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.