Monday, 23 September 2013

A historical murder: The Chocolate Box Poisoner

I do love research. It's almost indecently fun. My theory is that history is just the world's longest and most fascinating story, filled with endless tiny offshoots, each amazing enough to blow your mind.

Last week's post was all about arsenic, which (as I've said) is my chosen method of death for the victim of Daisy and Hazel's second murder investigation. I told you about why the Victorians knew not to eat green cake, and also (in the comments) about green ball gowns that gave off waves of poisonous dust as their wearers spun in the middle of a dance. And I didn't even have to make either of those things up!

This week, though, I'm not going to talk about arsenic at all. I'm going to tell you about a case that I came across while writing my MA dissertation (which was all about the influence Victorian murders had on 1930s crime novels - I'm only a little bit obsessed), a crime spree that's so unbelievable that it has to be real. The murder weapon was strychnine, not arsenic, but the ideas behind it - that something delicious might be completely deadly, and that a seemingly respectable person might actually be completely nuts - are absolutely what I want to draw on for my own tea-time murder.

So, here's a story that happens to be true.
An oddly 30s image of Christiana

In 1869, in Brighton, a woman called Christiana Edmunds fell in love with a Doctor Beard. Now, Doctor Beard was married, but that didn't stop Christiana (or Doctor Beard). But then, in the summer of 1870, Doctor Beard decided to break things off, and Christiana did not take this news so well. She decided that the person to blame was the doctor's wife, Mrs Beard, and furthermore that a lot of her problems would be solved if Mrs Beard were no more. So she went out and bought a box of chocolates.

She also went to see a dentist she knew called Isaac Garrett. She told him that she needed some strychnine to poison cats (to us this seems a bit much, but to the Victorians, who believed firmly that all domestic issues could be solved by liberal applications of deadly poison, this would have seemed completely ordinary), and Garrett sold it to her. Then she went to visit Mrs Beard, and she gave her the box of chocolates.

The next day, Mrs Beard felt extremely ill. Later, she would say that she suspected she'd been poisoned, but she didn't speak out at the time. Weird, right? Not in the 19th century. This is something that comes up again and again in Victorian poisoning cases, and it's fascinating: often, the victims couldn't be sure that they were victims. Poison was everywhere, but it wasn't usually very concentrated - poisoners really had to stuff their victim to the gills to be sure they'd die, and conversely the victim tended not to know whether they'd ingested poison by mistake or had been given it on purpose.

These ones are safe! (Credit: Klaus Hopfner)
So far, so normal (or at least normal for a Victorian attempted murder). But what Christiana did next was plain crazy. She began going into Maynard's, a local chocolate shop, and buying boxes of chocolate creams. Some of them she sent out in anonymous parcels -  to Mrs Beard, to many other society families in Brighton, and even to herself. And some of them she returned to the chocolate shop.

Now, here's another point in this story that doesn't make automatic sense to us today. If a customer returned a box of chocolates in 2013 they would go straight into the bin. This is because of health and safety. People are very rude about health and safety, presumably because they have never stopped to really think about the alternatives. Let me tell you this: if you want to make yourself feel very, very thankful about the time and place you live in, all you need to do is read a book like The Arsenic Century. In the 19th century, there were no real regulations on the contents of food and drink, or on what was safe to sell. Vendors would store cake next to rat poison. They'd put boxes of tea next to boxes of sheep dip. They'd lace wine with arsenic to make it look glossy. They'd mix plaster of Paris into sweets - except sometimes they got it wrong and added arsenic instead of plaster. And they'd take anything back from customers and just bung it onto the shelves, ready to be re-sold. Are you thankful for health and safety now? Because you should be.

So Christiana's strychnine-doctored chocolates were sold on to other customers, and people started to get sick. Something was clearly going on - but, as I explained above, it was very difficult to be sure that the poisonings were intentional, or even if they were taking place at all. Germs weren't well understood, and hygiene was just absent, so there were a lot of reasons why a person might get sick to their stomach. Actually, arsenic poisoning was often mistaken for cholera, a massively common 19th century disease.

And then a child died.

I haven't told you the worst thing about Christiana's campaign yet, but here it is: to divert suspicion away from herself, she paid little boys to go into Maynard's for her, buy boxes of chocolate creams and then return them after she'd doctored them. Some accounts I've read have her actually handing out poisoned sweeties in the street, like one of The Witches, but I'm guessing that that's an exaggeration. Regardless, though, she put kids in a situation where they had access to strychnine-laced chocolates, and it's difficult to argue that that's not just willfully evil.

Christiana at her trial
The kid who died, Sidney Barker, wasn't actually one of her helpers - he was a four-year-old from a neighbouring town, and his parents had brought him to Brighton for a day trip. They went to Maynard's, they bought a box of chocolates, and Sidney died a few hours later. It was at his inquest that Mrs Beard finally spoke out - and at that point the game was essentially up. Christiana argued that she'd been sent poisoned chocolates too, and blamed the owner of Maynard's for the poisonings (she'd even been sending anonymous letters blaming him to the local police station - the woman was nothing if not thorough), but it was pretty clear that she was the person to blame. Her trial at the Old Bailey, for Sidney's murder and Mrs Beard's attempted murder, took place in 1872, and she was quite quickly found guilty.

Christiana was sentenced to the death penalty, but this was commuted to life in Broadmoor mental asylum because she was so clearly insane. She died there, in 1907 - and that was the end of that.

Now, as a storyteller, I think this is amazing. The idea of being killed by the nation's favourite comfort food is just so perfect (and by 'perfect' I mean 'utterly twisted'). Then there's the image (true or not) of Christiana stalking around Brighton, handing out poisoned sweets to urchins like a fairy tale witch.

As a crime geek, though, I find it just as interesting - but for slightly different reasons. It's apparently quite unknown - today Christiana has no name recognition at all, and the murder barely features in most texts about Victorian crime. It seems to have hardly made a mark on the national consciousness at the time, and it didn't become part of popular culture like the Rugeley Poisoner or the murder at Road Hill House. (If you're interested in these cases, by the way, or if you think sensational murder reportage began with the Sun, I'd recommend reading The Invention of Murder by the excellent Judith Flanders).

BUT (and here's my dissertation thesis), it WAS famous with one particular group of writers - the Detection Club of the 1930s. Agatha Christie and her friends were all OBSESSED with Christiana Edmunds, and loads of Christie's books (Partners in Crime, A Murder is Announced, Sad Cypress, I could keep going) make really obvious use of the crime. People are always being sent poisoned boxes of sweets in Christie novels, and one of her favourite methods of victim dispatch is ... poison in comfort food. And then there's The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Agatha's BFF Anthony Berkeley, which features a character who's clearly Christie talking about Christiana Edmunds and her poisoning campaign.

So this is a murder that, by proxy, is extremely famous - except that no one's ever heard of it. Isn't that interesting?

Anyway - what you should gather from this is that I'm happily working away, creating enormous character and timing spreadsheets and generally getting ready to officially put fingers to keyboard on Book 2. Although you could argue that this post is a bit of educational procrastination on my part.

Oh well. At least I enjoyed it.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Autumn update: on Allsorts, copyedits, research and my first ever author panel!

Happy September all!

First, some nice author news. The lovely people at Author Allsorts have invited me to join their team (gang? crew?), and so I am now officially An Allsort. Watson even features on their mascot page!

This means that from now on I will also be popping up over on their blog from time to time. Look out for me there!

And, if you want to see me in the actual flesh, you CAN: on November 5th, I will be doing my very first panel, for the SCBWI, as part of their Professional Series. I will be talking with the amazing Non Pratt (by coincidence also an Allsort) and various other excellent people about what it's like to be publishers by day and writers by night (spoiler: quite exhausting but entirely wonderful).

So come along! I will be imparting many words of wisdom (such as: I still can't spell 'submissions' even though they make up about half of my job, and, er - more will come to me in time) and we can all go to the pub afterwards in celebration.

Now, book stuff!

For those of you following the progress of Murder Most Unladylike as it gallops towards bookhood, an exciting update: my last round of edits turns out to have been my last. The plot holes are filled, the timetable clashes have been resolved and the manuscript has been officially handed over to the copy editor.

This is marvelous, and terrible, and terrifying, because it means that the book is essentially done. I can't turn to people any more and say, "Don't worry, it's going to get MUCH better before you read it!" and I don't get to just keep tinkering about with it endlessly.

This is a bit hard to get my head around, because what I've discovered during the all the revisions I've done on this book is how much I LOVE editing. First drafts, for me, are things that have to happen so I can get to the good bit. I know how to make them go more easily (planning), and why they drag when they do (because I haven't planned), but a first draft for me always feels - thin. The characters don't seem as rich as they are in my head, there are sub-plots that I have to leave hanging and the whole world just isn't down on the page yet. But at the editing stage I can take my plodding first draft and start to really play with it.

More and more, I'm seeing the books I write as patterns. They aren't things, rocks that fall out of the sky into my head, they're lots of little strands that I can mix up and weave together any way I want. I can do anything with my story, and that's what the editing process is all about. You take your ideas, and the ideas of your readers, or your agent, or your editor, and spin them together into a newer, better version of your first draft. To me, it feels a bit like advanced-level magic. ABRACADABRA! Now your characters are on a boat! SHAZAM! Now they're speaking French! CRASH! Now they're all women! BANG! Now you've introduced a giant talking ocelot into the middle of a formal dinner party! BOOM! Now everyone's dead!

Rest assured, there are no talking ocelots in Murder Most Unladylike. But it's nice to know that there could be, if I decided that I wanted to. Or at least, there could have been before that final edit. The end of the editing process is the moment when a writer finally has to relinquish control of their pet world, and that's a weird feeling. I can't play with my story any more. I have to hand it over to the copy editor, and then the proofreader, and finally to you. And I miss it!

Which is why I've started to think about writing Book 2.

Yes, I'm back in Hazel and Daisy's world already. I have a title (not that I'm telling you lot what it is yet) and, more importantly, I have a murder weapon. This time around I shall be bumping off my luckless victim with arsenic, and that means that I am currently doing a lot of slightly disturbing research into poisons. So, if you've noticed my Goodreads lately (as one friend did, and messaged me in alarm), be not afraid - I'm just preparing to kill fictional people again.

In the process, I'm learning many fascinating things. For example, I've finally understood, after YEARS of confusion, exactly why you're not supposed to eat green cake in Peter Pan. 

It's because, in the 19th century, bright green (also known as Scheele's green) was made by using ARSENIC. It was put into everything - household goods, toys, clothes and food - because it looked so pretty. But, by the time J. M. Barrie was writing, the public had caught on to its potentially lethal side effects. They had learnt that green things were dangerous, and so they would have instinctively understood why you should never eat green cake - because it was very likely crammed with arsenic. And that's why the Lost Boys get told not to eat green cake. Because it's POISONOUS.

Isn't that interesting? I do love research. My favourite book at the moment is The Arsenic Century by James C. Whorton - basically, it's an amazingly detailed and very interesting guide to everything about arsenic in the 19th century. I'm about half way through, and I have no idea how any Victorian managed to actually stay alive. Arsenic was literally everywhere (and I mean literally ... literally. You could not MOVE without running into some). Look out for an upcoming geeky blogpost about historical poisonings - but for now, I'm going back to my reading. I've got a new book to write!