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.


  1. I've just discovered your blog, Robin, and I love this! We are clearly on the same wavelength, "partners in crime" you could say! I didn't know the story of Christiana and am so glad you shared it - it's fantastic. I'm slightly obsessed with poisoning too, having done lots of research on ancient egyptian poisons . . . like cyanide from peach kernels, and the magnificently named wolfsbane . . . I can't wait to read the Wong and Wells mysteries.

    1. Hi Helen, so good to hear from a kindred spirit and poison obsessive - and I'm glad I could share Christiana's story with you! I really hope you like MURDER MOST UNLADYLIKE when it finally reaches you - and I'd love to hear your thoughts on it one day!

  2. Ooh, this was delightful and educational. I'm also a fan of Judith Flanders - I've just finished The Victorian City and recently read The Victorian House and am slowly working my way through The Invention of Murder, all more-or-less related to Next Book Research. :) Not planning on killing anyone off though, just sending someone to an insane asylum.

    1. Hooray for fellow Flanders fans! I still need to read The Victorian House, though - it's on the list, but the list is upsettingly long.

      I love a good Victorian asylum plot! The best way of murdering someone without actually killing them. I don't know if I recommended Lynn Shepherd's Tom All Alone's when we talked - but if not, you should read it! She's another fab Victorianist and she does very cool and nerdy things with famous Victorian novels.

      Looking forward to chatting again at the conference!