Poisons and Cures: Strychnine and the Murder of John Cook

If you weren’t aware, we have quite a range of drugs, drug bottles and packaging in our collection. You’ll also find that we have an illustrious array of poisons. 

Today we’re going to be talking about strychnine. If you want to find out more, you’ll have to attend our next Insights lecture Poisons and Cures on Saturday 7th October. It’s about – you guessed it – poisons and cures!

Was strychnine a poison or a cure?

Strychnine was not quite as readily available in the 19th century as poisons like arsenic. In fact, it was both a poison and a cure. It was available as a rodent killer, but it was also used medicinally as a cardiac, respiratory, and digestive stimulant. It was even proposed as a recreational drug, a gold-medal-winning performance enhancer and a potential treatment for hangovers.

What are the effects?

It is very toxic to humans and many other animals. Strychnine is so toxic to humans that it has never been ethically studied as the risks are too great. Most of our evidence comes from poisoning cases; some intentional, some accidental!

Strychnine causes respiratory failure, muscle spasms, agitation, seizures and brain death. It can happen as quickly as a few minutes after taking strychnine and can last up to 24 hours causing a very painful death. One such death was a man in 1855 called John Cook.

The Murder of John Cook: Dicing with Death

John Cook was murdered by his friend, the physician, Dr William Palmer in 1855. John Cook had inherited some money from his family and liked to bet on the horses; something he did with Palmer (often more successfully). Palmer was a physician but also a gambler, fraudster and murderer. He likely defrauded his mother of thousands of pounds before murdering her and his brother. He may have also killed four of his children in their first years of life, so he didn’t have to feed them. But it was John Cook’s murder for which he got caught.

Dr William Palmer (Credit: Public Domain)

A Day at the Races

Palmer was heavily in debt and his creditors were threatening to expose his previous frauds. After attempting to get a life insurance payout on both his brother and his servant, he set his sights on John Cook’s horse racing winnings.

One day in November 1855, Palmer and Cook went to bet on the horses. Cook was successful and went for a celebratory gin with Palmer. That night, Cook became violently ill, believing he’d been poisoned. Nevertheless, he recovered and returned to the pub with Palmer a few days later. Palmer continued to pry Cook with ‘gin’, using his status as a doctor to take responsibility for Cook. 

The next day, Palmer began collecting money from bets on Cook’s behalf before purchasing 3 grains of strychnine from a local doctor’s surgery. He gave Cook two ammonia pills which were probably laced with the strychnine and Cook died in agony, screaming and convulsing in pain.

Palmer’s diary recording the death of Cook (Credit: Public Domain)

How did they catch William Palmer?

Cook’s stepfather, William Stevens suspected foul play and called for an investigation. Meanwhile, Palmer got another doctor to write a death certificate. A postmortem did take place, but one of the doctors was drunk and Palmer was able to interfere with the examination! He sabotaged the postmortem by keeping a jar of Cook’s poisoned stomach contents for ‘safekeeping’. The jars were eventually sent for examination but found to be of no use.

A second postmortem was carried out and Palmer tried to bribe the coroner, requesting the verdict be “natural causes”. Despite the lack of forensics, Palmer was eventually accused and tried for murder by strychnine and hanged the following year.

Does Thackray Museum of Medicine have any strychnine?

Yes! Pictured below is some of the strychnine from our collection. You can look, but whatever you do, don’t touch it!

If you’d like to see some more examples of poisons, potions and paraphernalia, you can explore Thackray Museum’s collection online here.

(Above: Thackray collection item number 2005.0321)