Christiana Edmunds: Don’t accept chocolate from Brighton’s sweet-tooth poisoner
Late one evening in September 1870, the wife of a Brighton physician, Emily Beard, received a visitor. The lady was Christiana Edmunds, a friend of the couple, who had brought some chocolates for her children, now tucked up in bed. Sitting in the parlour, Emily and Christiana chatted for a while before Christiana pulled out one of the chocolates and forced it into Emily’s mouth.
Emily, overwhelmed by a strange, metallic taste in her mouth, promptly spat the chocolate out and looked at her guest for an explanation. But Christiana said nothing and quickly left the house. Over the course of the night, Emily suffered a number of unpleasant symptoms, including stomach ache and diarrhoea, and started to wonder if she was the victim of poisoned chocolates.
Emily’s suspicions were, in fact, correct. Christiana had visited her house that night with the intent to murder but her poison of choice, strychnine, had been her undoing. This type of poison, derived from the Nux Vomica tree, is known for its bitter taste which is so strong that it is impossible to hide in food or drink. When ingested, however, strychnine is one of the most toxic substances known to man: as little as 60 micrograms is enough to kill an adult human and the fatal symptoms can begin in as little as 15 minutes.
Compare this with the Victorian favourite, arsenic trioxide, which has a lethal dose of around 120 micrograms, and the true strength of strychnine becomes apparent.
But what prompted Christiana to use such a potent poison on Emily? To understand this, we must go back to 1867 when Christiana arrived in Brighton from her native county of Kent. Shortly after her arrival, Christiana met with Emily’s husband, Dr Charles Beard. Their relationship was strictly professional as Christiana had a number of health problems, including hysteria and neuralgia. But, over the next year or two, Dr Beard and Christiana became close friends and they frequently visited each other at home. Before long, however, Christiana’s feelings towards Dr Beard became amorous and she started penning love letters to him.
Whether her feelings were reciprocated has been the subject of much speculation among historians: there is no evidence to suggest that he discouraged her affections nor that their relationship ever turned sexual. Whatever the case, Christiana was in the grip of a deep and consuming passion and she became determined to remove Emily so that she could have Dr Beard for herself.
After the poisoning in September, Dr Beard quickly put an end to his relationship with Christiana. She was devastated and claimed that the chocolate had been poisoned by the manufacturer, not by her own hands. Unsurprisingly, Dr Beard did not believe her and so Christiana devised an elaborate and clever scheme to frame John Maynard, the local confectioner from whom she purchased the chocolates.
In March 1871, Christiana put her plan into action: she approached a young boy selling newspapers in Brighton’s Spring Gardens and offered him a bag of Maynard’s chocolate creams. The boy, Benjamin Coultrop, was unaware of the chocolate cream’s deadly contents and gladly accepted them, having never met with such a seemingly-generous customer. Christiana handed them over and then disappeared as quickly as she had appeared.
Unlike Emily Beard, Benjamin did not notice an unusual taste in the chocolate creams so, over the course of a few hours, consumed almost all of the bag. He did, however, quickly develop some of the classic symptoms of strychnine poisoning: his mouth and throat burned, his muscles ached and he was overwhelmed with nausea.
His mother was so concerned that she took him to see a physician at the nearby Royal Sussex County Hospital who, for reasons unknown, did not diagnose Benjamin’s symptoms as poisoning by strychnine. Fortunately, Benjamin made a full recovery but he never reported his meeting with the strange lady to the police, leaving Christiana free to continue her most deadly poisoning spree.
The Case of the Chocolate Cream Killer: The Poisonous Passion of Christiana Edmunds by Kaye Jones is available now from Amazon. For more fresh perspectives on classic crime cases, pick up the latest issue of Real Crime or subscribe and save 40% on the cover price.