Arsenic…strychnine…antimony…mercury…potassium…iron…phosphorus…cyanide…opium…laudanum…zinc… the list of poisons available to buy in the 19th century is seemingly endless and any one of these dangerous substances could be purchased for a few pennies with relative ease, even by children. Part of the reason for this ready availability was the widespread use of poisons in a number of industries: arsenic, for example, was used to provide the green colour in wallpapers that were so fashionable in the Victorian home; strychnine was used to kill troublesome rodents and laudanum was a commonly-prescribed painkiller. While many Victorians used these poisons for their intended means, there were many who bought them to dispatch a rich relative, troublesome spouse or, in Christiana Edmund’s case, a rival in love.
By the time Christiana came to commit mass poisoning in the summer of 1871, the government had introduced two Acts to control the sale of poisons to the general public. The first came in 1851 and applied only to arsenic but the second, the Pharmacy Act of 1868, regulated the sale of all known poisons in the country. Under these new rules, a person could only buy poison if the chemist knew them personally, or if a witness was present who knew both parties. The details of all sales had to be entered into a Poison Book, including the reason for purchase, and the seller had to clearly label every substance with his name and address.
Christiana knew about these regulations but, more importantly, she knew how to get around them. In March 1871 she made the first of many visits to Isaac Garrett, a chemist on Queens Road in Brighton from whom she purchased her medicines and toiletries. Having been a customer of his shop for the last four years, Garrett recognised Christiana and the pair made small talk but he knew none of her personal details or where she lived. On this particular visit, Christiana introduced herself as Mrs Wood of Hillside and told Garrett that she needed some strychnine to kill some cats who were destroying her garden. This was a perfectly acceptable reason for buying poison in the 19th century but strychnine is so powerful that Garrett hesitated and agreed to only sell the poison if she brought Mrs Stone, a milliner who worked nearby, to act as a witness. A few doors down, Christiana told Mrs Stone that she and her husband were naturalists who needed poison to treat the body of a bird they intended to stuff. Of course, this was a complete fabrication but her story worked and Mrs Stone duly agreed to witness the transaction. Within a few minutes, Christiana had bought enough strychnine to kill dozens of adults and neither Isaac Garrett nor Caroline Stone had any idea of her murderous intentions.
If you want to read more about poisons in the 19th century, I highly recommend the following books:
C. Whorton, The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain Was Poisoned at Home, Work & Play, Oxford, OxforUniversity Press, 2010.
K. Watkins, Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and Their Victims, London, Hambledon, 2004.
All images courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.