The story of Christiana Edmunds, Brighton's Chocolate Cream Killer.
By Jade Wimbledon
I stumbled across Christiana Edmunds accidentally. I was looking for references to dressmakers in the digital newspaper archives, trying to find a lead for a Here in the Past story, when a scintillating report of a trial (with an incidental mention of a dressmaker) stopped me in my tracks. I was engrossed for the rest of the evening, reading the Reading Mercury from January 20th 1872, which told the story of 'the Brighton poisoning case'.
Christiana – described as a woman in her mid-thirties living in Brighton - was on trial for 'several alleged attempts to commit murder by poisoning' and the paper explained that 'the proceedings excited very great public interest'. The report was detailed, and one of the most striking parts was the description of Christiana's mother's testimony: 'There was something inexpressibly pitiable in the story of her life, as she gasped it out in sentences broken with tears'.
Mrs. Edmunds told the court that her husband (Christiana's father) had once been an architect but had gone insane and been committed to an asylum. A brother of Christiana's had also been confined to an asylum, where he remained until his death, and a sister had once attempted to throw herself out of a window.
There was clearly a strong streak of mental illness in the Edmunds family, and now Mrs. Edmunds found herself testifying to this fact to jurors who would decide whether Christiana was guilty of the murder of a young boy and several other attempted murders. This insanity was really the defence's only hope, as the evidence that pointed to Christiana was almost irrefutable.
I started searching for Christiana online and found that her crimes and trial had been covered in several books and dramatised for radio and television. A female murderer who chose poison-laced chocolates as her weapon of choice was always going to pique interest, and 'the chocolate cream killer' was infamous in death as she was in life.
Although told many times before, Christiana's story was still an interesting prospect for the Here in the Past project. We're looking for characters who will help us bring periods of Brighton's history to life, and we're considering location-based audio tours as one of our storytelling mediums. The chocolate cream tale is not only vivid and fascinating, but it also winds its way around Brighton's North Laine area, providing ample potential for it to be told in a new and more interactive way.
Returning to the story itself, you may be wondering how and why Christiana killed a little boy called Sidney Barker with a chocolate cream. The answer isn’t straightforward. Sidney wasn't a carefully-chosen victim, but an unwitting part of a complex web being woven by Miss Edmunds.
The sequence of events that led to Sidney's death began when Christiana fell in love with her neighbour and doctor Charles Beard. It's unclear whether there was actually any intimacy between them, but what is clear is that Christiana developed strong feelings for the doctor and wrote him many extravagant letters. She also hatched a plan to get his wife out of the way.
In September 1870, while Dr. Beard was away, Christiana visited his wife Emily at home and gave her a poisoned chocolate. As soon as Emily tasted the gift she realised there was something wrong with it and spat it out, but she'd already sampled enough of it to feel ill afterwards. When Emily later told her husband what had happened, he marched over to Christiana's house and accused her of trying to poison his wife, something that Christiana hotly denied.
The actions Christiana took next, which eventually led to Sidney's death, seemed to be motivated by a determination to convince Dr. Beard of her innocence and to firmly put the blame for his wife's poisoning elsewhere.
The initial poisoning attempt was followed by a poisoning spree, as Christiana mysteriously gifted strychnine-laced confectionery to people around Brighton. She bought the poison from the chemist, telling him that she needed it to poison some cats, and the chocolates came from respected local confectioner Maynard's. It seemed that Christiana was hoping to frame Maynard, and to blame contamination of his sweet supply for Emily's strange experience.
Christiana soon began to involve other minor characters in the plot; realising that buying and giving away chocolate may begin to look suspicious, she stopped young boys in the street and asked them to go and buy the chocolates for her. When a boy returned with the chocolate creams, she'd secretly switch them for a poisoned batch, and then ask the boy to take the chocolates back to the shop and exchange them, thereby ensuring that the poisoned chocolates would be mixed back in with the rest and then sold to unsuspecting customers.
This was how, on the 12th June 1871, Sidney Barker was killed by chocolate creams bought by his uncle, during a family holiday to Brighton. While the police began to investigate the young boy’s untimely death, Christiana continued her poisonings.
When Christiana was called to give evidence against John Maynard at an inquest into Sidney Barker's death, she was delighted. It seemed like her plan was working. But the inquest's findings were inconclusive, and Mr. Maynard was not found liable. Christiana decided she had no choice but to continue with her quest.
It was when she decided to move onto arsenic as her poison of choice, and to devise more intricate means of acquiring the poison from the chemist, that Christiana began to arouse suspicion and the police net began to close around her. But as the police began to investigate her, Christiana put into action her most elaborate plan yet: she travelled to London and sent packages of poisoned cakes, sweets and fruit back to recipients in Brighton, including the Beard family and some of the most high-profile members of the community. And she also sent a parcel to her own address.
Shortly after this Christiana was arrested. She would soon face trial, and become Brighton's notorious ‘chocolate cream killer’, as the bizarre tale of the poisonings unfolded and the extent of her family’s madness was laid out as her defence.
It's not surprising that Christiana's story has continued to fascinate storytellers and readers over the years. It includes unrequited love, jealousy and murder, and touches on themes including Victorian chemistry, mental health, attitudes towards women, the 19th century justice system and crime reporting.
Christiana’s actions and motivations are often difficult to fathom, but she undoubtedly provides a unique lens through which to view Brighton in the 1870s. This strand of the Here in the Past will aim to explore life in a town during a time when lethal poison was available over the counter and choosing the wrong chocolate could be fatal.
The Case of the Chocolate Cream Killer: The poisonous passion of Christiana Edmunds by Kaye Jones (Casemate Publishers, 30 June 2016)
Reading Mercury, Oxford Gazette, Newbury Herald, and Berks County Paper, Saturday January 20, 1872, p.2 (accessed via The British Newspaper Archive)