Stephen Bates, The Poisoner

The Poisoner is a biography and account of the trial of William Palmer, who was convicted of poisoning a friend and suspected of poisoning any number of others in the 1850s.

The Poisoner is the kind of narrative history I like: one that doesn’t try to read like a novel, but will leave the main path and go into detail whatever historical topics the main subject touches on, like gambling, forensics, and insurance fraud. A single story expands into a fuller picture of life at the time. It might be a little dry in places, but I like history to err on the side of dryness.

Cover of The Poisoner

The jacket copy promises “an astonishing and controversial revision of Palmer’s life” but you can’t trust jacket copy. You know the riddle about the guy on the right who always tells the truth, and the guy on the left who always lies? The guy on the left is a book jacket. Anyway. There’s little doubt that Palmer killed John Parsons Cook. The Poisoner’s revision to the standard narrative is that Palmer was not a criminal mastermind. Charles Dickens started a Household Words essay on Palmer by calling him “the greatest villain that ever stood in the Old Bailey dock” and explained in typically Dickensian hyperbole that Palmer’s calm demeanor at his trial was the sign of a manipulative and devious mind. This, thought Dickens, was a man with “carefully laid plans” and “secret knowledge of the difficulties and mysteries with which the proof of Poison had been, in the manner of the Poisoning, surrounded.”

I came away from The Poisoner picturing Palmer as the serial poisoner equivalent of a W. C. Fields character. He probably didn’t poison as many people as some think. (People died around Palmer a lot, but in nineteenth-century England people died around everybody a lot.) Anyone who spends time on the internet is likely to have heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect: the idea that the people most incompetent at a task will be too incompetent even to recognize their own incompetence. The concept originally occurred to the psychologists who named it after they heard the story of a bank robber who thought he could make himself invisible to security cameras by rubbing lemon juice on his face. Palmer was, in fact, probably not much more skilled when it came to murder. Maybe Dickens was convinced Palmer had to be a master of deception because it was easier than believing the authorities weren’t very good at detecting poisoners.

Nineteenth century forensic science made poison investigations difficult. Judith Flanders’s book The Invention of Murder discusses a mid–19th century poison panic in which lower-class women were convicted of poisoning family members and acquaintances on little evidence. What struck me when I read that book was how similar the suspects seemed to the accused in earlier witch trials. Many suspects were outsiders who had something “wrong” with them—a reputation for promiscuity, a bad temper, more children than they could support. Accusations often occurred in small communities and might be based on gossip. At trials “experts” testified who had never previously seen wounds or poisonings of the kind in question. In many cases statements were believed or disbelieved based on the witness’s social class.

When I read about nineteenth century criminal investigations what strikes me is their lackadaisicalness. The investigation of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, the first 19th century British murder of note, began with sightseers trooping through the crime scene. From there the police had a very slow learning curve. The authorities of the time tend to come off less like police than like sapient prairie dogs who’d maybe seen some police once from a distance.

Then I look at how many wrongful convictions we have in the modern United States, and I wonder how much we’ve actually improved.

The Palmer investigation was nearly as haphazard. John Parsons Cook’s post-mortem was held at a inn. This was common since inns had large public rooms and it had not yet occurred to the police that, hey, maybe they ought to build more places they could use for postmortems. The supervising doctor didn’t bring his instruments because he hadn’t realized he was expected to actually perform the post-mortem; instead a chemist’s assistant and a medical student did the dissecting. No one objected when Palmer himself horned in even though the victim’s stepfather considered him a suspect. When the student removed the stomach Palmer sort of accidentally on purpose shoved him, spilling the stomach contents. It and the intestines were placed in a sealed jar. The jar then disappeared when no one was looking. When the doctors noticed this Palmer cheerfully said he’d put it by the door because he “thought it more convenient for you to take it away.” Somehow a hole had developed in the seal.

The postmortems didn’t find any strychnine in Cook. The jury convicted Palmer because as soon as Cook’s stepfather challenged him he did everything he could to incriminate himself, including blurting things he could have followed up with “Did I say that out loud?” At the postmortem the supervising doctor heard him say “They won’t hang us yet.” William Palmer didn’t lose a battle of wits to a brilliant detective. He was just a rather stupid person whose luck finally ran out.

Conspiracies, criminal masterminds, and brilliant psychopaths are all over pop culture. We’ve built entire TV shows around impossibly skilled assholes like Hannibal Lecter, Dexter, and Pale Imitation of Francis Urquhart. Counterintuitive as it seems, these stories are comforting. No one could blame us for falling prey to the well-directed malice of a master criminal, and no one could blame the police for convicting the wrong guy. Those master criminals are smart. That real police might be fallible or even corrupt, that we’re less likely to be targeted by a genius than randomly endangered by a doofus with an assault rifle… Those ideas aren’t just frightening: they’re indignities.