Christiana Edmunds was in many ways typical of our idea of a Victorian English lady. Born to a privileged family, she was privately educated and lived a comfortable life as a ‘lady of fortune’. Strange then that she is remembered as The Chocolate Cream Poisoner.
Edmunds was born in Margate in 1828, the eldest daughter of the architect who designed Margate Light House among other projects.
However, it seems that the family was familiar with mental illness. Her father allegedly went mad before his early death, her brother died at the Earlsfield Asylum (‘for Idiots’) in London, one of her sisters apparently took her own life, and Edmunds herself was diagnosed as suffering from ‘hysteria’ in her twenties.
Even so, Edmunds, her mother and her remaining sister were women of independent means when they moved to a grand terraced house in fashionable Brighton in 1867 and it was there that she met Dr Charles Beard.
The doctor treated the middle-aged Edmunds for her various ailments and they became close friends and often visited each other’s homes. However, over time Edmunds feelings for him became stronger and she began to send him a stream of love letters.
Whether these feelings were reciprocated by Beard is debatable, but in any event, there was one great barrier to Edmunds’ affections – Beard’s wife Emily.
Edmunds convinced herself that Dr Beard would be hers if only Emily were out of the way and her thoughts turned to murder.
One evening in September 1870, Edmunds visited Mrs Beard with a gift of chocolates for her children who were tucked up in bed. As the two women chatted, Edmunds offered Emily one of the sweets which she accepted, only to spit it out when she bit into the cream centre. Edmunds had laced the chocolate with strychnine which, though lethal, has a bitter taste that is impossible to hide.
That night, Emily suffered a number of unpleasant symptoms, including stomach ache and diarrhoea, and her husband began to wonder if she was the victim of poison. He did not report the incident, perhaps to avoid a scandal, but he confronted Edmunds with his suspicions and told her to keep away from him and his family.
That should have ended the matter, but Edmunds was determined to prove her innocence and win back the doctor’s affections. Over several months in 1871, a number of people became ill after eating sweets and chocolates, then in June that year, a man called Charles Miller bought some chocolate creams from a sweet shop called J.G.Maynard’s which he shared with his four-year-old nephew Sidney Barker. Both became ill and the boy died.
An inquest was held and Edmunds herself appeared as a witness, claiming that she too had become ill after eating sweets from the same shop. Tests on Maynard’s stock showed traces of strychnine, but there was no evidence that they had been deliberately poisoned and a verdict of accidental death was recorded.
The boy’s father began to receive anonymous letters claiming that the truth had not come out and urging him to sue Maynard. The author was later shown to be Edmunds and the random poisonings continued that summer.
Dr Beard announced that he and his family were leaving Brighton for a new life in Scotland. When Edmunds heard the news, she embarked on one last round of poisoning, sending parcels of tainted plum cakes to various people in the town, including herself and the Beards. Dr Beard reported his suspicions to the police and Edmunds was arrested.
At her trial at the Old Bailey in 1872, the details of her poisoning campaign became apparent. Edmunds employed some boys to buy chocolates from Maynard’s shop and others to obtain the poison from the chemist. Once she had injected the poison, she either planted them back at the shop or simply left them around for people to pick up.
Finding her guilty, she was sentenced to death and immediately made the spurious claim that she was pregnant. Tests proved otherwise, but there was to be a Home Office enquiry into her mental state and the verdict was overturned and Edmunds was declared ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’.
She was sent indefinitely to Broadmoor Asylum for Criminal Lunatics in Berkshire where it seems she enjoyed provoking arguments among the other patients, pass secret messages and hide contraband in her room. The head doctor wrote ‘she deceives for the pure love of deception’.
Edmunds died in Broadmoor in 1907 aged 78, the cause of death given as senile decay.