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Christiana EDMUNDS






A.K.A.: "The Chocolate Cream Poisoner"
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Poisoner
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: June 12, 1871
Date of birth: October 3, 1928
Victim profile: Sidney Albert Barker, 4
Method of murder: Poisoning (strychnine)
Location: Brighton, East Sussex, England, United Kingdom
Status: Sentenced to the death penalty, but she was reprieved because of her mental state, life in prison being automatically substituted. She spent the rest of her life in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, dying there on September 19, 1907

Mark Stevens - Berkshire Record Office

Christiana Edmunds (1828-1907) (54 Kb)

Anthony Lee

The sad tale of the Margate architect and the Brighton poisoner (2,1 Mb)

Christiana Edmunds (3 October 18281907) was an Englishwoman who, in the late 19th century, became known as The Chocolate Cream Poisoner, when she poisoned several people by way of adulterated chocolate cream, killing at least one.

Poisoning spree

Edmunds was born in Margate, the daughter of Benjamin William Edmunds and his wife Ann Christian Burn. Her father was an architect who designed Holy Trinity Church and the lighthouse on the end of the pier at Margate. Her mother was the sister of John Southerden Burn. Edmunds was, by reports, a pretty woman, but suffered from a mental illness that went undetected until her poisoning spree came to light. It was while she was living with her widowed mother in Brighton, in the late 1860s, that Edmunds became involved in an affair with a married doctor named Charles Beard. When, in the summer of 1870, Beard had attempted to end their relationship, Edmunds had visited his home with a gift of chocolates for his wife. The following day, Mrs Beard became violently ill, but recovered. Dr Beard would say later that he suspected Edmunds had poisoned his wife at that time, but he declined to act on it, possibly fearing his affair with Edmunds being discovered.

In 1871, however, Edmunds began obtaining chocolate creams, taking them home and lacing them with strychnine, then returning them to the unknowing vendors, who then sold them to the public, not knowing, of course, that the chocolates were poisoned. Initially, Edmunds was obtaining the strychnine from a dentist, Dr Isaac Garrett, on the pretence that she needed it to poison stray cats. When Dr Garrett told her he believed this was cruel, she began using a milliner friend, Mrs Stone, to obtain the strychnine.

Edmunds also began to draw attention with her constant purchases of chocolates, at which point she began paying young boys to purchase them for her. By this time several people in Brighton had become ill from eating the chocolates, but no one had connected the illnesses with the chocolates. However, in June 1871, 4-year-old Sidney Albert Barker, on holiday with his family, died as a result of eating chocolates from a shop called Maynard's. The Brighton Coroner, David Black, ruled the death accidental, although it would later be confirmed that this was the only death due to the poisoning.

Edmunds then increased her poisoning campaign, and began sending parcels of chocolates to prominent persons, including Mrs Beard, who then became violently ill. By this time, the police had connected the large numbers of ill people with the chocolates. Edmunds also sent parcels to herself, claiming that she, too, was a victim of the poisoner, in the hope that this would deflect suspicion from her and on to the shopkeeper, John Maynard, from whom the victims had purchased their chocolates. At this point Dr Beard informed the police of his suspicions, which resulted in Edmunds being arrested, and charged with the attempted murder of Mrs Beard, and the murder of Sidney Barker. After committal hearings, it was decided to move the case from Lewes to the Old Bailey, and Edmunds's trial began in January 1872.

Her mother testified that both sides of their family had a history of mental illness. Dr Beard claimed that he and Edmunds never had a sexual relationship, but that instead it was merely a series of letters sent by her to him, and mild flirtations. The defence, however, was able to indicate that the two had in fact become involved in an affair, arguing that it was this that sent Edmunds over the edge. Edmunds was sentenced to the death penalty, but she was reprieved because of her mental state, life in prison being automatically substituted. She spent the rest of her life in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, dying there in 1907.

In Popular Culture

The 1939 novel The Black Spectacles by John Dickson Carr is based on the Edmunds case.


Christiana Edmunds

Christiana Edmunds was a 42-year-old spinster with an independent income who lived in Gloucester Place, Brighton with her widowed mother. Christiana was having an affair with Dr. Arthur Beard who lived almost opposite. After a year he wanted to end the affair and asked her to stay away and to stop writing to him.

In September 1870 Christiana delivered a box of chocolate creams to Mrs Emily Beard. Mrs Beard was sick soon after eating some of the chocolates and the doctor accused Christiana of poisoning his wife and told her that he was having no further contact with her. During the next few months Brighton was inflicted with a spate of people being violently sick after eating chocolates.

Four-year-old Sidney Albert Barker was given such a chocolate on 12th June 1871 by his uncle, Charles Miller, who was holidaying with the family. Miller also had a choclate and both of them were ill. While Miller recovered, little Sidney died. The chocolates had been bought from a local shop, JG Maynard's, and it was assumed that the strychnine that had been found in the chocolates had been accidentally introduced somehow. The Barker family received a letter advising them to take legal action against Maynard's.

Despite the death of a child, the poisonings continued, with several prominent citizens falling sick after eating sweets that had been sent to them. The Beard household again suffered when two of their servants fell ill after eating a plum cake that had been sent to Mrs Beard. Dr Beard still had his suspicions about the origins of the poisonings and communicated his suspicions to the police. Despite Christiana claiming that she, too, had received and eaten poisoned chocolates, she was arrested and charged with the attempted murder of Mrs Beard. Arsenic had been found in the chocolates and Christiana was known to have bought both strychnine and arsenic. She had also got a young lad called Adam May to run errands to buy chocolates from Maynard's and to get poisons from local pharmacies with forged prescriptions. Christiana's writing matched the writing on the letter to the Barkers and on the wrapping paper on the parcels.

Because of public feeling, it was necessary to move the trial to the Old Bailey and it opened there on 15th January 1872. There was extensive evidence of insanity in Christaina's family. Her father had gone mad before he had died, a sister had committed suicide and a brother had died in an asylum. Despite that, she was found guilty and sentenced to death. Christiana claimed that she was pregnant, but this was quickly disproved. But Christiana was not to he hanged, she was reprieved and sent to Broadmoor. She died there at the age of 78.


Revenge of the chocolate cream poisoner: Broadmoor archives go online, revealing the story of its most crazed inmate

By Tony Rennell -

December 9, 2011

She was a scheming, image-obsessed, murdering minx who in her younger days laced sweets with strychnine to see off the wife of the married man she desired.

Now, though, she appeared perfectly harmless as, in her dotage, she preened herself for her last attempt to entrap a man.

'Are my eyebrows all right?' the temptress asked a fellow inmate at Broadmoor, the hospital for the criminally insane, as she prepared for a Christmas dance at the institution in 1906. 'I was a Venus before,' she declared, the years of her incarceration seemingly forgotten, 'and I shall be a Venus again!'

The male doctors and staff could expect her full-on, sexually-charged attention, even if, in her late 70s, Christiana Edmunds's man-mesmerising days were long over.

Mad, bad and dangerous to know, she was one of the most notorious inmates of Broadmoor in Victorian times, her name a byword for something that hidebound era found impossible to comprehend or forgive a woman's unbridled lust.

Sex pest, stalker, compulsive liar, manipulator, trouble-maker, murderess there is something uncannily modern about her case, though the crimes for which she was locked up were committed almost a century and a half ago

Her story has been resurrected by a local archivist who was given unprecedented access to 19th-century patient records at the 150-year-old secure unit tucked away in a Berkshire forest. It is aired in what has become this winter's surprise internet hit.

Available free of charge on Kindle, Mark Stevens's Broadmoor Revealed has become one of most downloaded books, overtaking classics such as Dickens's Christmas Carol, Jane Eyre and Dracula.

Like some ghoulish Victorian precursor of I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!, his handful of heart-stopping Broadmoor reality stories makes compulsive reading.

Leaving aside Christiana for the moment, there was, for example, paranoid surgeon, man of letters and random killer Dr William Minor, who, in between contributing learned entries to the Oxford English Dictionary, was beset by deep-seated delusions that he was being sexually molested by hundreds of women.

He eventually sliced off his own penis (though with no effect on his fornicatory fantasies, which continued as before).

Equally lost in his own world was Richard Dadd, a hugely talented artist who ended up in Broadmoor after mistaking his father for the devil and slitting his throat. He spent his time obsessively painting fairies and biblical scenes in minute detail.

Broadmoor housed killers of all sorts, baby-batterers, rapists and arsonists. A few had taken potshots at Queen Victoria, including Edward Oxford, who was classified as an 'hysterical imbecile' at his trial but, once under lock and key, managed to master French, German, Italian, Spanish, Greek and Latin and learn to play the violin.

A number of inmates thought they were actually the Queen and should have been resident in Buckingham Palace. But saddest of all were the likes of Mary Ann Parr, one of the very first inmates.

Brought up in poverty and afflicted by congenital syphilis, she gave birth to an illegitimate child, which she suffocated against her breast. Broadmoor saved her from a death sentence.

Found guilty of their crimes but insane, Parr and hundreds like her were sent there rather than to the gallows in what was in many ways an enlightened act of compassion given the general brutality of the criminal system at the time.

In its grim blocks and unheated, unlit bedrooms, there were no drug therapies or psychiatric analysis. Instead, inmates were subjected to a regime of routine and work designed for their moral improvement.

Some of these suffering and delusional individuals recovered enough to be allowed to leave, even Oxford, who had fired a pistol at the Queen.

But Christiana Edmunds, the so-called 'Chocolate Cream Poisoner', was not one of them. She would remain within Broadmoor's walls for 35 years until her death.

Unlike most of the female inmates, she was not a casualty of the grinding poverty of Victorian England's city slums. She was middle-class, educated and of independent means. Her downfall was sex.

Described in contemporary reports as tall, handsome and 'extremely prepossessing in demeanor' Victorian-speak for pretty damn hot she lived in fashionable Brighton, where she met and fell madly for a local doctor, Charles Beard, a married man. She sent him passionate and indiscreet love letters.

How much of the affair was real and how much in her mind remains unclear. He would afterwards insist there had been nothing physical between them.

But he returned at least some of her romantic interest and let matters take their course until, after a year of secret assignations, he tried to cool things down. It was over, he told her. She was not to write to him again.

But Christiana was unfazed by rejection, even taking to calling on the Beards at home. One day in September 1870 she arrived with a gift of chocolate creams for Emily, the doctor's wife. Mrs Beard ate some and was violently sick.

An outraged and no doubt scared Beard, wondering what demons he had unleashed, accused Christiana of poisoning his wife. She denied it, arguing that it couldn't have been her because she too had eaten a chocolate and become ill.

Whether or not the doctor believed her, he kept his suspicions to himself, fearful that to involve the police would mean scandal. But he told Christiana to stay away from him and his family.

Once again, she took no notice and continued to write to him three times a week, her love for him as undying as ever, her pursuit every bit as manic and devious.

What happened next was odd. Over the coming months, there were no more attempts on Mrs Beard's life, but a number of other people in Brighton fell ill after eating sweets and chocolates. There were no fatalities until a four-year old boy named Sidney Barker died after visiting a sweet shop called J.G. Maynard's.

There was a coroner's inquiry, and Christiana, of all people, came forward to offer evidence, describing how the chocolate that had made Mrs Beard ill the year before had also come from Maynard's.

The investigation now turned to the sweet shop, and traces of strychnine were found in some of its chocolates. But how they got there was a mystery no one could solve, and the shop owner was exonerated of any intentional poisoning. A verdict of accidental death was recorded on poor little Sidney.

But the poisonings continued. More people in Brighton were taken ill. News spread. The town and the police were on tenterhooks for the next incident. It came on August 10, 1871, when six local people received parcels of poisoned fruits and cakes. Mrs Beard was among them, as was one of her neighbours and the editor of the local newspaper.

Another recipient was . . . Christiana Edmunds herself, presumably trying to cover her own tracks but in fact recklessly drawing intention to herself.

Dr Beard had now had enough. He finally went to the police to voice his suspicions about Christiana and handed over her passionate letters to him as evidence of her unstable mind and evil intent. She was arrested and charged with attempted murder.

She appeared in court, the ultimate femme fatale in a black silk dress, nonchalant and aloof. But the evidence was now piling up against her a chemist said he knew her as 'Mrs Wood' and had supplied her with strychnine to kill some troublesome cats; an errand boy said he delivered chocolates to her from Maynard's.

Everything was now falling into place, and an additional charge was then laid against her of murdering Sidney Barker.

Brighton was considered too small a stage for what had now become a sensational national case. Only the Old Bailey would do, and Christiana stood in the dock there, in black velvet this time, with a fur trim.

Witnesses told the rapt jury how she sent boys to buy sweets for her from Maynard's shop and then returned them for re-sale now laced with poison on the grounds that the wrong ones had been delivered.

As for motive, the prosecution suggested that after her first attempt to dispose of Emily Beard failed, she had embarked on her subsequent poisoning spree around Brighton because she wanted to blame Maynard's for the incident and thereby get back in her lover Dr Beard's good books.

Alternatively, she might have simply been experimenting with poisons before having another go at the hapless Mrs Beard. What seemed incontrovertible was that unrequited love had driven her on.

Her lawyer put up a defence of insanity. Christiana didn't know the difference between right and wrong, he argued, and the revelation in court that there was a history of lunacy in her family seemed to be in her favour.

But the jury was having none of this and found her guilty. She was sentenced to hang, a verdict she greeted by dramatically claiming she was pregnant and therefore the sentence could not be carried out. A doctor examined her and concluded she was in this, as in so much else, lying.

In prison, awaiting execution, she was seen by Dr William Orange, Broadmoor's medical superintendent, and another Home Office doctor. Their report was unequivocal Christiana Edmunds was as mad as a hatter, 'with confused and perverted feelings of a most marked insane character'. On this advice, the Home Secretary reprieved her and sent her to Broadmoor.

The decision caused ructions. It was not just that two health-care professionals had chosen to overrule the clear decision of a properly constituted jury. There were also many who felt she had got away with murder and resented the cost of keeping her alive indefinitely when a long rope and a short drop would have been considerably cheaper.

On her arrival at Broadmoor in 1872, she was 43 not the 35 she claimed with rouged cheeks and an enormous wig. Orange wrote on her notes: 'She is very vain.'

She also quickly proved to be sly, getting her sister to smuggle in clothes and make-up for her, as well as extra headfuls of false hair to fill out her wig and enhance her glamorous appearance.

To Broadmoor's doctors she was a painted lady, obsessed with her personal appearance and motivated by romantic desire. She in turn flirted with them outrageously, demanding their attention and flaunting herself. 'Her manner and expression,' noted one, were 'sexual and amatory'.

The decades made no difference. She continued to come on to any of the male staff she had contact with, and she never for a moment showed any remorse for her crimes.

Was she really mad? Many doubted it as she went about her days quietly engrossed in her embroidery, easy enough to manage, though she seemed to delight in winding up other patients until they lost their tempers and she could then complain about them.

There was never any question of her being released, particularly after her remaining family died and she was alone in the world.

Her health weakened, her sight faded and she could barely walk unaided, but she did her best to keep up appearances, still judging by the conversation she had before the Christmas dance in 1906 worrying if her eyebrows were sexy enough to capture a man's attention.

'I shall astonish them all,' she insisted. 'I shall get up and dance Venus again!' She died nine months later on September 19, 1907, at 78, from old age.

Author Mark Stevens, senior archivist at the Berkshire Record Office, finds Christiana a woman who still tantalises more than a century later. 'She never denied her actions, nor offered up an explanation of what she was trying to achieve by them,' he says.

'There is still a sense of mystery about her motivation. It is unclear whether she wanted to have Dr Beard for herself or to ruin him.'

Was she just a frustrated spinster whose uncontrollable desires destroyed her? He believes she was a more complex character than that suggests.

'She was a slave to adulation, and thrived on the publicity that her criminal actions generated.'

If so, then the enigmatic Victorian Venus of Broadmoor may well have been that most modern of dazzling and bedazzled creatures a fame junkie, made mad by her own desire not so much for sex but for celebrity.


Christiana Edmunds





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