Famous Last Words
Stafford, Staffordshire, England
June 14, 1856
“Are you sure it’s safe?” (Attributed)
Palmer was hanged for the murders of his friend, John Cook. It was suspected that Palmer, a man who enjoyed gambling but was not particularly good at it, had poisoned fellow-gambler Cook to steal his winnings. Palmer had already had a string of unfortunate deaths follow him, including his mother-in-law, his wife, his brother, his uncle, 4 of his 5 legitimate children, at least one illegitimate child, and two people to whom he owed money. It has been speculated he murdered at least some of the family members for their life insurance or inheritance (some of the children may have been victims of the high infant mortality rates at the time), while the creditors were killed to keep from repaying his gambling debts.
Palmer denied poisoning Cook with strychnine until the very end, even as he was asked on the gallows to confess his guilt or innocence. When asked if he murdered Cook, Palmer stated, “Cook did not die from strychnine” to which the prison governor replied, “This is no time for quibbling – did you, or did you not, kill Cook?” Palmer still did not confirm nor deny his guilt, and simply replied “The Lord Chief Justice summed up for poisoning by strychnine.”
A highly-publicized crime at the time, Palmer’s public execution brought a crowd of an estimated 30,000 to witness his hanging. The case is also believed to be the origin for the phrase “what’s your poison?” when referencing to alcoholic drinks.
The last words attributes to Palmer — “are you sure it’s safe” or “are you sure this damn thing’s safe?” — after looking dubiously at the trap door, were most likely not spoken by Palmer. The earliest known reports of these final words were from 50 years after his execution. But, as it is pithy and memorable, the statement continues to be attributed to Palmer.