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They Hanged My Saintly Billy

Robert Graves

  They Hanged My Saintly Billy

  British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

  Graves, Robert 1895-1985 They hanged my saintly Billy. I. Title 364.1523092

  ISBN 1-85480-004-3

  Copyright © Robert Graves 1957

  First published 1957 by Cassell & Company Limited Published in hardcover 1989 by Xanadu Publications Limited 19 Cornwall Road, London N4 4PH

  First paperback edition 1990 by Xanadu Publications Limited

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the copyright owner.

  Printed and bound in Great Britain by Billing and Sons Limited, Worcester.







  The Old Bailey: May 14th, 1856



  The Wiles of Jane Widnall



  Mr Duffy's Sample Box



  Colonel Brookes's Resolution



  Stafford Infirmary



  At Bart's



  The Courtship of Annie Brookes



  The Nursery



  An Unfortunate Series of Deaths



  English Cholera



  'A Good Lira'



  A Gentleman of Property



  'Two Narrow Shaves'



  Financial Straits



  Death at The Talbot Arms



  Stepfather to the Deceased



  The Inquest on John Parsons Cook



  Stafford Gaol



  Unreliable Witnesses



  Absent Witnesses



  If Doctors Disagree



  The Verdict



  A Change in Public Opinion



  The Execution


  The illustrations are taken from ' The Times* Report of the Trial of Wm Palmer, 1856, and are reproduced by courtesy of The Times [vii]


  TODAY is the centenary of Dr Wm Palmer's public execution for the alleged poisoning of his friend John Parsons Cook; and all opponents of capital punishment should be wearing black. 'I am a murdered man, Dr Palmer told the Prison Governor after his twelve-day trial, one of the best attended, and most scandalous, ever staged at the Old Bailey; which was the truth. The medical evidence against him had broken down completely, and the circumstantial evidence conflicted, but the Lord Chief Justice and the Attorney-General were both out to secure a verdict of guilty from the handpicked jury.

  Dr Palmer was, I grant, a scoundrel and spendthrift—though hardly in the class of Edwin James, Q.C., one of the Crown Counsel who helped to hang him and got disbarred five years later for frauds amounting to over £60,000—but he was also well known for his generosity to the unfortunate, and his remarkable stoicism when things went wrong. James, then a Member of Parliament, got safely away to New York, owing £100,000, and there not only resumed his legal practice but became a successful actor at the Winter Garden Theatre. Palmer had no such luck. His wax effigy appears in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud's Exhibition, among England's most notorious poisoners: doubtless as a warning to all who dare challenge the combined might of the police, the insurance companies, and the Jockey Club.

  Mr James Hodge, editor of The Trial of Wm Palmer, in the 'Notable British Trials' series, is pleased to rank Dr Palmer among the 'mass-executioners'. To me, however, he recalls 'Hanging Johnny' in the sea-chanty:

  They say I hanged my mother,

  Away, boys, away!

  They say I hanged my brother,

  Then hang, boys, hang!

  They say I hanged my Annie,

  Away, boys, away!

  I hanged her up so canny,

  Then hang, boys, hang!

  They say I hanged my daddy,

  Away, boys, away!

  But I never hanged nobody,

  Then hang, boys, hang!

  Palmer was similarly accused of murdering fourteen people: in particular his wife Annie, the last survivor of a suicidal family. That she poisoned herself to get him out of debt by her life insurance is the only theory that covers all the facts; but his deep grief has been unkindly dismissed as hypocritical. The case did not come up for trial. My conclusion is that 'he never killed nobody'.

  My uncle, Dr Clifford Pritchard, M.D., to whom I dedicate this book in grateful acknowledgement of advice, and the loan of books, is my sole personal link with the Palmer case. He took over a medical practice at Highgate from his friend, the late Dr George Fletcher, J.P., Palmer's leading biographer, who as a boy met many of the characters in this story, including old Mrs Palmer, and once even carried John Parsons Cook's cricket-bag.

  In reconstructing Palmer's story, I have invented little, and in no case distorted hard fact. But the case is so complex that to argue it out in historical detail would have made a very bulky and quite unreadable book. I worked from the following main sources:

  ' The Times' Report of the Trial of Wm Palmer, Illustrated (Ward & Lock, London, 1856). The Queen v. Palmer: Verbatim Report of the Trial, in two parts (J. Allen, London, 1856). The Queen v. William Palmer: Official Report of the Minutes of Evidence (George Hebert, London, 1856). Illustrated Life and Career of Wm Palmer of Rugeley (Ward & Lock, London, 1856). Last Hours and Execution of William Palmer the Poisoner (Taylor & Green, London, 1856). The Cries of the Condemned: Proofs of the Unfair Trial of Wm Palmer by Thomas Wakley, Esq., Coroner, London (C. Elliot, 1856). A Letter to the Lord Chief fustice Campbell by the Rev. Thomas Palmer (mainly written, it seems, by Edward Kenealey, Palmer's junior Counsel—T. Taylor, London, 1856). In Favorem

  Vitae: A Letter to Mr Serjeant Shee on the Trial of Wm Palmer by Henry Conington (John Russell Smith, London, 1856). W. Palmer Exhumed: A Few Words on the Trial by L.B.—M.A. Cantab. (Palmer & Son, London, 1856). The Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence by Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor (John Churchill, London, 1865 edition). Sixty Years on the Turf by George Hodgman (Grant Richards, London, 1901). The Life and Career of Dr Wm Palmer of Rugeley by Dr George Fletcher (Fisher Unwin, London, 1925). The Trial of Wm Palmer edited by E. R. Watson ('Notable British Trials' Series—Wm Hodge, London, 1952).

  Unfortunately, the thirty-four 'lascivious' letters written by Dr Palmer to Jane Bergen have disappeared since 1933, when Dr Fletcher's collection of Palmeriana was dispersed at his death.

  As usual, I have to thank Kenneth Gay for his constant help with this book at every stage.

  Robert Graves

  Deya, Mallorca, Spain. June 14th, 1956

  Chapter I


  THE trial of William Palmer, aged thirty-one, surgeon and race-horse owner, began yesterday at the Old Bailey after a delay of nearly five m
onths. He had been arrested on Friday, December 15th, 1855, by the police superintendent at Rugeley, Staffordshire—a town of which he is both a native and a resident —on a charge of having, three weeks before, feloniously, wilfully, and with malice aforethought, committed murder on the person of his friend and brother-sportsman John Parsons Cook. The arrest followed upon a verdict of wilful murder returned by a coroner's court at Rugeley. Palmer was thereupon committed to Stafford Gaol, of which he has since been an inmate.

  Popular excitement rose to such a pitch, when he was further accused of several other poisonings, that in the view of the county audiorities he could not expect to meet with a fair trial at Staffordshire Assizes. An application for a trial in London having been granted, a special Act (19 Vict. cap. 16) was needed to regularize the procedure; and, this having been hurried through Parliament, the Crown resolved that the prosecution should be conducted by Attorney-General Cockburn himself, rather than by any private person.

  Yesterday, May 14th, the case was at last called at the Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey, before Lord Chief Justice Campbell, Mr Justice Crcsswell, and Mr Baron Alderson; the other Commissioners present being the Right Hon. the Lord Mayor of London, two Sheriffs, two Under-Sheriffs, and seven Aldermen—including Mr Alderman Sidney, late M.P. for Stafford, who happens also to be a native of Rugeley and, we understand, was formerly well acquainted with the prisoner's family.

  Supporting Mr Attorney-General for the Prosecution, were Mr Edwin James, Q.C., Mr Bodkin, Mr Welsby, and Mr Huddlcston.

  Mr Serjeant Shee had been appointed to conduct the Defence, with the assistance of Mr Grove, Q.C., Mr Gray, and Mr Kenealey.

  To judge by the very numerous applications for admission to the Court, which were made so soon as ever the trial was appointed, and by the vain endeavours of large crowds to force their way into the building yesterday, despite an unseasonable chilliness of the weather, the keen interest which this case excited when first called to public attention has in no degree abated. Every entrance was besieged at a very early hour, and even the fortunate holders of admission cards had to pass the scrutiny of many stern janitors before they could be accommodated in the body of the Court. Among the distinguished visitors were the Earl of Derby, Earl Grey, the Marquis of Anglesey, Lord Lucan, Lord Denbigh, Prince Edward of Saxe-Weimar, with other peers of lesser rank. The Lord Advocate of Scotland sat beside the Attorney-General during the trial.

  Punctually, at five minutes to ten o'clock, the learned Judges entered, accompanied by the Lord Mayor, the Aldermen, and the Sheriffs, and took their seats on the bench. A jury consisting largely of respectable City tradesmen was empanelled, after which the Lord Chief Justice ordered all witnesses, with the exception of medical men, out of Court.

  The prisoner, on being called upon, pleaded 'Not Guilty' in a firm voice.

  As a final earnest of the Crown's intention to give the prisoner a scrupulously fair trial, it was demanded by Mr Serjeant Shee for the Defence, and granted by Mr Attorney-General for the Prosecution, that any juryman who might be either a proprietor or shareholder in any insurance company should be asked to withdraw. Frequent allusions to insurance companies, with which the prisoner had dealings, would be made in the course of the trial: particularly to The Prince of Wales, The Solicitors' and General, and The Midland Counties.

  No juryman, however, withdrew, and the Attorney-General thereupon began his speech for the Prosecution.

  Outside the Court crowds still gathered thick, and included many Rugeley folk who had come up by train on the previous day in the full expectation of being admitted to witness the trial, and now expressed their disappointment most forcibly.

  'By what right have the Under-Sheriffs admitted those d…

  nobs to satisfy their idle curiosity? There ain't a Staffordshire man in the whole bunch, and I'll wager not a one of them so much as knows Dr Palmer by sight!'

  'Did you see Lord Lucan? Him whom the Commander-in-Chief sent home from the Crimea? Perhaps his admission card should be regarded as a consolation prize for his military failures.'

  ' Some pretty murders were done in the Crimea by these selfsame nobs, but it's hardly likely that they'll ever be brought to justice. Murder by neglect is more difficult to prove than murder by strychnine or prussic acid; and if charged, they would plead to be tried by their peers.'

  Dr William Palmer

  'A right denied, however, to house-breakers, pick-pockets and other criminals in a small way.' 'A very shrewd hit, Sir!' 'I am obliged for your agreement, Sir.' 'Did you know Dr Palmer?'

  'Did I, indeed? I'm a near neighbour of his. James is my name: a bookseller of Rugeley. And you, Sir?'

  'I'm from Uttoxeter—a betting man, as you'll have gathered from the cut of my jib. I wonder whether your impressions of Dr Palmer tally with mine? I cannot claim to have known him well, but I should say that he's a good-principled man. Of course, he couldn't pay when he didn't have the money, and he had the ill-luck to be barred from the Ring at Tattersall's, because of a failure in that respect. But, my dear Sir, he was a devil when it came to "punting", as we call speculation on the Turf. And he knew as much about making a book as yourself—if I may be so bold! For though book-makers and book-sellers come close to each other in a dictionary, so also do card-makers and card-sharpers, ha, ha! and are equally ignorant of the others' trade. They talk of his cleverness; I wouldn't call him clever. Why, I've heard my fellow-Turfites wonder how he ever managed to win a penny . . . But what is your experience of him?'

  'Well, Sir, I should agree that he's not a clever man. I should also add that neither is he a deep man. But he's a very cool man. Though speculative, as you say, he never seemed to be either elated or depressed by the results of his speculation, as so many gentlemen of your profession unfortunately become at times. And from the cut of his jib, as you put it, nobody would ever guess him to be anything but a country surgeon

  'He doesn't drink, I understand?'

  'He drinks but little, and was only once seen the worse for liquor... At The Talbot Arms Hotel in Rugeley he would sit still and bite his nails, listening to the conversation of others; a habit which must have been of considerable profit to him, because "in wine is truth"; and I have seen betting men come reeling out of The Talbot, one after the other, when he was paying the score. In short, he's a perfectly sober, cool man; kind and generous to all around. And here with me, Sir, is our Rugeley sexton to confirm what I have said.'

  The old sexton removed his cloth cap in greeting, and sang out eagerly: 'Yes, Sir, I've known Dr Palmer, man and boy, these thirty years. He's the very last person in the town as I should have suspected of such an ungodly thing. He's a religious gentleman, and many's the time, when I've had a sup of ale too much, he's chastized me for it. He'd say: "Do keep yourself respectable, Jemmy, and don't go to them public inns. If you wants a drink of ale, come by my house." And there's Bill Hawton, used to be clerk of the sawmill, which was Mr Palmer Senior's business. Bill Hawton fell ill last year and couldn't come to The Yard for a long time. Well, Sir, the only member of the numerous Palmer family who sent him joints of meat and coal, and other things he might need, was the Doctor; and he lent him money into the bargain. He called it "lending", Sir, but bless you! that was but his way of giving without causing poor Bill to regard it as a charity. Above ten pound, he gave Bill Hawton in money, apart from the value of the goods. And anyone at Rugeley will tell you that the Doctor was affectionate to his family, to his widowed mother in particular, though 'tis said that he had good cause to be ashamed of her giddy ways. And many's the labouring man will regret what's happening here today! For even if they acquit Dr Palmer of the charge—and, for myself, I'm prepared to swear him innocent—he's ruined, and suspicion will always attach to him.'

  The bookseller smacked the sexton on the back. ' I like a man who speaks up for a friend in trouble. And, if you ask me, the special Act of Parliament, which was passed to let the Judges try him here, conveys a hundred times more prejudice than it
removes. Dr Palmer may have enemies in Staffordshire, but he also has many friends—and the friends outnumber the enemies. If he had been committed to the county assizes, the trial would have been conducted in a perfectly quiet and Christian atmosphere. You have only to ask the servants at the various hotels he frequented, within thirty miles in all directions of Rugeley: they will invariably speak of him as "a nice, pleasant, decent sort of man"—unless the Police have got at them, like some I know. And it's the talk of good people of that sort that moulds public opinion far more than the newspapers, such as The Illustrated Times, which have already poisoned London against Dr Palmer.'

  Inside, the Attorney-General had opened his speech for the Prosecution. He set forth the complicated nature of the facts on which the Crown's case rested, and begged the jurors to lend their patient attention to them, while discarding from their minds all prejudiced opinions which they had acquired either from hearsay or reading. This might be difficult in a case already so widely discussed throughout the country, but he begged them to make the effort.

  'Gentlemen,' he then proceeded,' William Palmer, the prisoner at the bar, is by profession a surgeon. He practised as such at Rugeley in Staffordshire for some years, until he became addicted to Turf pursuits, and was gradually weaned away from his profession. During the last two or three years, I am informed, he had made over his practice to his assistant, by name Benjamin Thirlby, who was then and is now, a chemist and druggist of Rugeley. He kept only one or two patients . . .'