William Palmer’s final words

William Palmer is credited with having said, as he stepped upon the trap door on the scaffold, “Are you sure this damn thing’s safe?” found on several web sites. True or just a story invented later? I cannot find any reference to him having spoken these words in any of the contemporary accounts of his execution.

Last words as reported in 1856

In the Illustrated Life, Career, and Trial of William Palmer of Rugeley published in 1856 it stated that, “After a brief prayer with the chaplain, he turned to the hangman, had the rope put round his neck, and the long cap drawn over his face. He then shook hands with his executioner , said, in a low voice, “God bless you;” and as the last word issued from his lips the bolt was withdrawn, the drop fell, and, after a slight convulsion of the limbs, he hung lifelessly from the gallows. So well had everything been managed by the hangman, so nicely had the fatal cord been adjusted, and so clear was the fall of the drop, that death was all but instantaneous.”

Bubbles and Indigestion

In Fletcher’s book The Life & Career of dr. William Palmer of Rugeley we are told that “On the morning of his execution, when the hangman came in to his cell, he was offered some wine before he was pinioned. When it was brought and poured out quickly, he blew off some bubbles and remarked “They always give me indigestion next morning if I drink in a hurry.” Within less than ten minutes he was dead”

Guilty or Not Guilty?

Before the execution party were due to start their walk to the gallows the Governor asked Palmer to agree that the sentence was just. Palmer replied, “Cook did not die from strychnine”. The governor told Palmer “This is not a time for quibbling. Did you, or did you not , kill Cook?” Palmer answered, “The Lord Chief Justice summed up for poisoning by strychnine.”

Much has been made of Palmer’s words in the absence of a confession of guilt. Was he saying that the sentence was unjust and that he was innocent of poisoning Cook or was he implying that he had poisoned Cook but not with strychnine?

The instant before they started the walk to the gallows the chaplain again tried to get Palmer to admit the justice of the sentence and Palmer was somewhat irritated and replied firmly “It is not a just sentence!”

“Then,” replied the Chaplain irritably, “your blood be upon your own head.”