Pinning it on the poison

The murderous antics of one of the 19th century's most infamous killers are the subject of a new book entitled Poison, detection, and the Victorian imagination.

Dr William Palmer's arrest, trial, conviction and subsequent execution, attracted massive media attention, not least because of Victorian England's growing fear of a new form of homicide criminal poisoning 'by science'.

Anonymous and coldly calculating, poisoners were drawing on the advances made by modern science to inflict an insidious form of violence against their victims.

To counter this threat, Victorian society looked to the emergent field of toxicology to enable poisoned bodies to tell their tales from beyond the grave by bringing invisible deeds to light by recourse to the test tube.

Yet poison detection in practice was no easy matter and its findings were subjected to searching questions by an anxious, and often sceptical, public. At no time did these new scientific methods come under closer scrutiny than during the trial of William Palmer.

Born in Rugeley, Staffordshire, in 1824, Palmer was a doctor with a reputation as a ladies man whose unhealthy addiction to gambling and the horses resulted in serious debt problems.

He first came to notoriety while working at Stafford infirmary when, during a drinking game, he was accused of poisoning an acquaintance. Although nothing was ever proven, the hospital tightened up its controls on the dispensing of medicines as a result.

Palmer returned to his home town where he was to meet his future wife, Ann Brookes. The couple married in 1847 and had their first child the following year. But their happiness would be short lived as all four of their subsequent children would die in infancy.

Several other people connected to Palmer also died in his presence, including his step-mother and at least two other associates, both of whom he owed money.

In 1854, after Palmer had taken ou

Contact: Aeron Haworth
University of Manchester

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