Post-mortems and inquest verdict on Cook

The post-mortem was conducted by Dr. John Harland a Stafford physician who was an acquaintance of Palmer. In fact Dr. Harland was the doctor who passed Walter Palmer as fit to be insured and was rewarded by Palmer for so doing by being presented with a dozen bottles of port. It is claimed that Harland arrived without his medical equipment and even without a notebook or pencil. Harland intended to call at the house of Dr. Bamford but was met in the street by Palmer who, Harland claimed, said that he was glad that someone that he knew was to conduct the post-mortem.

The first post-mortem on Cook, 26th November 1855, was conducted in a shambolic way. It is hard to believe that such a serious exercise as a post-mortem could be conducted so carelessly and unprofessionally. In spite of the presence of several doctors, Mr. Charles Devonshire and Mr. Charles Newton carried out the actual autopsy on the body. Devonshire was a young inexperienced
medical student who was an assistant to Dr. Monkton. Newton was assistant to Dr. Salt the Rugeley chemist and was conducting his first post-mortem and before the autopsy had been given, by Palmer, a couple of brandies to steady his nerves.

Palmer’s strange conduct at the first post-mortem

When Devonshire was opening the stomach, Palmer was seen to push against Newton who subsequently bumped into Devonshire and some of the contents of the stomach spilled into the body. The stomach contained about three ounces of brownish fluid which was emptied in to a jar . When Palmer saw this he was heard, by Harland, to say to Dr. Bamford in a loud whisper, “They wont hang us yet.” The viscera (stomach organs), with their contents, were removed and placed in a jar which was then sealed by two bladders. The jar was placed upon the table by the body but were found to be missing. Devonshire asked where they were and Palmer said, straight away, that he had moved them, “to make it more convenient for you to take away”. He asked Palmer to bring the jar back and noticed that there was a cut in each bladder but that none of the contents had been lost.

Cook’s stepfather had arranged for the contents of Cook’s stomach to be examined by Professor Taylor Fellow of the College of Physicians at Guy’s Hospital.

James Myatt, postboy at the Talbot Arms. From the Times Report of the Trial of William Palmer, Published 1856
James Myatt, postboy at the Talbot Arms. From the Times Report of the Trial of William Palmer, Published 1856

In court Myatt, the postboy at the Talbot Arms, accused Palmer of trying to bribe him. He alleged that Palmer asked him if he was driving Mr. Stevens to the railway station. Myatt claimed that Palmer said, “Do you think you could upset them?” and offered him £10. Serjeant Shee for the Defence suggested that Palmer had actually said, “I wouldn’t mind giving £10 to break Steven’s neck”. Myatt then said that he could not recollect the words “break his neck” but when asked if Palmer had said “I wouldn’t mind giving £10 to upset him”, Myatt replied “Yes I believe those were the words”.

The famous Dr. Taylor, who considered himself an authority on poisons, had to try to analyse the samples sent to him was so dissatisfied with what was sent that he insisted upon a second post-mortem.

The second post-mortem on Cook, 29th November 1855

Devonshire conducted a second post mortem when he removed liver, kidney, spleen and some blood.

Palmer blunders when he gets the postmaster to intercept the Coroner’s post and then tries to bribe the Coroner

Samuel Cheshire postmaster bribed by Palmer From the Times Report of the Trial of William Palmer Pub. 1856.
Samuel Cheshire postmaster bribed by Palmer From the Times Report of the Trial of William Palmer Pub. 1856.

Palmer got his friend Samuel Cheshire, the postmaster of Rugeley, to intercept the letters written to the Coroner and when he read that Professor Taylor could find no traces of either strychnine, prussic acid or opium in the samples he wrote to the Coroner. He twice sent presents of fish and game to the coroner. The first a splendid hamper sent from London to the Coroner’s private address in Stoke-on-Trent and the second delivered by George Bates to the Coroner in Stafford.

Finally he sent a letter (see below). It was delivered by hand by Bates who had instructions not to let anyone see him deliver it.

In the letter Palmer urged a verdict of ‘death by natural causes’ in view of what he had read, and also enclosed a £10 note inside the letter.

The letter was eventually sent by the Coroner to the Home Secretary and was produced at Palmer’s trial and was said to have had a damaging effect on the minds of the jury.

Cheshire was imprisoned for two years for tampering with the mail and was brought from Newgate Prison to give evidence at Palmer’s trial.

Dec. 13th, 1855.

I am sorry to tell you that I am still confined to bed. I don’t think it was mentioned at the Inquest yesterday Dec. 12th, that Cook was taken ill on Sunday and Monday night , in the same way as he was on the Tuesday, when he died. The Chambermaid at the Crown Hotel (Master’s) can prove this. I also believe that a man by the name of Fisher is coming down to prove he received some money at Shrewsbury. Now, here he could only pay Smith £10 out of £41 he owed him. Had you not better call Smith to prove this? And, again, whatever Professor Taylor may say tomorrow, he wrote from London last Tuesday week to Gardner to say, “We (Dr. Rees and I) have this day finished our analysis, and find no traces of either strychnine, prussic acid, or opium.

What can beat this from a man like Taylor, if he says what he has already said, and Dr. Harland’s evidence? Mind you I know and saw it in black and white, what Taylor said to Gardner; but this is strictly private and confidential, but it is true.

As regards his betting-book, I know nothing of it, and it is of no good to anyone. I hope the verdict to-morrow will be that he died from natural causes, and thus end it.
Ever yours,

W. P.


The inquest was held at the Rugeley Borough Court in the Rugeley Town Hall. The coroner was William Webb Ward.

Coroner William Webb Ward from the Times Report of the Trial of William Palmer published 1856.
Coroner William Webb Ward from the Times Report of the Trial of William Palmer published 1856.

Dr. Taylor said that he could not find any trace of strychnine but said that the symptoms led him to believe that strychnine was administered by Palmer in the pills that he gave to Cook on the Tuesday. It was commented upon in one newspaper that Dr. Taylor sat by the Coroner and asked more damning questions at the Inquest than the Coroner did.

The Coroners Inquest returned a verdict that William Palmer had willfully murdered John Parson’s Cook.

The coroners jury were supposed to be investigating the cause of death and it would have been normal practice to adjourn any inquest which may involve a charge of murder until all criminal proceedings have been finished.

The Rugeley Borough Court during the hearing of the examinations
The Rugeley Borough Court during the hearing of the examinations

The Chief Constable went straight to Palmers house to arrest him. (see His Arrest). However Palmer was ill in bed and already under house arrest by Sheriff’s men because a warrant had been taken out against Palmer by the money-lender, Padwick, on a charge of forgery, a case that was tried at Westminster January 20th 1856. (see Crimes not Murder)

In the Illustrated Times dated 14th June 1856 a brief note about Coroner Ward:-

CORONER WARD.— At the annual general meeting of the Coroners’ Society of England and Wales, held last week, it was unanimously resolved, that “the conduct of Mr Ward, the coroner for Staffordshire on the occasion of holding the inquest on the body of John Parsons Cook, was discreditable, and if left uncensured by this society, will have the effect of lowering the office of coroner in public opinion; and that, regarding the ancient institution as one of the surest safeguards for the security of life and the detection of crime, we cannot but lament that Mr Ward should have acted as he appears to have done on the late inquiry, and that he should have laid himself open to the severe censure he received at the hands of the Lord Chief Justice.