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.