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Keywords and key domains. … in the Trial of the "The Rugeley Poisoner" (William Palmer). The Palmer Trial. Took place – May 1856

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keywords and key domains

Keywords and key domains

… in the Trial of the "The Rugeley Poisoner" (William Palmer)

the palmer trial
The Palmer Trial
  • Took place – May 1856
    • Note - a new Act of Parliament– The Palmer Act - was rushed through parliament so that the trial could be held at the Old Bailey in London (it was felt that he would not receive a fair trial at the Stafford Assizes).
  • Accused of: poisoning John Parsons Cook, and forgery
  • Outcome: “Guilty”
    • Palmer was hanged at Stafford 14th June 1856
  • Subsequently convicted of murdering his wife, Anne, and his brother, Walter, by a Coroner’s jury (also rumoured to have murdered his child/children).
  • For more details, see: Dave Lewis’s website:
exploration of opening speeches
Exploration of opening speeches

In particular,

  • Sir Alexander Cockburn (Attorney General)
  • Mr. Serjeant Shee, Q.C. (late replacement for Mr. Serjeant Wilkins)

Why the Palmer trial?

  • First ever trial in Britain where someone was accused of murder by strychnine.
  • Came after the Prisoners’ Counsel Act (1836), which lifted the felony counsel restriction (i.e. defence counsel not being allowed to address the jury (May 2003: 87))
  • Fitzjames Stephen described it as “exhibit[ing] in its very best and strongest light the good side of English Criminal procedure” (1890: 269)

Not looking at the closing speeches because:

  • The Defence was not permitted to make a closing speech summing up the case on behalf of the prisoner until the introduction of the Denham Act 1865
one truth tetanus but two explanations
One truth – tetanus – but two explanations:
  • Both the Prosecution and the Defence agreed that Cook died from tetanic convulsions (or “tetanus” = a disorder of the nervous system) - but they did not agree upon what caused the tetanus.
  • At the time of the trial there were considered to be three main types of tetanus:
    • idiopathic tetanus = the cause of a disease is not known.
    • traumatic tetanus (or "lockjaw“) = caused by an infected wound.
    • tetanus due to strychnine (now known not to be a form of tetanus).
exploring keyness cockburn versus shee
Exploring “keyness” (Cockburn versus Shee)

Both use “Cook” freq. – but they differ in respect to how ….

Cluster with bills, forged, betteddebt, turf …

tracing the crime narrative throughout the rest of the trial
Tracing the “crime narrative” throughout the rest of the trial …

Attorney General:

  • Words that are “key” in the examinations as well as his opening speech – found, health, period, symptoms
  • Words that were not key in opening speech, but which nevertheless belong to (statistically) significant semantic fields – health, dose, muscles, tissues, pills, doctor (= medical),convulsions, convulsive, sickness, disease, fever, sick, vomiting

(= the symptoms/outcome of sickness)

fatal, deceased (= death) horse (= gambling)forged, commit, crime (= illegal activities)Bamford, Cheshire, Padwick, Bates, Hawkings, Newton, women, chambermaid, Boycott, Gardner, Tattersall, Shrewsbury (= people and places important to/involved in the crime narrative)


  • Words that are “key” in examinations – Cook’s, coroner, Dolly’s, mother, Stephens, Dutton, Barnes, Lavinia, Talbot (= people important to the crime narrative)yesterday, before, now, times (= (periods of) time)coroner, throat, vomited (= medical)swear, asked, talk, spoke, stated, complain (= verbal activity)
  • May, Allyson N. 2003. The Bar and the Old Bailey 1750-1850. Chapel Hill, NC: Univrsity of North Carolina Press.
  • Stephen, Fitzjames. 1863/1890. A General View of the Criminal Law. London.
  • Archer, Dawn. 2006. Tracing the development of “advocacy” in two nineteenth century English trials. In M. Dossena and I. Taavitsainen (eds.) Diachronic Perspectives on Domain-Specific English. Bern: Peter Lang; Linguistic Insights series, pp. 55-68.