Christiana Edmunds (3 October 1828–1907) was
an Englishwoman who, in the late 19th century, became known as The
Chocolate Cream Poisoner, when she poisoned several people by way
of adulterated chocolate cream, killing at least one.
Edmunds was born in Margate, the daughter of
Benjamin William Edmunds and his wife Ann Christian Burn. Her father
was an architect who designed Holy Trinity Church and the lighthouse
on the end of the pier at Margate. Her mother was the sister of John
Southerden Burn. Edmunds was, by reports, a pretty woman, but suffered
from a mental illness that went undetected until her poisoning spree
came to light. It was while she was living with her widowed mother in
Brighton, in the late 1860s, that Edmunds became involved in an affair
with a married doctor named Charles Beard. When, in the summer of
1870, Beard had attempted to end their relationship, Edmunds had
visited his home with a gift of chocolates for his wife. The following
day, Mrs Beard became violently ill, but recovered. Dr Beard would say
later that he suspected Edmunds had poisoned his wife at that time,
but he declined to act on it, possibly fearing his affair with Edmunds
In 1871, however, Edmunds began obtaining chocolate
creams, taking them home and lacing them with strychnine, then
returning them to the unknowing vendors, who then sold them to the
public, not knowing, of course, that the chocolates were poisoned.
Initially, Edmunds was obtaining the strychnine from a dentist, Dr
Isaac Garrett, on the pretence that she needed it to poison stray
cats. When Dr Garrett told her he believed this was cruel, she began
using a milliner friend, Mrs Stone, to obtain the strychnine.
Edmunds also began to draw attention with her
constant purchases of chocolates, at which point she began paying
young boys to purchase them for her. By this time several people in
Brighton had become ill from eating the chocolates, but no one had
connected the illnesses with the chocolates. However, in June 1871,
4-year-old Sidney Albert Barker, on holiday with his family, died as a
result of eating chocolates from a shop called Maynard's. The Brighton
Coroner, David Black, ruled the death accidental, although it would
later be confirmed that this was the only death due to the poisoning.
Edmunds then increased her poisoning campaign, and
began sending parcels of chocolates to prominent persons, including
Mrs Beard, who then became violently ill. By this time, the police had
connected the large numbers of ill people with the chocolates. Edmunds
also sent parcels to herself, claiming that she, too, was a victim of
the poisoner, in the hope that this would deflect suspicion from her
and on to the shopkeeper, John Maynard, from whom the victims had
purchased their chocolates. At this point Dr Beard informed the police
of his suspicions, which resulted in Edmunds being arrested, and
charged with the attempted murder of Mrs Beard, and the murder of
Sidney Barker. After committal hearings, it was decided to move the
case from Lewes to the Old Bailey, and Edmunds's trial began in
Her mother testified that both sides of their
family had a history of mental illness. Dr Beard claimed that he and
Edmunds never had a sexual relationship, but that instead it was
merely a series of letters sent by her to him, and mild flirtations.
The defence, however, was able to indicate that the two had in fact
become involved in an affair, arguing that it was this that sent
Edmunds over the edge. Edmunds was sentenced to the death penalty, but
she was reprieved because of her mental state, life in prison being
automatically substituted. She spent the rest of her life in Broadmoor
Criminal Lunatic Asylum, dying there in 1907.
In Popular Culture
The 1939 novel The Black Spectacles by John Dickson
Carr is based on the Edmunds case.
Christiana Edmunds was a 42-year-old spinster with
an independent income who lived in Gloucester Place, Brighton with her
widowed mother. Christiana was having an affair with Dr. Arthur Beard
who lived almost opposite. After a year he wanted to end the affair
and asked her to stay away and to stop writing to him.
In September 1870 Christiana delivered a box of
chocolate creams to Mrs Emily Beard. Mrs Beard was sick soon after
eating some of the chocolates and the doctor accused Christiana of
poisoning his wife and told her that he was having no further contact
with her. During the next few months Brighton was inflicted with a
spate of people being violently sick after eating chocolates.
Four-year-old Sidney Albert Barker
was given such a chocolate on 12th June 1871 by his uncle, Charles
Miller, who was holidaying with the family. Miller also had a choclate
and both of them were ill. While Miller recovered, little Sidney died.
The chocolates had been bought from a local shop, JG Maynard's, and it
was assumed that the strychnine that had been found in the chocolates
had been accidentally introduced somehow. The Barker family received a
letter advising them to take legal action against Maynard's.
Despite the death of a child, the
poisonings continued, with several prominent citizens falling sick
after eating sweets that had been sent to them. The Beard household
again suffered when two of their servants fell ill after eating a plum
cake that had been sent to Mrs Beard. Dr Beard still had his
suspicions about the origins of the poisonings and communicated his
suspicions to the police. Despite Christiana claiming that she, too,
had received and eaten poisoned chocolates, she was arrested and
charged with the attempted murder of Mrs Beard. Arsenic had been found
in the chocolates and Christiana was known to have bought both
strychnine and arsenic. She had also got a young lad called Adam May
to run errands to buy chocolates from Maynard's and to get poisons
from local pharmacies with forged prescriptions. Christiana's writing
matched the writing on the letter to the Barkers and on the wrapping
paper on the parcels.
Because of public feeling, it was
necessary to move the trial to the Old Bailey and it opened there on
15th January 1872. There was extensive evidence of insanity in
Christaina's family. Her father had gone mad before he had died, a
sister had committed suicide and a brother had died in an asylum.
Despite that, she was found guilty and sentenced to death. Christiana
claimed that she was pregnant, but this was quickly disproved. But
Christiana was not to he hanged, she was reprieved and sent to
Broadmoor. She died there at the age of 78.
Revenge of the chocolate cream poisoner:
Broadmoor archives go online, revealing the story of its most crazed
By Tony Rennell - DailyMail.co.uk
December 9, 2011
She was a scheming, image-obsessed, murdering minx
who in her younger days laced sweets with strychnine to see off the
wife of the married man she desired.
Now, though, she appeared perfectly harmless as, in
her dotage, she preened herself for her last attempt to entrap a man.
'Are my eyebrows all right?' the temptress asked a
fellow inmate at Broadmoor, the hospital for the criminally insane, as
she prepared for a Christmas dance at the institution in 1906. 'I was
a Venus before,' she declared, the years of her incarceration
seemingly forgotten, 'and I shall be a Venus again!'
The male doctors and staff could expect her
full-on, sexually-charged attention, even if, in her late 70s,
Christiana Edmunds's man-mesmerising days were long over.
Mad, bad and dangerous to know, she was one of the
most notorious inmates of Broadmoor in Victorian times, her name a
byword for something that hidebound era found impossible to comprehend
or forgive — a woman's unbridled lust.
Sex pest, stalker, compulsive liar, manipulator,
trouble-maker, murderess — there is something uncannily modern about
her case, though the crimes for which she was locked up were committed
almost a century and a half ago
Her story has been resurrected by a local archivist
who was given unprecedented access to 19th-century patient records at
the 150-year-old secure unit tucked away in a Berkshire forest. It is
aired in what has become this winter's surprise internet hit.
Available free of charge on Kindle, Mark Stevens's
Broadmoor Revealed has become one of most downloaded books, overtaking
classics such as Dickens's Christmas Carol, Jane Eyre and Dracula.
Like some ghoulish Victorian precursor of I'm A
Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!, his handful of heart-stopping
Broadmoor reality stories makes compulsive reading.
Leaving aside Christiana for the moment, there was,
for example, paranoid surgeon, man of letters and random killer Dr
William Minor, who, in between contributing learned entries to the
Oxford English Dictionary, was beset by deep-seated delusions that he
was being sexually molested by hundreds of women.
He eventually sliced off his own penis (though with
no effect on his fornicatory fantasies, which continued as before).
Equally lost in his own world was Richard Dadd, a
hugely talented artist who ended up in Broadmoor after mistaking his
father for the devil and slitting his throat. He spent his time
obsessively painting fairies and biblical scenes in minute detail.
Broadmoor housed killers of all sorts,
baby-batterers, rapists and arsonists. A few had taken potshots at
Queen Victoria, including Edward Oxford, who was classified as an
'hysterical imbecile' at his trial but, once under lock and key,
managed to master French, German, Italian, Spanish, Greek and Latin
and learn to play the violin.
A number of inmates thought they were actually the
Queen and should have been resident in Buckingham Palace. But saddest
of all were the likes of Mary Ann Parr, one of the very first inmates.
Brought up in poverty and afflicted by congenital
syphilis, she gave birth to an illegitimate child, which she
suffocated against her breast. Broadmoor saved her from a death
Found guilty of their crimes but insane, Parr and
hundreds like her were sent there rather than to the gallows in what
was in many ways an enlightened act of compassion given the general
brutality of the criminal system at the time.
In its grim blocks and unheated, unlit bedrooms,
there were no drug therapies or psychiatric analysis. Instead, inmates
were subjected to a regime of routine and work designed for their
Some of these suffering and delusional individuals
recovered enough to be allowed to leave, even Oxford, who had fired a
pistol at the Queen.
But Christiana Edmunds, the so-called 'Chocolate
Cream Poisoner', was not one of them. She would remain within
Broadmoor's walls for 35 years until her death.
Unlike most of the female inmates, she was not a
casualty of the grinding poverty of Victorian England's city slums.
She was middle-class, educated and of independent means. Her downfall
Described in contemporary reports as tall, handsome
and 'extremely prepossessing in demeanor' — Victorian-speak for pretty
damn hot — she lived in fashionable Brighton, where she met and fell
madly for a local doctor, Charles Beard, a married man. She sent him
passionate and indiscreet love letters.
How much of the affair was real and how much in her
mind remains unclear. He would afterwards insist there had been
nothing physical between them.
But he returned at least some of her romantic
interest and let matters take their course until, after a year of
secret assignations, he tried to cool things down. It was over, he
told her. She was not to write to him again.
But Christiana was unfazed by rejection, even
taking to calling on the Beards at home. One day in September 1870 she
arrived with a gift of chocolate creams for Emily, the doctor's wife.
Mrs Beard ate some and was violently sick.
An outraged and no doubt scared Beard, wondering
what demons he had unleashed, accused Christiana of poisoning his
wife. She denied it, arguing that it couldn't have been her because
she too had eaten a chocolate and become ill.
Whether or not the doctor believed her, he kept his
suspicions to himself, fearful that to involve the police would mean
scandal. But he told Christiana to stay away from him and his family.
Once again, she took no notice and continued to
write to him three times a week, her love for him as undying as ever,
her pursuit every bit as manic and devious.
What happened next was odd. Over the coming months,
there were no more attempts on Mrs Beard's life, but a number of other
people in Brighton fell ill after eating sweets and chocolates. There
were no fatalities — until a four-year old boy named Sidney Barker
died after visiting a sweet shop called J.G. Maynard's.
There was a coroner's inquiry, and Christiana, of
all people, came forward to offer evidence, describing how the
chocolate that had made Mrs Beard ill the year before had also come
The investigation now turned to the sweet shop, and
traces of strychnine were found in some of its chocolates. But how
they got there was a mystery no one could solve, and the shop owner
was exonerated of any intentional poisoning. A verdict of accidental
death was recorded on poor little Sidney.
But the poisonings continued. More people in
Brighton were taken ill. News spread. The town and the police were on
tenterhooks for the next incident. It came on August 10, 1871, when
six local people received parcels of poisoned fruits and cakes. Mrs
Beard was among them, as was one of her neighbours and the editor of
the local newspaper.
Another recipient was . . . Christiana Edmunds
herself, presumably trying to cover her own tracks but in fact
recklessly drawing intention to herself.
Dr Beard had now had enough. He finally went to the
police to voice his suspicions about Christiana and handed over her
passionate letters to him as evidence of her unstable mind and evil
intent. She was arrested and charged with attempted murder.
She appeared in court, the ultimate femme fatale in
a black silk dress, nonchalant and aloof. But the evidence was now
piling up against her — a chemist said he knew her as 'Mrs Wood' and
had supplied her with strychnine to kill some troublesome cats; an
errand boy said he delivered chocolates to her from Maynard's.
Everything was now falling into place, and an
additional charge was then laid against her — of murdering Sidney
Brighton was considered too small a stage for what
had now become a sensational national case. Only the Old Bailey would
do, and Christiana stood in the dock there, in black velvet this time,
with a fur trim.
Witnesses told the rapt jury how she sent boys to
buy sweets for her from Maynard's shop and then returned them for
re-sale — now laced with poison — on the grounds that the wrong ones
had been delivered.
As for motive, the prosecution suggested that after
her first attempt to dispose of Emily Beard failed, she had embarked
on her subsequent poisoning spree around Brighton because she wanted
to blame Maynard's for the incident and thereby get back in her lover
Dr Beard's good books.
Alternatively, she might have simply been
experimenting with poisons before having another go at the hapless Mrs
Beard. What seemed incontrovertible was that unrequited love had
driven her on.
Her lawyer put up a defence of insanity. Christiana
didn't know the difference between right and wrong, he argued, and the
revelation in court that there was a history of lunacy in her family
seemed to be in her favour.
But the jury was having none of this and found her
guilty. She was sentenced to hang, a verdict she greeted by
dramatically claiming she was pregnant and therefore the sentence
could not be carried out. A doctor examined her and concluded she was
in this, as in so much else, lying.
In prison, awaiting execution, she was seen by Dr
William Orange, Broadmoor's medical superintendent, and another Home
Office doctor. Their report was unequivocal — Christiana Edmunds was
as mad as a hatter, 'with confused and perverted feelings of a most
marked insane character'. On this advice, the Home Secretary reprieved
her and sent her to Broadmoor.
The decision caused ructions. It was not just that
two health-care professionals had chosen to overrule the clear
decision of a properly constituted jury. There were also many who felt
she had got away with murder and resented the cost of keeping her
alive indefinitely when a long rope and a short drop would have been
On her arrival at Broadmoor in 1872, she was 43 —
not the 35 she claimed — with rouged cheeks and an enormous wig.
Orange wrote on her notes: 'She is very vain.'
She also quickly proved to be sly, getting her
sister to smuggle in clothes and make-up for her, as well as extra
headfuls of false hair to fill out her wig and enhance her glamorous
To Broadmoor's doctors she was a painted lady,
obsessed with her personal appearance and motivated by romantic
desire. She in turn flirted with them outrageously, demanding their
attention and flaunting herself. 'Her manner and expression,' noted
one, were 'sexual and amatory'.
The decades made no difference. She continued to
come on to any of the male staff she had contact with, and she never
for a moment showed any remorse for her crimes.
Was she really mad? Many doubted it as she went
about her days quietly engrossed in her embroidery, easy enough to
manage, though she seemed to delight in winding up other patients
until they lost their tempers and she could then complain about them.
There was never any question of her being released,
particularly after her remaining family died and she was alone in the
Her health weakened, her sight faded and she could
barely walk unaided, but she did her best to keep up appearances,
still — judging by the conversation she had before the Christmas dance
in 1906 — worrying if her eyebrows were sexy enough to capture a man's
'I shall astonish them all,' she insisted. 'I shall
get up and dance — Venus again!' She died nine months later on
September 19, 1907, at 78, from old age.
Author Mark Stevens, senior archivist at the
Berkshire Record Office, finds Christiana a woman who still tantalises
more than a century later. 'She never denied her actions, nor offered
up an explanation of what she was trying to achieve by them,' he says.
'There is still a sense of mystery about her
motivation. It is unclear whether she wanted to have Dr Beard for
herself or to ruin him.'
Was she just a frustrated spinster whose
uncontrollable desires destroyed her? He believes she was a more
complex character than that suggests.
'She was a slave to adulation, and thrived on the
publicity that her criminal actions generated.'
If so, then the enigmatic Victorian Venus of
Broadmoor may well have been that most modern of dazzling and
bedazzled creatures — a fame junkie, made mad by her own desire not so
much for sex but for celebrity.