‘A Genteel Murderess’ – Christiana Edmunds and the Chocolate Box Poisoning

One of the delights of a collection like Gale NewsVault is the opportunity to follow the progress of a story through the reports of a range of writers and newspapers, and to draw new conclusions on social and political themes. Coverage of stock markets collapsing or governments changing hands can help illustrate such topics, and offer researchers insight into public opinion, debate and interests. So too can smaller stories, such as a seaside town witnessing a string of unexpected and unusual murders, straight out of the Golden Age of Crime.

Figure 1- Showing the coverage on Christiana Edmunds’ trial, being everything before the red box which contains a report ‘Alleged Murder by a Woman’, an apparently similar case. The Daily Telegraph (London, England), Friday, September 1, 1871, Issue 5060, p.2.

Such was the 1871 case of Christiana Edmunds, a crime which so beguiled the reading public that it gained coverage throughout Britain and even appeared in The Friend of India in Calcutta[1]. It was widely reported on throughout the trial, which began in August 1871, through the guilty verdict and the subsequent over-turning of the death sentence in favour of a lifetime in Broadmoor in early 1872. Edmunds died in this institution in 1907, when a short notice of her death in The Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser remembered ‘one of the most notorious criminal trials of the past century’ at which was ‘revealed a curiously cunning and subtle attempt at wholesale poisoning’[2]. Edmunds’ case can also illustrate the development of the media as a cultural intermediary, as the popularity of a ‘good murder’ fed into the coverage of sensationalist crimes in newspapers.

Why was the case of Christiana Edmunds so fascinating – over and above other cases of murder which appeared in the same pages as Edmunds’ trial? Figure 1 shows the lengthy coverage of Edmunds’ trial in the Daily Telegraph, immediately followed by a far shorter article describing the ‘alleged murder by a woman’ of another, who died from ‘injury to the brain caused by blows’. Why did Edmunds’ crime, certainly less violent than this, hold a strange popular appeal? It was even made into a TV drama in 1970, with Edmunds characterised as ‘a young woman whose talent for poisoning people made the average Borgia by comparison seem like the proprietor of a health food store’[3]. Her oddly elaborate crime could be lifted from the pages of a murder mystery, and seemed to inspire a few – for example the poisoned chocolates in Christie’s Peril at End House, or Anthony Berkeley’s 1929 The Poisoned Chocolates Case. Edmunds herself must be considered one of the central reasons the case was of such popular interest, though twists in events as the trial proceeded also kept the newspapers happily filling column inches.

Christiana Edmunds was ‘a lady of fortune, residing with her mother in Gloster-place, Brighton…35 years of age, rather tall, fair complexion, good looking and extremely ladylike in her demeanour’[4]. This description was ubiquitous in the initial articles, as essentially the same report was reprinted in various regional newspapers, from Hastings to Sheffield. Edmunds was presented as an attractive, privileged, well-educated woman; not the traditional perception of a vicious murderer. As a report from ‘A London correspondent’ in the Fife Herald, Kinross, Strathearn and Clackmannan Advertiser put it, ‘The evidence was not interesting, but the prisoner…was. She is slightly built, lady-looking, rather pretty, and is apparently a very nervous person’[5]. The correspondent further mentions that ‘there was quite a crowd of her sex present to look at her – there is always quite a crowd of women anxious to gaze on any other woman in a scrape’, overlooking the presence of himself and all the other men in the court, not least on the jury where women were not to serve until 1920[6].

A genteel seaside resort: Brighton 1866. “Brighton West Pier.” Illustrated London News [London, England] 13 Oct. 1866: 369. Illustrated London News. Web. 11 Jan. 2017

The generalised danger to the town, the poisoning of treats for children and the eventual murder of a four-year-old boy, Sidney Barker, made Christiana Edmunds a more threatening, thrilling figure than a man who shot his wife, or a woman who killed her rival. Edmunds poisoned chocolates, cakes and tarts, sometimes sending packages of such goods to people apparently chosen at random, and on other occasions abandoning bags of toxic treats in public shops, or lacing items with arsenic or strychnine and returning them to Maynard’s sweet shop. It was the latter which caused the death of Sidney Barker, the sole fatality of her arbitrary campaign. This was motiveless, meaningless murder, anonymous and inexplicable. Evidence was even produced at her trial of the death of a dog ‘soon after she had fondled it, with every symptom of strychnine poisoning’[7]. This was an indiscriminate angel of death, wafting about in a cloud of strychnine, dispensing poison with a touch. Such strong feeling was aroused in the county against Edmunds’ crime that the trial had to be moved to the Old Bailey ‘on account of the local excitement at Lewes’[8].

Taxidermists as expert witnesses: “THE ALLEGED WHOLESALE POISONING AT BRIGHTON.” Bristol Mercury [Bristol, England] 2 Sept. 1871: n.p. British Library Newspapers. Web. 6 Jan. 2017.

Reports contained such details as her use of a false name and address to purchase strychnine, how she first attempted to poison the wife of a man, Dr Beard, ‘whom she pestered with letters full of terms of endearment, although he repeatedly told her to desist’[9] and how she gave evidence against Mr Maynard, the sweetshop owner, at the inquest into Sidney Barker’s death. Though she was first tried for the attempted poisoning of Mrs Beard, the charges she was eventually found guilty of, as stated in the 1872 Calendar of Prisoners, were ‘4 several indictments, 1 for Murder, and 3 for attempts to Murder’[10].

“The Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.” Illustrated London News [London, England] 24 Aug. 1867: 208+. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003. Web. 11 Jan. 2017.

On top of these charges and her undiscerning poisoning spree, Edmunds was found to have lied about her age, and to be 43 not 35, slyly noted by The Graphic as ‘a critical period in a woman’s life’[11]. The next exciting revelation to the public was perhaps the most important of the whole case – insanity in the family.

Whether Christiana Edmunds was herself mad became the central question of the trial, deciding as it would between a death sentence for murder, or not guilty by reason of insanity, leading to institutionalisation.

“LEGAL AND POLICE NEWS.” Graphic, 20 Jan. 1872

In the end, Edmunds got both. She was first found guilty and condemned to death by the court. (Though she then claimed to be pregnant, a swift examination proved this not to be true, and she was removed to Lewes to await execution.) This verdict was later remitted, however, after she was interviewed by government appointed medics from Broadmoor and found to be insane.

This final decision created a last wave of newspaper coverage, of particular interest to a social historian as papers held forth on the purpose and justification of capital punishment, and the use of insanity as an argument for the defence. The over-turning of a verdict reached through trial by jury was declared by the Mayor of Brighton to be ‘one of the grossest pieces of injustice ever perpetrated’[12], while Reynold’s Newspaper saw an example of class privilege even in murder, and questioned how the verdict of a jury could be dismissed by government procedures.

“THE HOME OFFICE VERSUS TRIAL BY JURY.—THE PLEA OF INSANITY.” Derby Mercury [Derby, England] 31 Jan. 1872: n.p. British Library Newspapers. Web. 9 Jan. 2017.

The Derby Mercury offered an outline of the purposes of hanging instead of imprisonment; that ‘society rids itself of a human mad-dog’ and that ‘other of a similar temperament may take warning and repent before the crime, instead of after it’. It described Edmunds as ‘merciless, crafty, and ingenious in crime’ and suggested that ‘a man who has had any mad relatives may consider himself privileged to commit murder without fear of the gallows’. Other papers took a more lenient view towards Edmunds, seeing her aim not as ‘wholesale murder’ but to divert suspicion from herself after an initial poisoning attempt on Mrs Beard, as outlined in The Times:

“The Alleged Poisoning At Brighton.” Times [London, England] 8 Sept. 1871: 9. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 9 Jan. 2017.

The Pall Mall Gazette saw in Edmunds’ reprieve ‘that a weak Secretary has allowed himself to be bullied by the Daily Telegraph…to destroy respect for the law by placing the mad-doctors above it, and to liberate an immensely numerous class from all fear of legal retribution for crime’[13] – an interesting example of the influence of the media itself on the stories they reported.

Despite a low death toll and more ‘ladylike’ means, Cristiana Edmunds’ poisonings share characteristics with other notorious crimes such as the Ripper’s killing spree in 1888: the random nature of the poisoning, the apparently impersonal attack on a whole town and the unassuming, middle-class murderess herself. All were sinister enough elements to make the case a gripping media story. For modern readers, it can also highlight contemporaneous attitudes to women, to crime in general, to capital punishment and the justice system. The trial also had many interesting features; the question of insanity, the use of hand-writing experts in court, the sudden twist of possible pregnancy, and the mystery of motive. A ‘genteel murderess’, ‘a human mad-dog’, or a passionate woman scorned; as each paper drew its own version of Christiana Edmunds perhaps the truth got lost in the legend. And to sell newspapers, print the legend.

Anna Massey as Christiana Edmunds in ‘Wicked Women’, 1970; Leonard Buckley. “A horrid case.” Times [London, England] 23 Feb. 1970: 12. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 11 Jan. 2017

[1] “REPRIEVE OF CHRISTIANA EDMUNDS.” Friend of India [Calcutta, India] 29 Feb. 1872: n.p. 19th Century UK Periodicals. Web. 11 Jan. 2017.

[2]“Notorious Poisoner.” Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser [Manchester, England] 28 Sept. 1907: 7. British Library Newspapers. Web. 9 Jan. 2017.

[3] Leonard Buckley. “A horrid case.” Times [London, England] 23 Feb. 1970: 12. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 9 Jan. 2017

[4] “THE ALLEGED POISONING BY A LADY AT BRIGHTON.” Evening Gazette [Middlesbrough, England] 25 Aug. 1871: 3. British Library Newspapers. Web. 6 Jan. 2017.

[5] “The Brighton Poisoning Case.” Fife Herald, Kinross, Strathearn and Clackmannan Advertiser [Cupar, Scotland] 18 Jan. 1872: 2. British Library Newspapers. Web. 9 Jan. 2017.

[6] http://first100years.org.uk/1481-2/

[7] Evening Gazette, 25 Aug. 1871

[8] “LEGAL AND POLICE NEWS.” Graphic [London, England] 20 Jan. 1872: n.p. British Library Newspapers. Web. 9 Jan. 2017.

[9] “THE BRIGHTON POISONING CASE.” Sheffield & Rotherham Independent [Sheffield, England] 25 Aug. 1871: 3. British Library Newspapers. Web. 6 Jan. 2017.

[10] CRIM 9/18: Calendar of Prisoners, 1872. The National Archives (Kew, United Kingdom). Crime, Punishment, and Popular Culture 1790-1920. Accessed 9 Jan. 2017.

[11] “LEGAL AND POLICE NEWS.” Graphic, 20 Jan. 1872.

[12] THE MAYOR OF BRIGHTON AND CHRISTIANA EDMUNDS.” Standard [London, England] 17 May 1872: 3. British Library Newspapers. Web. 6 Jan. 2017.

[13] “OPINION IN THE WEEKLY REVIEWS.” Pall Mall Gazette [London, England] 27 Jan. 1872: n.p. British Library Newspapers. Web. 9 Jan. 2017.

About the Author

I joined Gale, a Cengage Company in 2016 as a Publishing Assistant and subsequently became an Associate Acquisitions Editor for digital archives. With a diverse background in international and transnational history, I'm particularly interested in social narratives and cultural trends of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In my spare time, I like stand-up comedy, Agatha Christie and Tetris.