Strychnine was the poison of choice for William Palmer whom Dickens called ‘the greatest villain that ever stood in the Old Bailey Dock.’
The case of William Palmer was the first in which the accusation was poisoning by strychnine. In 1856, Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor gave evidence at the inquest on the death of John Parsons Cook. Palmer, a doctor, was believed to have murdered Cook as well as fourteen or fifteen other victims, including five of his own children, his brother, his mother-in-law – and his wife. For the insurance money.
Professor Taylor had not found strychnine in Cook’s organs, but the symptoms were there. Cook had died of tetanus and strychnine causes tetanic contraction of the muscles. Damning for Palmer was the fact that in his own book on toxology there was found a marginal note in his own hand which read ‘Strychnine kills by causing tetanic fixing of the respiratory muscles.’
Palmer seems to have been rather careless about leaving clues. A witness gave evidence that he had purchased six grains of strychnine. Palmer had said that he wanted to kill a dog. It must have been a very large dog – half a grain can lead to death. In any case, Palmer didn’t have a dog. I suppose it might have been dead already. The witness also testified that Palmer had bought two drachms of prussic acid and two drachms of Batley’s Solution of Opium – just in case the strychnine didn’t work, I suppose.
Batley’s Solution of Opium was a widely used sedative – perhaps William Palmer had trouble sleeping with all those murders on his conscience. Such preparations were widely available, and there are some wonderfully named concoctions to be bought over the counter, especially for fractious children: Godfrey’s Cordial, Dalby’s Carminative, Paregoric Elixir – you see how the names disguise the deadly presence of opium, though the grimly named Kendal Black Drop ought to have been a warning in itself. Professor Taylor describes a case from 1837 in which twelve children were reported to have been killed by this mixture.
During his trial Palmer was noted for his complete self-possession on which Dickens commented, remarking that such deportment was always ‘to be counted on in the case of a very wicked murderer. The blacker the guilt, the stronger the probability of its being carried off.’
Palmer wasn’t a good enough actor. He was found guilty and hanged on June 14th, 1856.