Did the Press convict Palmer before his trial?

It is extremely interesting to look at the role played by the national newspapers in the five months leading up to Palmer’s trial. All news came from London even the news printed in local papers. They appear to have tried Palmer and found him guilty well before his actual trial. The newspapers in the Mid Nineteenth Century had far more freedom to report on cases before trial than they do today and really ‘did a hatchet job’ on Palmer. Some examples of articles written months before his trial in May 1856 are given below:

The Rugeley number of the Illustrated Times 2nd January 1856 published a damaging fifteen page supplement that had statements from most of the key witnesses. It said this of William Palmer.

Palmer is spoken of as displaying at this period peculiarly fascinating manners when in the society of women. This is not at all unlikely; for he appears to be one of those individuals who make up for their want of brilliant parts by the assumption of a certain superficial amiability, which causes them to be regarded as universal favourites by their own, as well as by the opposite sex.
Later in life, Palmer still preserved his agreeable manners. He was always popular with the poor, and liked by the public generally. Since he has become a betting man he has never shown himself secretive of sporting news of value, and he has seemed always glad to put money in the way of poor men eager for the excitement, sans the risk of betting. These qualities obtained for him considerable influence in his own town, and in the sporting circles of the midland and northern counties. He was, moreover, what has been called a liberal man. Ask the servants at the various hotel she frequented within thirty miles of his native town, and they will invariably speak of him as “a nice, pleasant sort of gentleman.” But he was never respected. Latterly, his companions have been of low class, and he only differed from them in his temperate habits and equable tact of manner.

Even vague compliments are tainted by criticism.

The Illustrated London Times 19th January 1856 painted an unflattering picture of, and presumed the guilt of, William Palmer.

William Palmer was popular with the poor and with the public generally; for he had a pleasant manner, was never secretive of sporting news of value, and always glad to put money in the way of poor men eager for the excitement sans the risk of betting. He thus obtained considerable influence in the town and in the sporting circles of the midland and northern counties. But he was never respected. Although young (about thirty-four), he has lived apparently an indefatigably mischievous life, and his character was tolerably well understood as a man who “would not stick at a trifle.” His companions were of a low class, and he only differed from them in his temperate habits and equable tact of manner. His wife was greatly beloved as a gentle, amiable, extremely feminine women; and his notorious unfaithfulness to her, his prolonged absences from her, and the extreme solitude in which she was left in that hideous house in that hideous town, induced dislike of him, originating in pity for her. Now that all the dreadful story is divulged, the daring character of the man is well understood. His attempt to bribe the postboy to smash the jars containing the viscera of Cooke, as these jars were being carried to the station for transmission to London – his taking from the telegraph-office the copy of the message – his hint to the weak postmaster to open and read a letter – his reckless misrepresentation to the insurance offices of the social position of Bates, his stable help – his attempt to seduce his maid servant the very night of his wife’s death – all these facts are sufficiently suggestive. But stories of that character have been rife for years about him. The day his wife died it was whispered by two or three persons in Rugeley that she had not been properly treated by him. We may infer from Cooke’s dying hints that sporting men had “queer” ideas about the “Doctor;” and when the insurance-offices began to make inquiries so long ago as September – that is, long before Cooke’s death – they, of course, were influenced by the common talk about Palmer. If it should be proved in the end that he is one of the greatest of villains, it will also be ascertained that he was one of clumsiest. There is none of the heroic finesse of the historical poisoner about him, His utmost art was to keep out of the way of vulgar arsenic and palpable prussic acid. If he selected refined agents of murder, his process was of the coarsest kind. That he attempted and did so much is accepted as proof of his ability. Of his infamous audacity there can be no question; but what the case proves is the stupidity and timidity of those around him in not sooner dragging him to justice. The utmost that he succeeded in, as a matter of management in his career, was in withholding from the mass of people in Rugeley and Stafford any ground for believing in “motive” for crime. No one knew up to the last moment that he was heavily in debt. When his wife died people said that he must lose money by it, as the annuity left her by her father died with her. He had a large stud of horses; and had among his own neighbours the reputation of being a successful betting man, while it was seen and known that he was not extravagant. It is now perceived that he was from the first, and continuously, in difficulties. In physique he presented none of the points of a man of finesse, either for a “book” for a “poison.” He was clumsily built, with a course red face. This figure and complexion, with the accompaniments in both cases of thin fair hair and sandy whiskers, have suggested the statement that “Palmer is the image of Manning.” In strong, selfish, sensual natures there is probably a general resemblance. But Palmer looks, we are assured, more “gentlemanly” than Manning did.

Three months before the trial ‘The Rugeley Number of the Illustrated Times’ dated February 2nd 1856 was feeding the country lurid details in words and pictures of the case.

Under the heading THE RUGELEY TRAGEDIES an article started:

If any readers should think a justification necessary of the course we have this day adopted in making familiar to the public eye the various scenes connected with that fearful series of tragedies which, within the past few weeks, have sent a thrill of horror throughout the land – if they think we are to blame for having transferred to our columns these speaking likenesses of that hitherto obscure circle of individuals, whose names have been on the lips of almost every man, woman and child in the three kingdoms since intelligence of these tragedies became bruited abroad – to them we reply, that we conceive in what we have this day done we have only fulfilled the office that devolves upon us as the conductors of an illustrated journal. We cannot agree with that squeamishness which allows long wordy descriptions of places and individuals to be perfectly admissible and which refuses to tolerate those productions of the pencil, the skilfully indicated lines of which are more suggestive than columns and columns of the best written descriptions. Does even one of our readers believe that “The Times,” or any other of the Morning Journals, would not readily avail themselves of the means which we posses and make use of were it only possible to adapt them to the exigencies of a daily newspaper?
The labour that we have been for weeks engaged in, and the results of which are now before the reader, was not entered upon with the idea of pandering to a mere vulgar curiosity. Our object was to lay bare a great social vice, which is gnawing away at the very core of society, and which every day shows to be rapidly on the increase – namely, the fearful amount of gambling in human life for the sake of pecuniary gain. Any one who scans these columns with attention, will approve the spirit in which we have performed our task.

There follows fifteen full pages devoted just to the Palmer case and using such phrases as ‘If public rumour be worthy of credit’ , ‘Rumour goes on to say that ..’ virtually accuses Palmer of being a mass murderer before he was even tried for one murder.

In an earlier edition of The Illustrated London News dated January 19th 1856 we find assumptions of his guilt before a trial:

The first time that the finger began to be pointed at the house of Wm. Palmer was four or five years ago, when a man of the name of Bladen, a brewer’s collector, and a defaulter in his accounts (which is significant in a friend of Palmer’s), on a visit to Palmer, fell ill at Rugeley, was treated by Palmer, and died after a few days sufferings. But no one knew a motive, and no one spoke above a whisper.
The whisper was again heard on his wife’s death …….

Later in the same article it says:

“If one were now to believe all the stories of gentlemen who had drank their liquor in Palmer’s company of late years it would be demonstrated that he was hankering after murder day and night.”

And later still the article says:

“Yet in the assizes in March, the counsel for the prisoner will doubtless, as a desperate resource, suggest the insanity of Palmer. “

The newspapers controlled from London had decided upon his guilt way before a trial. Were the newspapers politically motivated? Did someone in high office want Palmer found guilty and did the publicity surrounding the trial take publicity and attention away from some near rebellious unrest in the country at the time?

See also How Trials Differed from Today web page – the Contempt of Court Act 1981.