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The Life and Crimes of William Palmer

Do (No) Harm: William Palmer is the Doctor Whodunit on MYSTERY!

photo of Keith Allen To those who knew him casually, William Palmer (played by Martin Chuzzlewit's Keith Allen) was a brilliant and respectable small-town physician. But those who knew him well . . . had trouble staying alive.

This fall, MYSTERY! presents a work of nonfiction--and a tale that is no less shocking than the most gruesomely clever plots concocted by the genre's most imaginative writers. The Life and Crimes of William Palmer, the true crime story of the notorious doctor who practiced medicine and murder in Victorian England, premieres on PBS in two chilling ninety-minute installments, Thursdays, November 12 and 19, 1998 at 9pm (check local listings).

The film opens in 1840s Rugeley with Palmer, a young medical student, confidently proclaiming his intention to become "the most famous surgeon in England." He is handsome, charismatic, and ambitious, and soon wins the hand of Annie Thornton (Jayne Ashbourne), a gentle and adoring young wife who is determined to do whatever it takes to help her husband succeed. "Annie was totally in love with William," says actress Jayne Ashbourne. "She was very young when she met him and totally swept off her feet. She'd also come from a very unhappy background--her mother was alcoholic and Annie was a social outcast because she'd been born out of wedlock. She saw Palmer as her salvation, in a way--her escape."

Likewise, Palmer looks to Annie--and the promise of a tidy inheritance on her mother's death--as his. Thanks to an extravagant lifestyle that far outpaces the income from his fledgling practice, Palmer is already deep in debt. Unfortunately for Palmer--and Annie's poor mother--while Mrs. Thornton (Linda Bassett) is obviously is not well, she certainly is not dying.

After the Palmers' first son is born ("Isn't he handsome!" Palmer exclaims. "He looks just like me!"), he invites Mrs. Thornton to live with them. In spite of her suspicions of the solicitous surgeon, she moves in, and within a week, moves out--horizontally, having succumbed to one of Palmer's poisoned palliatives. To Palmer's immense relief, her death is ruled a natural one, attributed to her all-consuming love of gin. But his salvation is hardly at hand: Annie's meager inheritance won't begin to cover the cost of the good doctor's many indulgences, from the best food and wine credit can buy, to an insatiable appetite for gaming.

When Annie delivers the news that their second child is on the way, Palmer declares his excitement, but is quietly consumed by the financial burden another mouth to feed will bring. Their daughter, Isabelle, dies ten weeks after her birth. Within a year, a third infant mysteriously dies. Then another. Her life shattered, the distraught and emotionally exhausted Annie is easy prey for the desperate doctor. When Palmer approaches her with a £13,000 insurance policy on her life, she signs, knowing that for all intents and purposes, the document is her death warrant. Palmer has grown accustomed to living beyond his means--and has found that murder is a very effective way of eliminating one's debts, not to mention one's creditors.

Though life expectancies in the mid-nineteenth-century were a good deal shorter than they are today, the rate at which the corpses pile up in the Palmer home still ought to have given one pause. But Palmer's polite Victorian-era neighbors seem content to chalk the deaths up to bad luck. Even the town's semi-retired former doctor, who arrives to examine the victims, finds more benign causes of death than the curious bottles of poison discreetly tucked away in Dr. Palmer's black bag.

Palmer's success is also largely attributable to the fact that he is utterly without conscience--a practicing surgeon and sociopath. He's the soul of solicitude--warmly inquiring about a friend's health, even while plotting to destroy it. He never lacks for drinking partners, despite the often fatal outcome.

As his financial woes pile up, so do Palmer's victims, from his hapless, but devoted, brother to his loyal friend and racing partner, John Parsons Cook (Richard Coyle)--whose death ultimately wins Palmer the long-coveted title of "most famous surgeon in England."

"I've never believed in total evil," says actor Keith Allen, "but William Palmer, who really has no saving graces, is about as close to it as you can get. What is most fascinating about characters like Palmer, real or imaginary, is that they can't lie. Palmer and people like him convince themselves that what they're doing is right somehow, and they negate everything else. They're not 'lying.' They're 'being.' A deadly character flaw--but also an extremely interesting acting exercise."

Introduction | More | Episode Descriptions | Cast and Production Credits

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