palmer, perhaps the most notorious criminal of his age (although ‘most sensational’ must always go to the next generation’s Victorian devil, Jack the Ripper), who was found guilty at the Old Bailey of poisoning John Parsons Cook on the strength of the circumstantial evidence Mr. Chaffanbras holds in such suspicion and hanged in June of 1856 before a large crowd that an uncharitable observer might describe as bloodthirsty. In the course of the trial, that same circumstantial evidence had also connected Palmer with the deaths of his wife, his mother-in-law, his brother, a business associate, and several of his children, and the prosecution made much of the fact that Palmer – always deeply in debt due to his gambling addiction – received financial windfalls from several of these deaths.

The “learned man” Mr. Chaffanbras mentions would have had plenty of company in 1856. Palmer himself maintained his innocence right to the bitter end, and there have always been court-watchers ready to declare that despite the circumstantial evidence, he was either luckless or framed. Stephen Bates’s new book The Poisoner: The Life and Crimes of Victorian England’s Most Notorious Doctor, merrily and meticulously recounts the story for a new generation of true-crime readers, but despite accessing a tranche of previously unused documents, he changes no conclusions and breaks no real new ground. He could scarcely do so: Trollope’s barrister might be right that we can’t know as certainly that Palmer is guilty as if we’d seen him poison his victims ourselves, but even so, we can be as sure of his guilt as we can of practically anything.

Bates leads us through Palmer’s life and financial troubles, dramatically re-animates the trial records, and paints a vivid picture of what we’d now call the ‘media circus’ surrounding it, culminating in the long, angry summing-up done by Lord Chief Justice John Campbell:

As Campbell ground remorselessly on, Palmer could be seen burying his head in his hands. On raising his face, said the Manchester Guardian, “the suppressed emotion with which he had been struggling was painfully visible.” Presumably that meant he was crying. He must have realised now, more than ever before, that he was damned.

He was indeed damned. The jury convicted him, and he was sentenced to be hanged. The dozens of stories that sprang up around Palmer at the time of his death had enormous currency in his own day and for a generation afterward, and although those stories have now faded, Bates faithfully recounts them for a reading audience that’s entirely forgotten the story of the deadly doctor:

A number of stories were told of Palmer’s alleged insouciance during these last few minutes, ow he had been offered a glass of champagne – and had blown the bubbles off the top, saying “They always give me indigestion next morning if I drink in a hurry”; how, as they crossed the courtyard, he had side-stepped a puddle, saying he did not want to catch a cold by getting his feet wet; then, most famous of all, when he stepped onto the trap-door of the scaffold, he had asked, “Are you sure this damn thing is safe?” All were probably apocryphal or at least such bon mots were not reported at the time.

The Poisoner pulls together the whole story and after-story of Dr. Palmer and his crimes; that story will be new to most of Bates’s readers, and they won’t find it told any better than here.