Was Christiana Edmunds Innocent? Poisoning and the Adulteration of Chocolate in Victorian England
Today, the food industry is heavily regulated to protect and promote the health of consumers. But that hasn't always been the case. In fact, the addition of unnatural or unsafe products to food and drink was widespread in Victorian England. The motivations for adulteration were purely economic: using cheaper alternatives boosted profits and legislation to regulate the industry simply didn't exist. So, with this in mind, what are the implications for Christiana Edmunds? Was the Chocolate Cream Killer innocent, after all? Was this a case of accidental poisoning? Excuse the pun but it does give food for thought.
This image might seem a bit far-fetched but chocolate and sugar confectionery were two of the most heavily-adulterated foodstuffs of the 19th century. We can thank Fredrick Accum, a German chemist, for first bringing this problem to public attention. In 1820 he published his (damning) treatise on the English food industry and consumers were horrified. Accum found that sugar confectionery, in particular, was prone to adulteration with all manner of nasties, from starch to Cornish clay. Moreover, sweets were often coloured using "inferior" products or dangerous poisons, like red lead or copper. So it's perhaps not unreasonable to suggest that the sugar-filled centres of Christiana's chocolate creams were adulterated at source and not by her own hands.
After Accum's treatise, a number of articles and books on the subject of food adulteration followed and so did the number of nasties found in chocolate and sugar confectionery. In 1848, for example, John Mitchell found that high-quality chocolates were routinely mixed with starch and that cheaper chocolates were adulterated with "highly injurious" substances like lead. Publications from 1850 and 1855 added to the chocolate adulteration list: animal fat, brick dust, sulphate of lime, red lead and the shells of cocoa beans. The list got scarier and scarier and prompted The Food Journal to write, in 1870, that "there is no more unblushing and unlicensed poisoner in the world than the unscrupulous manufacturer of cheap confectionery. "
When the Chocolate Cream Killer claimed her victim, 4-year-old Sidney Barker, in June 1871, the Brighton authorities investigated the possibility of food adulteration. They were so accustomed to reading stories of adulteration that the presence of a dangerous poison like strychnine in Sidney's body did not necessarily suggest the possibility of murder. The coroner investigated the London-based manufacturer of the poisoned chocolate creams, Mr George Ware. In his 30-odd years in business, he had never received a single complaint about his chocolates nor did he use cheap alternatives in production. He did, however, admit to having a problem with rats in his factory but employed pest controllers to keep them at bay. Did they use strychnine to kill the rats? He couldn't be sure, he told the coroner.
The coroner's interest turned next to the wholesaler, John Maynard. Another veteran of the industry, Maynard had been in business on Brighton's West Street for decades. He, too, had never received a single complaint and had thoroughly investigated his premises in the wake of Sidney's death. Neither Maynard nor his staff could explain the presence of strychnine in the chocolate creams. He didn't even keep poison on the premises - his pet cat took care of any rats or mice. Summing up, the coroner admitted his uncertainty. He could not advise the jury to find Ware or Maynard guilty because the evidence simply didn't suggest it. Instead, the jury returned a verdict of accidental death.
With Ware and Maynard vindicated, there was only one real explanation, though the Brighton authorities were not yet aware of it. Sidney's death was no accident and Christiana Edmunds was poised for her next attack.
Read her story in The Case of the Chocolate Cream Killer: The Poisonous Passion of Christiana Edmunds. Available here.