Christiana Edmunds: Victorian Poisoner

Updated on January 17, 2018
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I've spent almost half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Christiana Edmunds was born in 1829 in Margate on England’s south coast. By the account of Historic U.K., she grew up to be “an ill-tempered, waspish spinster." On the other hand, she was described at her first trial as “a lady of fortune, tall, fair, handsome, and extremely prepossessing in demeanour.”

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Affair With Her Doctor

Whatever the true nature of her character, she had passions and Christiana Edmunds developed one for her doctor, Charles Beard, who she first met in 1869. By now, she was living in Brighton with her mother and sister.

The Berkshire County Record Office says Christiana’s affections were returned and there was a brisk exchange of love letters: “There was an intimacy, and it appears that they carried on some level of romantic relationship for the next year.”

Dr. Beard claimed there was no physical dimension to their affair but there was certainly an emotional one.

There was only one problem: the inconvenient existence of a Mrs. Emily Beard.

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Chocolate Creams Laced With Strychnine

Dr. Beard seems to have suffered pangs of conscience or he simply tired of the dalliance so, in the summer of 1870, he broke off the relationship. Such an action did not sit well with his ex-paramour.

Christiana Edmunds decided that Emily would have to become the late Mrs. Beard.

The Royal Pavilion and Brighton Museums record that, “Soon after, Christiana visited the doctor’s wife Emily, bringing a gift of chocolate creams. After eating one, Mrs. Beard was sick and her husband, suspecting foul play, banished Christiana from their home.”

Dr. Beard did not report his suspicion to the police, but shortly afterward, other people in Brighton started to fall ill.

In June 1871, four-year-old Sidney Barker was visiting Brighton on a day trip with his family. As a treat, he was given some chocolates and he soon became desperately sick and died. However, even though strychnine was found in chocolates he had been given, his death was termed accidental.

The owner of the shop where the chocolates were bought, John Maynard, was interviewed but found to be not responsible in any way for the child’s death.

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Sensational Trial of Christiana Edmunds

The Brighton Museum notes that the “trial began in Brighton, where it caused a sensation, and was moved to the Old Bailey (in London) in January 1872.”

The newspapers loved the story and dubbed the accused “The Chocolate Cream Poisoner.”

Witnesses testified that Edmunds had sent children to buy chocolates, an obvious ploy to disguise the identity of the buyer. In a plan that seems to have been copied in the 1982 Tylenol murders in Chicago, she injected the candy with strychnine. Then, she sent the chocolates back to the store saying they were not what she wanted.

Once more on the shop’s shelves, the chocolates then went about their grim task in a random fashion, although Emily Beard was targetted once again with a delivery of a plum cake to her house that succeeded only in making two of her servants ill.

At trial, a pharmacist testified that he sold strychnine to the accused, which she said she needed to get rid of some feral cats. At the time, it was easy to buy strychnine and other poisons over the counter.

Defence Relies on Insanity Plea

Faced with the overwhelming evidence, Miss Edmunds entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. A prominent expert testified that she could not distinguish right from wrong.

The Berkshire County Record Office recounts that “Drs. Charles Lockhart Robertson and Henry Maudsley, the famous psychologist, argued that Edmunds belonged to the ‘morally defective’ group of lunatics – a Victorian precursor to the later term of psychopath.”

The jury did not buy the argument and returned a verdict of guilty with no recommendation for mercy; accordingly, she was sentenced to hang. But, the mental health evidence had attracted the attention of Britain’s Home Office, and psychiatrists were sent to examine her. They found her to be insane.

In her book, Brighton and Hove Murders and Misdemeanours, Janet Cameron writes the last chapter: Christiana Edmunds was “reprieved and her sentence commuted to life imprisonment due to her mental state. Finally, she was sent to Broadmoor Prison for the Criminally Insane, where she remained for the rest of her life.”

Christiana Edmunds died in 1907, and some might argue that spending 35 years in a place such as Broadmoor was a harsher sentence than hanging.

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Bonus Factoids

A series of arsenic deaths in Essex in eastern England gave rise to what was aptly called the “poisoning panic.” Many Victorians lived in terrible dread of being poisoned although the likelihood of becoming a victim was very low. The Times newspaper didn’t help matters when, in August 1849, it published the following comment: “It seems almost clear that a woman who would not lift her hand against a man or child will unhesitatingly drop arsenic into their food.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation Supplemental Homicide Report examined more than 200,000 murders between 1999 and 2012. Men commit 90 percent of murders, mostly using guns. Women also find guns the most appealing weapon but they choose to kill their victims with poison six times more frequently than men.

Strychnine causes an agonizing death. It sends the entire nervous system out of control causing violent convulsions. These painful spasms come in waves until the victim eventually suffocates. It takes between 15 and 60 minutes to kill.

In Victorian times, strychnine, in very small doses, was used therapeutically to treat such mysterious ailments as “irritable nervous systems.”

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The physician tells the woman, “You need not be at all uneasy my dear Madam; if anything unpleasant should occur, you have the satisfaction at least of knowing that your husband has been POISONED according to act of parliament: and I need not say what a pretty widow you’ll make.”

Sources

  • “Women Poisoners: Murder in Victorian England.” Historic U.K., undated.
  • Broadmoor Revealed. Berkshire County Record Office, undated.
  • “Death by Chocolate.” Kate Elms, Royal Pavilion and Brighton Museums, February 14, 2011.
  • “Brighton and Hove Murders and Misdemeanours.” Janet Cameron, Amberley Publishing 2008.
  • “The Case of the Chocolate Cream Killer: The Poisonous Passion of Christiana Edmunds.” Kaye Jones, Women’s History Network, February 21, 2016.
  • “Christiana Edmunds (1829-1907).” Old Police Cells Museum, November 7, 2012.

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