For Dr. William Palmer of Rugeley in Staffordshire, murder was the solution to every problem, from an insistent creditor to a demanding mistress. He fathered a number of children, five by his wife and 14 others by 14 different women, and, unwilling to support them, evaded the problem by adulterating their feeding bottles with strychnine.

When he needed money, which he always did, he insured the life of one of his friends, poisoned him, and collected the cash.

Palmer adopted his extravagant lifestyle as a youth. His medical training was constantly interrupted by allegations that he was stealing money, and at the same time he was developing a reputation as a womaniser.

When he was working at Stafford infirmary he was accused of poisoning an acquaintance during a drinking competition. Nothing was proved, but the allegation was taken seriously enough by the hospital to impose tighter controls on their dispensary.

Palmer practised as a doctor in his hometown of Rugeley. He married Ann Brookes in 1847 and after the birth of their first child, their next four children all died as babies. Several people connected to him died in his presence, including his mother-in-law, and an uncle from whom he was due to inherit a small fortune, and at least two others to whom he owed money as a result of gambling debts.

In 1854 Palmer took out a £13,000 insurance policy on his wife Ann, whereupon she died, apparently of cholera. Nine months later his housemaid bore him an illegitimate child, but this baby died after a few months. Palmer then insured his brother Walter’s life for £82,000 – about £8 million in today’s money – but when Walter died a few months afterwards from drinking prussic acid mixed with gin, the insurance company refused to pay up.

By now Palmer was heavily in debt and was being blackmailed by a former mistress. Having no patients willing to trust him, he had given up medicine to concentrate on horse racing. But he never gave up any of his nicer characteristics – generosity, kindness, charm and hospitality. Among his racing friends he had the reputation of a good loser and a generous winner.

Thoroughly alarmed by Palmer’s scams at their expense, the insurance companies called in the police. When detectives visited him they found him at dinner. They told him solemnly that the bodies of his wife and brother were going to be exhumed as there was a strong suspicion of foul play, to which he replied, “Quite right too.”

When one of his racing friends, John Parsons Cook, won £2,000 at Shrewsbury racecourse, he and Palmer had a celebration party before returning to Rugeley. The following day Palmer bought some strychnine and invited Cook to dinner. After the meal Cook became violently ill and died two days later. His last words were, “I do believe that damned Palmer has dosed me.” He was right – Palmer immediately tried but failed to forge a cheque on his dead friend’s bank account.

Palmer was arrested for Cook’s murder. The bodies of Ann and Walter Palmer were exhumed and re-examined, but there was not enough evidence to charge him with their deaths. An Act of Parliament was passed to allow the trial to be held at the Old Bailey, for fear that a fair jury could not be found in Staffordshire.

Although all the evidence was circumstantial, the similarity between Cook’s death and those of known strychnine victims was enough to convince the jury. The accused listened to their verdict with calm indifference. At the time, the 12-day hearing was the longest ever for a murder trial in England.

On Saturday, June 14th, 1856, a crowd of 30,000 were outside Stafford Prison to see Palmer, then aged 32, hang. Even then there were doubts about the validity of the evidence – some believing that it was insufficient to convict him and that it was his reckless reputation that had swayed the jury.

The case of Dr. Palmer, dubbed the “Prince of Poisoners,” became a classic in the annals of Victorian crime and so alarmed some of the eminent burgesses of Rugeley that they petitioned the prime minister of the day to change the name of the town, on the grounds that Rugeley would forever be associated with Palmer, the Prince of Poisoners.

The Prime Minister agreed, but only if they would name it after himself – Palmerston. The shocked burgesses declined his offer.