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.