Christiana Edmunds (3 October 1828–1907) was an English woman who, in the late 19th century, became known as The Chocolate Cream Poisoner after poisoning several people with strychnine in chocolate creams, killing one.
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 said later that he suspected Edmunds had poisoned his wife at that time, but did not act on his suspicion, possibly fearing his affair with Edmunds would be discovered.
In 1871, however, Edmunds began obtaining chocolate creams, taking them home and lacing them with strychnine, then returning them to the vendors, who then sold them to the public, not knowing that they had been 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 obtaining the strychnine from a milliner friend, Mrs Stone.
Edmunds 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 after 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. It was later confirmed that this was the only death from the poisoning.
Edmunds then increased her poisoning campaign, and began sending parcels of chocolates to prominent persons, including Mrs Beard, who 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 death, but this was commuted to life imprisonment due to her mental state. She spent the rest of her life in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, dying there in 1907.
In popular culture
The Great Chocolate Murders, by John Fletcher, is a drama based on the events of the case, first broadcast by the BBC on Saturday the 22nd September, 2007. It features Sîan Thomas, Chris Donnelly, Jennifer Hill, Dorien Thomas and Brendan Charleson, and was directed by Kate McAll.
An account of the case is to be found in Death by chocolate: The serial poisoning of Victorian Brighton, by Sophie Jackson (2012).