January 25th - The Murder Trial of William Palmer, Surgeon

This album is a recorded recreation of a murder trial which took place in 1855, in which William Palmer, former surgeon, stood accused of poisoning his friend and fellow sportsman John Cook in just about the most ostentatious way possible. It is apparently one of the "Celebrated Trial" series on Folkways, although I cannot find any others, and there is literally no information in the liner notes about why this particular trial has been chosen to be recreated in a series of ever more hilarious accents.

However, reading a little bit more about the case is kind of mind-blowing. Instead of just this single murder, William Palmer had probably poisoned thirteen people, including five of his own children, his wife and his mother-in-law, at the time of his trial - only hiding this maelstrom of death because people in 19th century England died so much anyway. In this particular case, Palmer was only suspected because he acted aggressively guilty at every possible step - including making a big scene about how non-poisoned Cook's drink was immediately after poisoning him, getting caught rifling through Cook's clothes for money immediately after he died, coming up behind the doctor performing the autopsy and physically shoving him at a crucial moment. It's like the Fawlty Towers  of murder. The trial itself was a sensation, just because of the heinousness of Palmer's crimes and also because of how obviously guilty he was - I mean, he mailed a 10 pound note to the coroner with a request that the death be listed as "natural causes."

This is actually the first album I think maybe you might not want to listen to all the way through, because hearing people talk about grains of strychnine for an hour and a half can get a bit tedious. But there is a lot of interesting stuff here - for instance, there are like 7 various doctors and surgeons involved in this case and all of their diagnoses differ in major respects and only one of them has any actual experience with strychnine poisoning in people - and he is called to the stand just to explain what that looks like. It's incredible to listen to medical testimony from 150 years ago where people are literally just guessing at why some guy died - the method by which they're trying to detect strychnine is literally opening up his stomach and poking around for loose grains of strychnine. It's a deeply interesting case...but maybe not the most interesting to listen to.

Click here to read liner notes and purchase this album from Smithsonian Folkways