1846. Was George Abley the first victim?

Natural causes, misadventure, a prank gone wrong or murder?

The gravestone of George Abley and his grandson found in the graveyard of St. Michael and All Angels, the Parish Church at Colwich.
The gravestone of George Abley and his grandson found in the graveyard of St. Michael and All Angels, the Parish Church at Colwich.

There were reports in the newspapers and books in 1856 that whilst William Palmer was working for a short time as a “walking student” at Stafford Infirmary there was a suspicious death. The newspapers carried two versions of the gossip in the same article. My investigations of the story suggest that the events actually occurred in October 1846 after Palmer had left Stafford Infirmary, in fact, after he had qualified as a doctor and returned from London.

One published version is that, in spring 1846, Palmer invited a man called George Abley to the Lamb and Flag at Little Haywood and gave him brandy and water to drink but ordered the landlady to give him eight pennyworth of brandy rather than the usual four pennyworth. Abley soon became very intoxicated and refused to drink any more, at which point Palmer offered him a half sovereign if he could down another glass of neat brandy. Abley did so but was immediately sick and went out for a breath of fresh air.

Another version of the story is that Palmer was a regular visitor to the Lamb and Flag. One night he was having a drink with his friend called Timmis when Abley came in. Abley was a thin pale man who suffered indifferent health. As it was cold outside, Palmer offered to buy him a drink of brandy but Abley refused saying that he wasn’t much of a brandy drinker. Timmis reckoned that Abley was being modest, as he had seen him “knock back” three large brandies one after the other.

Lamb & Flag, Little Haywood in 2001, photograph by D. Lewis
Lamb & Flag, Little Haywood in 2001, photograph by D. Lewis

Palmer, always the gambler, offered to bet Timmis three to one in half-sovereigns that Abley could not drink more than one tumbler full of neat brandy. Abley wasn’t interested but Timmis took him to one side and offered him ten out of the thirty shillings that he could win if he took on the bet. Eventually Abley agreed to take the bet for fifteen shillings on the condition that Mrs. Bates the landlady kept the winnings until he was sober.

Abley drank the first tumbler without flinching whilst Palmer sat quietly holding the next drink. Palmer agreed that he had drunk the first one manfully but would wager that the next one would make him choke. Abley knocked the second drink straight back and everyone had a good laugh at Palmer’s expense and even went so far as to suggest that, as times were so hard, for fifteen shillings he would consider drinking another one. Presently however Abley turned a bit green and said that he would go out to the stable for a breath of fresh air. Everyone forgot about him whilst Palmer entertained the bar by telling a funny story which Timmis followed with even ruder ones.

Both versions have a similar ending when an hour or so later they realised that Abley had gone missing and they went in search of him. Abley was found stretched out on some old sacks in the stable groaning and clutching his stomach with both hands. It took two men to carry him home and put him in a warm bed. Unfortunately he died later that night.

At the inquest on Abley, all but one of the coroner’s jury were satisfied that, since he was a pale thin man of indifferent health, to drink two full tumblers full of brandy on an empty stomach and then to lie in a cold stable for an hour or two had caused his death. They recorded a verdict of “Death from Natural Causes”.

Edward Jenkinson the foreman of the Jury, however, strongly disagreed with the verdict of all the other jurors. At the inquest there were rumours about Palmer and Abley’s rather buxom wife. Palmer was said to have fallen for her when she had been an outpatient at the Infirmary but that she would not have anything to do with Palmer saying that she would be faithful to her husband. A Times newspaper reporter however, in 1856, wrote in The Illustrated Life, Career and Trial of William Palmer, that, “At the inquest there was a great deal of talk about Palmer and Abley’s wife which was undoubtedly true.”

In the local public houses Jenkinson freely told, anyone who was prepared to listen, his opinion of Palmer, stating that if only people had listened to him all the sordid events would not have occurred. Others at the time however reckoned that Jenkinson was a bitter man who disliked men like Palmer who were popular with the ladies, having himself received several refusals to his offers of marriage.

Abley was buried in churchyard of St. Michael and All Angels at Colwich. His Death Certificate Issued on 30th November 1846 for the Stafford Sub-district of Colwich gives us some additional details: Abley was 27 when he died on the 24th October 1846; his occupation was given as “plumber and glazier” (rather than the occupation shoemaker given in some reports). The exact cause of death given by the Stafford Coroner, William Ward, is recorded as “Exhaustion the result of diseased blood vessels of the lung”.

Note that the date on the death certificate is after Palmer had qualified as a doctor and some time after he had left Stafford Infirmary although the all the stories printed in 1856 said that Abley died whilst Palmer was a “walking student” at the Infirmary.

Was it a case of natural causes? – Misadventure? – A prank gone wrong? – Murder? We will never know for certain!