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Noah Palmer

Anne-Marie Ford    -    5 October 2014

Noah Palmer, a Gypsy horse trader, who emigrated with his family to the United States, was to gain considerable notoriety in both the American and British newspapers, for in 1890 he murdered his wife, Britannia, in a drunken rage. The Western Gazette of 16th May 1890 carried the story as it had first appeared in the New York journals, under the heading “Murder and Suicide in America by a Somersetshire Man.”

[There are] reports of a murder in a Gypsy encampment at Morrisville, on the banks of the Delaware, on the 24th ult. by Noah Stanley, a native of Nether Stowey, near Bridgwater, Somersetshire and formerly an inn keeper there. Palmer, with his wife, two sons and two daughters, had attached themselves to a Gypsy encampment and, on the night in question, Palmer, reported to have been drinking somewhat heavily, entered the tent where his wife was sleeping and awoke her. Palmer drew a revolver and aimed at his wife and fired, the ball crashing through her right temple and killing her almost instantly. The report of the weapon aroused everybody in the camp and the men hastened to the tent. A son of the murderer sprang upon his father to wrest the revolver from him, but the old man “with the strength and velocity of a wild beast,” shook him off, and holding everybody in the tent at bay, succeeded in sending a ball into his own head. He reeled and fell a few feet from the body of his wife. He soon regained consciousness, however, and then asked his son to shoot him through the heart. The son refused, “No, I won’t do anything of the kind; you are going to be saved for the rope.” In the meantime, one of the daughters, almost distracted, ran to the river side and attempted to throw herself in the water, but was prevented by a man seizing her round the waist. The murderer, in a dying state, was subsequently moved to a wagon and placed under arrest, but he died the following day.

It is stated that the man and his wife frequently quarrelled and a month previously Palmer tried to kill his wife with an axe. The murdered woman, who was in the habit of telling fortunes, prophesied the night before that she knew something dreadful was shortly going to happen to her.

When Noah and Britannia Palmer and their family appear in the American1880 census they are in California, and Noah is recorded as a stock dealer. The children are listed as Nathaniel (29), Nellie (21), Charles (18), Sibera (16), Sarah (13), Cassea (7) and Samson (5). Contrary to earlier census records, Noah claims all, save Samson, were born in England, and that the boy was born in Ireland. Perhaps this is where they took ship to sail to America.

In Somerset, in 1861, Noah seems to have had two strings to his bow, working as both a horse dealer and an inn keeper, he is found with his wife, Britannia, formerly a Cooper, daughter of Nelson and Isabella, their son Nathaniel, born in North Petherton, Somerset in 1852 and daughters Isabella and Merilla, born in America. Two years later the family are in London, baptising Lydia Isabella, born 10th September 1856 and Mosella (Merilla), born 13th September 1858, together on 10th October 1863 at Chelsea St Luke, Middlesex. The following year a son, Charles, was baptised, on 10th January, in Camden Town, Middlesex.

At St George, Hulme, Lancashire, a daughter, Siberia, was baptised on 11th March 1866, having been born on 10th February. She was the child of horse dealer Noah Palmer and his wife Venus Palmer, formerly Smith. This baptism may seem of little relevance, as Noah’s wife was Britannia Cooper, and the location considerably distant from their usual territory, but returning to the American census of 1880 would suggest otherwise. Who is the child Sibera listed as part of the family if not this daughter, baptised in Lancashire in 1866?

Of course, the mother could be another partner of Noah’s, but this seems extremely unlikely, given that a Sibera/Siberia is with the family in America as a daughter of Noah and Britannia’s; her birthdate fits into the pattern of the family neatly, after Charles was baptised in London in 1864. In the census record Sibera is listed as two years younger than her brother. Interestingly, Britannia, although a Cooper, was also a Smith, the daughter of Nelson Cooper and Isabella Smith, was Venus an alternative name? It seems to be the only time that she uses it on any record.

Noah is believed to be the brother of Hameline and Samson Palmer, who had emigrated to America in the second half of the nineteenth century, and almost certainly the Charles Palmer whose census record in 1871, at St Pancras, Middlesex, includes some significant family names. Like Noah, Charles is a horse dealer, and is found with his wife, Georgiana Lee, and children Edward, aged 21; Remembrance, about 20; Ernest, 17 years of age; Hameline, aged 14; Elizabeth, about 12; Susan, 5 years old; Emma, aged 2. Even more fascinating is the 1861 census, where Charles and Georgina are found in Chelsea, London, claiming to have just returned from America themselves. The children are listed as Edward, Remembrance, Lydia, all born in England and Hamelin, born 1857, Elizabeth, born 1859 and Melara born 1861, all three recorded as being born in the United States. Charles and Noah both seem to have been prepared to make the arduous journey to America more than once. Perhaps their occupation as horse dealers had something to do with this.

However highly-coloured and melodramatic the report of Noah Palmer’s murder of his wife and subsequent suicide is, and it is presumably taken from an inquest hearing, the events of that night were deeply tragic. It is likely the two sons and two daughters in the tent at the time were their younger children; the newspaper report does not name them. However, a few months later, in July 1890, Sarah, “daughter of Noah and Britannia Palmer,” was to marry Thomas Wells and, in January 1891 Cassea/Cassie, her sister, also married, to a distant cousin, Leonard Stanley, a horse trader. Surely these two young women were the most likely candidates for the daughters, together, very probably, with Charles and Samson.

Cassie does not seem to have harboured hatred or even resentment towards her father following these terrible events, however, as her little son with Leonard was baptised Noah; tragically, Cassie herself was dead by May 1892, “aged 18 years,” and her baby son, Noah, by the November of the same year. In April 1893, in Massachusetts, the death of a 27-year-old horse trader, Leonard Stanley, is also recorded. The little family obliterated as definitively as Cassie’s parents had been.

Cassie was not the only daughter to marry a member of the Stanley tribe. Surely, the Siberia Palmer found with her husband, William Stanley, in New York in 1910, claiming birth in about 1867, is the daughter recorded as the child of Noah and Venus Palmer. Known children of William and Siberia were Viola, born in New York in 1897; Charles, baptised on 10th February 1899 in Massachusetts (and perhaps named for her brother); Ernest and Beatrice, both born in New York in 1903 and 1906 respectively. They had also had a son, William, who was born in Connecticut in 1895, the “son of William and Siberia Stanley”, but died on 1st March 1896 in Delaware, a location close to where Noah was camping when he killed Britannia. It was, very probably, a regular stopping place.

Copyright © 2014 Anne-Marie Ford