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).
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.
On December 8 1841, Arthur Edmunds, the brother of the notorious Chocolate Cream Killer, was baptised in Margate. Arthur was the baby of the Edmunds family; the seventh and last child who, like so many of his siblings, has a sad tale of his own.
Like his sister, Christiana, Arthur was born into considerable wealth and luxury: he lived in one of the finest houses in Victorian Margate, had an army of servants to tend to his needs and his father was one of the most successful architects in the South East.
But when Arthur was 9 or 10 years old, everything changed. He received a blow to the head and started to have seizures and violent mood swings. After a consultation with the family doctor, Arthur was diagnosed with epilepsy, a condition which was considerably misunderstood in the nineteenth century.
For the Victorians, epilepsy was a form of madness, chiefly associated with ‘degenerates’ and ‘idiots’, and primarily caused by excessive masturbation. Treatment for epilepsy usually took place in purpose-built asylums and that’s exactly where Arthur found himself in February 1860, when he was just 19.
Arthur was admitted as a private patient (meaning that he was financially able to pay for his care) at the Royal Earlswood Asylum for Idiots near Reigate in Surrey. By 1860, Reigate was still in its infancy as an institution, having only been built six years earlier, but it had a great reputation as a caring and supportive hospital which provided opportunities for people with epilepsy. Most patients were admitted for a period of five years, though more serious cases might remain indefinitely, during which time staff at the Earlswood taught them basic living skills and apprenticed them in a trade.
We don’t know exactly how Arthur fared in his time at Earlswood but he died shortly after his 25th birthday. According to his death certificate, Arthur was killed after a 3 month bout of marasmus, a Victorian term for emaciation, which prompts a lot of questions about the quality of his care and treatment by staff at the asylum. Did they withhold food from him or did he deliberately starve himself, perhaps as a form of protest? Both of these scenarios seem unlikely, given Earlswood’s fantastic reputation. Marasmus does have a number of other causes too, including bacterial and viral infections, food intolerances and Crohn’s Disease. Arthur may also have experienced a high number of seizures which prevented him from eating adequate food at the asylum’s set meal times – so it was, perhaps, accidental. Rather frustratingly, we just don’t know for sure.
Whatever the case, his death was just one of a number of tragedies which befell the Edmunds family in the 1860s.
These cases are taken from the admission registers of the Middlewood Hospital (pictured above), known as the South Yorkshire Asylum, in Sheffield. It was built as a response to the terrible overcrowding of the nearby West Riding Asylum, at Wakefield, and opened its doors in 1872. The admission registers don’t give a complete picture of the patients at Middlewood but they do show the reason for admittance and the outcome of treatment. Some of the reasons listed are completely baffling to modern readers:
Agar Ablett, a 66 year old housewife from Leeds admitted on 8 July 1881 after going insane as a result of a “pain in the head.” Agar did not improve after treatment but was discharged on 19 Aug.
Another housewife, Harriet Acaster, aged 34 was admitted on 2 October 1886. The cause of her madness was “religion.” She was cured and sent home to Garforth on 2 April 1887.
One of the most common reasons for housewives to be admitted to Middlewood was “confinement” – what we might term postnatal depression. One such case is Martha Braime, a 26 year old housewife from Wakefield. She was admitted on 14 Aug 1876 and was declared “recovered” 20 October. Hers is one of 137 cases of insanity by childbirth – what the Victorians called puerperal madness – and I’m starting to wonder if I should list housewife as a dangerous job in my new book!
One occupation that you will find in my new book is hatter – the poor men who were driven ‘mad’ by mercury poisoning. So it’s not surprising to find quite a few on the Middlewood registers. As you would expect, the cause of madness is not listed as poisoning because the dangers of mercury were still not understood: Jonathan Hey, a hatter from Huddersfield, for example, was admitted on 16 June 1881. The physicians claimed he had gone mad after convincing himself that he had been “deprived of a great fortune.” Luckily, Jonathan was ‘cured’ and sent home on 20 August.
File cutters are another occupational group were routinely poisoned as part of their job. These men and women cut the grooves onto the surface of a file and were daily exposed to lead in the workplace. Thomas Aizlewood, for example, a file cutter from Sheffield, was admitted to the asylum with "lead colic" on three occasions: first, on 28 September 1885, again on 7 August 1886, and then on 3 March 1886. Each visit was caused by lead colic and his third would be his last: he died in Middlewood on 19 July 1890. I’ll be sharing some more details about Thomas in another post as I’ve traced his family (all of whom were file cutters in Sheffield) and who all suffered considerably as a result of this job.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this:
Hannah Ellen Wilson, a 28 year old housewife from Halifax, driven mad by a “fright from thunder” and admitted on 10 August 1881. She was one of 11 women driven mad by the weather….
There’s something very sad about reading a death certificate. It doesn’t matter if you knew the person or not or if he or she died over 150 years ago. Reading the details of a person’s death fills me with a sense of poignancy and, over the last few years, I’ve read so many relating to Christiana Edmunds' nearest and dearest. But there’s one death certificate that has really stood out and not because it had me in floods of tears. Louisa Edmunds, one of Christiana’s younger sisters, allegedly died from having a heavy period and there’s something a little bit WTF about a death attribution like that. In fact, her death certificate cites “menorrhagia for some months” as the primary cause of death and lists “exhaustion and effusion” for five days as the secondary causes.
Menorrhagia is a term still used by doctors to denote heavy menstrual bleeding but I can’t find any modern references to show that death is a possible consequence. That’s not to say that menorrhagia isn’t potentially dangerous but it’s not the period that’s the problem, it’s the underlying cause. We now know that menorrhagia has a wide range of causes, from fibroids and endometriosis, to thyroid disease and cancer. It is very possible, then, that Louisa had some sort of underlying gynaecological complaint but such knowledge has come a century too late.
Louisa wasn’t the only person with a cause of death to make you scratch your head. Yorkshire Archives have recently released the notebooks of Thomas Taylor, who was the county’s coroner from 1852 to 1900. They list the causes of death for over 17000 people and include:
And, my personal favourite:
Sarah Hughes, a lady who was frightened to death as a result of a “riotous mob.”
They sound ridiculous, I know, but they demonstrate the importance of never accepting a death attribution at face value. They are, however, extremely useful in giving us a glimpse into the Victorian medical mindset and, sometimes, a bit of a giggle.