When I was writing Christiana's story, I spent a lot of time trying to find out about the chocolate creams which she used in her poisoning spree. I wanted to know what they what looked like, what they tasted like and so I searched and searched for a recipe. After many unsuccessful attempts, I accepted that Mr George Ware's recipe for chocolate creams, those used by Christiana, had likely died with his business. I did, however, find a number of other recipes from this period which are now in the public domain and which give a sense of what Victorian chocolate creams really looked and tasted like.
So, for those enthusiastic bakers out there, here are a selection of recipes for you to try. I'd love to hear from anyone who makes them! Poison is, of course, optional!
This first recipe is taken from The Royal Cookery Book by Jule Gouffe, published in London in 1869:
Here's another by Jules Gouffre, taken from his 1871 book, The Books of Preserves:
I came across the story of Eva Pierlo while researching Christiana Edmunds' time in Newgate prison. The pair were cellmates and Christiana complained to the prison governor about sharing with Eva, a woman accused of bigamy, on the grounds that she had a low moral character. This is rather ironic when you consider that Christiana was accused and found guilty) of one count of murder and three counts of attempted murder!
Anyway, while the details of Eva's case are scant, I think her story is one worth mentioning.
Very little is known about Eva's background until she stood in the dock of the Old Bailey on 9 January 1872. The Times commented on Eva's "ladylike appearance and manners." Eva had no counsel but this was a good thing, wrote one reporter from the Leeds Times:
"This compelled her to state her case to the court in her own way and, judging by the result, her oratorical powers must be of no mean description."
Reading her trial transcript, it is clear that Eva was a confident woman who was frank and open about the charge she was accused of. She had no problem in admitting to bigamy, for instance, but she wanted the court to know the full details of her two marriages before they judged her actions.
Eva had married her first husband, Albert Pierlo, on 8 December 1870 at Aldgate Church in London. With no home of their own, the newlyweds spent the first two weeks of their marriage as lodgers in the home of Mary Ann Carter. In court, Mary Ann testified that Albert had repeatedly "struck" and "ill-treated" his new wife, even though Eva was financially supporting him. In fact, Albert was in the habit of extorting money from Eva: taking first her personal allowance of 17 shillings per week before squandering £80 of her life savings on a failed business venture in Hamburg. When the couple returned to London, Albert pawned all of Eva's clothing and then disappeared, leaving her in a state of personal and financial ruin.
Less than nine months after marrying Albert, Eva wed William Frederick White. In court, Eva openly admitted that William had married her "out of pity" and to prevent her from being "ruined." Soon after, Eva was arrested after Albert heard about the wedding and informed the police.
The jury found Eva guilty of bigamy but strongly recommended mercy. Despite claiming that bigamy is a "very serious offence," the judge agreed with the jury and sentenced Eva to serve three days in prison. He also informed her that she could take out a magistrates order to protect her property and her earnings from Albert, her "predatory husband."
After serving her three day sentence, Eva disappears from record. Perhaps she followed William to India (where he went after her arrest) or simply got on with the rest of her life.
Leeds Times, 13 January 1872.
The Times, 10 January 1872.
Old Bailey online:
In the first part of this article, I looked at how the infamous institution, Broadmoor, came into being and the sort of asylum that it was when Christiana arrived there in July 1872. (If you missed it, you can read it here). In this post, I'm looking at life for Christiana once she was admitted and as under the care of Dr William Orange, Broadmoor's resident superintendent.
All of our knowledge of Christiana's time in Broadmoor comes from her medical file, a document filled out by Dr Orange and based entirely on his observations. As you can imagine, her file makes for interesting reading, not just because of its contents but because it is one of the few impressions of Christiana that remains in existence.
According to Dr Orange, Christiana confirmed her diagnosis of insanity in the first few weeks of her arrival at Broadmoor. Though she was a "quiet and orderly" in her behaviour, she showed no remorse for the crimes that she had committed nor did she offer any explanation of her motives. When her mother, Ann, made her first visit to Broadmoor, she was shocked by her daughter's lack of expression. Ann also said that Christiana never expressed any sorrow for the "trouble" she caused her family.
By July 1872, Christiana had only one remaining sibling: her younger sister, Mary who, in these early years, wrote to and visited with Christiana on a regular basis. None of their letters have survived but, according to Christiana's notes, were almost all about make-up and clothing. Specifically, about how to smuggle in contraband ("articles of wearing apparel") and how to apply paint to the face. Christiana’s smuggling attempts became an increasing source of frustration for Broadmoor’s matron, Mrs Jackson. In June 1874, for example, Mary sent a leather cushion to her sister but Mrs Jackson refused to hand it over. In a letter to Dr Orange, she stated that the cushion was "not really sent in to amuse or please" but was, in fact, "a deceptive manner of conveying false hair." Jackson went on to say "she has already great quantities which have been obtained by deception." Ironically, Broadmoor would have allowed Christiana to have the false hair, had she gone through the proper channels. By smuggling it in, it reflected a much more serious problem: that Christiana was driven by a need to be deceitful.
Over the course of 1874 and 1875, Christiana also turned her attentions from Dr Beard to Reverend Henry Cole, the chaplain of Lewes Prison (where she had been incarcerated before and after her trial). In July 1874, for instance, it was discovered that Christiana had sent letters to Cole through her sister and, given her efforts to conceal the letters from Broadmoor staff, it is likely that they contained amorous and personal references.
In her file, Dr Orange commented that he would have "no objection" to Christiana writing to the chaplain but, once again, it was in "conformity with her state of mind to prefer mystery and concealment."
After this, Christiana's behaviour deteriorated: she continued to smuggle in contraband, complained (to anybody who would listen) about her treatment by the staff and delighted in "tormenting" other patients. In July 1876, she was punished with a move to another ward. While she remained "excessively vain" and "frivolous," her behaviour improved significantly and she appears to have (finally) settled into life at Broadmoor.
When Dr Orange retired from Broadmoor in 1886, he was replaced by Dr David Nicholson who found Christiana to be "cheerful and pleasant" in her conversation but "very vain." He wrote in her file that she "courts and desires attention and notoriety" and "pushes herself forward on all occasions." Clearly, Christiana wasn't about to let her age of 58 slow her down.
After Dr Nicholson's retirement in 1895, however, Christiana entered a period of ill-health. According to the notes made by the new superintendent, the aptly-named Dr Brayn, Christiana suffered two serious bouts of influenza as well as catarrh and constipation. By 1906, she was unable to walk without assistance and suffered bouts of neuralgia too. Despite the problems, her vanity was "unabated" and she continued to worry about her personal appearance. While in the infirmary one afternoon, for instance, Dr Brayn overheard the following conversation between Christiana and a fellow patient:
Christiana: How am I looking?
Patient: Fairly well.
Christiana: I think I am improving, I hope I shall be better in a fortnight, if so, I shall astonish them; I shall get up and dance! I was a Venus before and I shall be a Venus again!
But Christiana would not get up and dance again. Over the next year, she weakened considerably and, on the morning of 19 September 1907, she died of "senile debility," a Victorian term for old age. The death of the notorious Chocolate Cream Killer was widely reported in national press and the details of her crimes were retold to a new generation. You can find more about Christiana's time in Broadmoor and her cultural impact in my new book, The Case of the Chocolate Cream Killer, available now.
On this day - 5 July - in 1872, Christiana Edmunds was transferred from the Sussex Country Prison to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum in Berkshire. Built in 1863, Broadmoor was England's answer to the long-standing question of where to house the criminally insane. Previously, the provision for such people was haphazard and generally inadequate, with many criminal lunatics housed in ordinary asylums or prisons. By 1860, it was felt that such provision was undesirable, as stated by a Select Committee of the House of Commons:
To mix such persons, that is criminal lunatics, with other patients is a serious evil; it is detrimental to the other patients as well as to themselves.
In the same year, the government passed the Criminal Lunatic Asylum Act which authorised the creation of Broadmoor and gave the Home Secretary control over its management and the admission of patients. Construction began shortly after and, three years later, on 23 May 1863, Broadmoor welcomed its first patients: a group of women transferred from the notorious Bethlem Hospital (or Bedlam). Nine months later, these women were joined by the first intake of male patients, and by the end of 1864, the population of Broadmoor had risen to 200 men and 100 women.
As you can see from above, Broadmoor was a visually striking building. Writing in 1865, a spectator remarked on its "lofty and handsome buildings," claiming that a "warmer and more comfortable-looking structure had never been erected in a more wild, though beautiful, situation." The patients of Broadmoor certainly had a lot of space to roam: the asylum was set amongst acres of pine trees in Windsor Forest. This wasn't just about keeping lunatics away from the rest of the population but providing them with plenty of fresh air and space. According to the proponents of "moral therapy," a popular treatment model at this time, fresh air and exercise were instrumental in keeping patients calm and aiding their recovery.
The first man in charge of caring for these patients was Dr John Meyer, the former supervisor to the Convict Lunatic Asylum in Tasmania and once-resident physician of the Surrey County Asylum. Meyer was thus well-experienced in dealing with the insane but it was, perhaps, his military experience during the Crimean War (in which he managed a field hospital) which informed his style of management. Meyer, for example, advocated the use of cages and periods of solitary confinement which contravened the principles of moral therapy but which, Meyer believed, were instrumental in maintaining order at Broadmoor.
Meyer's superintendency of Broadmoor lasted only seven years. When he died in 1870, he was replaced by his deputy, Dr William Orange. Orange was very different from his predecessor: he was an ardent supporter of moral therapy and one of his first actions as superintendent was to remove the cages and restraints, ushering in a more peaceful and caring atmosphere at Broadmoor.
Dr Orange met Christiana before her arrival at Broadmoor when he was appointed by the Home Secretary to ascertain her state of mind, alongside the eminent physician, Sir William Gull. During a lengthy interview, the men agreed that Christiana was of "unsound mind" and their decision saved her from the gallows, though it made her a "pleasure patient" at Broadmoor (a person detained at her Majesty's pleasure).
According to Dr Orange, Christiana arrived at Broadmoor wearing a "large amount of false hair," false teeth and had painted her cheeks with rouge. She was the self-styled 'Venus of Broadmoor' and her sensational and widely-reported case made her one of the institution's first celebrity patients. It wasn't just the shocking nature of her crimes nor her looks which made her stand out: the vast majority of Broadmoor's female patients were drawn from the working classes and a high number of these were confined for the crime of infanticide. In fact, between 1863 and 1902, 286 women were sentenced to a stay in Broadmoor for this reason. Christiana, in contrast, was a woman of considerable means who had killed a child that she had never met, let alone a child that she had birthed and raised.
Find out exactly how Christiana fared in Broadmoor in the next part of this article.
I wrote a guest post for the wonderful Mad, Bad and Desperate blog (http://criminalunacy.blogspot.co.uk) which I am reposting here. Alternatively, check out the original here.
Proving insanity in the Victorian courtroom was a notoriously tricky business and no case demonstrates this better than that of Christiana Edmunds, the infamous Chocolate Cream Killer.
Christiana was 43 when she stood in the dock of the Old Bailey in January 1872, charged with one count of murder and three counts of attempted murder by poisoning.
In court, the prosecution alleged that Christiana was a cold-blooded killer, driven to commit the mass poisoning of Brighton over the summer of 1871 because she had been rejected by the man she loved. The man in question was Dr Charles Beard, a local doctor, and his wife, Emily, was Christiana's first victim. In fact, Christiana poisoned Emily on two occasions and, fortunately, she survived both of these attempts.
The prosecution also alleged that Christiana's weapon of choice - poisoned chocolate creams - was strong evidence of her sound mind and sinister intent. Through painstaking investigation, the police pieced together her highly-planned and skilful method of obtaining poison: she had purchased chocolate creams from a local confectioner called John Maynard and used a false name and address to purchase strychnine from the local chemist, Isaac Garrett. After she had adulterated the chocolate creams at home, she paid young boys to return the creams to Maynard's shop (citing poor quality as the reason for return) or simply dispersed them across Brighton by leaving small bags in shops she frequented.
The ingenuity of her poisoning spree made the task of defending Christiana enormous and the man hired to do this job was John Humffreys Parry, a well-known and well-respected serjeant-at-law. Despite working on some of the era's most sensational cases, including that of Marie Manning, Parry openly admitted in court that he had never encountered a case like Christiana's and was, quite frankly, baffled by her motive:
In my experience at the bar - which is now not a short experience - I never remember any case similar to this. In my reading of the criminal annals, both of this country and others, I never remember a case similar to this, and I frankly own - I am not ashamed of it - that I feel completely at a loss in my own mind how to place this case by way of argument before you.
But, after meeting with Christiana as she awaited trial in Newgate, Parry became convinced of her insanity and, a dig around her family history, gave him the evidence he needed.
Born in 1828, Christiana was the eldest child of the locally-celebrated architect, William Edmunds. She grew up in relative wealth and luxury and was privately educated in Ramsgate. In March 1847, however, her died in a lunatic asylum in London. The cause of death was General Paralysis of the Insane, an illness that we now know as tertiary syphilis but, for the Victorians, was just another form of insanity. In addition, one of Christiana's sisters, Louisa, tried to kill herself by jumping from a window and, even more tragically, Christiana's youngest brother, Arthur, died of epilepsy in a lunatic asylum in Surrey. This, according to Parry, provided irrefutable evidence of the taint of madness in Christiana's family.
To successfully plead insanity, however, Parry would need to satisfy the McNaughtan Rules, the most commonly-employed test for insanity in the Victorian courtroom. In essence, these rules stated that the "jurors ought to be told in all cases that every man is to be presumed sane, and to possess a sufficient degree of reason to be responsible for his crimes, until the contrary be proved to their satisfaction." In other words, if Parry was to convince the jury of Christiana's insanity, he would need to prove what had happened to her family.
In court, Parry called a number of witnesses to testify to the taint of madness in the Edmunds family, including the current superintendent of Southall Park, one of two asylums which treated her late father. The superintendent of Reigate Asylum was also present to verify the death of her brother, Arthur.
Parry also arranged for some medical experts to interview Christiana and to medically assess her state of mind. These men were some of the leading figures in Victorian psychiatry and included William Wood, a physician at St Luke's hospital in London, Henry Maudsley, psychiatrist and professor of medical jurisprudence, and Charles Lockhart Robertson, former superintendent of the Sussex County Asylum. These men interviewed Christiana on 7 January 1872, just a few weeks before her trial, and were immediately struck by the "absolute indifference" to her position. William Wood, for example, could not make her understand the severity of the charges laid before her and quickly came to the conclusion that Christiana could not distinguish between right and wrong. Similarly, Henry Maudsley found her lacking in any "moral feeling" and regarded her as the one of those people on the "border-land between crime and insanity."
With all men in agreement that Christiana was insane as a result of her family history, Parry was confident that he could satisfy the McNaughtan Rules. In court, however, Charles Lockhart Robertson made a monumental mistake when questioned by the prosecutor, William Ballantine:
William Ballantine: Had she any moral sense?
Charles Lockhart Robertson: To a certain degree she had.
WB: Do you mean that if she administered poison to another with intent to kill she would not know she was doing wrong?
CLR: I believe that she would know that she was doing wrong if she committed an act.
By admitting that Christiana knew the difference between right and wrong, Robertson threatened to destroy Parry's defence. To make matters worse, the prosecution summed up in stating that insanity was the preferred defence of the wealthier classes who would rather spend time in an asylum than in prison. Given Christiana’s conduct while on remand, which included constant complaints about her poor conditions, it was indeed plausible that she might claim insanity to avoid further time in prison.
It took a little over an hour for the jury to find Christiana Edmunds guilty of all counts. She appeared calm and unmoved as she was sentenced to death. Parry's defence had failed: the jury believed that Christiana knew the difference between right and wrong, despite the prevalence of insanity in her family.
Find out what happened next in my new book, The Case of the Chocolate Cream Killer: The Poisonous Passion of Christiana Edmunds, on sale now.
(All images courtesy of Wellcome Library).
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.
When Christiana Edmunds stood trial for her poisoning spree in January 1872, her physical appearance was heavily scrutinised by the press. This was not uncommon among murderesses, as I'll discuss in a later post, but it was, in part, a response to the rise of a pseudo-science called Physiognomy.
As a rough definition, Physiognomy is the belief that studying a person's facial features or expressions can be indicative of their personality or behaviour. Though it's centuries old, the Victorians had a particular love for Physiognomy and believed that it had a myriad of uses. It was used, for example, to depict the so-called differences between racial groups, like the Jews and the Irish. It was also used by Hugh Welch Diamond, the Superintendent at the Surrey County Asylum (1848-1858), as a means of both illustrating insanity (in its various forms) and as a method of treatment. Diamond believed that if a patient saw a photo of herself, she might recognise her madness and begin the process of recovery. (This practice also forms the basis of an excellent novel called The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace - do check it out if you haven't read it).
Here are some of the photographs taken by Hugh Welch Diamond. What do you think? Do these women look 'mad'?
As for Christiana Edmunds, Physiognomy also had a place in the Victorian courtroom. When Christiana took her place in the dock, for example, her features were analysed as a means of decoding the aspects of her personality. Here's an extract from one such report:
"The profile is irregular, but not unpleasing; the upper lip is long and convex; mouth slightly projecting; chin straight, long and cruel…From the configuration of the lips the mouth might be thought weak, but at a glance the chin removes any such impression and 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." (Daily News, 16 January, 1872).
For this reporter, Christiana was evidently an alluring type of criminal. But the idea that she possessed a "weird comeliness" depicts Christiana as a sort-of social outsider; as being distinct and separate from other people. This demonstrates an important point about Physiognomy in the Victorian court: that it was used to provide a distinction between the criminal and non-criminal. Physiognomists believed that criminals were physically set apart from those who abided the law and this provided a much-needed feeling of comfort and security.
Find out more about Christiana in my new book: The Case of the Chocolate Cream Killer: The Poisonous Passion of Christiana Edmunds. Available now.
Images courtesy of Flickr.
Here's an article I wrote today for the wonderful Findmypast blog which details my research into Christiana's family tree. The discovery of syphilis was a major breakthrough in my study of Christiana's family and it had an important effect on my book...
(You can read the original article here).
"For my new book, I have traced the life and times of Christiana Edmunds, nicknamed the Chocolate Cream Killer, and one of the most notorious murderesses of the Victorian era. Using records on the Findmypast site, I've been able to discover intimate details about Christiana's life and crimes.Christiana's weapon of choice was poison - strychnine and, sometimes, arsenic - and her poisoning spree brought the town of Brighton to its knees over the summer of 1871.Her trial at the Old Bailey in the following year was heavily-attended by the press and public and she was the first woman to have her death sentence respited to a permanent stay in the newly-built Broadmoor Asylum. She lived there until her death from 'senile debility' in 1907. While it was easy to get swept in by the sensational aspects of her crimes, I suspected that there might be more to Christiana's story than passion and passion and, once I got stuck into the research, I was quickly proved right.
Using Findmypast's newspaper archive, I had gleaned a lot of Christiana's biographical details from the press coverage of her trial. I knew, for instance, that she was not a native of Brighton, the scene of her crimes, but was, in fact, born in Margate in 1828. Her father, William Edmunds, was a locally-celebrated architect who married Ann Burn, the daughter of a Royal Marines officer, on New Year's Day in 1828. After their marriage, the couple moved to a large and luxurious house in Hawley Square, one of the most sought-after addresses in town, where they employed three servants.
From the press coverage, I knew that Christiana was the couple's eldest child and she was followed by a son, William, in 1829; two more daughters, Louisa and Mary, in 1831 and 1832; and finally, a son, Arthur, in 1841. The nine-year gap between Mary and Arthur seemed, to me, to be unusually long, considering the health of the couple and the lack of reliable contraception in the period. So, digging further with Parish records, I found two children who died in infancy during this gap: Frederick, in 1833, and Ellen, in 1835. Infant mortality was not uncommon in the Victorian era, even among the wealthier classes, but I couldn't help but wonder if there was a reason why these two babies had died when the other five had prospered.
Using the Findmypast family tree builder, I started to put these details together, all the while wondering about poor Frederick and Ellen. It was only when I returned to researching Christiana's father, William Edmunds, that I made the breakthrough I had hoped for. I knew that William had died in mysterious circumstances in a lunatic asylum in London in 1847 but then, with the help of his death certificate, I learned the cause of his sudden demise: William was suffering from "General Paralysis of the Insane," a Victorian term for the third and final stage of syphilis.
Whether William knew he had syphilis is subject to some speculation. Syphilis was extremely common in Victorian England, affecting around one-tenth of the population, but its symptoms are not always easy to detect. He may never have noticed, for instance, the small, painless chancre which appears shortly after infection. Even if he did, Victorian doctors were unable to treat it effectively. In fact, the advice to young Victorian men was to go forth and procreate, an idea based on the mistaken assumption that syphilis will eventually go away. But untreated syphilis causes a number of problems for procreating couples, including a high incidence of miscarriage and congenital syphilis, a potentially life-threatening condition for children.
Not all children born to parents with syphilis, however, will develop congenital syphilis. In fact, modern studies suggest that a newly-infected mother has a 59 percent chance of transmitting the infection to her baby but the likelihood decreases for mothers in the later stages of syphilis, to around 13 percent. For those babies who do become infected, they face a number of serious health problems, like fever, gastroenteritis and pneumonia; health issues which can be fatal in young children. Suddenly, the mysterious and sudden deaths of young Frederick and Ellen had a possible explanation.
But what did all this mean for Christiana? Did she have syphilis? Could third-stage syphilis explain the 'madness' she claimed to have at her trial? Initially, I thought it did. It seemed logical to me that her father had contracted syphilis in his days a bachelor, before his marriage to Ann, and that Christiana was, perhaps, suffering from the mental effects of syphilis at the time she committed her crimes. But then I made another discovery which changed my mind once again.
In 1875, Dr Max Kassovitz, a paediatrician and leading figure in the field of congenital syphilis made a remarkable observation on the disease. He proved that congenital syphilis is defined by 'spontaneous gradual diminution in intensity of syphilitic transmission." In other words, with each succeeding pregnancy, the effect of syphilis on a baby will gradually diminish. For the Edmunds family, this means that Frederick and Ellen were the first victims of congenital syphilis and that William became infected with syphilis while married to his wife, not before. According to Kassovitz's law, there is no possibility of Christiana being 'mad' as a result of congenital syphilis.
While syphilis was not responsible for Christiana's actions, it gave me an important insight into her family history. I would never have given much thought to the possibility of syphilis, had I not looked at her family tree and noticed such a large gap between children but, in doing so, I came to view Christiana very differently. Family tragedies, like the deaths of Frederick and Ellen, helped to define the woman that Christiana came to be and we cannot understand the motivations of the so-called Chocolate Cream Killer without them."
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."
Saxonfields Author Publishes The Case of the Chocolate Cream Killer.
More publicity for the book today, this time in my local newspaper, the Andover Advertiser.
You can read the full story here.