Here's a post that I wrote recently for the Women's History Network (see the original, here):
The Victorians were terrified of women poisoners. It might seem like an obvious observation; after all, whowouldn’t be frightened of a poison-wielding woman? But there’s more to this relationship than self-preservation. In fact, the fear of the female was a social construction, brought into being by contemporary understandings of gender roles, particularly cultures of domesticity, and a deep-rooted suspicion of the the so-called female nature. The wide availability of a range of poisons also fed the Victorian imagination. While legislative attempts to curtail the sale of poisons were enacted, in 1851 and again in 1868, they did little to affect women’s access to poison, as shown most famously in the case of Christiana Edmunds, the Chocolate Cream Killer, who terrorised Brighton over the summer of 1871 by poisoning confectionery and dispersing it around the town.
Beginning with poison, the Victorians feared it above all other murder weapons. Tales of convulsions, of writhing in agony and of vomiting to excess dominated the popular press of the 19th century. What made poison even more terrifying was the difficulty in detection. Arsenic, for example, is colourless, tasteless and odourless, making it ideally suited to the hideous crime of murder. A victim would have no idea that he had been poisoned until it was too late. Even if he detected a hint of something unusual, like the bitter taste of strychnine, what really could he do? By the time he had realised his fate, it was too late: death was almost certain in a matter of minutes.
But what of the women who administered poison? What was so frightening about a society of mothers and daughters? Well, the clue lies in the description. Middle-class Victorians idealised women as guardians of the home, tasked with the physical and spiritual well-being of their families. But what of the women harboured murderous intentions? This became the source of much debate during the aptly-named ‘poisoning panic’ of the mid-century when scores of women were tried for murder by poison. Here, one journalist sums up the general state of feeling: “It seems almost clear that a woman who would not lift her hand against a man or child will unhesitatingly drop arsenic into their food.” In reality, there were only 254 women accused of murder or attempted murder in the period 1750-1914, that’s less than two every year.
But, as this journalist argues, when a woman committed the crime of poisoning, it wasn’t just a crime against society, it was a crime against morality. It was an inversion of the natural state of women, as wives and mothers, and it stank of deception and betrayal. But what about women who weren’t wives and mothers: did they fare any better in their construction?
Well, the short answer is not really. When Christiana Edmunds stood trial at the Old Bailey in January 1872, she was a middle-aged spinster. But the press were keen to point out her alleged motivations, specifically that she was a woman driven to murder after being spurned by the (married) man she loved. She had subverted traditional ideas about courtship and marriage and the press couldn’t quite fathom her out. In fact, they turned to physiognomy, the study of facial features, in an attempt to understand her and found something perverse-yet-sensual about her appearance:
“Christiana Edmunds has a way of compressing the lips occasionally, when the left side of the mouth twists up with a sardonic, defiant determination, in which there is something of a weird comeliness.”
After trial, Christiana was diagnosed with insanity and was the first woman who have her death sentence respited to a permanent stay in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. But scores of women soon followed her and, in doing so, reveal another aspect to the construction of the Victorian murderess: that such criminal behaviour was indicative of madness. But, whether mad or just plain bad, the social experiences of women like Christiana, particularly at trial, shed light on the dark and complicated relationship between the female criminal and Victorian society.
 The Times, 8 August 1849.
 Daily News, 16 January 1872.
I recently read a fabulous article by Nell Darby about the dangers of glorifying history's criminals (check it out here) and it really got me thinking about my book on Christiana Edmunds. By writing about her, am I glorifying her crimes? Am I trivialising the horrible things she did? It's an important and often over-looked question, I think.
When I was first approached to write this book, it was clear that the publishers were looking for something sensational. They wanted a book that would capture the public's imagination, so I duly set about scouring the newspapers of the 19th century in search of shocking, though less well-known, crimes. I think I succeeded in my aim but, in writing a book that is deliberately sensational, I can't help but wonder if I am guilty of feeding the public's obsession with the "celebrity" criminal. But, even if I am, is that such a bad thing?
Before I answer that, let's get something clear from the beginning, though I hope it goes without saying. It has never been my intention to glorify Christiana's poisoning spree or downplay its effects on her victims. And I'm sure that many other writers and historians out there don't harbour this intention, either. So I wonder if this issue is symptomatic of a wider historical problem? That is, of our connection to people from the past. It's easy to look at people like Christiana, like Dr Beard, like Sidney Barker as names on a page and forget that they were real people with real problems, real relationships and with real lives. Perhaps we view them in such simplistic terms because we can't relate to them; we can't connect on that human level which is so necessary in creating a sense of meaning and attachment. In this understanding, it is easy for people to pick and select the figures they read or write about because, intentionally or unintentionally, they are not connected to these criminals or victims and their personal histories.
If this is the case, then I would suggest that knowledge really is power. Instead of glorifying criminals, we should think about new books and new projects as bringing to life these stories of the past. But I'm not saying that any old story or any old viewpoint will do. It needs to be done in a way and that is what I have tried so hard to do in my book on Christiana. It was so easy for me to get sucked in by the newspaper reports of the Chocolate Cream Killer, of the cold-hearted spinster and the slighted lover. And for a while, I guess, I fell for it all. But once I started to think critically about Christiana, everything changed. I realised that her crimes represent just one year of her life. Again, not wanting to trivialise what she did, I was keen to know more about the woman, not the murderess. Of course, this poses a whole new set of problems. As Nell rightly points out, the vast majority of crimes are rather "grubby affairs" which take place against the fairly hum-drum backdrop of everyday life. And researching the everyday in the 19th century isn't exactly easy. But I was determined to put Christiana into some sort of meaningful context, to try and understand who she really was and portray this to the reader, without being overly sympathetic towards her or downplaying the plight of her victims. I guess it's a question of balance and I sincerely hope that I've got the balance right.
In May 1871, the Victorian public was gripped by the trial of Frederick William Park and Ernest Boulton, AKA Fanny and Stella, the two most notorious cross-dressers of the 19th century. They were tried at the Old Bailey for the crime of "conspiracy to commit felonious crimes", or, in other words, for dressing like women and flouting social norms.
But what do these two men (or ladies) have in common with Christiana Edmunds, I hear you ask? Well, the link is a man called John Humffreys Parry, one of the most talented and prolific lawyers of the mid 19th century. Parry defended Ernest Boulton at his trial and, one year later, was retained by the family of Christiana Edmunds, the Chocolate Cream Killer.
Getting back to Fanny and Stella, the case was sensational in nature but, legally speaking, there wasn't really a case against them. On the night of their arrest, they had been out to Strand Theatre, dressed as women, with a few friends. They didn't realise that they were under the watch of a police constable and detective who arrested them as they were leaving the theatre. The charge was conspiring to commit a felony and they were remanded in Newgate Prison pending a court appearance. Here, they were forced to undergo a physical exam (which was completely illegal) to find evidence of sodomy but doctors found nothing.
When they appeared at Bow Street Magistrates' Court, they were still dressed as women. In the dock, Stella was wearing a "cherry-coloured silk evening dress trimmed with white lace, bracelets on bare arms, a wig, and plaited chignon." You can imagine the public's reaction...
To modern eyes, the proceedings were fairly shambolic. Hordes of personal correspondence were brought in (none of which was indecent) and trunks of ladies' dresses were placed on display. Public moralists were outraged and requested that all evidence be taken in secret. But their pleas were ignored and Victorian society revelled in such sensational and scandalous tales.
Fanny and Stella were committed to trial and not given bail but their charge was changed to "conspiring to commit felonious crimes" and "outraging public decency by going about dressed as women." Far less serious than committing a felony.
Their trial began on 9 May 1871. Understandably, much of the prosecution's focus lay on Fanny and Stella's "unusual" lifestyle and had no real basis in law. Let's face it, there was no evidence of sodomy and wearing women's clothes appeared to have no basis in English law. As such, the jury took only 53 minutes to find Fanny and Stella not guilty of their charges. On hearing the news, Stella fainted in the dock.
The trial had no lasting impact on Fanny and Stella. Stella, for example, continued to act as a female impersonator in theatres across the country before emigrating to the USA. (He died there in 1904). But they had certainly gripped the public's imagination. Here's a cheeky little Victorian limerick which commemorates their notoriety (undated):
There was an old person of Sark
Who buggered a pig in the dark;
The swine in surprise
Murmured: ‘God blast your eyes
Do you take me for Boulton or Park?’
As for Mr Parry, he might have thought he'd seen it all. But nothing could prepare him for meeting Christiana Edmunds in January 1872. I'll save his thoughts on the infamous Chocolate Cream Killer for another day....
(These fabulous images of Fanny and Stella are courtesy of History Extra, check them out here.)
I am so excited to announce that the book is available for pre-order now!
Here, on Amazon UK, and also, here, direct from Pen & Sword Books.
I am very pleased to be at the final stage of completing my book on Christiana Edmunds. It has taken around 2 years to get here and it has been emotional, to say the least! But, now that I'm finally here (hooray!), I thought I'd share a few tips on getting your book done, without having a complete and total mental breakdown.
One last thing, I'll leave you with the words of the wonderful, Neil Gaiman:
"This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it's done. It's that easy, and that hard."