William Palmer, a surgeon practicing in Rugeley, Staffordshire in the mid-19th century, seems to have been quite a piece of work. Gifted with overwhelming ambition as well as a taste for the good life, he took advantage of his professional knowledge and social standing to bump off people who got in his way or who simply, to paraphrase Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, had been around a little too long and could be turned into hard cash. Palmer’s chosen method was poison, and thanks in part to the primitive nature of criminology at the time (autopsies were rarely performed and even if they were, might be conducted in a far from scientific manner), he got away with it for years.
Of course there’d be no story if he didn’t get caught eventually, and because Palmer was tried in London (due to fears that a fair trial in the small town of Rugeley would be impossible), his case received widespread publicity. So widespread, in fact, that the citizens of Rugeley petitioned the Prime Minister to change the name of their town, feeling it had been unfairly besmirched by Palmer’s dark deeds. The name change never took place, as it was granted only on the condition that the new name be that of the current prime minister, Lord Palmerston, which was not exactly the fresh start the townspeople were hoping for.
Palmer’s shady dealings are the subject of the television program Prince of Poisoners: The Life & Crimes of William Palmer, an ITV Yorkshire production which originally aired in 1998 in both the UK and the US (in the US it appeared as part of the WGBH Mystery! series). It was also released on DVD in 2005 under the title The Life & Crimes of William Palmer.
Don’t let the original release date scare you, however: this production is firmly in the Heritage Television style and could have as easily been made in 2010 or 1990 or any of the years in between. That’s not a criticism, just an indication of what to expect: a somewhat antiseptic version of Victorian England populated with an able cast of actors wearing lovely costumes and an efficient script which makes the story perfectly clear even if you’re only half paying attention.
As presented in Prince of Poisoners (the actual historical record is somewhat less clear) Palmer’s taste for better living through chemistry began while he was in medical school as a simple way to erase gambling debts. Returning home to Rugeley, he indulges in a lifestyle his surgical practice can’t support but another source of funds presents itself in terms of an annoying mother-in-law whose demise bears the promise of a substantial inheritance. Murder by poison proves to be such an easy and consequence-free way of dealing with financial troubles that the bodies soon begin to pile up.
You might wonder why someone doesn’t notice that it seems to be extremely unhealthy to be a relative or associate of Mr. Palmer, but this is more understandable given the high rates of mortality at the time, as well as the societal reluctance to question a gentleman of Palmer’s social standing. When his luck runs out, there’s a delicious irony in the way that the science of chemistry, for so long Palmer’s friend and accomplice, switches sides to become the agent of his downfall.
Prince of Poisoners is no blockbuster in the Bridehead Revisited sense. Instead, it’s a modest effort more along the lines of Grenada’s Sherlock Holmes series, but without the intrinsic interest of the Conan Doyle stories. The sets are a little too obviously sets, the script a little too efficient, and the storytelling devices a little too dated (both Palmer and his wife get “realization montages” which attempt to take us inside their minds) to make this show a classic but it’s certainly enjoyable enough to watch if you’re a fan of historical dramas and/or British television.
Keith Allen does a fine job as the sociopathic Palmer, selling the character as someone who was so free of ordinary human emotion (although certainly not lacking in charm) that he fooled nearly everyone for years. Jayne Ashbourne is radiant as his beautiful young wife, while Judy Cornwell makes the most of her role as Palmer’s mother, playing her as a sort of Lady Bracknell type.
Unfortunately, the weak link in this series is the script which has little interest in exploring either Palmer’s character or of the historical context of the times. A few brief scenes (a tooth-pulling, a childbirth) are included to give you an idea of the state of medical practice in England in Palmer’s day, but they’re so perfunctory that you feel screenwriter Glenn Chandler must have been impatient to get on to the next murder while some promising set pieces (a Christmas party, a day at the racetrack) feel like they’re over almost as soon as they’ve begun.
The total run time for Prince of Poisoners is 157 minutes, split into three parts spread over two discs. It’s a bare-bones package with the only extra being text biographies of three cast members (Keith Allen, Jayne Ashbourne, and Judy Cornwell). These are not an entire loss, however as along with the usual acting credits there are a few choice tidbits included, such as the fact that Keith Allen plays in a band with Damien Hirst of sharks-in-formaldehyde fame.