At the start of every Notorious Women of Brighton Walk I always tell people not to expect a parade of role-models, that some of the women I’ll be talking about haven’t earned their place on the tour through doing good works and achieving great things. Christiana Edmunds, Brighton’s famous chocolate murderer, is a case in point. In 1870 and 1871 the hitherto respectable Christiana struck terror through Brighton when she took a liking to lacing chocolate creams from the famous Maynard’s sweet shop on West Street (near today’s Waterstone’s) with strychnine. These she sent anonymously in parcels to prominent people in the town. Apparently, some she just took back to the shop, after injecting with poison, saying she’d bought the wrong chocolates and would like to swap. In order not to arouse suspicion she slipped money to unwitting beggar children to go to the sweet shop for her. Police in the town were nonplussed and at a loss to explain why noteable Brightonians were suddenly receiving these ‘gifts’. It wasn’t until the four year old Sidney Barker died from eating one of the contaminated chocolates that the finger of blame at last came to rest on Christiana’s head. Her motive, apparently, was revenge. After Dr Beard, the married doctor with whom she was having an affair, decided to finish things, what better way to get back at him than poisoning his wife? Maybe she roped in the others to create a smokescreen or just discovered a taste for poisoning and couldn’t stop herself.
Do we seek to explain her motives because she’s a woman? Would we be looking into her background and trying to analyse the choices she took if she’d been a man? It certainly seems that her gender and the fact that a woman (a woman!) could do such harm kept the Victorian public riveted through her murder trial at the Old Bailey in 1872. See the headline above ‘The Extraordinary Charge of Poisoning by a Lady’, that ‘Lady’ the most attention grabbing factor in the business. The Victorians loved stories of true crime and we can only imagine the extra frisson a female perpetrator would have added to this already smouldering cocktail of lust, forbidden love and jealousy. Christina was found guilty of murder but, being declared insane, managed to avoid the death penalty, finishing her life at Broadmoor, then a criminal lunatic asylum, until her death in 1907. In a daily mail online article Tony Rennell writes ‘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.’
Kate Elms tells Christiana’s story on the Brighton Museum website http://brightonmuseums.org.uk/discover/2011/02/14/death-by-chocolate/ and also on the website of the Keep http://www.thekeep.info/notes-collections-passion-poison-criminal-trials/