Details of the execution – the crowd, the scene, the drop!

The public execution was set for 8.00 a.m. on Saturday June 14th 1856

His brother (a clergyman) unsuccessfully made last minute appeals for a reprieve. He stressed in the appeal the dangers of convicting a man on circumstantial evidence alone. On the Friday it was announced in Stafford that Sir George Grey, in reply to a petition for Palmer’s reprieve had, decisively and solemnly, stated that the law must take its course.

The night before the execution

Palmer was visited by his solicitor Mr. Smith. Palmer told him that “I am innocent of of poisoning Cook by strychnine. All I ask is that you have Cook’s body exhumed and that you will see to my mother and boy.” He gave Smith a present which was a book entitled ‘The Sinner’s Friend” and wrote inside the cover ‘The gift of William Palmer June 13th 1856’.

Late on the night before his execution William was visited by by both his brothers and his sister. It was said that he had accepted his fate and that apart from a slight nervous twitch in the corner of his mouth he was calm. After his visitors had left he was given brandy and water and at 1.00 a.m. he slept. He was awoken at 2.30 a.m. to prepare himself for a visit from the Prison Chaplin the Reverend R. H. Goodacre.

Before the Hanging

The Reverend Goodacre stayed with Palmer from 2.30 a.m. until 5.00 a.m. and tried to get Palmer to confess that he was guilty. Goodacre returned at 6.30 a.m. and remained until 7.30 a.m. All through Palmer categorically maintained that John Parsons Cook was not murdered by strychnine.

He was visited by another clergyman the Reverend Henry Sneyd

The Start of the Hanging

7.30 a.m.
Palmer was given a cup of tea and more brandy and water

7.40 a.m.
Palmer was joined in the condemned cell by the High Sheriff Lt. Col. Dyott, the Under Sheriff R.W. Hand and the Prison Governor. They told him that the time had come to carry out the sentence and he was quietly led to the press room. Here they were joined by George Smith the hangman who was introduced to Palmer who showed no emotion. Smith tied Palmers hands and Palmer asked that Smith did not draw the cord (rope) too tight before the drop. It is said that Palmer was extremely calm at this point. He was then taken to the Chapel where he received the ‘Sacrament’.
The Chaplain made another visit. He asked Palmer if he was satisfied with the justice of his sentence. Palmer replied emphatically “No!”. The chaplain left and Palmer told the officers that he had never changed his version of the events and asked them to pray for his child. The chaplain came again and tried unsuccessfully to get Palmer to confess his guilt. he then said “Then your blood be on your own head”.

7.53 a.m.
At seven minutes to eight the prison’s death bell tolled which marked the start of the procession to the gallows. Palmer had a ‘jaunty stride’ and even a smile on his face. The party included the Reverend H. Goodacre who read the extracts from the burial service, the High sheriff and Under Sheriff Mr. T. D. Atkinson, the Chief Constable J. H. Hatton, the Governor and Deputy Governor, the Head Turnkey Mr. Chidley and warders George Plimmer and George Roberts as well as members of the press. Palmer, dressed in a prison suit, was paraded in front of the other prisoner’s as a warning to them. They had to walk across the crescent yard past the prison hospital to the lodge and out into the road and all the time the ‘horrid twang’ of the death bell sounded.

They were greeted by cries of “Murderer” and “Poisoner” as he came out of the prison gates, and a “powerful and indescribable sensation agitated the vast crowd”. Palmer seemed to be the one least affected by the occasion. When he came out of the prison he was tripping along between the guards trying to avoid the puddles of water. Many people started to laugh at this because in only a few minutes time he would not be in any condition to worry whether his shoes were dirty or not.

As he was led to the gallows there were great roars of ‘Murderer’ but as he neared the scaffold there were cries of ‘Hats off’ and the noise died down to be replaced by by a breathless silence apart from some nervous laughter amongst the crowd.

A sketch of the portable gallows which were used at Stafford from August 1817 until public executions were prohibited by an Act of Parliament in 1868
A sketch of the portable gallows which were used at Stafford from August 1817 until public executions were prohibited by an Act of Parliament in 1868


The Crowd

In spite of heavy rain throughout the proceeding night the crowd was estimated to be between 30,000 and 35,000, the majority of which was made up of men. Many of them walked the ten miles from Rugeley. Special trains came from Birmingham, Stoke-on-Trent and London. By dawn hundreds had already taken their stand in the most favourable positions.

In Stafford the heavy drizzle did not stop the atmosphere of anticipation and excitement. The public houses had stayed open all night as did many of the Non-conformist chapels.

From mid-night onwards the Wolverhampton Road had been packed with people and carriages

There was much jostling to get a better view of the gallows. There were gangs of miners from local pits hell bent on trying to force their way to the front with no respect for anyone else. The Greyhound Inn in County Road opposite the prison did a roaring trade.


The Scene

They erected the portable gallows in the street just outside the gates of the gaol at 4.00 a.m. in the morning and people took this as a sign that there was to be no last minute pardon. At least twenty platforms had been built near the prison to give good views of the execution, with people being charged up to a guinea for a good view and the area around the prison had been packed from 5 a.m. as the crowd jostled to get a good view. There were even some platforms erected on roof-tops to give people, willing to pay, a good view of the hanging.

One hundred and sixty men from the local constabulary with a further one hundred and fifty specially sworn constables were on duty to control the crowd. The Staffordshire Advertiser at the time commented upon the good behaviour of the crowd generally compared to some of the unruly behaviour seen at hangings in London.

The ‘Drop’

A pale faced Palmer climbed the ladder of the gallows with a ‘firm step’. Smith the Hangman placed him in the centre of ‘the drop’. A noose was placed around his neck and Smith drew a a long white cap from his pocket and, amidst a murmur of horror from the crowd, drew it over Palmer’s head. The crowd was disappointed because Palmer did not make a ‘death speech’. He shook hands with the hangman and there was silence. The hangman swiftly descended the ladder whilst there was almost universal silence except for the chaplain reading aloud. A noise of a bolt being slipped was heard and the crowd gasped, the body fell and after a very brief struggle, it was all over. Palmer had not put up a struggle and it was all over very quickly, so quickly that many of the crowd felt that they had been cheated and cried out ‘Cheat!’ or ‘Twister!’. The body was left to hang for the usual time, namely one hour, before being cut down and taken back inside the gaol for burial.

Palmer’s was not the last public hanging in England. That awful distinction goes to Michael Barrett hanged outside Newgate Prison, London on 26th May 1868 for his part in the Fenian bomb outrage on December 13, 1867, which killed twelve people outside Clerkenwell Prison. George Smith was the hangman for the last public hanging outside Stafford Gaol which was a rather bungled affair on July 5th 1866 when an eighteen year old William Collier was hanged for murder. The first attempt to hang Collier went wrong when the rope failed to remain tied to the beam and the poor man had to go through the ordeal a second time. Executions from then on were carried out within the prison up until 1914.