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Life Happens, Chocolate Helps

History Notes by M. Bance

Whilst walking passed the sad remnants of Easter on a supermarket bargain-buy shelf I saw the well-used quotation, “Life Happens, Chocolate Helps” and thought whoever wrote that didn’t know about The Chocolate Cream Killer!

The killer was Christiana Edmunds and her story has many elements of a Victorian tragedy – family misfortune, unrequited love, delusional behaviour, madness and, of course, poison – all played out on the streets of Brighton.

Christiana was born in Margate, Kent, on the 3rd October 1828. The daughter of a local architect, she had a privileged upbringing in a comfortable, middle-class household and a private boarding school education. But below the surface of the Victorian family idyll lay some very serious mental health issues. Her father reportedly went “insane” before his early death in 1847, her brother suffered from epilepsy and died in Earlsfield Lunatic Asylum, and one of her two sisters committed suicide.

At the age of 20, Christiana was diagnosed with hysteria which was one of the most common female “disorders” of the 19th century. Symptoms and behaviours were wide ranging and included irritability, sexual desire, sexually forward behaviour and, a “tendency to cause trouble for others”.

When she was in her thirties she moved with her widowed mother and remaining sister to 16 Gloucester Place, Brighton, this was a grand terraced house and the women lived well. However, there was a sense that despite, or because, of her privilege Christiana felt unfulfilled. Perhaps she was bored by the class restrictions that confined her to the home and the domestic sphere. But things brightened up in the middle of 1869 when Christiana came under the care of Dr Charles Beard, whose surgery was almost opposite her at 64 Grand Parade. Christiana wasted no time in falling madly and obsessively in love with him; totally ignoring the inconvenient fact that he was married.

Contemporary reports suggest that Dr Beard might not have been averse to the idea of a secret flirtation, but what happened with Christiana was more akin to stalking, as we understand it today, or “erotomania”, an earlier term for a form of delusional disorder in which an individual believes that another person is secretly in love with them.

Such one-sided passion can give rise to dangerous behaviour and, when Dr Beard told Christiana to stop sending him love letters, she did not take it well! She decided that, in order to have the doctor to herself, she needed to do something about his wife. So in September 1870 she presented Emily Beard with a box of chocolate creams. The chocolates made Emily violently sick, leading Dr Beard to accuse Christiana of poisoning his wife. As the doctor had no proof and feared the likely scandal if he went public, he decided to do nothing more than ban Christiana from his house.
This might have been the end of the story, but Christiana desperately wanted to find a way to convince Dr Beard of her innocence. Over the next few months, she bought chocolate creams from the confectioner, John Maynard, 41-42 West Street, took them home, laced each with strychnine and then returned them to the shop. The unsuspecting shopkeeper put the chocolates back in stock for other customers to buy.

Several people become ill, but no one connected the illnesses with what the victims had eaten. Then on the 12th June 1871, things got a lot more serious. Charles Miller came to Brighton on holiday and bought some chocolate creams from Maynard’s, he ate a few and gave the rest to his four-year-old nephew, Sidney. Soon after Sidney died. At the coroner’s inquest Christiana was called as a witness and was delighted by the opportunity to incriminate Maynard by testifying that she too had become ill after purchasing items from his shop. Tests confirmed that strychnine was present in the chocolate, but because there was no proof that anyone had deliberately intended to harm the boy, Brighton coroner, David Black, recorded a verdict of accidental death and exonerated Maynard of all blame.

Unsurprisingly there was a lot of interest in this case. Newspapers of the day loved a murder story involving poison, especially if the poisoner was a woman. They were happy to exploit what was a common fear in Victorian society: the prospect of being poisoned.

Bearing in mind this very specific fear, it seems bizarre that poisonous substances were so easy to access, in fact, sold over the counter, but this incongruity did make Christiana’s plans easier to accomplish! She went to Isaac Garrett, a chemist on 10 Queens Road, and bought strychnine, telling the dispenser that she needed to ‘deal’ with some stray cats.

The Beard family meanwhile were getting nervous; the boy’s death and media speculation about a poisoning spree increased their anxiety and they decided to leave Brighton. When Christiana heard about their proposed move to Scotland she was horrified, but, clinging to the hope that Dr Beard was not yet lost to her, she devised another plan. She caught a train to London, once there she posted six parcels, containing poisoned plum cake, addressed to prominent members of Brighton society, Mrs Beard and, to deflect attention away from herself, one to her home.

Luckily there were no fatalities, but it proved the last straw for Dr Beard and he told the police of his suspicions. The police compared handwriting from Christiana’s love letters with the parcel labels and they matched. She was subsequently arrested and charged with attempted murder and the murder of Sidney Barker.

After committal hearings, the case was moved from Lewes County Court to the Old Bailey, where Christiana was sentenced to death. Immediately after the trial verdict was pronounced, Christiana declared that she was pregnant and they could not, therefore, hang her. A medical examination quickly proved this claim to be false, but it did make the authorities look at the case again. As a result, she was diagnosed with insanity and her sentence commuted to a permanent stay in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. She died there on the 19th September 1907, aged 78.

Posted in History on Apr 01, 2024