A narrow escape for George Bates?

George Bates, from the Times Report of the Trial of William Palmer published 1856
George Bates, from the Times Report of the Trial of William Palmer published 1856

Palmer had not gained any money from the insurance company following the death of his brother Walter and several accounts claim that he was looking to insure, then murder, others to make money.

George Bates was described in some accounts as Palmer’s groom. In an interview published in the Illustrated Times February 2nd 1856 he was described as ‘a decayed farmer’ employed by Palmer as ‘a kind of farm-bailiff’. Later in the same newspaper it states that Bates formerly ‘held’ a farm of 250 acres at Ranton, from Lord Lichfield. It appears that he ran into difficulties and had to give up the farm. He had known Palmer for a few years and Palmer offered him a job of ‘overseer’.

The newspaper printed a statement from Bates that started “I was a friend, not as is reported, the groom of Palmer. I was occasionally employed to look after and take care of his breeding-stud, and see to the little bit of farming he did, and take care that the men did their work, and so on”.

A plot was hatched and then sealed over dinner at William Palmer’s house. Bates had been invited to dine with Palmer, John Parsons Cook, Samuel Cheshire the later to be disgraced Rugeley postmaster, Jere. Smith the friend and Palmer Family solicitor and Saunders a horse trainer.

It was decided to pass Bates off as ‘a gentleman and an esquire’, a well-to-do farmer and, unbeknown to Bates, insure his life to the value of £25,000 with several insurance companies. Cheshire and Cook were to act as witnesses to Bates signing the proposal. Smith was to act as solicitor and would make 5% commission on the deal. Smith wrote to the first insurance company the Midland Insurance Company and was appointed as their agent with a proposal to insure Bates for £10,000.

The insurance company appointed two detectives to investigate the insurance proposal. Inspectors Field and Simpson came to Rugeley. They first interviewed Cheshire who assured them that Bates had an income of three or four hundred pounds a year and was free of debts, leading a life as an independent gentleman. Furthermore he had a fine cellar of wine.

Inspector Field from the Illustrated Times 2nd February 1856
Inspector Field from the Illustrated Times 2nd February 1856

There are two versions of the next part of the story. One that the inspectors next met Bates hoeing turnips in a field, the other version that they met Bates in the Market Place in Rugeley. Whatever the case they found a man dressed less well than ‘a well-to-do gentleman’. When questioned it was revealed that Bates did not understand what life insurance was all about. He was under the impression that the policy was worth £6,000 and that he would receive £2,000 with the inference that he didn’t realise that the money only came after his death.

In the book They Hanged My Saintly Billy, Robert Graves suggests that Smith, with Cook a willing participant, was playing a joke on Bates as a way of warning Palmer not to pursue his claim against The Prince of Wales Insurance Company to recover the insurance money due upon the death of Walter Palmer.

When Palmer was tried for the murder of Cook the prosecution tried to question Bates about the insuring of his life. The Defence objected to the story as being irrelevant to the case and the judge agreed. The Prosecution did not pursue the matter. Bates was however questioned about his part in Palmer sending gifts to the Coroner.

Was this a case of Bates having a narrow escape or just humour that went too far?