Sweet Poison: Three Toxic Tales From Victorian England

Updated on February 16, 2020
anncarcat profile image

A writer from the north of England, Ann enjoys writing about the unexplained and the paranormal, as well as historical crimes and mysteries.

The use of poisons and toxic substances was commonplace in Victorian England. Housewives got rid of flies, rats, cats and even the occasional spouse using over the counter products.The use of poison wasn’t confined solely to pest control : arsenic, strychnine and even phosphorous were used for cleaning, cosmetics and homemade ‘cure all’s’. It is not surprising then that so many innocents succumbed to a painfully poisonous death. Masked by the sweetness of sugar, poison could easily go undetected in candies and cakes. Cheap, effective and often untraceable, it was the weapon of choice for many killers, particularly women. Hundreds lost their lives to accidental and deliberate overdoses but three cases stand out more than others for the sheer shock, horror and revulsion they elicited. One was a dreadful accident that forced a long needed change in the law, the other two were wicked, cold blooded murders.


The Bradford Sweet Poisonings

The Bradford of 1858 was a lively, bustling place. At the centre of the Industrial Revolution, the town grew rapidly in the nineteenth century, attracting thousands of workers to its textile mills. For the working class, life was hard. Conditions were poor and luxuries were few and far between. A bag of humbugs on payday must have seemed like an enormous treat. When William Hardaker set up his sweet stall in Bradford Market, one evening in 1858, he hoped to entice the mill workers into spending their hard earned pennies. He had no idea that he would soon find himself in court accused of causing the deaths of 21 people. Humbug Billy, as he was nicknamed, had bought his stock cheaply that day. There was something not quite right about the texture and shape of the black and white lozenges that were his stock-in-trade and he had negotiated a discount. Being a fair man Billy passed on the reduction to his customers. As the mills and factories emptied and the market filled, he found that sales were brisk. People cared little that the sweets were misshapen, they were a delicious and affordable treat after a hard week’s work.

Poor Victorian Children
Poor Victorian Children

That night, two small children died. At first their deaths were blamed upon cholera but as more and more people fell ill, local doctors realised that they had a poisoning epidemic on their hands. Within days, 21 were dead and 200 were seriously ill. The source of the poison was soon traced back to Humbug Billy and he was arrested for murder. A mystified Billy had no idea how the sweets had become contaminated and protested his innocence to the police. He was unaware that the solution to the mystery lay in the production of the humbugs and the perfectly legal practice of adding ‘daft’ to cheap sweets. Sugar, at that time, was heavily taxed and out of reach of most working people. Daft was a mixture of limestone and plaster of Paris. Added to sweets and cakes it made a little sugar go a long way. As far as Humbug Billy was concerned, he was innocent. Within hours of his arrest he pointed an accusing finger at the manufacturer of the lozenges, James Appleton.


Equally dumbfounded, the confectioner Appleton readily admitted that he had manufactured and sold 40 pounds of humbugs to Hardaker. He also conceded that he had sold them at a significant discount.There was clearly something wrong with the shape and texture of the sweets but he’d put this down to the fact that he had been feeling ill on the day of production. Indeed, when he thought about it, his illness began when he was mixing up the ingredients and continued for some days after. An examination of his kitchen proved that there was nothing wrong with the sugar, gum or peppermint essence that were used to manufacture the sweets. The only other ingredient was the daft that had been used to stretch the sugar. The confectioner informed police that he had sent his lodger, James Archer, to purchase 12 pounds of daft from a pharmacist called Charles Hodgson. He then used the whole 12 pounds in Billy’s humbugs. The police made further enquiries and discovered that on the day the purchase was made, the pharmacist was ill and Archer was served by the assistant Joseph Neal. Neal knew that the daft was kept in a casket in a dark corner of the cellar. Unfortunately, next to the casket of daft there was an identical casket of arsenic. Both were poorly labelled and in the dim light Neal carelessly mixed up the two, with fatal consequences.

A Cartoon of the Time
A Cartoon of the Time

Hardaker, Appleton and Neal were all accused of manslaughter and were sent for trial. Eventually, the three were acquitted.Their acquittal did little to assuage the demand for justice by a public outraged at 21 senseless deaths. The matter was taken up by parliament and laws changed forcing pharmacists to clearly label their products and to take greater responsibility when selling poison to the public. The food industry was also forced to regulate the adulteration of ingredients used in foodstuffs. From then on the public would be informed exactly what went into the food they ate.

Victorian Fruit Cake
Victorian Fruit Cake

The Fruit Cake Murder

Victorian mental asylums were, more often than not, places of horror and misery. Those that entered often never left. Abandoned by their families, the mentally ill were treated as sub human and subjected to the most harrowing of conditions. When 26 year old Caroline Ansell lost her mind after the death of her brother, her parents reluctantly committed her to Watford Mental Asylum. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Caroline was not forgotten by her family. They continued to write to her and occasionally, when they could afford it, they would send small parcels of food. When Caroline received an anonymous parcel containing a fruit cake in 1899, she was not altogether surprised. A kind young woman, she shared a portion of the cake with some of her fellow inmates but devoured most of it herself. Within hours she was dead and others who had eaten the cake, seriously ill.


As with all unexpected deaths, permission was sought from the next of kin to carry out a post-mortem. In Caroline’s case, the next of kin was her father. Astonishingly, Mr. Ansell refused but was overruled by the coroner. Within days it was established that the unfortunate Caroline had been deliberately poisoned using phosphorus.The motive for murdering the young woman was baffling. She was virtually penniless and had no known enemies. The only clue the police had, was the packaging from the cake which bore the killer’s handwriting. After questioning the asylum staff, police discovered that another attempt had probably been made on Caroline’s life in the preceding months. The young woman had received an anonymous parcel of tea and sugar. The contents of the parcel were thrown away by the asylum staff after Caroline claimed the tea was bitter and the sugar, strangely damp. Whoever had killed the young woman was clearly determined. Desperate to discover a motive the police made an examination of Caroline’s meagre belongings. Amongst her bits and pieces they discovered a puzzling letter informing her that her parents had died. In fact they were very much alive. The author of the cruel letter was Caroline’s cousin Harriet Parrish who immediately became a suspect. Fortunately, Harriet could prove the letter was a forgery. The only other line of inquiry open to the police was the discovery of a Christmas card. The handwriting within looked suspiciously like that of the cold blooded murderer and led the police in a very unexpected direction.

Victorian Christmas Card
Victorian Christmas Card

The Christmas card had been sent by Caroline’s younger sister, Mary Ann. Mary Ann appeared to be a respectable young woman who worked as a housemaid for a wealthy family in London. It was difficult to see what her motive was for killing her older sister. Nevertheless, Mary Ann piqued the interest of police and when she requested a copy of the death certificate before the post-mortem had been performed, she went straight to the top of the suspect list. A few enquiries later and the truth began to unravel. Mary Ann was desperate to marry her fiancee but the young couple had no money. To raise some funds the housemaid decided to take life insurance out on her ‘mad’ sister before killing her. No doubt she thought that she had planned the perfect crime. She began by informing her sister that their parents were dead. By doing this, she hoped the asylum would bury Caroline quietly without notifying her parents or opening an inquiry. She then purchased phosphorous from a pharmacist near her employer’s home and added it first to tea and sugar and then to a cake she baked for her sister. She sent both to the asylum as gifts making a minimal attempt to disguise her handwriting. Her second attempt at murder was successful. When she realised that a post-mortem was to be held after her sister’s death, she forged a letter from her father, denying permission. The evidence was largely circumstantial but hugely damning. Mary Ann was arrested and charged with murder.

 Victorian Gallows
Victorian Gallows

The trial of Mary Ann Ansell, was ironically, short and sweet. Lasting barely more than a day, she was found guilty and sentenced to death. Her parents appealed to the Home Office to commute her sentence. They suggested that like her murdered sister, Mary Ann was insane. Their appeal for clemency fell on deaf ears as did the support of 100 Members of Parliament and the general public who believed that Mary Ann hadn’t received a fair trial. Mary Ann Ansell was hanged on the 19th July 1899. Even as she walked to the gallows, the 22 year old believed her sentence would be overturned. Unfortunately the reprieve never came.

The Chocolate Cream Killer

In the late 1860’s, Christiana Edmundson and her mother moved from Margate in Kent to the genteel seaside town of Brighton. They left behind a tale of family tragedy that they were keen to keep hidden. Once a successful architect, Christiana‘s father had died of syphilis induced madness, her brother was in a lunatic asylum and her sister had thrown herself from her bedroom window in a bid to commit suicide. Comfortably off, educated and charming, the two women were welcomed into upper middle class society and settled easily into fine lodgings on Gloucester Road. Christiana was a single lady in her early forties but she had not given up hope of marrying well and her ambitions were soon directed at a local doctor, Charles Beard.

Victorian Brighton
Victorian Brighton

Dr. Beard was a married man with three children. He was later to admit to a flirtation with Christiana but denied anything further. Christiana on the other hand had fallen in love and was entertaining thoughts of marriage. Just one thing stood in her way, the inconvenient Mrs. Beard. On a September evening in 1870 when she knew Dr. Beard was away, Edmunds paid the unsuspecting wife a visit. She took with her a bag of chocolate creams laced with strychnine. When Mrs. Beard declined the sweets Christiana popped a chocolate into the stunned woman’s mouth. Overcome by the bitter taste the doctor’s wife spat it out immediately. When her husband returned the next day, Mrs. Beard recounted the strange tale. Incensed, Dr Beard confronted Christiana and accused her of attempting to poison his wife. Edmunds of course denied the allegation. Shattered by Beard’s rejection and accusations she decided to prove her innocence and win him back in the most bizarre way possible.

A Victorian Confectioners
A Victorian Confectioners

Christiana had purchased the chocolate creams from a respected confectioners, Maynard’s. It was the unfortunate Mr. Maynard’s bad luck that he now became central to her dastardly plan to deflect suspicion from herself and onto the innocent man. With scant regard for human life, the deranged Edmundson set in motion a chain of events that would terrify Brighton and result in the death of at least one little boy.

A Victorian Paper Vendor
A Victorian Paper Vendor

In March 1871 a heavily veiled woman approached a young newspaper vendor, Benjamin Coltrop. The woman offered the boy a bag of Maynard’s chocolate creams. Young Benjamin accepted them gratefully and ate the delicious treats over the next few hours. That evening he was overcome with pains in his limbs and a burning throat. He was hospitalised the next day but after a week or so made a full recovery. A few days later the same veiled lady visited a Brighton stationery shop and left a bag of chocolate creams behind on the counter. When she didn’t return the proprietor allowed his son to eat them. The poor child became violently ill vomiting for days and suffered with sore stiffened limbs. Christiana’s third victim that March was a little girl called Emily Baker. She had seen Emily playing in the street and offered her a bag of chocolate creams laced with strychnine. The child only just survived.

Victorian Errand Boys
Victorian Errand Boys

Peeved that she wasn’t garnering enough publicity in her plot to discredit Maynard, Christiana moved her plan up a gear. She had secured a steady supply of strychnine under a false name and now began to employ local errand boys to purchase and return doctored chocolates to the confectioner’s. Edmunds would send a boy to Maynard’s to buy a bag of chocolate creams, surreptitiously replace them with some she had laced with strychnine, then ask the boy to return the sweets to the shop with the excuse that they were the wrong ones. This way she could ensure that the contaminated sweets were mixed in with larger batches. Maynard’s customers began to fall ill without knowing why. Of course Christiana knew that it was the chocolate creams that were to blame. Emboldened by the fact that nobody suspected her, Edmunds had the audacity to complain about the quality of the sweets to Maynard. It was the first complaint the confectioner had received in 28 years of business.

Brighton Tourism
Brighton Tourism

As Summer approached and more and more tourists flocked to the seaside town, panic spread through Brighton. People were falling ill but the source could not be found. On 12th June 1871, 4 year old Sidney Barker, a visitor to the town, was given a bag of poisoned chocolates by his uncle. The little boy died in agony poisoned by strychnine. The chocolate creams were quickly identified as the source and an inquest was organised. The shameless Christiana was called as a witness as she had complained of feeling ill after eating Maynard’s sweets. She also wrote three anonymous letters to Sidney’s parents urging them to take police action against the innocent confectioner. When the verdict was recorded as ‘accidental death’ and Maynard escaped punishment, she was furious.

A Victorian Hamper
A Victorian Hamper

By July, Edmunds was finding it increasingly difficult to obtain strychnine and the confectioner, Maynard, had finally realised that somebody was tampering with his products. It was time for a change of tack. Christiana began to make up hampers of fruit and cake which she laced with arsenic. Travelling to London she posted them back to a number of influential Brighton women, including herself. One of the recipients was Mrs. Beard. Although she didn’t eat the contents of the hamper, she allowed two of her maids to indulge. When they became violently ill, Mrs. Beard and her husband became suspicious. The following day Dr. Beard reported his fears to the police and Christiana Edmundson was finally arrested.

Christians Edmunds Flanked by the Beards
Christians Edmunds Flanked by the Beards

In August 1871, Christiana’s trial began. Despite her mother pleading that her daughter was insane, the overwhelming evidence went against her and she was found guilty of murder. Sentenced to hang, Edmunds immediately ‘pleaded the belly’ but an examination by a midwife proved that this was a lie. She also attempted to blame Dr. Beard for her misfortune.

She took her sentence with extreme indifference, only showing a very strong desire to throw the blame of her poisoning enterprise on Dr. Beard.

— The Spectator, January 1872

After an appeal Christiana Edmund’s sentence was commuted to life. She lived out her days in Broadmoor Mental Hospital eventually dying in 1907 at a ripe old age. During her years of incarceration she never once showed remorse for the life she had stolen from 4 year old Sidney Barker, a little boy who paid a terrible price for a bag of Maynard’s chocolate creams.



The Spectator


The Chocolate Cream Killer by Jade Wimbledon: My House My Street

The Case of the Chocolate Cream Killer: The Lady Poisoner of Brighton: nowrigglingoutofwriting.com

The Case of the Chocolate Cream Killer: Kaye Jones


Victorian Murders: Jan Bondeson



Dying for a Humbug,the Bradford Sweets Poisoning: Historic UK

Mark Davies Photography



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    Post Comment
    • anncarcat profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carney 

      6 months ago from UK

      Thank you Tim.

    • Tim Truzy info4u profile image

      Tim Truzy 

      6 months ago from U.S.A.

      Astounding tales. Thank you for these stories. It's interesting how a little carelessness cost so many lives in the first story, but a change in the law certainly helped. Great article.

    • Asad Dillz profile image

      Asad Dillz Khan 

      12 months ago from United Kingdom

      You're Welcome!

    • anncarcat profile imageAUTHOR

      Ann Carney 

      12 months ago from UK

      Thanks Asad. I am glad you enjoyed the article.

    • Asad Dillz profile image

      Asad Dillz Khan 

      12 months ago from United Kingdom

      Very informative article Ann! Its really well research article! Great Work!


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