Today’s world is brimming with stories of true crime, forensics, and serial killers, but there was a time when such things simply did not exist, nor did they occupy the public’s attention. Just a mere 150 years ago, the emergence of a new breed of killers began in Victorian England, the type that would begin a trend of visible depravity straight through to the 21st century.
These early crimes of heinous intent were some of the first to be recognized as an entirely new variety, committed by genuine psychopaths with no regard for morality or the law. In a time when the lack of science made the burden of proof nearly impossible, these vicious crimes not only shocked prudish Victorians, but had police scrambling to develop new methods for handling this unexpected brand of villain.
Giving rise to the need for profiling, alienists, and the like, these seemingly zipped-up killers reminded polite society—in no uncertain terms—that people are not always what they seem.
Dr. William Palmer
Otherwise known as the Rugeley Poisoner, William Palmer was an English doctor convicted of murder in one of the most notorious criminal cases of the 19th century. In the medical world, he made a profitable living and married a respectable woman named Ann Thornton in 1847. All seemed right in the world—his mother-in-law had recently been widowed and both she and her daughter had received a considerable inheritance, albeit somewhat less than Palmer had expected.
But when his wife’s mother turned up dead from an apparent stroke just a few days into her visit, things began to go south. A year later, another male guest also died unexpectedly in Palmer’s home. The couple then proceeded to have four children, all of whom died within the first few months of infancy—shocking even for the Victorian age. And lastly, Palmer’s own wife Ann passed away at the young age of 27, precisely around the time the good doctor started sleeping with their maid. Lingering on the brink of debt, Palmer took out life insurance on his brother Walter, who he then plied with gin and brandy until he died of toxicity. But the insurance company became suspicious and began an investigation into his brother’s sudden death.
Palmer’s lover then bore him an illegitimate son, both of whom died of poisoning shortly thereafter. Finally, Palmer was caught when he killed his best friend, John Cook, with a bowl of strychnine-laden soup.
It is a testament to the era that Dr. Palmer was not apprehended sooner, as he had left a literal trail of dead bodies in his wake for years. It was this case that forced authorities to begin the process of exhumation to determine blood toxicity of his past victims, and it was this evidence that led to the conclusion that Palmer was, in fact, a bonafide serial killer. In quaint English fashion, the good doctor was publicly hanged in front of 30,000 people in 1856.