Greg's Family History

Palmer the Poisoner

Readers of this website will have noticed my fascination with the way that family history intersects with the seamier side of life! Having found some slight connection to Jack the Ripper (see 'The Eabys'), it will come as no surprise that I was delighted to sniff the possibility of a connection to another notorious Victorian murderer - Doctor William Palmer, the 'Prince of Poisoners'.

I first came across the story of William Palmer in the 1970s when I moved to Rugeley in Staffordshire to start my first teaching job. Palmer is probably Rugeley's most famous son. During 1855 and 1856 he made its name notorious throughout the world as the details of his life and crimes came to light. The case was reported on a massive scale - easily equal to that of the Wests or Harold Shipman in modern times. Palmer was shown to be that most despised of beings - a doctor who killed those that he should have been caring for.

The details of Palmer's crimes are described in great detail elsewhere on the web: suffice it to say that he ran up huge debts gambling on the horses - which he tried to repay by murdering his victims for their life-insurance. He was eventually hanged for the murder of his friend, John Parsons Cook - though he was also charged with murdering his own wife, Ann, and was suspected of poisoning four of his children as well as several other friends and relations.

For seven years I 'shared space' with Palmer. I stocked my toolbox with purchases from the ironmongers shop which occupied the house in which he had lived; I drank in the public house where he murdered John Cook and I attended the same church. It is not surprising that my interest was aroused when my family tree appeared to be spreading in his direction.

When I first discovered my local roots (see 'An Unlikely Coincidence') I put a lot of effort into researching the various families by the name of Brookes who lived in Stafford in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The most eminent of these was that of Francis Brookes who lived from about 1742 to 1811. Francis was a lawyer and was for many years town clerk. He had four sons of whom two died young (they are said to have committed suicide). Of the survivors, Francis junior succeeded him as town clerk, and William went to India where he joined the East India Company's army rising to the rank of Colonel.

Although outwardly respectable, Francis junior and William were not model citizens. In their wills, each provided for an illegitimate child. Despite Francis being a lawyer, the wills were sufficiently badly drawn up that they were challenged in court - ensuring that we now have newspaper reports giving us the gory details. Both brothers had fathered daughters, Appolina Biddulph (Francis) and Ann Thornton (William). Both girls appear to have been placed under the guardianship of a relation, Charles Dawson of Abbots Bromley.

Ann Thornton's mother was Mary Thornton. According to newspaper reports of the time, Mary was Colonel William Brookes' housekeeper - she was also a drunkard. She would sometimes pursue the Colonel through the streets of Stafford in a drunken rage, not caring who saw her or heard her shouting. In 1834 Colonel Brookes committed suicide - possibly driven to it by Mary's behaviour.

After the Colonel's death, Ann went to live with her guardian, Charles Dawson, in Abbots Bromley. It was here that she met William Palmer. The couple fell in love and were married at Abbots Bromley on 7th October, 1847. They settled in Palmer's home town of Rugeley where he 'put up his plate' and began to practise as a doctor. Over the next few years Mary Thornton, Ann Palmer, four Palmer children and William's brother, Walter, all died in mysterious circumstances while living at the Palmer's house. The only surviving Palmer child, William Brookes Palmer, later moved to London where he practised as a lawyer.

So far, I have not been able to establish a direct link between this Brookes family and that of my ancestor Thomas Brookes. It is quite likely that there will prove to have been no connection at all though at present I think this is unlikely. Stafford was a small community in the eighteenth century and Thomas's family have several connections with the legal profession. His wife, Mary Perry, appears to have been related to Humphrey Perry - a lawyer who was Mayor of Stafford in about 1700; a branch of his mother's family were lawyers; A member of another Stafford legal family, Edward Barlow Seckerson, though he became a clergyman, appears to have been named after an uncle of Thomas.