Christiana Edmunds was arrested for murder in 1871, after poisoning boxes of chocolate creams in stores. People are still arguing about whether or not she was insane — and what insanity actually means.

The Chocolate Cream Poisoner

In 1870, Christiana Edmunds was living in Brighton with her mother and having an affair with her across-the-street neighbor, Doctor Arthur Beard. At some point towards the end of the year, Beard let her know that he wanted to end the affair. He was married. He wasn't going to leave his wife. So Edmunds decided that he wouldn't have to. She visited the house with some chocolate creams. Mrs. Beard ate one, and promptly got very sick. She recovered. The doctor suspected something, but didn't want anyone to know about his affair, and when he confronted Edmunds, she loudly claimed that she, too had eaten a chocolate and gotten sick.

In 1871, a great deal of people became ill in that neighborhood — most of them after purchasing chocolate creams from the local store. The symptoms coincided with those of strychnine poisoning. The store-bought chocolates were, previously, store-returned chocolate creams. At first, a woman had returned the chocolates to the store. She realized she wanted a different kind of candy. The chocolates were seemingly untouched, so the store owner resold them. The woman stopped coming in, but then boys around the neighborhood had come into the store and executed the same routine — all at the behest of a mysterious buyer.

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When a four-year-old died from a strychnine-injected chocolate cream, the entire town went on high alert. Instead of lying low, the poisoner tried harder. Poisoned sweets arrived at the houses of many of the most prominent women in town. But how could anyone suspect poor Christiana? After all, she herself had received a package of poisoned delicacies.

Then she tried sending poisoned chocolate creams to Dr. Beard's wife again. Her ex-lover went straight to the police. Edmunds was arrested within the week. She was convicted in 1872, and sentenced to death. She claimed she was pregnant, but the claim was found to be false. Then, surprisingly, the sentence was commuted. Edmunds, the court found, was insane, and would spend the rest of her life at the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane.

The Never-Ending Insanity Debate

The pronouncement of Edmunds' insanity was highly controversial, and is still debated to this day. Looking at contemporary, or near-contemporary, sources, it's interesting to see how many ways people looked at the concept of insanity, and how many of those ways of looking at it feel contemporary.

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Some experts believed that Edmunds was insane, because her bloodline was "tainted." Her mother testified that insanity ran in both sides of the family. Christiana's father, an architect who had designed a church and a lighthouse in the town of Margate, had either gone mad as his fortunes had declined, or had gone mad and then lost his fortune. Her sister had committed suicide. Her brother had died in an insane asylum. It was this familial insanity, some experts argued, that made Christiana Edmunds unable to understand the consequences of her actions. In fact, she had laughed when told she was going to be executed. What better way to demonstrate her loose grip on reality?

Others point out that Christiana's mother was perfectly sane, and that Christiana had only laughed until she realized that there were ways to tell she wasn't pregnant. When her claims of pregnancy were shut down, she had been terrified. As for the idea of criminal insanity as an unavoidable heritage, one doctor argued in The Lancet, "Would it not be dangerous to the interests of society and very damaging to the interests of medical science, if the existence of an hereditary predisposition to insanity could per se exculpate the criminal from the legal consequences of his violation of the law?"

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The same writer condemned another leading theory - that of "moral insanity." According to one cadre of experts, Edmunds was insane, but still perfectly rational. One man wrote, "she could have taught a schoolroom of children in The Ten Commandments . . . . but she had no real feeling of the wicked nature of her acts." These experts believed she was "capable of poisoning a whole city-full of people," and they agreed she needed to be locked up, but she was still morally deranged and not responsible for her crimes.

During the trial, lawyers for Edmunds claimed, strenuously, that her affair with Doctor Beard was sexual, while lawyers for Doctor Beard claimed that it was just a flirtation. And Beard's motives were clear, while Edmunds' motives were muddled. Edmunds' lawyers insisted on the sexual relationship, apparently to set her up as a poor, jilted woman, who had been corrupted by her doctor. (And, indeed, Beard had treated her.) It was, perhaps, the only way they had to make Edmunds' sympathetic. And yet, the idea that she had invented an affair in her head was, for many experts, the better defense. To these experts she had a "morbid unreasonable and unreasoning love." The fact that she sent chocolates out to poison everyone, after the candies had failed to poison Mrs. Beard thoroughly enough, was an expression of that lack of reason. It wasn't that she took a "pleasure" in the idea of poisoning strangers. It was that she was rendered insane, due to unrequited love, and was acting out some delusional behavior.

Of course, some doctors simply believed that Edmunds was sane and responsible, and bemoaned the fact that other criminals were executed when they were "proved to be more insane . . . than Christiana Edmunds."

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Edmunds remained in Broadmoor until her death, in 1907, at the age of seventy-eight. Her story has been enacted on the stage and on the screen — but still, no one can agree on what was wrong with her, and if what was wrong with her should have counted as legal insanity.

Top Image: Evan Amos, Broadmoor Image: Wellcome Images, Christiana Edmunds: Newspaper Sketch, 1872

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[Sources: The Lancet, Proceedings of the American Medico-Psychological Association Annual Meeting, The Science and Practice of Medicine in Relation to the Mind, The Journal of Mental Science.]