I am very pleased to share this lovely review of my book on Christiana Edmunds from the Brighton and Hove Independent. (You can view the original article here).
"You know that expression that we all use – ‘only in Brighton’. Well, this certainly applies to this book: The true story of Christiana Edmunds and her thwarted pash on her doctor. So thwarted in fact that she tries to poison his wife and child. When that doesn’t work, and he gets suspicious she comes up with what she thinks is a simply marvy idea, and that it is to randomly poison the whole town to get the blame off her. Hmm, what could possibly go wrong?
This is a staggering account of just how easy it was (stop a child in the street, bung them a copper, and forge a note saying you’re a chemist in North Street and have run out of arsenic or strychnine and Bob’s your uncle.) She then buys some chocolate creams from Maynards in the centre of town, randomly places her (poisoned) chocolates back in the bag, grabs another urchin and gets them to return them to the shop. The shop then places them back in stock and the whole of Brighton plays Russian roulette with bon bons.
The book is full of horrendous yet fascinating facts about Victorian food safety, the ‘cure’ for hysterical women, the treatment of the insane, and general views of women at the time. A true account that makes for great reading. But maybe not over a box of chocolates."
Ok, so it’s not Christiana-related but here’s another murder case from Victorian Brighton, a perfect read for Halloween…
Early in the evening of March 14 1844, John Lawrence was arrested on a charge of shoplifting and taken to the police station, a series of rooms on the ground floor of the Brighton Town Hall. Lawrence had been spotted trying to steal a roll of carpet from a shop in St James’s Street but was quickly apprehended by a local bobby by the name of Harnden.
While waiting on the arrival of a witness, Lawrence was placed in a room occupied by a number of men including Henry Solomon, the Chief Constable of the Brighton Police Force. (pictured below) Solomon was a well-liked and highly-respected figure in Brighton. He also had the honour of being the town’s first Chief Constable, a post he had held for the past six years. When Solomon noticed Lawrence in the room, he asked him how long he had been in Brighton. Lawrence claimed it was two days but Solomon suspected that it was much longer. Caught out, Lawrence became agitated and said to Solomon: “I’m tired of my life. Give me a knife that I may make away with myself.” According to a witness, Solomon ignored this obvious provocation and instead tried to soothe Lawrence by urging him to relax while they waited on the arrival of the witness. Solomon then turned away and began chatting to some of the other men in the room.
Lawrence (pictured below) now seized his moment. He rose from his chair, reached out to the fireplace behind him and grabbed the poker. Before anyone had noticed, he had landed a blow on Solomon’s head that was so strong he immediately fell to the floor. Covered in blood and “completely incapable of helping himself,” Solomon was attended to by those around him while Lawrence shouted “I know I have done it! I hope I have killed him, I shall be hanged!” Poor Solomon was then transported home. He lingered through the night but his wound was so severe that he died the following morning. He was interred on the following Friday afternoon in Brighton’s Jewish Burial Ground and the town’s public raised a fund to support his wife and nine children – with £50 donated by Queen Victoria herself.
Meanwhile, Lawrence was found guilty of his murder and sentenced to death. At trial, Lawrence claimed to harbour no enmity towards Solomon. It was, he explained, his wish to die and escape his miserable life. His wish was granted on 6 April when he was executed in front of a large crowd at Horsham, north of Brighton. He was only 24 years old – we can only wonder what prompted such unprovoked violence that night.
On 12 June 1871, the Chocolate Cream Poisoner, Christiana Edmunds, claimed her first victim. He was Sidney Barker, a four-year-old boy on holiday in Brighton with his parents, and he died suddenly after eating one of Christiana’s chocolate creams. Of course, nobody knew that Christiana was responsible for Sidney’s untimely death nor that she had adulterated the creams with strychnine, one of the most deadly poisons in existence. But they did know that Sidney had been a healthy boy, with no existing medical complaints and the convulsions which caused his death had begun within a few moments of eating the chocolate cream. Their suspicions prompted the doctor, Richard Rugg, to contact the police and the Brighton coroner: the first stage in the process of investigating an unexplained death in Victorian England.
David Back had been Brighton’s coroner since the creation of the office in 1854. Black was a lawyer by trade and a partner in one of the town’s largest law firms, Black and Freeman. Like other Victorian coroners, Black had never received any medical training – a fact which might seem odd to modern readers – but was very much the norm during the nineteenth century. In some respect, Black didn’t really need it: his role was to organise an inquest, not to personally determine the cause of Sidney’s death. He left this responsibility to Richard Rugg, whom he instructed to conduct a post-mortem and which took place the day after the boy’s death. In the meantime, Black issued a warrant to between 12 and 24 “good and lawful men” to act as jurors and arranged for the inquest to take place as soon as Rugg’s results were in.
Victorian inquests were very different to their modern counterparts. For a start, they usually took place in the nearest pub – a far cry from the official surroundings of today’s coroner’s court. The coroner, the jury and the witnesses were not exempt from having a drink or two and some inquests naturally turned into rather raucous affairs. To make matters worse, the corpse was generally taken into the inquest and put on public display, often prompting a stream of onlookers, many of whom were already the worse for drink and feeling rowdy. There are many instances of people laughing at and mocking the coroner, interrupting the witnesses and being generally bothersome and anti-social. In some cases, this rowdiness extended to members of the victim’s family. An inquest into the death of three children in Ely in 1847, for example, was described by one spectator as being “totally devoid of any moral feeling.” The father of one of the children was so drunk that he could only be roused for long enough to say that the murderer had done the right thing while one mother did nothing but utter “obscene language.” There are no such reports in the case of Sidney Barker, suggesting that his inquest was a far more sombre and respectful affair – or perhaps that rowdy inquests were so common it didn’t merit a mention. I’m not going to reveal the details of Sidney’s inquest here – you will have to wait for the book! – but I will say that his death was ruled as accidental, giving Christiana the opportunity to escape detection and prosecution. But Sidney Barker had never been her intended target and, in her mind, she had unfinished business.
On Friday 18 August 1871, the following notice appeared in The Times:
The recipient of this mysterious parcel was Emily Beard, a 43-year-old mother of five and the wife of a well-respected doctor, who lived in a handsome three-storey house on Grand Parade in Brighton. Emily wasn’t the only person to receive an unexpected gift of cake and chocolate: in fact, six parcels were dispatched around the town over the course of that fateful day; but this wasn’t the first time she had been the intended victim of murder by poisoning. One night in September 1870, Emily had been entertaining a friend, Christiana Edmunds, when the lady placed into her mouth a chocolate cream which tasted very strange. It was cold and metallic and, not wanting to cause offence, Emily immediately left the room and spat it out. Christiana quickly made her excuses and left the house but, later that night, Emily suffered with diarrhoea, cramps and excess saliva which she feared were caused by the strange chocolate cream. When she related the events to her husband, Dr Charles Beard, he confirmed her suspicions because he knew something Emily didn’t: Christiana was madly in love with him and would do anything to eliminate her rival.
The woman at the centre of this scandal, Christiana Edmunds, had arrived in Brighton with her mother, Ann, four years earlier, in 1867. She had spent the last two decades living in Canterbury but was, in fact, a native of Margate where she was born in 1828. Christiana was the eldest of seven children, two of whom had died in infancy, and her father was William Edmunds, a highly-successful and well-known architect who has designed some of the town’s most iconic buildings, including Droit House and St John’s Church, both of which are still standing. William’s successes enabled Christiana to grow up with all the pomp and privilege of an upper-middle class lifestyle: she was raised in one of the most desirable houses in Margate, had three servants at home and spent some of her teenage years at a private boarding school in Ramsgate.
But, in 1843, her life changed dramatically when her father was admitted to Southall Park Lunatic Asylum in London. He had been acting strange for some time; he raved about owning “millions of money,” had started to stutter and walk with an unsteady gait. At the asylum, he was diagnosed with General Paralysis of the Insane, a condition which causes dementia and total paralysis of the entire body. The prognosis for General Paralysis was extremely bleak: most sufferers died within the first three years and, though William briefly picked up in 1843, he returned to the asylum in 1845 where he died two years later. The social stigma of William’s death in the asylum prompted Christiana and her family to flee Margate and start a new life in Canterbury but madness was never far behind. By the time Christiana reached Brighton, one of her siblings had attempted suicide, another had died in an asylum and she had already started to display some worrying symptoms. The scene was set for her poisoning spree but that’s a post for another day.