The Poisoner, the Life and Crimes of Victorian England’s Most Notorious Doctor by Stephen Bates
In 1856, a baying crowd of over 30,000 people gathered outside Stafford prison to watch the execution of a village doctor from Staffordshire. One of the last people to be publicly hanged, the ‘Rugeley Poisoner’, the ‘Prince of Poisoners’, ‘The greatest villain who ever stood trial at the Old Bailey,’ as Charles Dickens described him, Dr William Palmer was convicted in 1856 of murdering his best friend, but was suspected of poisoning more than a dozen other people, including his wife, children, brother and mother-in-law – cashing in on their life insurance to fund his monstrously indebted horse racing betting and gambling habit.
Highlighting Palmer’s particularly gruesome penchant for strychnine, his trial made news across the world, including the USA and Australia. It was the most memorable in fifty years, according to the Old Bailey’s presiding Lord Chief Justice. Palmer was a new kind of murderer – respectable, middle class, personable, and consequently more terrifying – and he became Victorian Britain’s most infamous figure until the arrival of Jack the Ripper. Even Queen Victoria avidly followed the trial as her journal shows.
The first thoroughly documented account of one of the most notorious, but now largely-forgotten, modern serial killers and prolific medical murderers in British history, The Poisoner takes a fresh look at Palmer’s life and disputed crimes, ultimately asking ‘just how evil was this man?’
With original research, including previously undiscovered letters from Palmer to his mistress and his moneylenders, confidential legal documents from the case, and new forensic examination of his victims, Stephen Bates presents not only an astonishing and controversial revision of Palmer’s entire story, but takes the reader into the very psyche of a killer.
The Poisoner is more than a true crime story and a biography; it is a great Gothic Victorian melodrama.
Stephen Bates is a journalist whose career includes the BBC, Daily Telegraph, and Daily Mail. He worked at the Guardian for 22 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. He is the author of God’s Own Country: Religion and Politics in the USA and A Church at War: Anglicans and Homosexuality.
The publicity for this true crime story centred on securing coverage in the national and local media. Highlights include radio interviews on BBC Radio Stoke and Monocle FM, reviews in places as diverse as the Mail on Sunday, Literary Review, The Times Literary Supplement, New Scientist, BBC History Magazine, History Revealed, NewBooks, The Catholic Herald, The Cannock Chronicle, and features in Chat and Real People magazines, We Love This Book and the East Kent Mercury.
In her review for BBC History Magazine, Lucy Worsley wrote : ‘this rollercoaster read really stands out … As Bates prowls the streets of modern-day Rugeley in search of colour, he empathises with those who made Palmer’s into a trial by media … the book is fabulously readable, belting along and with genial asides.’
Stephen Bates presented The Poisoner at the Off The Shelf literature festival in October 2014. He will take part in a panel discussion on Victorian crime at the Oundle Literature Festival on 24 April 2015.