Playhouse 90: Season 2, Episode 7

The Mystery of Thirteen (24 Oct. 1957)

TV Episode  |   |  Comedy, Crime, Drama
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The story of William Palmer, one of the most notorious poisoners in Victorian England - or was he?



(story), (adaptation)
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Episode credited cast:
John Baragrey ...
John Parsons Cook
Romney Brent ...
Mrs. Palmer
Walter Palmer
Dr. Billy Palmer
Dr. Knight
Annie Brookes
Himself - Host


The story of William Palmer, one of the most notorious poisoners in Victorian England - or was he?

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Release Date:

24 October 1957 (USA)  »

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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Aspect Ratio:

1.33 : 1
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Did You Know?


An adaptation of Robert Graves's then-recent non-fiction book, "They Hanged My Saintly Billy", a biography of William Palmer. Graves's book had caused a minor sensation on publication by insisting that Palmer, hanged for murder in the mid-19th century following a hugely notorious poisoning case, was, in fact, innocent. This view is still not generally held to be likely. See more »

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User Reviews

"They Hanged My Saintly Billy!"
3 September 2006 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

I wish this drama, if it's kines-cope or video or film survives, would be shown again. I was all of three years old when it was on television, and if I saw it I cannot recall. Hopefully others who saw it, if they see my comments, may explain what it was like. But I would really care to know what it was like for these reasons:

1) It is based on a novel by Robert Graves ("I Claudius", "Claudius The God, "King Jesus").

2) It stars a young but up-and-coming Oscar winning actor named Jack Lemmon.

3) The central figure in the novel, based on a true story, is usually considered one of the worst poisoners and serial killers of 19th Century England, so Lemmon was playing a rarity - a negative, possibly villainous character.

Now I said possibly villainous - how's that possible? Well Robert Graves was always an original thinker and writer. He studied the case of Regina v. William Palmer (1856) and concluded that the forensic evidence was questionable, and that while Dr. Billy Palmer had a roguish personality (having many love affairs, many illegitimate kids, and gambling far too much money badly) he was never guilty killing anyone, especially his friend John Parsons Cook. Cook died after three days of "doctoring" by Dr. Palmer shortly after Cook won (and Palmer lost) a huge sum of money on a horse race. Cook's betting book vanished, but soon Palmer (who lost) was paying off debts left and right). Cook's family contacted the authorities, who started an in depth investigation of Palmer. There were rumors of the deaths of his wife Annie, and his brother (a drunkard) Walter, both of whom left huge insurance policies on their lives that benefited (you guessed it) Dr. Billy Palmer.

Despite a huge amount of curious and interesting details, and circumstantial evidence that should choke a horse, Graves' novel "They Killed My Saintly Billy" (based on a comment made by Palmer's mother: the full quote is like this - "I have had many children, and my saintly Billy was the best, and they hanged him!") insisted it was a monstrous miscarriage of justice. So, if this production followed Graves' novel, Lemmon plays an innocent man who is hanged. But was it that way or was it done as most people accept - that Palmer was guilty as hell. Then it ranks with only two other performances Lemmon made as a villain (one being John Wilkes Booth in a television version of "The Day Lincoln Was Shot").

Footnote: In my review of "Suspicion" I mentioned an apparent error by Hitchcock regarding a volume in the "Notable British Trials Series", in which his characters are reading about the career of one Dr. Richard Palmer a poisoner. I said it was supposed to be Dr. William Palmer. This is the same perpetrator as is the subject of this drama. The forensic issues in the case was that this was the first trial dealing with poisoning by strychnine. Also, due to vast dislike for Palmer, his trial had to be moved to the Central Criminal Court in London. A special act of Parliament was needed for this necessary change of venue. It remains known as "the Palmer Act".

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