Crimes not Murder

Theft, Fraud, Forgery, Bribery etc, etc:


There were stories from Palmer’s former school friends that he was, “always up to his tricks”, and that he would borrow money from men employed by his father. He would trick them in to giving him money with stories such as his father hadn’t any change and needed sixpence or a shilling which he then proceeded to pocket.

He was dismissed from his first job in Liverpool for stealing money sent by letter to his employers. Whilst at Dr. Tilecote’s there was a story that he cheated a farmer out of £5. A widow by the name of Mrs. Hawkins, who lived at Grey Friars in Stafford and had nine children, was” tossed by a bull”. The farmer, Mr. Parker, who owned the bull sent for Dr. Tylecote her ‘club doctor’ but he was ill and couldn’t come. So Parker sent for another surgeon Mr. Masfen and Tylecote sent Palmer so that he could make up any medicines that might be required. After Masfen had left Parker asked about Masfen’s fee. Palmer said it was two guineas. Palmer seeing that the farmer had quite a bit of money with him asked if he could change a five pound note for him. When the farmer gave him five sovereigns Palmer said that he had left the five pound note in the pocket of his other trousers but promised to send it over with the boy who was to deliver the medicine. Needless to say the five pound note did not arrive and five weeks later the farmer met Dr. Tylecote and complained that he had not received his money. Mrs. Palmer, William’s mother, eventually had to pay the money owed to the farmer.

In the suspicious deaths of Bladen, Bly and Cook there was the accusation that Palmer had taken their money.

As John Parsons Cook lay dying Palmer collected his winnings and used them to pay off some of his debts. Palmer would claim that Cook owed him the money but the gossips would have it as stealing. With the death of Cook no one knew the truth of the matter.

Fraud and Forgery

His debts grew and he obtained loans supposedly with his mother ‘s agreement to stand as guarantor that the money would be repaid. Several of the moneylenders were threatening to sue Palmer’s rich mother to recover their money. Eventually one of the money lenders sued.

On January 20th 1856, almost five months before his trial for murder, Palmer was taken from Stafford Gaol to London and appeared in the Lord Chancellors Court at Westminster as a witness. A Mr. Padwick had brought an action against Palmer’s mother, Sarah Palmer, to recover a bill for £2,000 dated July 3rd 1854. Palmer had been arrested on December 12th 1855 in connection with this matter the same day as he was later arrested for the murder of John Parsons Cook.

All witnesses that were called testified that the signature on the original document was not that of Sarah Palmer. When William Palmer was called he calmly stated that the signature was not written by his mother but that he had persuaded his wife (now dead) to write his mothers name and he had seen her do it. The case against Mrs. Sarah Palmer was dropped and Palmer was returned to Stafford Gaol to await the murder trial. Robert Graves in his book ‘They Hanged My Saintly Billy” makes the suggestion that one of the spectators at the trial in Westminster was none other than Jane Widnall (Smirke) a former girlfriend of Palmer’s who had returned, a widow, from Australia.


On one occasion when Palmer ran away from Dr. Tylecote’s to Walsall with a girlfriend he got into debt and his brothers had to pay his bills. In the early nineteenth century debt was considered a serious crime and those in debt often were given a sentence of transportation or, at least, long jail sentences. Palmer would have been a desperate man faced with his mounting debts.

Insurance fraud

Palmer tried to insure his brother with numerous insurance companies to the total value of £82,000 although in the end he settled for a modest insurance of £14,000. By employing Tom Walkenden to keep Walter sober long enough to get the medical clearance needed for the insurance he was committing fraud. If he had indeed poisoned his wife and his brother, as was suggested in 1856, his motive must have been to defraud the insurance companies.

Fixing horse racing /doping horses

Palmer, with his knowledge of medicines and drugs, is reputed to have been a ‘nobbler’ and that it was well known that he tried to fix the result of several races by doping the horses. Although never proved there were numerous rumours surrounding him, which was made worse in racing circles, when he got a reputation for not paying all his bets and in fact he had to borrow money to pay debts before his horses were allowed to race in some races.


Before Palmer’s trial the newspapers carried the story that Palmer had offered a bribe of £10 to the postboy if he would ‘upset the vehicle’, which he was going to drive to the railway station, carrying the jar carrying the organs removed at John Parson Cook’s post mortem. The postboy refused but Palmer’s friend was Samuel Cheshire the Rugeley Postmaster. Palmer had been in the habit of letting Cheshire borrow his carriage on Sundays to take his wife for a drive. Cheshire agreed to open a letter addressed to the Coroner. (Cheshire was later sent to prison for opening the mail.) Cheshire went to Palmer’s house where Palmer was in bed ill, he brought the news that Dr. Taylor had written to the Coroner to say that no poison had been found in the samples sent to him from Cook’s post mortem. It is reported that Palmer, on hearing the news, said to Cheshire “I am as innocent as a baby”. The Illustrated Times February 2nd 1856 adds:-

No doubt this little bit of information helps to raise Palmer’s spirits. All he has to do now is to make it right with the coroner W. Webb Ward Esq., so on the 8th December, he writes first of all a note to Mr. Frantz, the poulterer of Stafford, ordering some “nice pheasants and a good hare,” and then a note to the Coroner to accompany the said game. In this latter note he lets out that he has seen “in black and white,” Dr. Taylor’s statement to the effect, that no poison had been found, and he coolly enough suggests to the Coroner, that he should like a verdict, “died of natural causes, and thus end it.” These notes Palmer commits into the hands of Mr. George Bate, who starts off to Stafford. He goes to Mr. Frantz, the dealer in game, who says he is a pheasant short of the order, but will send the other things to Bate, at the Junction Hotel. Bate redirects the parcel, and gives the lad 3d. to carry it to Mr. Ward’s office. He next goes in search of Mr. Ward, whom he unearths in the smoking-room of the Dolphin Inn which owns the only billiard-room in Stafford. George having “tipped him a knowing wink,” the Coroner came out to the foot of the billiard-stairs, and there received the said letter.
On Thursday, the 13th, George Bate is again wanted on a similar errand. The adjourned inquest meets on the morrow, and Taylor’s evidence will then come out. Palmer is still ill in bed, and when Bate arrives, he is sent to Thirlby (Ben that used to be at Salt’s), to borrow a £5 note. This he came back with, but Palmer, in the meanwhile, seems to have thought the amount too little for his purpose. He therefore sets Bate to hunt for bank notes in a looking-glass drawer. George can only see one for £50, which Palmer we suppose thinks too much, and yet it is a question of life and death with him. At this juncture, a sheriff’s officer is announced.

The sheriffs officer had come to arrest Palmer for being in debt. Bate was ordered to go out whilst Palmer talked to the officer but then Bate was summoned again. The article continued:-

When he comes back again, Palmer hands him a letter to take to W. W. Ward, Esq., which he is to be sure no one sees him him deliver. George did not like so much secrecy, and he asked Mr. Palmer if he could not send some one else. Palmer replied, “Why, George, as this poor fellow Cook, they will find nothing in him; for he was the best ‘pal’ I ever had in my life, and why should I have poisoned him? and he added, “I am as innocent as you George.” George thereupon goes off to Stafford. This time he catches William Webb Ward, on the road between the Station and the Junction Hotel, and there slyly slips the note into his hand. Not a word passed; both of them no doubt understood each other.

Palmer was guilty of many crimes and was desperate to get out of debt, but was he desperate enough to poison his friend and racing companion John Parsons Cook?