He looks the model of respectability but don’t be fooled by the photo above. John Selby Watson is one of the most notorious murderers of the 19th century and, for good reason. On October 8 1871, Watson killed his wife, Anne, by beating her with the butt of his pistol.But what prompted this sudden violent outburst? Watson had certainly never engaged in such behaviour before. Born in 1804, Watson was a classically-trained scholar (he studied at Trinity College in Dublin and at Oxford) and was ordained into the priesthood in 1840. His first parish was in a sleepy village in Somerset.
Outside of the Church, Watson was a prolific writer: he translated ancient texts, wrote biographies, wrote a book on the reasoning power of animals and even a history of the papacy. But the Church didn’t pay too well and nor did his books. So, in 1844, he accepted a position as the headmaster of Stockwell Grammar School in London. The job not only boosted his social standing but also greatly improved his financial situation. Watson clearly enjoyed his work at the school but encountered some problems with his students. To put it bluntly, they just weren’t as academic as Watson nor did they share his enthusiasm for history and classics. Over time, student numbers declined and, in September 1870, Watson was dismissed.
What a blow this must have been. Now in his sixties and with a wife to provide for, the situation looked incredibly bleak. What happened on that fateful day is recorded by the couple’s only servant, Eleanor Pyne:
“On Sunday morning, 8th October, my master and mistress went out together rather earlier than the usual church time—they came back rather later than usual—I should think it was about 1.45 o’clock—that was their dinner hour at that time—I had prepared dinner in the dining-room on the ground floor; that is the room on the right, as you come into the house—Mrs. Watson took off her bonnet and things, and they sat down to dinner—I attended to them—they had no wine for dinner, they had some after dinner—I am not certain what wine it was—after dinner they went up stairs into the library; the wine was up there, and they had some dessert—I do not remember seeing them again—it was between 2 and 3 o’clock when I left them in the library—up to that time I had not noticed anything in their manner or demeanour to attract my attention—they usually lived on very friendly terms, they were generally very quiet—I went out that afternoon, about 4 o’clock—I let myself out—before I went out I had prepared the tea in the dining-room—5.45 was their usual time for taking tea—when I returned, at 9 o’clock, I knocked at the door, and Mr. Watson let me in, and he said my mistress had gone out of town and would not be home till to-morrow.”
But Anne would not be coming home. She was already dead, her body hidden in an upstairs bedroom. Two days later, Eleanor found Watson, barely conscious, in his bed upstairs. It transpired that he had taken cyanide and left a note, addressed to his doctor, which said “For the servant, Ellen Pyne, exclusive of her wages. Let no suspicion fall on the servant, whom I believe to be a good girl.” Enclosed was a £5 note and instructions to publish his remaining literary works. The gruesome discovery of Anne’s body was made shortly after.
Once Eleanor had contacted the police, word of the murder spread quickly and Watson became the centre of press interest and national gossip. At his trial at the Old Bailey in January 1872, he was found guilty of murdering his wife but the jury recommended mercy. His death sentence was thus commuted to penal servitude for life.
Watson died in prison on the Isle of Wight after falling out of his hammock on July 6 1884.
You can read the full (and gory) details of the murder trial here:
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.
These cases are taken from the admission registers of the Middlewood Hospital (pictured above), known as the South Yorkshire Asylum, in Sheffield. It was built as a response to the terrible overcrowding of the nearby West Riding Asylum, at Wakefield, and opened its doors in 1872. The admission registers don’t give a complete picture of the patients at Middlewood but they do show the reason for admittance and the outcome of treatment. Some of the reasons listed are completely baffling to modern readers:
Agar Ablett, a 66 year old housewife from Leeds admitted on 8 July 1881 after going insane as a result of a “pain in the head.” Agar did not improve after treatment but was discharged on 19 Aug.
Another housewife, Harriet Acaster, aged 34 was admitted on 2 October 1886. The cause of her madness was “religion.” She was cured and sent home to Garforth on 2 April 1887.
One of the most common reasons for housewives to be admitted to Middlewood was “confinement” – what we might term postnatal depression. One such case is Martha Braime, a 26 year old housewife from Wakefield. She was admitted on 14 Aug 1876 and was declared “recovered” 20 October. Hers is one of 137 cases of insanity by childbirth – what the Victorians called puerperal madness – and I’m starting to wonder if I should list housewife as a dangerous job in my new book!
One occupation that you will find in my new book is hatter – the poor men who were driven ‘mad’ by mercury poisoning. So it’s not surprising to find quite a few on the Middlewood registers. As you would expect, the cause of madness is not listed as poisoning because the dangers of mercury were still not understood: Jonathan Hey, a hatter from Huddersfield, for example, was admitted on 16 June 1881. The physicians claimed he had gone mad after convincing himself that he had been “deprived of a great fortune.” Luckily, Jonathan was ‘cured’ and sent home on 20 August.
File cutters are another occupational group were routinely poisoned as part of their job. These men and women cut the grooves onto the surface of a file and were daily exposed to lead in the workplace. Thomas Aizlewood, for example, a file cutter from Sheffield, was admitted to the asylum with "lead colic" on three occasions: first, on 28 September 1885, again on 7 August 1886, and then on 3 March 1886. Each visit was caused by lead colic and his third would be his last: he died in Middlewood on 19 July 1890. I’ll be sharing some more details about Thomas in another post as I’ve traced his family (all of whom were file cutters in Sheffield) and who all suffered considerably as a result of this job.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this:
Hannah Ellen Wilson, a 28 year old housewife from Halifax, driven mad by a “fright from thunder” and admitted on 10 August 1881. She was one of 11 women driven mad by the weather….
Ok, so it’s not Christiana-related but here’s another murder case from Victorian Brighton, a perfect read for Halloween…
Early in the evening of March 14 1844, John Lawrence was arrested on a charge of shoplifting and taken to the police station, a series of rooms on the ground floor of the Brighton Town Hall. Lawrence had been spotted trying to steal a roll of carpet from a shop in St James’s Street but was quickly apprehended by a local bobby by the name of Harnden.
While waiting on the arrival of a witness, Lawrence was placed in a room occupied by a number of men including Henry Solomon, the Chief Constable of the Brighton Police Force. (pictured below) Solomon was a well-liked and highly-respected figure in Brighton. He also had the honour of being the town’s first Chief Constable, a post he had held for the past six years. When Solomon noticed Lawrence in the room, he asked him how long he had been in Brighton. Lawrence claimed it was two days but Solomon suspected that it was much longer. Caught out, Lawrence became agitated and said to Solomon: “I’m tired of my life. Give me a knife that I may make away with myself.” According to a witness, Solomon ignored this obvious provocation and instead tried to soothe Lawrence by urging him to relax while they waited on the arrival of the witness. Solomon then turned away and began chatting to some of the other men in the room.
Lawrence (pictured below) now seized his moment. He rose from his chair, reached out to the fireplace behind him and grabbed the poker. Before anyone had noticed, he had landed a blow on Solomon’s head that was so strong he immediately fell to the floor. Covered in blood and “completely incapable of helping himself,” Solomon was attended to by those around him while Lawrence shouted “I know I have done it! I hope I have killed him, I shall be hanged!” Poor Solomon was then transported home. He lingered through the night but his wound was so severe that he died the following morning. He was interred on the following Friday afternoon in Brighton’s Jewish Burial Ground and the town’s public raised a fund to support his wife and nine children – with £50 donated by Queen Victoria herself.
Meanwhile, Lawrence was found guilty of his murder and sentenced to death. At trial, Lawrence claimed to harbour no enmity towards Solomon. It was, he explained, his wish to die and escape his miserable life. His wish was granted on 6 April when he was executed in front of a large crowd at Horsham, north of Brighton. He was only 24 years old – we can only wonder what prompted such unprovoked violence that night.
There’s something very sad about reading a death certificate. It doesn’t matter if you knew the person or not or if he or she died over 150 years ago. Reading the details of a person’s death fills me with a sense of poignancy and, over the last few years, I’ve read so many relating to Christiana Edmunds' nearest and dearest. But there’s one death certificate that has really stood out and not because it had me in floods of tears. Louisa Edmunds, one of Christiana’s younger sisters, allegedly died from having a heavy period and there’s something a little bit WTF about a death attribution like that. In fact, her death certificate cites “menorrhagia for some months” as the primary cause of death and lists “exhaustion and effusion” for five days as the secondary causes.
Menorrhagia is a term still used by doctors to denote heavy menstrual bleeding but I can’t find any modern references to show that death is a possible consequence. That’s not to say that menorrhagia isn’t potentially dangerous but it’s not the period that’s the problem, it’s the underlying cause. We now know that menorrhagia has a wide range of causes, from fibroids and endometriosis, to thyroid disease and cancer. It is very possible, then, that Louisa had some sort of underlying gynaecological complaint but such knowledge has come a century too late.
Louisa wasn’t the only person with a cause of death to make you scratch your head. Yorkshire Archives have recently released the notebooks of Thomas Taylor, who was the county’s coroner from 1852 to 1900. They list the causes of death for over 17000 people and include:
And, my personal favourite:
Sarah Hughes, a lady who was frightened to death as a result of a “riotous mob.”
They sound ridiculous, I know, but they demonstrate the importance of never accepting a death attribution at face value. They are, however, extremely useful in giving us a glimpse into the Victorian medical mindset and, sometimes, a bit of a giggle.
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.
Arsenic…strychnine…antimony…mercury…potassium…iron…phosphorus…cyanide…opium…laudanum…zinc… the list of poisons available to buy in the 19th century is seemingly endless and any one of these dangerous substances could be purchased for a few pennies with relative ease, even by children. Part of the reason for this ready availability was the widespread use of poisons in a number of industries: arsenic, for example, was used to provide the green colour in wallpapers that were so fashionable in the Victorian home; strychnine was used to kill troublesome rodents and laudanum was a commonly-prescribed painkiller. While many Victorians used these poisons for their intended means, there were many who bought them to dispatch a rich relative, troublesome spouse or, in Christiana Edmund’s case, a rival in love.
By the time Christiana came to commit mass poisoning in the summer of 1871, the government had introduced two Acts to control the sale of poisons to the general public. The first came in 1851 and applied only to arsenic but the second, the Pharmacy Act of 1868, regulated the sale of all known poisons in the country. Under these new rules, a person could only buy poison if the chemist knew them personally, or if a witness was present who knew both parties. The details of all sales had to be entered into a Poison Book, including the reason for purchase, and the seller had to clearly label every substance with his name and address.
Christiana knew about these regulations but, more importantly, she knew how to get around them. In March 1871 she made the first of many visits to Isaac Garrett, a chemist on Queens Road in Brighton from whom she purchased her medicines and toiletries. Having been a customer of his shop for the last four years, Garrett recognised Christiana and the pair made small talk but he knew none of her personal details or where she lived. On this particular visit, Christiana introduced herself as Mrs Wood of Hillside and told Garrett that she needed some strychnine to kill some cats who were destroying her garden. This was a perfectly acceptable reason for buying poison in the 19th century but strychnine is so powerful that Garrett hesitated and agreed to only sell the poison if she brought Mrs Stone, a milliner who worked nearby, to act as a witness. A few doors down, Christiana told Mrs Stone that she and her husband were naturalists who needed poison to treat the body of a bird they intended to stuff. Of course, this was a complete fabrication but her story worked and Mrs Stone duly agreed to witness the transaction. Within a few minutes, Christiana had bought enough strychnine to kill dozens of adults and neither Isaac Garrett nor Caroline Stone had any idea of her murderous intentions.
If you want to read more about poisons in the 19th century, I highly recommend the following books:
C. Whorton, The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain Was Poisoned at Home, Work & Play, Oxford, OxforUniversity Press, 2010.
K. Watkins, Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and Their Victims, London, Hambledon, 2004.
All images courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.
I wrote this post for the lovely Angela Buckley and the summer edition of her Victorian Detectives’ Club.
“The evidence of professional witnesses is to be viewed with some distrust, for it is generally with some bias. But within proper limits it is a very valuable assistance in enquiries of this kind. The advantage is that habits of handwriting – as shown in minute points which escape common observation, but are quite observable when pointed out – are detected and disclosed by science, observation and skill.”
In the history of forensics, there is a tendency to remember the introduction of ballistics, of fingerprinting and developments in toxicology and to forget the study of handwriting analysis. Graphology, to give the subject its proper name, is largely defunct in modern criminal investigations and is largely viewed as a sort of pseudo-science but, for the Victorians, it was a fundamental part of the process that received widespread interest and attention. Graphology began its journey in the English courtrooms of the 1840s where it was pioneered by a man called Joseph Netherclift. Born in 1793, Netherclift was the son a Hampshire farmer who had gone to London as a young man to seek his fortune. Whether by design or accident, Netherclift established himself in the business of lithography, a method of printing which involved tracing the original of a document or image onto a prepared surface and using an ink roller to take an impression. It was through this tracing process that Netherclift became intimately acquainted with the “peculiarities of handwriting” and, over time, learned to distinguish one person’s hand from another. With this new skill, Netherclift set up in private practice and began examining the “scurrilous letters” and forged receipts of a few select clients.
As his reputation for accuracy grew, he was called to appear in the case of Jemmy Wood, a banker from Gloucester who had died in 1836 and left behind a staggering fortune of almost a million pounds, close to £40 million in modern currency. Wood died the richest commoner in England and, with so much money at stake, his beneficiaries hotly debated the terms of his will and the validity of the many codicils, prompting the appointment of Joseph Netherclift in 1840 to settle the matter. He confirmed the authenticity of the will and, soon after, became a familiar face in English courtrooms, especially in will disputes and suspected forgeries, where his knowledge of handwriting had unwittingly made him the first of a new breed of expert witnesses.
Netherclift continued to operate as the country’s only expert until the 1860s when another took his place in the courtroom. His rival was, in fact, his own son: Frederick George Netherclift, born in 1818, and an accomplished lithographic printer and graphologist in his own right. Frederick was called to the Central Criminal Court in 1863 to give evidence in the Roupell Forgeries case, one of the most scandalous of the era. William Roupell was the illegitimate son of Richard Palmer Roupell, a wealthy merchant, who had invested heavily in property and land and amassed a considerable fortune. William was not as financially savvy as his father and had squandered his income and fallen into debt as he sought to establish himself in London society. To solve his money troubles, he set about forging documents in order to obtain the lion’s share of his father’s property. He even destroyed his father’s will and composed a new one in which he disinherited his brother, Richard, and made himself the executor. His father died in 1856 and, by 1862, William could no longer pay the mortgages on his numerous properties and fled to Spain. He was prosecuted for fraud on his return to England and sentenced to penal servitude for 14 years. But the case went to court on a further two occasions as William’s brother, Richard, sought to reclaim what he believed was his rightful inheritance. The prosecution called Frederick Netherclift to examine the deeds to the properties in question and he confirmed that they were all forged by William Roupell. In light of his evidence, the jury could not agree on what constituted Richard’s inheritance and he spent the rest of his life trying to recover his father’s fortune, sadly with little success.
Frederick’s involvement in the Roupell Forgeries brought him to national attention and his remit of cases began to widen. In the summer of 1871 he again appeared at the Central Criminal Court but, this time, the charge was murder and the prisoner was a respectable lady from Brighton called Christiana Edmunds, dubbed the Chocolate Cream Poisoner by the national press. Edmunds was accused of dispersing anonymous parcels containing poisoned chocolates and sweets to a number of respectable citizens including Emily Beard, the wife of a doctor with whom she was in love. At her hearing, Netherclift was asked to compare one of her love letters to Dr Beard with the address labels of the poisoned parcels. He then described to the court the process of examination:
(Prosecution): Is it the general characteristics in the handwriting you go upon?
(Frederick Netherclift): Certainly; style is a different thing altogether. Handwriting may be written either upright or sloping; we therefore look for characteristics.
(P): How do you generally proceed?
(F.N): I first of all examine the admitted handwriting and pick out some 12 or 14 of its peculiarities. I then compare that handwriting with the disguised, and if I find it to contain the same characteristics I consider I have good ground for believing them to be the same handwriting.”
After a “careful and minute” examination on these points, Frederick became convinced that Edmunds was the author of the notes and that she had deliberately attempted to change her style of handwriting. During cross-examination, Edmunds’ solicitor, Charles Lamb, asked Frederick to analyse two previously-unseen samples of handwriting taken from a witness in the case. Frederick glanced at the samples and noted they were different but said he should not like to draw any conclusions without having time to examine them. Lamb pressed him and asked if he would stake his reputation that they were not written by the same person. Frederick replied: “I refuse to give an opinion without comparing them with other signatures. If you want an opinion with reference to them you can have it by giving me time and furnishing me with other signatures but I shall expect my fees!”
His comments prompted laughter in the courtroom. This was not the first time that Frederick, or his father, had faced attempts to discredit his analysis but he knew too well how to handle the likes of Charles Lamb. He had faced a similar situation eight years earlier, during his cross-examination in the Roupell Forgery case, prompting him to make the most famous assertion of his career: that he could copy a signature so perfectly that his own father, the great expert, would be “bothered” by it. The prosecutor responded by mocking him: “And between you, I suppose, you could have bothered a good many people?” Frederick’s reply was short but enough to silence the prosecutor: “No doubt.”Back in the Brighton courtroom, one of the magistrates rose to remind the court that the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Alexander Cockburn, had recently paid “one of the highest compliments he possibly could” to Frederick, remarking that “he had never yet found him wrong in his life.” Such praise brought Lamb’s cross-examination to an abrupt end and helped to secure Edmunds’ fate: she was found guilty of murder by the Central Criminal Court in January 1872 and sentenced to death. Her conviction silenced those sceptical of graphology and Frederick Netherclift continued to give evidence in a number of high-profile cases. In 1887 he was specially retained by Charles Stewart Parnell, an Irish statesman and nationalist, who was forced to defend his reputation after a letter bearing his signature appeared in The Times. The letter claimed that Parnell supported the murder of two senior British officials by an Irish terrorist group in Phoenix Park in Dublin in 1882. Parnell was naturally eager to prove the letter was a forgery and, thanks to Frederick’s expertise, he was exonerated and received £5000 in damages from The Times.This was a career high for Frederick Netherclift and, more importantly, had cemented graphology’s reputation as a credible method in the detection of crime. Frederick died in 1892 but graphology lived on, in courtrooms across England and with a new group of experts at the helm.
Many thanks to Angela for publishing this post!
You can find out more about Angela, her fabulous book: “The Real Sherlock Holmes” and sign up to the club here: http://www.angelabuckleywriter.com/
 Experts in Handwriting’, The Cornhill Magazine, Vol. 4, London, Smith, Elder & Co., 1885, pp. 148-162.
 Morning Post, 1 September 1871.
 Morning Post, 21 July 1863.
 Morning Post, 1 September 1871.
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.