I’m absolutely thrilled to introduce you to Kaye Jones. Kaye has been writing about Christiana Edmunds, the 19th Century ‘Chocolate Cream Poisoner’, for Pen and Sword Books and when I learnt the killer had been born in Margate, I had to know more.
Hello Kaye, thanks so much for stopping by. How did you find out about Christiana Edmunds and what made you want to write about her?
I found about her by accident, really. I was reading a newspaper article about another case when I saw the headline ‘The Brighton Lady Poisoner’ on the same page. Intrigued, I read the excerpt from her trial and immediately wanted to know more. I was already in talks with Pen and Sword about a book commission so I pitched her story and, fortunately for me, they were equally fascinated with the case.
In a recent blog post you mention that Christiana was born in Margate and grew up in Canterbury – can you tell us about her family life?
Yes, Christiana was born in Margate in 1828. She was the oldest child of William Edmunds, a locally-renowned and very successful architect, who designed St John’s Church, where she was baptised, and the Margate lighthouse. Because of his successes, the family were able to live very comfortably: they owned a beautiful house in Hawley Square, had three servants and could afford to privately educate their children. But in 1847, when Christiana was 19, the family’s life changed dramatically. Without giving too much away, William Edmunds died in Peckham House Lunatic Asylum, where he had been confined since 1845, and the taint of his madness forced the family to leave Margate and start afresh in Canterbury.
Christiana’s poisoning spree actually took place in Brighton, why was her family there and what spurred her into action?
After a fairly uneventful two decades in Canterbury, the Edmunds family suffered two tragedies. The first came in January 1866 when Christiana’s youngest sibling, Arthur, died in the Royal Earlswood Asylum for Idiots in Surrey. Arthur was epileptic and had spent the last six years of his life in confinement. The following year, one of Christiana’s sisters, Louisa, died unexpectedly at the age of 36. She had been plagued by depression and hysteria since her teen years and had once tried to throw herself from an upstairs window. Probably wanting to escape these tragedies, Christiana and her mother, Ann, left Kent and headed to Brighton to start a new life. Within a few months of her arrival, Christiana became a patient of Dr Charles Beard, a highly-respected local physician, with whom she quickly fell in love. The only problem was, Dr Beard already had a wife and Christiana soon began plotting her demise.
Christiana chose strychnine as her weapon – how easy was it to get hold of this in 1871?
It was surprisingly easy for two reasons. Firstly, strychnine was a commonly-used substance throughout the nineteenth century and was widely available to buy in the nineteenth century. Despite being so lethal to humans, it was a staple ingredient in many medicines, for example, and was also used as vermin killer. Secondly, the rules which governed the sale of strychnine, and other deadly poisons, were incredibly easy to get around. Under the Pharmacy Act of 1868, for example, strychnine could only be sold if the buyer and seller knew each other, or if the transaction was witnessed by a third party, and if the details of the sale were entered into the chemist’s poison book. In theory, this made all sales of poison traceable but it relied on the buyer being honest. When Christiana purchased strychnine in March 1871, all she had to do was use a false name and address and conceal her true intentions from the chemist and the witness. Nobody suspected that such a respectable-looking lady would lie about her identity and so Christiana was able to buy enough poison to kill dozens of people in just a few minutes.
Having failed to kill her initial victim, Christiana set out to divert attention away from herself using a terrible scheme – can you tell us a little bit about it?
Yes – her scheme really was as ingenious as it was terrible. When Dr Beard discovered that Christiana had tried to poison his wife, she initially blamed it on a bad batch of chocolate creams. But Dr Beard wouldn’t believe her and so she thought up something even more sinister. She decided to frame John Maynard, the manufacturer of the chocolate creams, by poisoning random batches that she bought from his shop and dispersing them around Brighton. It was her belief that as the unsuspecting public fell ill, Dr Beard would have to believe that Maynard was the guilty party and come running back to her with open arms – and an apology.
An appeal in the Times for information about the mysterious ‘Chocolate Cream Poisoner’ offered a £20 reward for information – did anyone ever claim it?
To my knowledge, nobody ever claimed this reward but Dr Beard finally came forward and reported Christiana to the police around the time that it was issued. There were a few other events which alerted the police to her potential involvement but you will have to read the book to find out more!
In your book you reveal that Christiana was suffering from mental health issues, did she receive any help at any time?
Christiana was diagnosed with hysteria a few years after her father’s death and was sent to London to see a physician. We don’t know how she was treated, perhaps with the infamous genital massage, but it continued to plague her throughout her adult life. Christiana never confessed to nor apologised for her crimes and this contributed to her eventual diagnosis of moral insanity. After her trial, she spent the rest of her natural life in Broadmoor Asylum, the country’s first institution for the criminally insane, and the staff were utterly convinced of her insanity, though unable to ever cure it.
What surprised you most about her case?
Her family history probably surprised me the most. When I first started looking into her life in Kent, I had no idea that she had experienced so many tragedies. Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but finding out about her early life and the fates of her family completely changed how I viewed Christiana and the case, more generally. As a result, I changed the structure of the book so that the narrative begins in the 1840s, a time which I believe has great significance for Christiana and strongly influenced the woman she would eventually become.
If you were able to ask Christiana a question what would it be?
There are so many! But if I had to choose, I would ask her how she felt when Sidney Barker died. Sidney was her only (recorded) victim and I would love to know if she any remorse about his death or if she really was as cold-hearted as others have portrayed her.
What did you enjoy most, and least, about writing this book?
This book took two years to complete and there were a lot of ups and downs in this period! I loved researching the treatment of the mentally ill and the development of the asylum system. Reading Christiana’s case notes from Broadmoor was a particular highlight because they offer such a rare glimpse into her character and of her behaviour. Of course, these notes weren’t designed for public viewing or written to entertain but you can’t help but laugh at some of the frank descriptions of Christiana: for example, she arrived at Broadmoor wearing false hair, false teeth and rouged cheeks and used to hide make up and other contraband in cushions in her room to evade detection by the matron. On the flipside, because there are so few traces of Christiana, it was really difficult to find out about her life before the poisoning spree. I hit so many brick walls in my research and have had to (very reluctantly) accept that some questions about her will remain unanswered.
The Case of the Chocolate Cream Poisoner: The Poisonous Passion of Christiana Edmunds will be published later this year by Pen & Sword Books. Do you know when it will be published and do you have any talks or events lined up?
And finally, what are you working on next?
I am about to start another book for Pen & Sword which is due out in 2017. It is called ‘Hidden Dangers of the Victorian Workplace: An A to Z of Victorian Jobs’ and will explore some of the worst occupations of the 19th century.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me Kaye, I really appreciate it and I can’t wait to read more about the ‘Chocolate Cream Poisoner’ very soon.