Murder is, by its nature, a secretive and deceptive business. Historically, it is widely accepted that some of England's most prolific murderers and murderesses have killed far more people than they were ever prosecuted for. Let's take Mary Ann Cotton, for example, who is generally regarded as the Victorian era's first serial killer. She was executed in 1873 for the murder of her stepson, Frederick. But, it is widely believed that she killed up to 21 people. Of these, there is strong evidence to show that she was responsible for the deaths of 11 children, three husbands, one lover and her own mother, though she was never charged with these offences.
But after researching the criminal career of Sarah Chesham for an upcoming book chapter (more details to follow soon), I would dispute Cotton's status as England's first serial killer. Like Cotton, Chesham was found guilty of one murder - that of her husband, Richard - and was executed in 1851. Five years earlier, she escaped the gallows after being acquitted for the murders of her sons, James and Joseph, who were poisoned with arsenic. However, all of the evidence points to her guilt but, just like Mary Ann Cotton, we will never know the extent of her involvement.
You can imagine my surprise, then, when I came across the case of Jonathan Balls, a serial killer who died in 1846 but was believed to have killed (an estimated) eight people, before taking his own life. This case is of particular significance since it predates both Cotton and Chesham, suggesting that Balls may well have been the first serial killer in Victorian England. Sadly, however, as he never stood trial for these crimes, there is a natural element of doubt and uncertainly. Nevertheless, I believe his story is one worth repeating…
When Jonathan Balls died on 20 April 1846 , the village of Happisburgh in Norfolk breathed a communal sigh of relief. Balls had few friends in the community and was widely regarded as being a man of "peculiar habits and unamiable manners." In his youth, he had been accused of a number of crimes, including arson and theft, but had escape prosecution every time, owing to a lack of evidence.
At the time of his death, Balls was in his 82nd year and his manner of dying did not catch the attention of the local authorities, perhaps because of his advanced age. But the people of Happisburgh reacted in a very different manner and not just because they disliked the old man. His was the latest in a long string of Balls' family deaths: his granddaughter, Ann Elizabeth Pestle, had died just three days before Jonathan; his wife, Elizabeth, had died six months earlier, in December 1845; and his grandson, Samuel, died in September 1845. All of these family members, including Jonathan, had died very suddenly and all had perished after suffering a bout of intense vomiting and pain in the chest.
Locals petitioned the county coroner, Mr. Pilgrim, to investigate these deaths but Pilgrim ignored them. Having recently received a circular from local magistrates on the issue of inquests, he had to think very carefully about investigating a death because of the associated costs. But public feeling in Happisburgh remained strong: Pilgrim received two more petitions and, finally, he relented. In May 1846, he ordered the exhumation of the bodies of Jonathan Balls and Ann Elizabeth Pestle for the purposes of an conducting an inquest.
The inquest began at Hill House (see above) on 11 May 1846 and it was immediately revealed that both parties had died as a result of arsenic poisoning. In fact, according to one surgeon, there was enough arsenic in their stomachs to poison the whole parish, let alone a man and a child. Ann Pestle, Balls' daughter and Ann Elizabeth's mother, testified that she had no idea where the arsenic might have come from and had no reason to suspect that her father would kill her own child. In fact, he had shown kindness to her daughter and had even helped out with feeding her.
The inquest was adjourned pending a further investigation. But, on this next meeting, Balls' son-in-law stated that his wife remembered buying arsenic for her father when she was a teenager. Another woman, Phoebe Ann Neave, told the court that Balls had asked her to write a letter to a local druggist requesting a large quantity of arsenic. Neave was reluctant to help him because she knew that people used arsenic for "bad purposes." But Balls tried to pacify Neave: he said that he wanted the poison to kill rats and that she need not be "afraid" as he would not use it for any "bad purpose."
It was then revealed that over the last fifteen years, there had been even more "sudden" and "unusual" deaths in the Balls family. This prompted the coroner to make further enquiries and exhumations. Over the next few weeks, he investigated the following family deaths:
The examinations confirmed that Maria Lacey and Maria Green had died as a result of arsenic poisoning. As for the three other bodies, the verdict was left open because the surgeons could not find a definite cause of death. It may well have been arsenical poisoning but the bodies were in an advanced state of decomposition, making it impossible to say for certain.
On the question of motive, I'll leave you with this summary from The Globe:
During the last fifteen or twenty years , he (Jonathan Balls) was principally dependent on his married daughters for subsistence and the supposition is that he poisoned his grandchildren in order that their parents might be better able to support him. That he committed suicide, fearing his crime would be detected, there can be no doubt, for after having administered arsenic to the infant of Pestle (his daughter), and finding the mother was going to have it examined, he became greatly excited, observing his death was near at hand, although he was in a better state of health than usual. Six hours afterwards, he was a corpse.
The Lancet, 26 May 1846.
The Globe, 12 June 1846.
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.
Here's a post that I wrote recently for the Women's History Network (see the original, here):
The Victorians were terrified of women poisoners. It might seem like an obvious observation; after all, whowouldn’t be frightened of a poison-wielding woman? But there’s more to this relationship than self-preservation. In fact, the fear of the female was a social construction, brought into being by contemporary understandings of gender roles, particularly cultures of domesticity, and a deep-rooted suspicion of the the so-called female nature. The wide availability of a range of poisons also fed the Victorian imagination. While legislative attempts to curtail the sale of poisons were enacted, in 1851 and again in 1868, they did little to affect women’s access to poison, as shown most famously in the case of Christiana Edmunds, the Chocolate Cream Killer, who terrorised Brighton over the summer of 1871 by poisoning confectionery and dispersing it around the town.
Beginning with poison, the Victorians feared it above all other murder weapons. Tales of convulsions, of writhing in agony and of vomiting to excess dominated the popular press of the 19th century. What made poison even more terrifying was the difficulty in detection. Arsenic, for example, is colourless, tasteless and odourless, making it ideally suited to the hideous crime of murder. A victim would have no idea that he had been poisoned until it was too late. Even if he detected a hint of something unusual, like the bitter taste of strychnine, what really could he do? By the time he had realised his fate, it was too late: death was almost certain in a matter of minutes.
But what of the women who administered poison? What was so frightening about a society of mothers and daughters? Well, the clue lies in the description. Middle-class Victorians idealised women as guardians of the home, tasked with the physical and spiritual well-being of their families. But what of the women harboured murderous intentions? This became the source of much debate during the aptly-named ‘poisoning panic’ of the mid-century when scores of women were tried for murder by poison. Here, one journalist sums up the general state of feeling: “It seems almost clear that a woman who would not lift her hand against a man or child will unhesitatingly drop arsenic into their food.” In reality, there were only 254 women accused of murder or attempted murder in the period 1750-1914, that’s less than two every year.
But, as this journalist argues, when a woman committed the crime of poisoning, it wasn’t just a crime against society, it was a crime against morality. It was an inversion of the natural state of women, as wives and mothers, and it stank of deception and betrayal. But what about women who weren’t wives and mothers: did they fare any better in their construction?
Well, the short answer is not really. When Christiana Edmunds stood trial at the Old Bailey in January 1872, she was a middle-aged spinster. But the press were keen to point out her alleged motivations, specifically that she was a woman driven to murder after being spurned by the (married) man she loved. She had subverted traditional ideas about courtship and marriage and the press couldn’t quite fathom her out. In fact, they turned to physiognomy, the study of facial features, in an attempt to understand her and found something perverse-yet-sensual about her appearance:
“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.”
After trial, Christiana was diagnosed with insanity and was the first woman who have her death sentence respited to a permanent stay in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. But scores of women soon followed her and, in doing so, reveal another aspect to the construction of the Victorian murderess: that such criminal behaviour was indicative of madness. But, whether mad or just plain bad, the social experiences of women like Christiana, particularly at trial, shed light on the dark and complicated relationship between the female criminal and Victorian society.
 The Times, 8 August 1849.
 Daily News, 16 January 1872.
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.
Arsenic…strychnine…antimony…mercury…potassium…iron…phosphorus…cyanide…opium…laudanum…zinc… the list of poisons available to buy in the 19th century is seemingly endless and any one of these dangerous substances could be purchased for a few pennies with relative ease, even by children. Part of the reason for this ready availability was the widespread use of poisons in a number of industries: arsenic, for example, was used to provide the green colour in wallpapers that were so fashionable in the Victorian home; strychnine was used to kill troublesome rodents and laudanum was a commonly-prescribed painkiller. While many Victorians used these poisons for their intended means, there were many who bought them to dispatch a rich relative, troublesome spouse or, in Christiana Edmund’s case, a rival in love.
By the time Christiana came to commit mass poisoning in the summer of 1871, the government had introduced two Acts to control the sale of poisons to the general public. The first came in 1851 and applied only to arsenic but the second, the Pharmacy Act of 1868, regulated the sale of all known poisons in the country. Under these new rules, a person could only buy poison if the chemist knew them personally, or if a witness was present who knew both parties. The details of all sales had to be entered into a Poison Book, including the reason for purchase, and the seller had to clearly label every substance with his name and address.
Christiana knew about these regulations but, more importantly, she knew how to get around them. In March 1871 she made the first of many visits to Isaac Garrett, a chemist on Queens Road in Brighton from whom she purchased her medicines and toiletries. Having been a customer of his shop for the last four years, Garrett recognised Christiana and the pair made small talk but he knew none of her personal details or where she lived. On this particular visit, Christiana introduced herself as Mrs Wood of Hillside and told Garrett that she needed some strychnine to kill some cats who were destroying her garden. This was a perfectly acceptable reason for buying poison in the 19th century but strychnine is so powerful that Garrett hesitated and agreed to only sell the poison if she brought Mrs Stone, a milliner who worked nearby, to act as a witness. A few doors down, Christiana told Mrs Stone that she and her husband were naturalists who needed poison to treat the body of a bird they intended to stuff. Of course, this was a complete fabrication but her story worked and Mrs Stone duly agreed to witness the transaction. Within a few minutes, Christiana had bought enough strychnine to kill dozens of adults and neither Isaac Garrett nor Caroline Stone had any idea of her murderous intentions.
If you want to read more about poisons in the 19th century, I highly recommend the following books:
C. Whorton, The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain Was Poisoned at Home, Work & Play, Oxford, OxforUniversity Press, 2010.
K. Watkins, Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and Their Victims, London, Hambledon, 2004.
All images courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.
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.