A steamy tale of sex, obsession and murder. But was the killer bad - or mad?
The year was 1871. William Gladstone was Prime Minister. Newspaper reporter Henry Stanley had found David Livingstone in Africa. Queen Victoria had just opened the Royal Albert Hall in London… And, in Brighton, a young woman was arrested for murder in a story of passion, betrayal, obsession and revenge. Was she mad – or just bad?
Tall and attractive, well educated, ladylike and of independent means, Christiana Edmunds lived with her elderly mother in lodgings in the fashionable seaside town of Brighton.
In 1869, Christiana fell for Dr Arthur Beard who lived almost opposite her home. The married doctor and Christiana apparently began a secret romantic relationship – although how much of the affair was real and how much in her imagination remains unclear.
Christiana and Arthur apparently exchanged passionate letters and the infatuated Christiana decided that she had to find a way to remove her rival – the doctor’s wife Emily – so she could be with the man she loved.
In September 1871, Christiana visited the Beards with a gift of chocolates for Emily and, the following day, Mrs Beard fell seriously ill. For Christiana had injected the chocolates with strychnine – a highly toxic, colourless and bitter poison that causes agonising muscle convulsions, fever, breathing problems and eventually death.
She’d bought the poison quite legally from a local chemist, saying she needed it to kill stray cats – it was a common pesticide in Victorian times, often used to kill rats and mice – so she would have raised no suspicions.
But Christiana had miscalculated the amount needed for a lethal dose – and although Emily did indeed become seriously unwell, her condition didn’t prove to be fatal.
Now suspicious of Christiana, Arthur accused her of poisoning his wife. But quick-thinking Christiana said that the same chocolates had also made her sick. Obviously nervous that his relationship with Christiana might become public, Arthur Beard withdrew his accusation – but broke off any further contact with the young woman.
Was it at this point that Christiana became unhinged? Was she driven mad with grief and passion at losing the man she loved? Or was she simply a woman turned bitter and resentful, driven to dark deeds by burning anger?
For now she began a random and widespread campaign of poisoning.
She bought chocolates from a local confectioner, laced them with strychnine and then returned them to the shop seemingly untouched, and asked to exchange them.
The confectioner unwittingly sold the poisoned sweets to other customers – who became violently ill. Seemingly encouraged by her success, and anxious not to raise suspicion, she now persuaded some young boys to buy chocolates from the shop for her.
Again she poisoned them and got the boys to return them in exchange for other sweets.
Then in June 1871, the Baker family was on a day trip to Brighton and, as a treat, bought chocolates. Tragically, they were those poisoned by Christiana Edmunds. Little Sidney Baker, aged just 4, died.
A verdict of ‘accidental death’ was recorded, the shop owner was cleared of any fault or blame and destroyed all of his stock. And Dr Beard, if he had any suspicions as to the person responsible, kept them to himself.
Still the poisonings continued… Six leading local women, including Emily Beard, received parcels of poisoned fruits and sweets. Two of Emily’s servants became ill after eating poisoned cake. Christiana said she, too, had been a victim, and even complained to the sweet shop that she had become ill after eating chocolates bought there. She also reported to the police that she’d received a package of poisoned goodies.
With no leads, the worried Chief Constable put an advert in the local paper, offering a reward for information that might lead to an arrest. Now Dr Beard came forward and told police of his suspicions.
Within a week, Christiana Edmunds was arrested and, shortly after, was charged with the attempted murder of Emily Beard.
Her first trial began in Brighton on 24 August 1871 but it was soon decided she wouldn’t receive a fair hearing there. She was transferred to London’s Newgate Prison and tried at the Old Bailey in January 1872, solely for the murder of little Sidney Baker. The jury found her guilty and Christiana was sentenced to hang.
Faced with the gallows, she now claimed she was pregnant –mothers-to-be could not be hanged until after they had given birth. But an examination found she was not expecting a baby and Christiana was returned to Lewes Prison to await execution.
Then, surprisingly, the sentence was commuted. Christiana Edmunds, the court found, was insane– and would spend the rest of her life at the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane.
Yet there was much debate as to whether she was actually mentally unstable. During Christiana’s trial her mother testified that insanity ran in both sides of the family. There were clearly mental health issues – her architect father had become insane. Her sister had reportedly committed suicide and a brother had apparently died in an asylum in London.
Some experts believed that her family’s mental instability made Christiana Edmunds unable to understand the consequences of her actions – she’d laughed when she was told she’d be hanged. But others argued that, when she realised her claims of pregnancy would be disproved, she’d been terrified.
During the trial, her defence insisted her affair with Dr Beard was sexual, that she was a poor, jilted woman corrupted by her doctor.
Beard’s lawyers claimed their relationship was just a flirtation and that Christiana had imagined a sexual affair.
However, the idea that the affair was all in Christiana’s mind was, for many experts, an even better defence. And her widespread poisoning campaign proved she’d lost her reason, driven mad by unrequited love. Others simply believed that Edmunds was sane, responsible and plain bad. A newspaper at the time described Edmunds as ‘merciless, crafty, and ingenious in crime’.
In Broadmoor, Christiana continued to flirt with all the male staff, showing no remorse for her crimes. She spent her days quietly working on embroidery, but enjoyed provoking other inmates to lose their tempers so she could complain about them.
She would never be released – after her remaining family died she was alone. Her health became poor, her sight faded and she could barely walk, but she still spent time preening and thought of herself as a femme fatale.
Christiana Edmunds died in Broadmoor in 1907, aged 78.
Christiana Edmund’s story was portrayed in an episode of TV drama Wicked Women: Christiana Edmunds, with the actress Anna Massey playing the part of Christiana.