John Parsons Cook – the crime for which William Palmer was hanged

John Parsons Cook was born in Catthorpe and lived in Lutterworth, Leicestershire. He had been a very close friend of Palmer for around two years. Originally he was articled to a solicitor in Watling. However, after inheriting £12,000, he retired from being a solicitor to spend a great deal of time and money on horse racing. After he had inherited the money Cook ‘ran wild’ and led a riotous life. He had never had good health and his new style of living did nothing to improve his health. It was rumoured that Palmer was treating him for syphilis. When he died on the 21st of November 1855 he was 28 years old.

Leading up to the Painful Death of John Parsons Cook

By 1855 William Palmer was heavily in debt. The insurance company with whom he had insured his brother Walter’s life was refusing to pay up. A former girlfriend called Jane was blackmailing him. The money-lenders were hounding him for the money that he owed and he was concerned because he had forged his mother’s signature on loan guarantees for which he could be facing fraud charges. His answer was to desperately turn to gambling to try to win enough to pay back the money he owed.

Tuesday 13th November 1855

Palmer and Cheshire, the Rugeley postmaster, went with their friend John Parson Cook, a pale weak-looking young man, to Shrewsbury Races. Cook won about £3,000 when his horse, Polestar, came first in the Shrewsbury Handicap Race. An hour later Palmer left Cook and returned to Rugeley. Cook meantime threw a celebratory meal at the Raven Hotel for some of his friends treating his guests to ‘foaming beakers of provincial champagne’.

Wednesday 14th November 1855

Palmer received a threatening letter from Pratt, a solicitor and money-lender, demanding his money. Palmer, in the company of George Myatt, a saddler from Rugeley, returned to Shrewsbury Races. That evening Palmer dined at the Raven Inn in Shrewsbury with Cook, Cheshire, Ishmael Fisher a wine merchant, George Herring, George Myatt, and George Read (who “kept a house frequented by sporting gentlemen”). At one stage in the evening Palmer went out to the housemaids pantry. Here he was visited by Mrs. Ann Brookes from Manchester, described as a lady who attends races. She came to ask him about a jockey. When she first saw Palmer he was pouring some fluid from a small bottle in to a tumbler and then shake it up and down before putting it up to the gaslight. Palmer was not distressed by her seeing this saying that he would be with her in a minute. He returned to the room and a tray of brandy was brought in. When Cook drank his he jumped up and complained that it burnt his throat. At this Palmer took the tumbler and drank from it then handed the glass to Read saying, “taste it; there’s nothing in it. Cook says it’s drugged”. Read replied, “What is the good of giving it to me when you have drunk the very dregs!” Cook was not feeling well and retired to his bedroom taking Herring and Fisher with him. He gave Fisher his money belt to keep safe for him. A doctor was sent for and again in the early morning they sent for help.

Thursday 15th November 1855

Cook was a little better in the morning and was able to get up and eat some breakfast. That day Palmer lost heavily when his horse, Nettle, failed to win his race. Had Nettle won Palmer stood to win around £5,000. In the evening Cook and Palmer returned to Rugeley where Cook booked in to Room 10 at the Talbot Arms the hotel which stood opposite Palmer’s house. Cook went straight to bed.

Talbot Arms where, in Room 10, John Parsons Cook died in 1855. l:renamed The Shrew photographed in 2001
Talbot Arms where, in Room 10, John Parsons Cook died in 1855. l:renamed The Shrew photographed in 2001

Friday 16th November 1855

Cook got up in the afternoon and dined with Palmer.

Saturday 17th November 1855

Palmer visited Cook early in the morning and ordered him some coffee. Unfortunately Cook was very ill and was constantly being sick. Palmer was in and out all day to visit his sick friend.

Sunday 18th November 1855

Palmer called in Dr. Bamford an old family friend. The chambermaid Elizabeth Mills later claimed that she had been sick after tasting some broth that Palmer had sent to Cook.

Monday 19th November 1855

Palmer went to London with Cook’s betting books and managed to obtain most of Cook’s winnings before returning to Rugeley where he found Cook to be slightly recovered. This was the night that Newton claimed Palmer bought three grains of strychnine from him at 10.00 p.m. Jere Smith was Palmer’s alibi that he could not have bought poison at that time. Another witness, the driver of the ‘fly’, went missing and could not be called by the Defence.

Tuesday 20th November 1855

Cook was very ill in the early hours but rallied. Dr. Jones, Cook’s long-time friend and doctor, arrived at 2.00 p.m. Palmer had written to Dr. Jones because of Cook’s poor state of health.

Wednesday 21st November 1855

Cook, aged 28, died at 1.00 a.m. The Illustrated Times of 2nd February 1856, under the heading DEATH BED SCENE, gave the following account:


……..Old Dr. Bamford, aged 82, had been called in before, and had prescribed two opiate pills, which Mr. Palmer himself had from him. Mr. Jones slept in the same room with his friend; the foot of the beds were opposite to each other , the room being sufficiently large, and Mr. Cook lying between the door and the window. A little after eleven Mr. Palmer went across and gave the sick man two pills supposed to be morphine vomiting ensued but the pills remained on the stomach. About midnight Mr. Jones undressed himself and turned in. He had not lain down above twenty minutes, when his friend called to him in alarm, and begged that Mr. Palmer might be sent for immediately. That gentleman was by his bedside within three minutes, foolishly volunteering the remark that he had never dressed so quickly in his life before. He then gave him two pills which he brought with him, saying that they were ammonia pills – a preparation never kept ready made up , because of evaporation. A terrible scene now ensued. Wildly shrieking, the patient tossed about in fearful convulsions; his limbs were so rigid that it was impossible to raise him, though he entreated that they would do so, as he felt that he was suffocating. Every muscle was convulsed; his body bent upwards like a bow; they turned him over on his left side; the action of the heart gradually ceased; and he was dead.

As soon as Cook had died Mary Keeley, a widow from Rugeley, was sent for by Palmer to ‘lay out the body’. She came immediately with her sister-in-law. Mary was later called to give evidence at Palmer’s trial in London. She stated that she had laid out many corpses before but had never found a body as stiff as Cook’s.

Cook was dead but was it murder?