Stephen Bates turns his eye to 19th century Victorian England and the period’s most notorious medical serial killer Dr. William Palmer in his latest book The Poisoner, on sale May 15th. The Poisoner offers a deeply researched and revelatory look at one of the most fascinating true crime stories in history. In 1856 William Palmer was convicted of murdering his best friend, but was suspected of poisoning more than a dozen other people, including his wife, children, brother and mother-in-law. Investigating all the gory details of each alleged poisoning, Bates weaves a compulsively readable tale that exposes the sinister underside of Victorian Britain like never before. Please welcome Stephen Bates as he joins us today on the Winged Elephant to discuss the research and inspiration behind this fascinating book!
OP: In The Poisoner, you describe not only an account of one of the most prolific serial killers in history, but also the enormous degree of media attention that the investigation received. What drew you to this story, nearly one hundred and sixty years after the fact?
SB: It's a long story: as best I can remember, deep in the recesses of my memory, my original interest was sparked nearly half a century ago when I was taken to Madame Tussauds' waxworks in London as a child. I know I didn't venture into the Chamber of Horrors, but I saw a photograph of one of the waxworks there in the Tussauds' brochure: it was of a Victorian gent called William Palmer: round faced, benign and respectable, but no information about why he was in with the murderers. Apparently his effigy was up in the Chamber for more than a century until the 1970's...
I'm not saying that it started an obsession but at the back of my mind I always wanted to find out more about him - and eventually the journalist in me sniffed out a nearly forgotten, gothic Victorian murder story: a melodramatic midnight poisoning by candlelight in a Midlands coaching inn - and what a tale - no wonder it excited and terrified the reading public around the world in the 1850's!
OP: Why do you believe that Victorian murder cases became such huge sources of entertainment for the public?
SB: Victorian murders suddenly became big news for a 19th Century audience that was now able to read newspapers that were for the first time cheap, up-to-date and readily available - and journalists realised that stories about 'orrible murders sold papers. In England, Palmer's arrest and trial came six months after the government abolished taxes on newspapers and just as new printing techniques meant papers could be printed much more quickly and in much greater volumes. The new railways meant that they could be on the nation's breakfast tables the following morning. And the Palmer case contained lots of scary ingredients: a middle class, respectable doctor using a new and undetectable poison insidiously to kill all his nearest and dearest - it was a sensation, not only here but in the US and as far away as Australia.
We think of the Victorians as being terribly prim and upright: this story shows they were far from being that!
OP: Despite being centered in the Victorian period, The Poisoner has surprising resonances to today’s world, what are some of correlations you see between the Victorian and contemporary worlds and why do you think these have endured?
SB: Palmer's murders were very much of their time but what surprised me was how modern many of the elements of the case were: Palmer was desperately short of money having got into serious debt because of his obsession with horse-race betting. His gambling was out of control and he faced financial and social ruin: probably even prison or transportation if he defaulted.
He had to go to money-lenders to bail him out and they charged exorbitant interest rates, laced with threats if he didn't pay up,which made matters worse: sound familiar? Fortunately as far as he was concerned there seemed to be a way out: lax insurance regulations meant he could take out life cover policies on those he was about to murder: the insurance salesmen didn't care because they were working on commission for the policies they took out so it was in their interest to turn a blind eye to why he wanted to take them out. He got a payout on his wife after she died - and within a few months the same insurance company was prepared to underwrite his seriously alcoholic brother's life for an enormous sum too. It was only when he died within a couple of months that they started to smell a rat....
OP: Can you tell us a bit more about the research process? How long did you spend writing the book, and how difficult was it to access primary documents like William Palmer’s private letters and the trial’s transcripts?
SB: The book took about a year to research and write once I got down to it: there are very few books on the case and most that there are were written at the time - none more recent than Robert Graves's novel (not up to I Claudius standard!) written in the 1950s. Thank God for online antique book sellers: I managed to get an immaculate bound copy of the full 1856 trial transcript and a quickie newspaper book about the case that way - it contained many of the vivid original illustrations used in my book 160 years on.
Even so, I was amazed how much archive material was available: the British National Archives at Kew in London had six catalogue references to Palmer, so I turned up expecting six documents, only to find that there were actually six boxes full! It was obvious that some had never been looked at since 1856: legal documents, witness statements, letters, lawyers' notes during the trial which were clearly just bundled up at the end, put away and never looked at again. At the trial much was made of the fact that Palmer had supposedly been fascinated by poisons since he was a medical student in London in the 1840s and his notebook from that time was flourished by the prosecution. Well, in the file in Kew: there is that notebook, 150 pages of lecture notes in Palmer's own handwriting: I read it right through - first time anyone's done that probably since 1846 - and guess what? No mention of poison! It was a lawyer's rhetorical trick.
Then there were the local archives in a dusty library in Staffordshire. This contained the notes Palmer wrote to his mistress in the summer before his arrest: 34 of them tracing their relationship from start to finish. They are just like modern Tweets - a few words, or lines long, except you can see the blots and the rain drop stains from when she opened them! They are an extraordinary story in their own right: making assignations, suggesting what they'll have for dinner (lobster), what they will do when they meet, what to tell the nosy neighbours, little jokes - and then the mood grows darker as he plans an abortion for her. The letters are marked: "burn this!" but she didn't - and the reason is clear, because she eventually tried to blackmail him. He paid her to return them but by then the law was closing in and he never got them back...and that's why they are in a dusty file in an obscure library today. It makes the hairs stand on the back of your head to hold these notes in your hand, just as she did, to see his handwriting and to read his plans - plans that never came to pass because of his appointment with the hangman. All we know of the woman is that she was called Jane - but I make some guesses who she might have been and there's even a surprising possibility about what happened to the baby.
SB: Yes, I went into journalism after leaving university, because I wanted to write. It was a great job: I worked in the British media for 36 years: in television and radio for the BBC and then for national papers: the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and for more than 20 years The Guardian. The job took me round the world and to many countries and I ended up interviewing prime ministers and presidents, archbishops and princes, film stars and criminals...but I knew that ultimately I wanted to write books. And finally I've got my chance!
OP: What are you reading at the moment?
SB: I am reading a lot about the Regency period in Britain for my next book, which is specifically about the year 1815 - it's due to be published for the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, which was fought in that year and ended the long Napoleonic Wars. I am enthralled: the battle itself was a huge event, but there was also Jane Austen...regency dandies...blood sports and boxing matches....the industrial revolution in full swing...possibly the greatest event of the year: the biggest volcanic eruption in recorded history at Mount Tambora in Indonesia, which had unforeseen climatic, economic and political effects across the globe - and even the little matter of one of Britain's most humiliating military defeats, on a swampy plain outside New Orleans. But we Brits don't tend to talk about that too much....