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).