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.