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. "
I am very excited to share the book trailer for my new book on Christiana Edmunds, due for release on 4 April 2016!
When Christiana Edmunds, the Chocolate Cream Killer, began her poisoning spree in April 1871, she chose strychnine as her murder weapon. Strychnine is derived from the seeds and the bark of the nux vomica, a tree found in South East Asia, and is one of the deadliest poisons known to man: 30 mg, for example, is quite enough to kill an adult. Around half of that dosage, 15 mg, is deadly to children.
Considering its toxicity, the Victorians used strychnine for a number of purposes, other than murder. It was a staple ingredient in pest control products and, rather worryingly, was used to make medicine. A number of Victorian physicians hailed strychnine as an effective treatment for a number of conditions, from "nervous disorders" like hysteria, to digestive complaints.
These chocolate-coated strychnine tablets were prescribed for a digestive condition and as you can see from the label, each tablet contains 1/60 of a grain of strychnine (one grain being the equivalent to 64 mg - twice the lethal dose for an adult) so it works out at a daily dose of about 1 mg per tablet. It's not enough to kill you but ingesting strychnine on a daily basis certainly isn't wise!
Coating these tablets in chocolate is not only reminiscent of the Chocolate Cream Killer, it's also indicative of strychnine's wider problem. Its natural taste is so bitter that it makes it almost impossible to (willingly) digest. This was certainly a problem for Christiana Edmunds who, in July 1871, abandoned strychnine and switched to using arsenic, a tasteless and odourless poison - which was far better suited to her murderous spree.
But, sometimes, coating a strychnine tablet in chocolate or another sugary substance made them just a bit too tempting, as shown by this article from 1930:
It's a pretty terrifying thought, that children were helping themselves to strychnine tablets, thanks to the taste of the sugary coating. The symptoms described in this article, like convulsions, are typical of those associated with strychnine poisoning. This is because strychnine works by disrupting the nerve signals between the brain and the muscles. If the brain isn't in full control, the muscles will experience painful spasms and contractions until exhaustion sets in. In severe cases, death can follow in as little as 15 minutes. This goes some way in explaining why Christiana's poisoning spree evoked such terror in Brighton's residents.
I highly recommend J. Buckingham's book, Bitter Nemesis: The Intimate History of Strychnine, to find out more about our relationship with and use of strychnine.
From time to time, I scour archives in the hope that I might find something new about Christiana Edmunds. The book has gone to print so even if I did, I couldn't include it, but it still doesn't stop me from looking!
Anyway, with that in mind, I'd like to introduce another Christiana Edmunds. I came across her while I was searching for details of Christiana's life before her poisoning spree in 1871. Neither of the Christiana's were natives of London but they were both there in 1852, for very different reasons, and this is what piqued my interest in this second Christiana. In fact, this second Christiana was born in Midlothian, Scotland, in 1822; only six years before the Chocolate Cream Killer. But this Christiana had a very different upbringing: In 1841, when she was 19, for example, she was employed as a servant in Albany Street in Edinburgh. A far cry from Chocolate Cream Killer, who had just left the comforts of Hawley Square in Margate to start a few years of private education at an all-girls boarding school in Ramsgate.
Fast forward to 1851 and life for the Scottish Christiana has changed again. She has left Scotland and moved to London where she is employed as a cook in the home of Joseph Angell, a 68-year-old silversmith, and his niece, Catherine. She is one of three servants living and working at 25 Grove End Road in St John's Wood.
Not long after this census was taken, Christiana fell pregnant. She was presumably dismissed, as custom dictated, and was admitted to the the lying ward of the St Marylebone Workhouse in May 1852. She gave birth to a baby girl, whom she named Christiana, and was discharged on 1 June. The father of her baby remains a mystery.
As previously mentioned, the Chocolate Cream Killer was also in London in 1852. She had been sent there by her mother, Ann, to see a surgeon called Mr Prettyman. Ann was concerned about her daughter's state of mind and erratic behaviour. Prettyman diagnosed Christiana with hysteria and she then returned to her family in Canterbury.
I can't imagine that life was easy for the Scottish Christiana and her new baby. After all, she was an unmarried mother and hundreds of miles from her family. I know she didn't return to the employment of Mr Angell; he died in 1855. Of the few leads I have, the only one which I believe is a possibility is that she married a bricklayer called Richard Stokes in Barnet in 1866. It is difficult to verify because the certificate does not state her age or year of birth, as you can see, and Christiana is also listed as a widower. Did she, perhaps, lie to Richard about the circumstances of her daughter's birth?
I guess we'll never know....
Image of St Marylebone Workhouse is courtesy of workhouses.org.uk and all others are taken from Ancestry.co.uk