Robert writes eclectic and informative articles about a variety of historical subjects including unusual events and people.
In the late 1870s, Christiana Edmunds was a forty-something unmarried woman, a spinster in the pejorative terminology of that era. She was long past the age of being marriageable, but by all accounts she retained her looks and was extremely attractive. Certainly she thought so herself; she often compared herself to Venus, the goddess of love.
Christiana lived with her widowed mother in Brighton, England. She did not work, but was described as being a woman of independent means, probably having inherited money from her late father.
Sometime in 1870, she became involved with a young doctor named Charles Beard, who lived across the street from her. Christiana exchanged passionate letters with the doctor, but unfortunately and inconveniently, Dr. Beard was married with children.
This did not stop Christiana from pursuing a relationship with Dr. Beard. To avoid scandal and find a pretext for visiting, Christiana also befriended the doctor's wife. They became friends and one day Christiana brought Dr. Beard's wife a box of chocolates.
Soon after, Dr. Beard's wife became seriously ill, but recovered. Dr. Beard seemed to have suspected something was wrong and decided to break off his relationship with Christiana. He demanded she give back his letters and refused to see her again. Christiana was despondent.
The following year, a number of other people in the neighborhood got sick. Most of them recovered, but a young child of four died. At first, the coroner ruled the death was from natural causes.
Upon further investigation, the boy was found to have died from strychnine poisoning. How had he ingested it?
No one suspected Christiana until she injected herself into the case. She approached police and told them that she had gotten violently ill after eating chocolates from a local shop. She suspected that they were contaminated.
Strychnine was and still is a common poison used to kill mice. The police questioned the owner of the chocolate shop as well as his suppliers and they all denied ever using strychnine. The chocolate owner claimed he had no need to use mouse poison because his cat took care of any problems.
Then the police got another break in the case. The parents of the dead boy received an anonymous letter urging them to sue the chocolate shop. Since the constabulary had already been alerted to the possibility that Christiana might be involved, they compared the handwriting on the anonymous letter to Christiana's and determined that she had written the letter.
Dr. Beard Contacts the Police
Then Dr. Beard came forward. He told police that he suspected Christiana had tried to murder his wife with poisoned pastries.
Digging deeper, the police learned that Christiana had bought strychnine from the local druggist, claiming she had a mouse problem. She had also bought pastries from the chocolate shop at the center of the investigation but returned them, saying that she had gotten the wrong order. At other times she had street urchins to run errands for her (a common enough practice in Victorian England) and had sent them to buy chocolates for her, only to later return them to the shop, which presumably resold them.
Christiana Edmunds is Arrested
The police were convinced that they had found their poisoner. Christiana was arrested and charged with the attempted murder of Dr. Beard's wife and the murder of the young boy.
The trial was a media sensation and was followed closely by all of the newspapers of the day. Crowds came out to watch the testimony and the salacious details.
Dr. Beard testified about his suspicions and his relationship with her. He stated that he had never had sex with Christiana and that they had never had more than a flirtation. Conveniently, all of his letters to her had been burned and he dismissed her love letters to him as the product of a woman obsessed.
Then the court heard testimony about the letter Christiana had written, how she had bought strychnine, and how she had bought and returned pastries to the shop. The conclusion was inescapable; she had tried to kill her romantic rival and then had engaged in a spree of poisonings in the neighborhood in order to throw off suspicion. Her claims that she too had gotten sick were nothing more than a smoke screen.
Curiously, the defense did not try to deny that she had done these things. Although Christiana did not admit anything, her lawyer argued that she was insane.
When she was still in her twenties, Christiana had been diagnosed with hysteria. Her mother testified that there was a long history of mental illness on both sides of the family.
However, the jury did not buy this defense and Christiana was found guilty and condemned to death by hanging.
On Death Row - A Last Minute Reprieve
Not long before Christiana was to be executed, she was examined by some leading medical doctors who concluded that she was in fact insane. On this basis, and despite the jury's verdict, the government commuted her sentence and committed her to an insane asylum where she spent the rest of her life. This act of mercy was quite controversial at the time because it was regarded as usurping the role of the courts and the jury.
In general, the British public wanted her to hang for what she had done.
However, Christiana did not hang. She was committed to the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, dying there in 1907 at the age of 79. By all accounts she was a model patient, never causing any trouble, although she remained vain and flirtatious to the end, shamelessly hitting on male doctors and visitors.
Was There a Miscarriage of Justice?
The prevailing view is that Christiana Edmonds was a murderer, who sickened dozens of people and killed a child. Certainly this was the conclusion reached by the court.
However, there are a number of problems with this theory. Although there are some incriminating clues pointing at Christiana, there are also gaping holes in the case.
- Dr. Beard said he suspected Christiana the moment his wife got sick. However, he did not say anything until over a year later, because he feared a scandal over their relationship. In any event, the chocolates that Christiana gave to his wife were never tested and there is no proof that his wife was even poisoned.
- There is no motive for Christiana to begin poisoning the neighborhood. Although it was claimed that she did so to throw off suspicion over her attempted murder of Dr. Beard's wife, the fact is that she was not under suspicion until after there was a spate of strange illnesses.
- It is not clear that the boy was even poisoned, or if he died from some undetermined illness. During the Victorian era, the water supply was often contaminated by waste from outhouses, which led to clusters of deaths from infectious diseases. The coroner at first deemed the death due to natural causes, not murder. Later, there was suspicion that the boy had been poisoned because of Dr. Beard's accusations, and the letter Christiana sent to the boy's parents urging them to sue. But CSI Victorian England had primitive scientific equipment and methods. We cannot be sure that the boy was even poisoned, or, if he was poisoned, where that poison came from.
- Even if the boy was poisoned by strychnine, there is no proof that he died from eating poisoned pastries. Although Christiana had bought rat poison in the form of strychnine, that was not uncommon. In fact, if you have ever bought mouse poison, you have probably bought strychnine yourself.
- The fact that Christiana had bought and returned pastries to the shop explains how she might have poisoned the pastries and them gotten the shop to sell them again. But there is no proof that the pastries she returned were the ones that caused anyone to get sick. In fact, there is no causal connection at all.
- Besides, food standards were a lot lower in Victorian England than they are today. The fact that the shop would resell returned food items suggests that standards were pretty lax. In fact, accidental poisonings due to contamination by the manufacturer were relatively common in Victorian England. The police had initially suspected that the chocolate shop might have accidentally poisoned its customers in trying to control a mouse infestation. The shop owner denied using the poison, so police did not investigate further. But of course, the shop owner would say that. After all, he would not want to be sued.
- The fact that Christiana wrote a letter to the parents urging them to sue was seen as proof she had something to do with the boy's death. But what is wrong with telling them they should sue, especially if the chocolate shop was the source of the poison.
In the final analysis, the evidence against Christiana was circumstantial and unconvincing. Most of the case against her was based on Dr. Beard's suspicions, which may have been motivated by revenge over a failed romance and a desire to avoid scandal by painting her as a madwoman.
© 2019 Robert P