For Father's Day, I'm posting this article about William Edmunds, the father of the notorious Chocolate Cream Killer, Christiana Edmunds. This is based partly on a recent article for Bygone Kent magazine which will be available in the Summer Issue...
While Christiana is associated with Brighton, her Kentish roots are an important part of her life and these begin in the seaside town of Margate. She was born at 16 Hawley Square in 1828, almost exactly nine months after the marriage of her parents. Her mother was Ann Burn, the daughter of a Maidstone-born officer in Royal Marines and her father was William Edmunds, one of the county's most celebrated architects. Unlike his wife, William was a native of Margate: his father, Thomas, had been landlord of the highly-popular, White Hart Hotel, and occasionally worked on the town's major building projects. When Thomas died in 1823, the 22-year-old William took over the running of the hotel but soon felt pulled in a different direction. In 1825, he won a competition to design a new church in Margate and work began immediately on his creation, Holy Trinity Church.
The success of this project propelled William into the local spotlight. A number of exciting projects followed, including the Margate Lighthouse in 1828 and Levey's Bazaar shortly after. Soon, he was in demand across the county: he designed the Trinity Church in Dover in 1833, the Blean Union Workhouse in 1835, he remodelled the Kent and Canterbury Hospital in 1838 and, one year later, constructed a pavilion in Dover in honour of the Duke of Wellington.
While William's career blossomed, his home life was equally blessed. Ann gave birth to another six children after Christiana: William, in 1829; Mary, in 1832; Louisa, in 1833; Frederick, also In 1833 and Ellen, in 1835. The youngest, Arthur, followed in 1841. The couple also had three servants to help care for the children and tend to their luxurious home.
But William's life was about to take a turn for the worse. Beginning after his work on the Dover Pavilion, he began to experience some strange symptoms. He stopped working, started drinking and began to rave about owning "millions of money." Life in the Edmunds household continued, for the most part, as normal: Christiana went off to boarding school in Ramsgate and her brother was enrolled at the prestigious King's School in Canterbury, while William steadily deteriorated. By 1842, he had developed paralysis of the tongue and mouth, his suffered an unsteady gait and was increasingly incoherent and confused. The following year, William entered Southall Park, a lunatic asylum in London. His diagnosis was General Paralysis of the Insane and his prognosis was bleak.
General Paralysis of the Insane, or GPI, is the Victorian name for the final (tertiary) stage of syphilis. The Victorians had no idea that GPI was linked to syphilis - that link was only made in the 20th century - and William may never have realised that syphilis was to blame for his sudden illness. Whatever the truth, William was treated like any other incurable lunatic and there would be no more talk of his former glories in Kent.
When William died in the asylum in March 1847, the newspapers noted his passing but made no mention of the circumstances of his final years. To escape any potential scandal, the family sold all of their possessions, sacked the servants and moved to Canterbury to start afresh. Within a few years, the family had shrunk considerably: the eldest son, William, had gone to London to train as a surgeon, Mary had married a Sussex clergymen, Louisa was working as a governess and Frederick and Ellen had both passed away. The youngest child, Arthur, was diagnosed with epilepsy and placed into the Royal Earlswood Asylum for Idiots in Reigate, Surrey. Christiana and her mother were now alone, living off the generous inheritance bequeathed to them by the late William Edmunds.
Christiana and her mother's near-disappearance from public record in Canterbury is arguably strong evidence of their successful integration into local society. They appear only in the censuses of 1851 and 1861, though in far less luxurious circumstances than Margate. In fact, they rented the upstairs rooms of 21 St George's Street, a house owned by James Nash, a brush-maker from Hampshire. Beyond this, we know virtually nothing of their life in Canterbury.
But history was about to repeat itself for the Edmunds. In January 1866, young Arthur died in Reigate Asylum, followed in 1867 by his sister, Louisa, who collapsed outside of her home in Margate and died soon after. Louisa had suffered from repeated bouts of hysteria and had unsuccessful attempted suicide on at least one occasion. Her cause of death is rather curiously cited as menorrhagia - heavy menstruation - though Victorian death attributions are notoriously misleading. Whatever the case, the surviving Edmunds once again paced their bags and prepared to start a new life . This time, they chose the town of Brighton in East Sussex, presumably to get further away from the taint of death in the asylum.
But the move to Brighton would set Christiana on a path of destruction which would dramatically alter the course of her life. Her Kentish roots and her father's tragic demise would resurface at trial, used by her defence as sad evidence of the prevalence of insanity in her family. Following a guilty verdict, the story of the Edmunds family came full circle: like her father, Christiana spent the remaining years of her life in an asylum, dying there of 'senile debility' in 1907.
Image courtesy of the wonderful site, Margate Local History.
The Body on the Moor: Neil Dovestone, A Modern Case of Strychnine Poisoning
This week, the BBC Magazine is running a series of reports on the case of Neil Dovestone. This isn't his real name: Neil Dovestone is a John Doe, his identity remains unknown to the police, despite months of police investigation and media coverage.
If you're not familiar with Neil's case, here are the details. On the morning of December 11 2015, Neil Dovestone, an elderly man of between 65 and 75 years old, took the 10 am train from London's Euston Station to Manchester Piccadilly. Arriving just after midday, Neil spent 53 minutes perusing the shops at the station before travelling to Saddleworth Moor in Oldham. Here, Neil went into the Clarence pub and asked the landlord for directions to "the mountains" - though he did not specify a particular place. The landlord then took him to the door of the pub and directed him towards the Dovestone Reservoir (hence the name of this John Doe). Neil then left the pub, heading in that direction, and was not seen again until just after 3 pm. According to the witness, he was halfway up the Indian's Head, a 1500 ft peak. This the last confirmed sighting of Neil.
At 10:50 am the next morning, a cyclist was riding up the Indian's Head when he spotted Neil's body and called the emergency services. Neil was lying on his back with his arms by his side, prompting the cyclist to think that he had died of a heart attack. When the emergency services arrived, they found the following things on Neil's person:
Neil had no identification on his person, not even a wallet.
After the discovery of the body, a toxicology report showed that natural causes were not responsible for Neil's death: he had, in fact, died after taking a lethal dose of strychnine which readers of this blog will know is one of the deadliest substances known to man and was banned in the UK in 2006. Traces of the poison were also found on the empty bottle of thyroxine sodium in Neil's coat.
This case is both tragic and fascinating. It is so sad that nobody has come forward and identified Neil and that nobody can explain why he travelled over 200 miles to Saddleworth Moor to take his own life, a place synonymous with the crimes of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. All of the police enquiries and public appeals have (thus far) drawn a blank. That being said, nobody can say definitively that Neil wasn't murdered. There is not enough evidence to say either way. Knowing what I know about strychnine, I find it hard to accept that anybody would willingly use it to commit suicide. Anybody of sound mind, anyway. Death by strychnine is an agonising process, as I learned through my research into Christiana Edmunds, and it is an extremely uncommon cause of death in the 21st century.
Here's an artist's sketch of Neil because someone out there might recognise him. You just never know.
Image courtesy of The Independent. Follow the case using #bodyonthemoor