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The Demeanour of Murderers

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Leading Article i
Prose: Report i
Subjects Character; Character Sketches; Caricature
Crime; Criminals; Punishment; Capital Punishment; Prisons; Penal Transportation; Penal Colonies
Law; Lawyers; Justice; Courts; Trials
Psychology; Psychiatry; Mental Health; Mind-Body Relations (Metaphysics)
Violence; Torture; Violence in Literature; Violence—Moral and Ethical Aspects; Violence—Psychological Aspects
Other Details
Printed : 14/6/1856
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume XIII
Magazine : No. 325
Office Book Notes
Views : 3449

The great sensation of the early summer of 1856 was the twelve-day trial at the Old Bailey of William Palmer, a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons, for poisoning John Cook, a racing chum with whom Palmer was financially involved.

Palmer, born into a well-to-do family and adored by his mother (she is supposed to have lamented, 'They hanged my saintly Billy!'), practised as a surgeon in his home town of Rugeley, Staffordshire. As a result of his passion for the turf he got into serious money difficulties. His wife died soon after he had taken out a large insurance on her life, as did his brother in similar circumstances (in the brother's case, however, the insurance company refused to pay up). Palmer's situation had become desperate when Cook won £800 at the Shrewsbury Races (November 1855); Palmer and he celebrated the win at a hotel, where Cook was taken violently ill after drinking some 'grog' prepared for him by Palmer; he was moved to a hotel in Rugeley, where Palmer attended him professionally (he was already treating Cook for syphilis). Cook died at the hotel after suffering terrible agonies; an inquest was held on him and also on Palmer's wife and brother, their bodies being exhumed for the purpose, and the coroner found that all three had been murdered by Palmer, who was promptly arrested. The charges concerning his wife and brother were dropped from lack of evidence, no trace of poison having been found in their bodies. According to John Sutherland ('Wilkie Collins and the Origins of the Sensation Novel', AMS Studies in 19th Century Literature and Culture, No. 1 [1995]), the Government, fearful that Palmer might get off the remaining charge because of the flimsiness of the evidence against him, decided to 'nail' him and a special Act of Parliament was passed in April 1856 to allow the trial to take place at the Old Bailey instead of at the Leed Assizes. This enabled 'state resources and public opinion [to] be more effectively mobilised against the accused' (Sutherland, p. 84). A particularly damaging witness for the prosecution, alluded to below by Dickens, was one of the Rugeley hotel chambermaids, who deposed that she had become very ill after tasting some soup prepared for Cook by Palmer. The case attracted enormous public interest and was extensively reported, the newspaper commenting frequently on Palmer's calmness in the dock and on his total confidence that he would be acquitted. He continued to insist on his innocence even after being convicted on 27 May. Dickens wrote to Miss Burdett Coutts on 1 June that he hoped she would read 'The Demeanour of Murderers' when it appeared: 'It is a quiet protest against the newspaper descriptions of Mr Palmer in Court, shewing why they are harmful to the public at large, and why they are, even in themselves, altogether blind and wrong' (Pilgrim, Vol. VIII, p. 128). He added, 'I think it rather a curious and serviceable essay!' Palmer was hanged, still insisting on his innocence, on the day Dickens's article appeared. The murderer preserved his sang froid to the last and enquired as he prepared to ascend the scaffold, 'Is it safe?'

Dickens alludes to Palmer again in 'The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices'.

MS. Huntingdon Library, Pasadena, California. This shows extensive revision, but the variants are all very minor, primarily matters of punctuation.

Author: Michael Slater; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume III: 'Gone Astray' and Other Papers from Household Words, 1851-1859, 1998.

DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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