Today I am particularly thankful for well-written historical true crime books and cheerily pass along my most recent discovery in our favorite genre, heartily recommended for true crime fans and Anglophiles, an update on the classic true crime story of Dr. William Palmer [Wiki]. The book is The Poisoner: The Life and Crimes of Victorian England's Most Notorious Doctor from Overlook Press.
It's an act of pure pluck to start a book with the subject's execution, and it takes quite some skill to make it a page-turner from there, but attorney-journalist Stephen Bates pulls off the storytelling marvelously in his update of this classic crime, one of the most sensational and celebrated cases ever to take place in the Old Bailey.
Dr. Palmer was sane, respectable, educated, professional, and -- improbable as it seemed to the mid-Victorians -- he was accused of going 'round dispatching friends and family for gain. His trial on a charge of murder coincided with a proliferation of cheap newspapers, and the country, even the world, was agog at the spectacle. No less than Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens commented on the case. Dukes and lords elbowed laymen in the gallery. Pressmen made fortunes from their depictions of the contradictions between the physician's "very ordinariness" and the testimony of unconscionable acts that led him to the gallows.
The author had a mass of material to draw on and did so superbly, carefully separating fact from fiction. In the popular imagination, Dr. Palmer was guilty of far more crimes for which there is adequate proof to judge even today, as the book delineates nicely. Dr. Palmer's mother-in-law, for example, was rumored to have predicted her death at his hand, to have told those around her upon the occasion of moving in with him that she'd be dead in a fortnight, which came quite true; she died twelve days after joining the household. This amazing prediction on her part has been repeated ever since in too many true crime titles to mention (it was examined at length, for example, by F. Tennyson Jesse in her remarkable Murder and its Motives), but the Mother-In-Law's Tale, the author tells us, is entirely apocryphal. Alas. I will comfort myself with the conclusion that it could have been true and ought to have been true and she should have known better.
The author also found salacious new details that speak to the character (or lack thereof) of Dr. Palmer and shared the delights of his research. In a clever last chapter, he includes opinions on the evidence from modern medical and legal experts, which is a particularly satisfying way to sum up any old mystery. I also like learning new words from my linguistic superiors, and from this title I acquired gammoned, shambolic, termagant, prorogued, and summum bonum.
I felt almost guilty for consuming in a few large swallows what must have been quite an effort to put together. Rather like the Thanksgiving dinner I'm about to gobble up, I suppose.