“I am innocent of poisoning Cook by strychnine.” With these words, Dr. William Palmer went to the scaffold, convicted of having perpetrated precisely the crime he denied to the last. Palmer's twelveday trial in May 1856, among the most celebrated English murder cases of the century, had received massive press attention, and his execution was no less scrutinized. Scaffold speeches being traditional opportunities for achieving closure on a case (preferably, though not exclusively, by confession and repentance), press reports devoted a good deal of space to the concerted efforts made to convince Palmer to comply with these expectations: “From the time of his sentence to the very moment when he ascended the scaffold,” one correspondent observed, “Palmer was persuaded, entreated, implored day by day, almost hour by hour, to confess his crimes, not to God, but to man.”
Interrogated to the last, Palmer offered instead of closure a riddle, neither directly denying his guilt nor ratifying the grounds upon which his conviction rested. In doing so he seemed to take aim at the most contentious part of the trial, namely, the scientific evidence that had attributed the death of John Parsons Cook to strychnine poisoning. By disavowing strychnine as the agent of Cook's death, he at once repudiated the prosecution's fundamental contention and left open the possibility that, although he had been justly condemned as a murderer, his conviction was based on fallacious medico-legal grounds.
Palmer's dying words became the subject of widespread concern.
1 “The Trial and Execution of William Palmer,” Journal of Mental Science 2 (1856): 513. Though not Palmer's last reported words, this was the statement that most press reports represented as his final declaration. Within twelve months of its conclusion, Palmer's trial and execution had been made the subject of over twenty published tracts, and soon thereafter became a common referent not only in medico-legal treatises but also in standard legal works such as the fourth edition of Wills's, WilliamEssay on the Principles of Circumstantial Evidence (London, 1862), and Stephen's, James FitzjamesHistory of the Criminal Law in England (London, 1883). Michael Harris provides an excellent account of the Palmer coverage in “Social Diseases? Crime and Medicine in the Victorian Press,” in Medical Journals and Medical Knowledge, ed. Bynum, W. F., Lock, Stephen, and Porter, Roy (London and New York, 1992), pp. 108–25. For perspectives on the genre of scaffold speeches, see Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Sheridan, Alan (New York, 1979), esp. pp. 65–69; and Gatrell, V. A. C., The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770–1868 (Oxford, 1994), esp. pp. 29–40.
2 Nor did the interrogation stop there: a phrenological examination, reported in the Leader, found that “the worst part of his conformation was his head. The animal organs were excessively large …. It was physically impossible for him to have been a good man” (“The Execution of William Palmer,” Leader 7 [21 June 1856]: 583).
3 “Palmer's End,” Examiner (21 June 1856): 386.
4 “The Trial and Execution of William Palmer,” Journal of Mental Science 2 (1856): 514.
5 “The Last Moments of Palmer,” Association Medical Journal, n.s., 4 (21 June 1856): 522–23.
6 It is worth noting that “expertise” enters the English language as a neologism around midcentury, indicative of an historical specificity distinct from previous configurations of authoritative knowledge. See MacLeod's, Roy introduction to his edited collection, Government and Expertise: Specialists, Administrators, and Professionals, 1860–1919 (Cambridge and New York, 1988).
7 Examples include Altick, Richard D., Victorian Studies in Scarlet (New York, 1970); and Boyle, Thomas, Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead: Beneath the Surface of Victorian Sensationalism (New York, 1989). Hamlin, Christopher, “Scientific Method and Expert Witnessing,” Social Studies of Science 76 (1986): 485–513, and Harris, “Social Diseases,” are exceptions in emphasizing a number of important questions regarding the generation and circulation of expertise.
8 McLaren, Angus, A Prescription for Murder: The Victorian Serial Killings of Dr. Thomas Neill Cream (Chicago and London, 1993); Walkowitz, Judith R., City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late Victorian London (Chicago, 1992).
9 McLaren, , A Prescription for Murder, p. 62.
10 In his embrace of the cultural emblematics of the Cream case, for instance, McLaren treats the toxicological evidence as a virtual given. See, e.g., his account of Thomas Stevenson's toxicological analysis and the list of outstanding questions he considers to be left open in its wake. McLaren, , A Prescription for Murder, p. 31.
11 Ibid., p. xi.
12 Taylor, Alfred Swaine, On Poisons in Relation to Medical Jurisprudence and Medicine (London, 1848).
13 Walkowitz, , City of Dreadful Delight, pp. 201–2.
14 Ibid., p. 201. McLaren begins and ends his study of Cream by explicit contrast to the unresolved status of the Ripper case (A Prescription for Murder, pp. xii, 143).
15 See accounts of the Anne Palmer inquest in the Association Medical Journal, n.s., 4 (19 January 1856): 57–60, and the Medical Times and Gazette 19 (19 January 1856): 63–66.
16 For a contemporary synopsis of Palmer's complex finances, see The Times editorial for 22 May 1856, p. 8. A file at the Public Record Office (HO45/6260) contains revealing documentation of Palmer's negotiations with various insurance companies.
17 See the account of the Cook inquest in “Alleged Case of Poisoning by Strychnine,” Lancet 2 (22 December 1855): 617–20, and the commentary in The Times (24 December 1855): 6.
18 See, e.g., the testimony of Dr. Harland at Palmer's trial as reported in “The Rugeley Poisoning Case,” Medical Times and Gazette 19 (31 May 1856): 540.
19 For an account of Taylor's career that includes a critical discussion of the Palmer case, see Coley, Noel G., “Alfred Swaine Taylor, MD, FRS (1806–1880): Forensic Toxicologist,” Medical History 35 (1991): 409–27.
20 In the trial, the presence of antimony was attributed to several nefarious designs: to weaken Cook so that he could not personally collect the remainder of his winnings; to simulate a slow decline by natural disease; and—more ingeniously still—to enhance the body's capacity to absorb strychnine, thus allowing for the minutest amount to prove fatal.
21 “Alleged Case of Poisoning by Strychnine,” Lancet 2 (22 December 1855): 619.
23 “Mysterious Deaths at Rugeley:—Committal of a Surgeon for Murder,” Association Medical Journal, n.s., 3 (21 December 1855): 1143.
24 The Times (25 January 1856): 7.
25 “Poisoning in England,” Saturday Review 2 (22 December 1855): 134–35. The Leader's “Poisoner in the House” presented the threat as at once real, pervasive, and alarmingly present: “If you feel a deadly sensation within, and grow gradually weaker,” it began, “how do you know that you are not poisoned? If your hands tingle, do you not fancy that it is arsenic? How can you be sure that it is not?” (Leader 6 [15 December 1855]: 1200).
26 “The Crime of the Age,” Illustrated Times 2 (2 February 1856): 1.
27 Most vigorous of the main metropolitan medical journals was the London Medical Gazette, under Taylor's editorship from 1845 to 1851. See, e.g., its series “On the Increase of Secret Poisoning,” in January and February 1847. Coroners' discussions of the problem can be found in the Coroners' Society Annual Reports for the years 1847, 1848, and 1851.
28 Taylor, , On Poisons (1848), preface.
29 For a discussion of the history of legislative regulation of poison, see Bartrip, Peter, “A ‘Pennurth of Arsenic for Rat Poison’: The Arsenic Act, 1851 and the Prevention of Secret Poisoning,” Medical History 36 (1992): 53–56.
30 British Parliamentary Papers (BPP), vol. 16 (1839), app. P, p. 75.
31 Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, 3d ser., 87 (June 1846): 375, comments of Sir James Graham. The specter of secret poisoning was in fact a central trope in the early efforts by Farr and others to improve the system of death registration, especially with respect to the role played by coroners. For this debate, see my forthcoming Bodies of Evidence: Medicine, Public Inquiry, and the Politics of the English Inquest, 1830–1926 (Baltimore, 1999). For a gender-centered analysis of these outbreaks, see Robb's, George “Circe in Crinoline: Domestic Poisonings in Victorian England,” Journal of Family History 22, no. 2 (April 1997): 176–90.
32 The Times (25 September 1847): 4; (22 September 1848): 4. Historians have been more cautious in assessing the statistical evidence for this “epidemic.” Bartrip suggests that contemporary statistics are significant not so much as proof of a real epidemic but an indication of “how the incidence of poisoning was being represented to contemporary society” (“A Pennurth of Arsenic,” p. 57). In this he joins historians such as Harris (“Social Diseases,” p. 119), and Crowther, Anne and White, Brenda (On Soul and Conscience: The Medical Expert and Crime [Aberdeen, 1988], p. 19) in attributing the prominence given secret poisoning at midcentury to its peculiar symbolic resonance. This view gains further credence from a critical evaluation of criminal statistics published at the time, which were neither presented in readily accessible form nor conclusive when assembled. Taking the readily available figures on criminal trials, e.g., fewer than two cases per year between 1839 and 1849 (inclusive) were tried in England and Wales involving murder or attempted murder by poison. BPP, vol. 45 (1850), “Return of the Number of Persons, Male and Female, Tried in the United Kingdom for Murder and Attempted Murder, by the Administration of Poison, from 1839–1849.” In 1849, of well over 20,000 inquests held, 415 deaths were registered as connected with poison, only eleven of which involved a charge of homicide (a rate of .0025 percent, which, though up from the .0014 percent rate of 1838–39 hardly constitutes a problem of compelling proportions). In 1856, the year of the Palmer trial, 432 of 22,221 inquests involved poison, of which only three ended in murder trials. The Registrar General's Office calculated for this same year that twenty-three deaths per one million persons living were attributable to poison, and poison was the sixty-ninth most common cause of death out of 105 causes listed—well below every other form of violent and possibly homicidal death tabulated. BPP, vol. 23 (1857–58), “Seventeenth Annual Report of the Registrar General.”
33 “The Crime of the Age,” Illustrated Times 2 (2 February 1856): 1.
35 The Times (24 December 1855): 6.
36 “The Suppression of the Crime of Secret Poisoning,” London Medical Gazette 4 (12 February 1847): 284–85.
37 “Poison in the Prescription,” Leader 6 (22 December 1855): 1224.
39 On more than one occasion, Alfred Swaine Taylor himself reluctantly noted the difficulties in deriving the distinctive properties of poison, writing, e.g., that “we may admit the general truth of the doctrine, that a poison in a small dose is a medicine, and a medicine in a large dose is a poison.” Taylor, , On Poisons, 2d American ed. from the 2d London ed. (Philadelphia, 1859), pp. 2–3.
40 Hansard's, 3d ser., 110 (May 1850): 1056–57.
41 “The Burdon Slow-Poisoning Case,” Lancet 2 (22 December 1855): 613.
42 There were two inquests held at Rugeley connected with Palmer in addition to and immediately following Cook's: those on the exhumed bodies of his wife, Anne, and his brother, Walter. Taylor gave evidence at both of these inquests, finding antimony in Anne's organs and prussic acid in Walter's. In mid-January, Rugeley inquest jurors returned verdicts of murder against Palmer in both Anne and Walter's deaths. But by this time Palmer had already been arraigned for trial for the murder of Cook. It was thus for Cook's death that Palmer was eventually tried, though the charges in the deaths of Anne and Walter remained outstanding if the Cook prosecution failed. Legal niceties were not strictly followed in public comment, however, which tended to refer collectively to the three inquests as “The Rugeley Poisoning Case.”
43 “Science in the Witness Box,” Examiner (19 January 1856): 35.
46 Taylor, , On Poisons (1848), p. 111. This accorded with the standard texts on the principles of legal evidence: e.g., Wills, William, Essay on the Principles of Circumstantial Evidence, 3d ed. (London, 1850), pp. 178–203.
47 Taylor, , On Poisons (1848), p. 112.
48 A similar conclusion had been reached by the author of the leading British manual on toxicology prior to Taylor's: the renowned Scottish toxicologist, Professor Robert Christison, though mindful of the limits of toxicological proof, maintained that “the chemical evidence in charges of poisoning is generally, and with justice, considered the most decisive of all the branches of proof” (A Treatise on Poisons, 4th ed. [Edinburgh, 1845], p. 60).
49 The Times (24 December 1855): 6; “Poisoning in England,” Saturday Review 1 (22 December 1855): 135. At professional meetings medical men could indulge in similar exercises in critical assessment. See Lloyd's Weekly London Newspaper (17 February 1856): 7, for one such discussion in which Taylor was denounced for his indulgence in “the transcendentalism of the laboratory.”
50 “Doctor in the Witness-Box,” Dublin University Magazine 41 (February 1856): 191, 193.
51 Illustrated Times 2 (17 May 1856): 338; emphasis in original.
52 “The Rugeley Suspected Poisoning Cases,” Lancet 1 (29 March 1856): 348.
53 “Our Interview with Dr. Alfred Taylor,” Illustrated Times Supplement: The Rugeley Number 2 (2 February 1856): 91; emphasis in original. At Palmer's trial, Taylor vehemently denied having given Mayhew permission to publish from their discussion, calling it “the greatest deception that was ever practised on a scientific man; most disgraceful.” The Queen v. Palmer. Verbatim Report of the Trial ofW. Palmer at the Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey, London, May 14, and Following Days, 1856 …. Transcribed from the Short Hand Notes of Mr. Angelo Bennett (London, 1856), p. 147. The Mayhew in question is sometimes identified as Augustus, Henry's brother, but Henry claimed responsibility for the interview in letters to the editors of several leading newspapers.
54 Bennett, , The Queen v. Palmer, p. 175. Bennett's is the most complete of the numerous printed reports of the trial, and is, unless otherwise stated, the source of all quotes from the trial that appear in this essay.
55 Daily Telegraph (15 May 1856): 3.
56 Campbell's concluding summation put the question directly, leaving no doubt as to the fundamental point upon which the whole case rested: “Do not find a verdict of guilty unless you believe that the strychnine was administered to the deceased by the prisoner at the bar” (Bennett, , The Queen v. Palmer, p. 325; emphasis in original).
57 Ibid., p. 24.
59 Ibid., p. 10; emphasis in original.
60 Ibid., p. 11.
61 Ibid., p. 319.
62 Ibid., p. 288.
63 Ibid., p. 190.
64 Taylor later explained how: in the 1859 edition of On Poisons, he wrote that most of the time “detection” of strychnine by laboratory scientists actually amounted to its extraction from the compound nux vomica. “Knowing well that an animal that dies from nux vomica dies from absorbed strychnia, they have contented themselves with seeking for nux vomica powder and extracting strychnia from it” (p. 74). Strychnine, then, was typically isolated as a secondary property only, and claims to have detected it merely the “sagacity of the ex post facto kind” (p. 77).
65 Bennett, , The Queen v. Palmer, p. 288. For an analysis of the charges of partisanship among Victorian expert witnesses, see Hamlin, “Scientific Method.”
66 Bennett, , The Queen v. Palmer, p. 189. Shee charged that following the inquest Taylor had resorted to the press in a deliberate attempt to manipulate public opinion.
67 All present at the inquest, Shee argued, were “impressed with the idea that whatever the doctor that has come from London, that whatever Dr. Alfred Swaine Taylor says, must be true; if he says it is poison, poison it is” (ibid., p. 202). The same deference then ensured that the jury's finding would meet with general approval: “Instantly followed by the verdict of willful murder, it flew upon the wings of the press into every house in the United Kingdom. It became known that, according to the opinion of a man whose whole life had been devoted to science, a gentleman of personal character perfectly unimpeached, a man who stood well with his friends in the medical profession … that, according to his opinion, Cook's death had been caused by strychnine” (ibid., p. 189).
68 Ibid., p. 174.
69 Ibid., pp. 197–98.
70 Alternatives to the theory of strychnine poisoning ranged from epileptic convulsions with tetanic complications, angina pectoris, spinal cord irritation of undetermined cause, and tetanic convulsions brought on by wet and cold acting on a body debilitated by syphilis.
71 Taylor retorted: “Every toxicologist will not sacrifice 100 rabbits when the facts are all ascertained from other sources; I did not feel myself justified in going on points which I knew were well established” (Bennett, , The Queen v. Palmer, pp. 144–45).
72 Ibid., p. 201.
73 Ibid., p. 190. The problematic relationship among author, text, and testimony in fact forms an important subtext running through the trial transcript: questions were posed about whether Taylor and other authors appeared as themselves or as embodiments of their works (e.g., pp. 144 and 200); controversy arose from having textual excerpts read in court in the absence of their authors (e.g., pp. 196–97); and the general constraints of transcribing experience into writing were discussed at length (e.g., pp. 201, 250).
74 See, e.g., Starkie, Thomas, A Practical Treatise on the Law of Evidence (London, 1834), 1:154: “The testimony of medical men is constantly admitted with respect to the cause of disease or death …. Such opinions are admissible in evidence, although the professional witnesses found them entirely on the facts, circumstances, and symptoms established in evidence by others, and without being personally acquainted with the facts.” See also Phillipps, S. M., Treatise on the Law of Evidence (London, 1852; reprint, New York, 1859), 1:778–79.
75 Christison, Robert, “On the Present State of Medical Evidence,” Edinburgh Medical Review, n.s., 23 (November 1851): 401–30, quote on 420–21. Christison illustrated this claim with a case of arsenic poisoning that he had once been called upon to investigate: though he had not previously seen anyone during life who had taken arsenic, “by frequent reading, lecturing, and writing on the subject, the varied forms of arsenical poisoning were as familiar to me as if they were all marshaled before my eyes” (p. 421).
76 The Times (28 May 1856): 9; for similarly approving editorials from across the political spectrum, see the Examiner (31 May 1856): 337; Lloyd's (4 June 1856): 6; and the Saturday Review (31 May 1856): 102. The professional journals concurred: “The verdict,” the Law Times opined, “accords with the public judgment, and with the opinion formed by the gravest and most clamly [sic] reflective minds in the Profession, accustomed to weigh the worth of evidence” (Law Times [31 May 1856]: 110). See also the Association Medical Journal, n.s., 4 (31 May 1856): 455; the Lancet 1 (31 May 1856): 593–94; and the Medical Times and Gazette 12 (31 May 1856): 533. Of the mainstream press, the Daily Telegraph stood out in its support of a stay of execution pending a review of the evidence (31 May 1856, 3 June 1856).
77 The Times (11 June 1856): 5.
78 The most striking exercise in marginalization appeared in the Examiner, which in praising the Home Secretary (Sir George Grey) for resisting these efforts suggested that the real motive behind much of the Palmerite sentiment was all too well in keeping with the degenerate essence of its object: “Among those who were not the least anxious to procure his pardon or commutation of punishment,” the Examiner explained with great indignation, “were the large number of persons who had bets on his escape from the gallows” (“Palmer's End,” Examiner [21 June 1856]: 386).
79 Lloyd's (4 June 1856): 6.
80 Ibid. In explaining why the conviction was just, however, Lloyd's ultimately relied on the medical evidence. Taylor or his courtroom adversaries might be right—an important difference in medical opinion, but a difference that “almost loses its significance, when we remember that the effects produced by strychnia in its last struggle with the vital principle are happily so marked and peculiar that a tyro in medicine could hardly fail to identify them.”
81 “Juries and the public generally,” the Lancet explained, “always look for the material demonstration of the poison in the dead body” and thus had naturally turned to the test tube for the solution, to the exclusion of the evidence adduced by the whole of the medico-legal arsenal. “The Medical Evidence in the Case of The Queen versus Palmer,” Lancet 1 (31 May 1856): 594.
82 In accordance with this view, the Lancet devoted the better part of its posttrial commentary to beginning precisely this task of public education: by careful exegesis of the medical evidence in the case—abstracted from the contentious atmosphere of the Old Bailey—it proposed to demonstrate to the public that science, unaided by “collateral information or inferences,” could provide proof of Palmer's guilt. By this means, it concluded, “juries will learn how distinct and independent and authoritative the decision of Medicine may be in cases of this kind, and the public will perceive ample reason for placing firm reliance upon science for the detection and prevention of crime (“The Scientific Evidence on the Trial of William Palmer,” Lancet 1 [14 June 1856]: 662–67. Many of the Lancet's contemporaries did not share its optimism, looking instead to more concerted cooperation between medico-legal witnesses prior to trial as a way of presenting the public with a unified scientific front. For proposals of this nature, see the Association Medical Journal, n.s., 4 (31 May 1856): 455–57, and the Medical Times and Gazette 12 (28 June 1856): 647–48.
83 Altick, , Victorian Studies, p. 164. Following another controversial appearance at an 1859 murder trial, the Dublin Medical Press pronounced Taylor's credibility to be at an end: “We must look now upon Professor Taylor as having ended his career, and hope he will immediately withdraw into the obscurity of private life” (cited in Donaldson, Norman, In Search of Dr. Thorndyke: The Story of R. Austin Freeman's Great Scientific Investigator and His Creator [Bowling Green, Ohio, 1971], p. 73). Historians also give conflicting assessments of Taylor's standing. Boyle describes the Palmer trial as “the beginning of Taylor's downfall,” the effects of which, he improbably continues, rivaled the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in provoking “a challenge to Victorian self-confidence” (Black Swine, p. 76). At the opposite pole, Jones's, CarolExpert Witnesses: Science, Medicine, and the Practice of Law (Oxford, 1994) sees Taylor as a prototype for an emergent cultural familiarity with and acceptance of “superhuman” experts, whose work in high profile cases bestowed on them “unimpeachable authority in the law courts and high social status” (pp. 80–81).
84 “Obituary,” British Medical Journal 1 (12 June 1880): 905. Though expressed in the inevitably inflated terms of the genre, the basic sense of this observation is undeniable. Reviews of the subsequent editions of Taylor's works assume the texts' canonical status—the Solicitors' Journal's notice of the third edition of On Poisons, for instance, observed that “this book is too well known as an authority to need any recommendation to our readers” (Solicitors' Journal [27 May 1876]: 587). More diffuse, but telling nonetheless, is the way “Taylor” came to serve as a veritable synecdoche for medical jurisprudential authority. Thus, some ten years after the Palmer trial, the Solicitors' Journal described the courtroom strategy of the average medical witness as follows: “Taylor's ‘Medical Jurisprudence,’ or some other work of equal reputation will be produced, and long extracts read” (Solicitors' Journal [19 August 1865]: 924). The same formula was being used at the turn of the century: Henry Harvey Littlejohn, the renowned Scottish forensic scientist, for one, complained that ignorance on the part of a medical witness was all too often covered by “a reference to ‘Taylor’” (“Medico-Legal Post-Mortem Examinations,” Transactions of the Medico-Legal Society 1 : 20).
85 Taylor, , “On Poisoning by Strychnia, with Comments on the Medical Evidence Given at the Trial of William Palmer,” Guy's Hospital Reports, 3d ser., 2 (1856): 269–404. This article was subsequently published as a separate tract.
86 Ibid., p. 271.
87 See, e.g., the excerpted comments of defense experts William Herapath, Henry Letheby, and Thomas Nunnerly. Ibid., pp. 364–68.
88 Ibid., p. 315.
89 Ibid., p. 341.
90 At times the reference to The Queen v. Palmer is a general one, referred to in one instance as “that memorable case which has furnished some point of illustration to almost every department of medical jurisprudence” (Taylor, , On Poisons , p. 195). Elsewhere the case is invoked to underscore a broad principle, as when he urges the fallacy of relying on positive tests as proof of poisoning: “In nearly every chapter on every poison in this volume, the reader will find that chemistry has in some cases completely failed to reveal the presence of poison, while in others it has misled an ‘expert’ to swear to the presence of poison in a definitive quantity in a dead body when the whole was a fiction of the imagination” (ibid., p. 702).
91 Ibid., pp. 681–82.
92 Ibid., p. 76.
93 Taylor, , On Poisons (1848), p. 111.
94 Ibid., p. 112.
95 Taylor, , On Poisons (1859), p. 170.
97 Ibid., p. 171; emphasis added.
98 Taylor, , On Poisons (1875), p. 149; emphasis added.
99 Only in the thirteenth and latest edition of Taylor (appearing in 1984) did this editorial arrangement change, with fourteen separate authors writing specialized essays taking the place of Taylor's original format, leaving only Taylor's portrait to support the claim to authorship contained in the title. This edition was substantially reduced in size (cut from two volumes to one) and dispensed with many of the exemplary references to preceding cases—including those to The Queen v. Palmer.
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