I find myself delving again into the very murky world of the Victorian serial killer. This case, however, is quite different to the ones I have looked at previously and not just because it deals with the sad crime of infanticide but because it highlights the press's very fickle attitude towards the Victorian murderess.
The woman in question, Rebecca Smith, came to national attention (and notoriety) in June 1849 after the sudden death of her one-month-old son, Richard, in the town of Westbury, Wiltshire. Considering the high prevalence of infant mortality in this period and the poverty of his parents, Richard's death was not immediately noticed by the local authorities. In fact, it was not until the whispers of poison in Rebecca's neighbourhood had grown so loud that the coroner was forced to sit up and take action. On 22 June, he ordered Richard's body to be exhumed and for a post-mortem examination to be conducted.
At the inquest into Richard's death, Rebecca Smith was the star attraction and judged guilty by the press before the evidence had been heard. Described as a "forbidding-looking woman" in her forties, members of the press were struck by her "most indifferent manner" throughout the proceedings. The press were quickly vindicated, however, when it was revealed that Richard had indeed died as a result of arsenic poisoning. Furthermore, on the question of who had administered it, the evidence against Rebecca Smith was overwhelming. Several witnesses testified that Smith had asked them for arsenic shortly after giving birth to Richard. She claimed that her house was overrun with rats and mice which she intended to kill. But nobody had any poison so, on 25 May, she asked a young girl called Caroline Mackey to go to Mr. Taylor's, a local druggists, and buy some arsenic for her. When Mackey's mother found out, she forbade her daughter from going and Smith's hopes of obtaining arsenic were briefly shattered. However, on 7 June, a local woman named Prudence Mead agreed to accompany Smith to Taylor's shop and act as a witness while she bought some arsenic. Smith had no problem buying the arsenic - as the sale of poisons were unregulated at this time - but she changed her story, telling Taylor that the arsenic was for her sister who had problems with mice. Later that evening, Smith's baby, Richard, was seized with pains and vomiting which persisted until his death on 12 June.
Also at the inquest, it was revealed that Richard was not the only baby of Smith's who had died in infancy. In fact, over the last eighteen years, she had given birth to eleven babies, the eldest of whom was the only survivor. All of these babies had died in infancy and some in rather suspicious circumstances. The following deaths were noted at the inquest:
When asked by the coroner, Smith declined to make any comment on her case and had nothing to say directly to the jury. (For the press, this was proof of her guilt). She was committed to trial for the murder of her son, Richard Smith, while the coroner ordered the bodies of two of her other children to be exhumed and examined by a surgeon. The babies in question were Sarah (died 1841) and Edward (died 1844). Like Richard, an examination of their stomachs revealed that they had both died of arsenic poisoning. However, these deaths were not officially linked to Rebecca Smith because it was not clear who had administered it nor when it was administered.
Rebecca Smith stood trial for the murder of her son on 9 August 1849 in Devizes, Wiltshire. With the overwhelming evidence against her, it did not take the jury long to find her guilty of murder and for the judge to pass the sentence of death. The jury did, however, recommend Rebecca Smith to mercy but not because they recommended a reprieve; they wanted her to have a few days to reflect on the horrible crime she had committed. In the words of Mr. Justice Creswell:
"Remember, that in a few days, your life must go, and then you will commence an existence, good or evil, to endure for ever."
While awaiting execution, Smith confessed to the chaplain that she had murdered seven of her children in the same manner as Richard. She also admitted how she had carried out these crimes: by rubbing the arsenic onto her breast so that the child would ingest it while feeding. As shocking as this was (and is), Rebecca Smith believed that she was doing her children a favour by saving them from a life of "want" and deprivation. It was well-known among Rebecca's friends and acquaintances that her husband, Philip, was prone to bouts of drunkenness and thought nothing of squandering the family's meagre finances on alcohol.
On the day of her execution, the press praised Smith's "becoming" demeanour and highlighted the strength of her religious conviction. The press also painted a very sad picture of her domestic life:
"From the first week of her marriage, down to the last…he (her husband) had been given to drunkenness and "it was that", she said, had driven her to her crimes. He scarcely ever brought home a shilling of his wages. She herself toiled hard in the field all day, and at night she came home and washed , and did all the household work. With nothing, then, to maintain the family, but what she herself earned, which was four shillings per week…the fear that the children would come to want operated so powerfully upon her, that she destroyed them."
It is interesting to note that the newspapers did not record any of the gory details of her execution, as was common in other reports. For them, her confession and genuine story of poverty had transformed Rebecca Smith from a cold-hearted killer to a desperate, almost tragic, mother. She was executed on 23 August 1849, in front of a large crowd in Devizes.
The Bath Chronicle, 5 July 1849.
Lloyd's Weekly, 29 July 1849.
The Standard, 11 August 1849.
The Globe, 24 August 1849.
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 I was writing Christiana's story, I spent a lot of time trying to find out about the chocolate creams which she used in her poisoning spree. I wanted to know what they what looked like, what they tasted like and so I searched and searched for a recipe. After many unsuccessful attempts, I accepted that Mr George Ware's recipe for chocolate creams, those used by Christiana, had likely died with his business. I did, however, find a number of other recipes from this period which are now in the public domain and which give a sense of what Victorian chocolate creams really looked and tasted like.
So, for those enthusiastic bakers out there, here are a selection of recipes for you to try. I'd love to hear from anyone who makes them! Poison is, of course, optional!
This first recipe is taken from The Royal Cookery Book by Jule Gouffe, published in London in 1869:
Here's another by Jules Gouffre, taken from his 1871 book, The Books of Preserves:
Here is a selection of my favourite Victorian Christmas cards. Because nothing quite gets you in the festive mood like depressed snowmen, dead robins and children trapped in teapots! Happy Christmas to you all!
On the morning of February 15 1939, George Francis Dowler, a 60-year-old farmer from Derrygiff in County Fermanagh, died suddenly after drinking a cup of tea prepared by his wife, Lillian. After examining the body, the Dowler's family doctor cited the sudden cause of death as heart failure but five months later, George's body was exhumed. A post-mortem examination found that George's heart was perfectly healthy and that the cause of death was, in fact, poisoning by strychnine.
The finger of suspicion quickly fell on George's young wife, Lillian, and farm hand called James Willoughby. The investigation which followed not only showed that a "strong affection" had developed between Lillian and James, prompting speculation over the motive, but also confirmed the presence of strychnine in the cup which Lillian had given to her husband on that fateful morning.
The pair were arrested and tried at the Belfast Assizes on December 12 1939. A guilty verdict seemed almost inevitable once the prosecution called its star witness, Jane McPherson, a servant employed by the Dowlers. Jane testified that after George's death, his wife, Lillian and the farm hand, James, began sleeping in the same bedroom and even claimed to be married. Around the same time, Jane stopped sleeping upstairs and instead occupied a bedroom next door to the sitting room. But then, in a strange twist, Jane began talking about ghosts:
Prosecution: You were afraid down there? Didn't you say that you had seen a ghost?
Jane: I heard a foot going upstairs and I think that one night I did see Dowler's ghost.
P: Did he (the ghost) not tell you that James Willoughby had tried to drive a horse and cart over him?
J: That always whispering in my mind.
P: Was it the ghost that told you Willoughby slept in the room with Mrs Dowler?
After Jane's creepy testimony, the prosecution went on to prove that Lillian Dowler had purchased strychnine from a chemist in Enniskillen. In a mysterious twist, however, neither Lillian Dowler nor James Willoughby was found guilty of the murder. Both were freed and the death of George Francis Dowler remained unsolved. As for Jane McPherson, she did not return to the farm in County Fermanagh.
Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, December 14 1939
Leicester Daily Mercury, December 14 1939.
Today marks the anniversary of Christiana Edmunds' burial in the grounds of Broadmoor Asylum. Christiana lived to the ripe old age of 79, dying in 1907 of "senile debility" (or old age). At the time of her death, her crimes were a distant memory: it had been 36 years since she had committed her poisoning spree and 35 since she had stood in the dock of London's Old Bailey. Nevertheless, many newspapers reported Christiana's death and used her passing as an opportunity to remember her "curiously cunning" poisoning spree.
For the Banbury Advertiser, Christiana was the scorned lover who planned a "diabolical course of action" as a means of winning back Dr Beard. Similarly, the Manchester Courier called Christiana the "notorious poisoner" whose case was one of the most serious of the past century. Interestingly, the Essex County Chronicle chose the headline "Mad for thirty years" and noted that her death sentence was respited on the ground of insanity.
Christiana remained a figure of interest well into the twentieth century. In 1970, ITV televised a series of plays called Wicked Women in which Christiana's poisoning spree was featured. Christiana was played by Anna Massey (whose performance was universally praised) and her "horrid case" was retold to a modern audience. Reviewing for The Times, Leonard Buckley claimed that Christiana made the "average Borgia…seem like the proprietor of a health food store."
And that, I think, sums up popular conceptions of Christiana as a lady who combined mad and bad in one of the most sensational cases of the nineteenth century.
Banbury Advertiser, October 3 1907.
Manchester Courier, September 28, 1907.
Essex County Chronicle, September 27, 1907.
The Times, February 23, 1970.
I came across the story of Eva Pierlo while researching Christiana Edmunds' time in Newgate prison. The pair were cellmates and Christiana complained to the prison governor about sharing with Eva, a woman accused of bigamy, on the grounds that she had a low moral character. This is rather ironic when you consider that Christiana was accused and found guilty) of one count of murder and three counts of attempted murder!
Anyway, while the details of Eva's case are scant, I think her story is one worth mentioning.
Very little is known about Eva's background until she stood in the dock of the Old Bailey on 9 January 1872. The Times commented on Eva's "ladylike appearance and manners." Eva had no counsel but this was a good thing, wrote one reporter from the Leeds Times:
"This compelled her to state her case to the court in her own way and, judging by the result, her oratorical powers must be of no mean description."
Reading her trial transcript, it is clear that Eva was a confident woman who was frank and open about the charge she was accused of. She had no problem in admitting to bigamy, for instance, but she wanted the court to know the full details of her two marriages before they judged her actions.
Eva had married her first husband, Albert Pierlo, on 8 December 1870 at Aldgate Church in London. With no home of their own, the newlyweds spent the first two weeks of their marriage as lodgers in the home of Mary Ann Carter. In court, Mary Ann testified that Albert had repeatedly "struck" and "ill-treated" his new wife, even though Eva was financially supporting him. In fact, Albert was in the habit of extorting money from Eva: taking first her personal allowance of 17 shillings per week before squandering £80 of her life savings on a failed business venture in Hamburg. When the couple returned to London, Albert pawned all of Eva's clothing and then disappeared, leaving her in a state of personal and financial ruin.
Less than nine months after marrying Albert, Eva wed William Frederick White. In court, Eva openly admitted that William had married her "out of pity" and to prevent her from being "ruined." Soon after, Eva was arrested after Albert heard about the wedding and informed the police.
The jury found Eva guilty of bigamy but strongly recommended mercy. Despite claiming that bigamy is a "very serious offence," the judge agreed with the jury and sentenced Eva to serve three days in prison. He also informed her that she could take out a magistrates order to protect her property and her earnings from Albert, her "predatory husband."
After serving her three day sentence, Eva disappears from record. Perhaps she followed William to India (where he went after her arrest) or simply got on with the rest of her life.
Leeds Times, 13 January 1872.
The Times, 10 January 1872.
Old Bailey online:
In the first part of this article, I looked at how the infamous institution, Broadmoor, came into being and the sort of asylum that it was when Christiana arrived there in July 1872. (If you missed it, you can read it here). In this post, I'm looking at life for Christiana once she was admitted and as under the care of Dr William Orange, Broadmoor's resident superintendent.
All of our knowledge of Christiana's time in Broadmoor comes from her medical file, a document filled out by Dr Orange and based entirely on his observations. As you can imagine, her file makes for interesting reading, not just because of its contents but because it is one of the few impressions of Christiana that remains in existence.
According to Dr Orange, Christiana confirmed her diagnosis of insanity in the first few weeks of her arrival at Broadmoor. Though she was a "quiet and orderly" in her behaviour, she showed no remorse for the crimes that she had committed nor did she offer any explanation of her motives. When her mother, Ann, made her first visit to Broadmoor, she was shocked by her daughter's lack of expression. Ann also said that Christiana never expressed any sorrow for the "trouble" she caused her family.
By July 1872, Christiana had only one remaining sibling: her younger sister, Mary who, in these early years, wrote to and visited with Christiana on a regular basis. None of their letters have survived but, according to Christiana's notes, were almost all about make-up and clothing. Specifically, about how to smuggle in contraband ("articles of wearing apparel") and how to apply paint to the face. Christiana’s smuggling attempts became an increasing source of frustration for Broadmoor’s matron, Mrs Jackson. In June 1874, for example, Mary sent a leather cushion to her sister but Mrs Jackson refused to hand it over. In a letter to Dr Orange, she stated that the cushion was "not really sent in to amuse or please" but was, in fact, "a deceptive manner of conveying false hair." Jackson went on to say "she has already great quantities which have been obtained by deception." Ironically, Broadmoor would have allowed Christiana to have the false hair, had she gone through the proper channels. By smuggling it in, it reflected a much more serious problem: that Christiana was driven by a need to be deceitful.
Over the course of 1874 and 1875, Christiana also turned her attentions from Dr Beard to Reverend Henry Cole, the chaplain of Lewes Prison (where she had been incarcerated before and after her trial). In July 1874, for instance, it was discovered that Christiana had sent letters to Cole through her sister and, given her efforts to conceal the letters from Broadmoor staff, it is likely that they contained amorous and personal references.
In her file, Dr Orange commented that he would have "no objection" to Christiana writing to the chaplain but, once again, it was in "conformity with her state of mind to prefer mystery and concealment."
After this, Christiana's behaviour deteriorated: she continued to smuggle in contraband, complained (to anybody who would listen) about her treatment by the staff and delighted in "tormenting" other patients. In July 1876, she was punished with a move to another ward. While she remained "excessively vain" and "frivolous," her behaviour improved significantly and she appears to have (finally) settled into life at Broadmoor.
When Dr Orange retired from Broadmoor in 1886, he was replaced by Dr David Nicholson who found Christiana to be "cheerful and pleasant" in her conversation but "very vain." He wrote in her file that she "courts and desires attention and notoriety" and "pushes herself forward on all occasions." Clearly, Christiana wasn't about to let her age of 58 slow her down.
After Dr Nicholson's retirement in 1895, however, Christiana entered a period of ill-health. According to the notes made by the new superintendent, the aptly-named Dr Brayn, Christiana suffered two serious bouts of influenza as well as catarrh and constipation. By 1906, she was unable to walk without assistance and suffered bouts of neuralgia too. Despite the problems, her vanity was "unabated" and she continued to worry about her personal appearance. While in the infirmary one afternoon, for instance, Dr Brayn overheard the following conversation between Christiana and a fellow patient:
Christiana: How am I looking?
Patient: Fairly well.
Christiana: I think I am improving, I hope I shall be better in a fortnight, if so, I shall astonish them; I shall get up and dance! I was a Venus before and I shall be a Venus again!
But Christiana would not get up and dance again. Over the next year, she weakened considerably and, on the morning of 19 September 1907, she died of "senile debility," a Victorian term for old age. The death of the notorious Chocolate Cream Killer was widely reported in national press and the details of her crimes were retold to a new generation. You can find more about Christiana's time in Broadmoor and her cultural impact in my new book, The Case of the Chocolate Cream Killer, available now.
Here's a lovely review of my new book from the blog, True Crime Daily. I'm sharing here but you can check out the original here: http://truecrimereader.com/2016/07/thecaseofthechocolatecreamkiller/
"This is a solid, meticulously researched book on a notorious 19th century British female killer.Christina Edmunds was a poisoner who laced chocolates with strychnine. She was tried for the murder of a little boy and she poisoned many others. Her murderous impulses were sparked by unrequited love she had for a married man.
Christina was found to be criminally insane and lived for the rest of her life at Broadmoor Hopsital (home of serial killers Peter Sutcliffe and Moors Murderer Ian Brady) , dying in 1907.
The author Kaye Jones knew the case was a sensation of its time, garnering national press coverage. However the book is also a social history of life in Brighton in the late 1800s and a detailed account of Christina Edmunds’ family history. The epilogue is also fascinating as it applies a diagnosis to what Edmunds was suffering, which was not a recognised condition at the time of her crimes.
Kaye Jones gave an interview to her local newspaper Andover Advertiser, which is a good background read if, like me, you are fascinated by the research and writing processes of authors."
On this day - 5 July - in 1872, Christiana Edmunds was transferred from the Sussex Country Prison to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum in Berkshire. Built in 1863, Broadmoor was England's answer to the long-standing question of where to house the criminally insane. Previously, the provision for such people was haphazard and generally inadequate, with many criminal lunatics housed in ordinary asylums or prisons. By 1860, it was felt that such provision was undesirable, as stated by a Select Committee of the House of Commons:
To mix such persons, that is criminal lunatics, with other patients is a serious evil; it is detrimental to the other patients as well as to themselves.
In the same year, the government passed the Criminal Lunatic Asylum Act which authorised the creation of Broadmoor and gave the Home Secretary control over its management and the admission of patients. Construction began shortly after and, three years later, on 23 May 1863, Broadmoor welcomed its first patients: a group of women transferred from the notorious Bethlem Hospital (or Bedlam). Nine months later, these women were joined by the first intake of male patients, and by the end of 1864, the population of Broadmoor had risen to 200 men and 100 women.
As you can see from above, Broadmoor was a visually striking building. Writing in 1865, a spectator remarked on its "lofty and handsome buildings," claiming that a "warmer and more comfortable-looking structure had never been erected in a more wild, though beautiful, situation." The patients of Broadmoor certainly had a lot of space to roam: the asylum was set amongst acres of pine trees in Windsor Forest. This wasn't just about keeping lunatics away from the rest of the population but providing them with plenty of fresh air and space. According to the proponents of "moral therapy," a popular treatment model at this time, fresh air and exercise were instrumental in keeping patients calm and aiding their recovery.
The first man in charge of caring for these patients was Dr John Meyer, the former supervisor to the Convict Lunatic Asylum in Tasmania and once-resident physician of the Surrey County Asylum. Meyer was thus well-experienced in dealing with the insane but it was, perhaps, his military experience during the Crimean War (in which he managed a field hospital) which informed his style of management. Meyer, for example, advocated the use of cages and periods of solitary confinement which contravened the principles of moral therapy but which, Meyer believed, were instrumental in maintaining order at Broadmoor.
Meyer's superintendency of Broadmoor lasted only seven years. When he died in 1870, he was replaced by his deputy, Dr William Orange. Orange was very different from his predecessor: he was an ardent supporter of moral therapy and one of his first actions as superintendent was to remove the cages and restraints, ushering in a more peaceful and caring atmosphere at Broadmoor.
Dr Orange met Christiana before her arrival at Broadmoor when he was appointed by the Home Secretary to ascertain her state of mind, alongside the eminent physician, Sir William Gull. During a lengthy interview, the men agreed that Christiana was of "unsound mind" and their decision saved her from the gallows, though it made her a "pleasure patient" at Broadmoor (a person detained at her Majesty's pleasure).
According to Dr Orange, Christiana arrived at Broadmoor wearing a "large amount of false hair," false teeth and had painted her cheeks with rouge. She was the self-styled 'Venus of Broadmoor' and her sensational and widely-reported case made her one of the institution's first celebrity patients. It wasn't just the shocking nature of her crimes nor her looks which made her stand out: the vast majority of Broadmoor's female patients were drawn from the working classes and a high number of these were confined for the crime of infanticide. In fact, between 1863 and 1902, 286 women were sentenced to a stay in Broadmoor for this reason. Christiana, in contrast, was a woman of considerable means who had killed a child that she had never met, let alone a child that she had birthed and raised.
Find out exactly how Christiana fared in Broadmoor in the next part of this article.