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Dr. William Palmer's cigar case with cigar, France, 1840-1855

What’s your poison? Finely painted onto porcelain, a pretty, young, slightly saucy woman adorns this Victorian cigar case. It still contains a single un-smoked cigar. It’s attractive, but is it remarkable? Might knowing who once owned this object change the way you look at it? Could this seemingly innocent object have a sinister past? We may associate smoking with premature death, but this cigar case has other lethal associations. It was once the property of William Palmer. Physician, racehorse owner, gambler……and killer. The so-called “Prince of poisoners”, one of the most notorious figures of the Victorian period. As a doctor, Palmer was expected to adhere to the spirit of the Hippocratic Oath – to abstain from doing harm to others. Instead, he broke it. This good doctor turned bad was convicted for one murder, but he may have committed another ten – at least. A charming rogue more interested in fine cigars and gambling than medicine, he was constantly in debt. In late 1855, a large win on the horses by his friend John Parsons Cook offered a way out. Within days Cook died in agony, from what was later described as strychnine poisoning. Palmer was prosecuted the following year. His trial caused a sensation, particularly when it was suggested he’d killed many others, including his wife and brother. It was even said that he murdered some of his children by getting them to lick a mixture of honey and arsenic from his finger. Such was his infamy, the pub refrain of “what’s your poison?”, is believed to be inspired by his exploits. He was publicly hung in front of a crowd of 30,000. And yet. A few scholars point to the circumstantial nature of the evidence, the prejudicial attitude of the judge and the public clamour against Palmer. Was he fairly treated? Could he even be innocent? Probably not, but would your perception of this object change again it he was?

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