Homicidal poisonings are not nearly as common as people think or prime-time TV dramas would have you believe. The fact is, successfully poisoning someone takes work. One must first acquire the means to carry it out, which entails researching the poison and procuring it. Then a plan must be constructed so that the death appears natural or not suspicious. Carrying out the poisoning also requires detailed knowledge of the victim – their tendencies, habits, and manners – so that the poison can be delivered without their knowledge. The poisoner may even care for the ill in an attempt to allay suspicion from them. It’s not for the lazy . . . it’s for the cowardly. It’s a physical assault without the physical confrontation. Throw in the poisoner’s hubris of believing they won’t get caught and you have a recipe for someone not getting a Christmas card from me.
“Of all felonies murder is the most horrible; of all murders poisoning is the most detestable, and of all poisonings the lingering is the worst”
– Lord Chief Justice Edward Coke (~1615)
In a five-year period in the United States, from 2003-2007, there were only 463 homicidal poisonings recorded (1). The actual number is likely to be much higher. Homicidal poisonings only account for 1.5% of intentional poisonings (suicide makes up the rest), and only 0.3% of all poisonings. With over 120,000 accidental poisonings (during that time period), there were bound to be cases that slipped through the cracks or not thoroughly investigated. And with people on so many different drugs, it is conceivable that someone could slip the victim a few too many pills, making the death seem accidental, especially if they are a primary caregiver.
The stereotypical poisoner is usually imagined as a female, but in reality the majority are male. If you had to construct the average poisoner it would be a white male with an ordinary background (i.e. not a judge or toxicologist). The average victim would be one person that they know well, with the young and old at risk. But just like all crimes, the demographics are all over the map (2).
And the poisons? Typically drugs, either pharmaceutical or illicit. The heyday of arsenic poisonings are unfortunately behind us. I say unfortunately because it is easily diagnosed and detected. The ideal poison today is one that is odorless and tasteless so that it cannot be detected by the victim, lethal in small doses so that it may not be detected if looked for, and something unique so that toxicologists may not even look for it at all. Some bonuses are poisons that mimic other medical conditions to throw investigators off track and ones that works slowly or are delayed so that the poisoner is not around the victim when they fall ill or die. And that one, perfect poison is . . . I’m not telling you.
As for motives? Just like the majority of homicides: love and money, with a dash of jealousy thrown in for good measure. And because poisonings take a bit of forethought, they aren’t typically done in the “heat of the moment,” so you aren’t likely to poison some kid because he didn’t fill your order of cannolis . . . you’d shoot him in the foot like everyone else. But every once in a while someone just gets caught up in the cowardice and just can’t stop. Enter the Case of Chocolate Cremes.
By all accounts, Christiana Edmunds lived a standard middle-class life in Victorian-era Brighton, England. Her father, noted architect William Edmunds, died in the Peckham House “lunatic asylum” at the age of 46, which may have been a harbinger of what was to come for Christiana. In the fall of 1869, at the age of 40, Christiana became infatuated with her married neighbor, Dr. Charles Beard. In an attempt to remove Dr. Beard’s wife from the equation, she decided to bring her a treat of poisoned chocolate cremes. Mrs. Beard became violently ill, and Dr. Beard, suspecting Christiana, banned her from the house. He never contacted the authorities.
Trying to prove to Dr. Beard that she was not responsible for his wife’s illness, and perhaps get back into his good graces and imaginary relationship, Christiana planted more poisoned chocolate cremes throughout town. She accomplished this by having boys buy chocolate cremes for her, adding the poison, then returning the sweets, claiming they were the wrong size. To remove suspicion from herself, she claimed that she, too, was once poisoned. Tragedy struck in June of 1871 when 4-year old Sidney Barker ate a creme and died. There was a trial against the shop owner that sold the cremes, with Christiana even bearing witness, but no deliberate attempt at poisoning was found and the shop keeper was cleared of all wrong doings.
Still not satisfied with the outcome, and leaving no one to blame for the poisonings, Christiana continued leaving tainted treats around town. And when she got word that Dr. Beard was moving away, she made one last ditch effort to poison his wife. In August of 1871, Christiana mailed Mrs. Beard a parcel of a poisoned plum cake. The family was of course suspicious. Finding the taste “off”, Dr. Beard had seen enough and contacted authorities. Christiana was arrested and charged with the murder of little Sidney Barker.
During the trial prosecutors detailed how she injected the sweets with poison and either returned them to the baker or left them around town. She was initially found guilty and sentenced to death, but after some legal wranglings, false claims of pregnancy, and evaluations into her mental status, she was deemed not guilty by reason of insanity. She was sent to the Broadmoor Hospital, where she lived out the rest of her bizarre and wacky life. She died in 1907 at the age of 78.
What poison did she use? Strychnine, which as we know is extremely bitter, and masked by the sweetness of the chocolate cremes. As for the motive, that was never conclusively determined. One theory is that she was trying to determine the correct dose before attempting to poison Mrs. Beard again. This is certainly plausible as poisoners often try to titrate their doses, but this is often on the victims themselves. My thought is that she just wanted to blame someone else for the initial poisoning of Mrs. Beard, in an attempt to befriend Dr. Beard again, and just got caught up in the poisonings. Regardless, the woman had issues.
So remember, poisoning is for cowards. Besides, it takes too much work. Instead, settle your problem the easy way . . . hug it out. Just hug it out, brah.
*** Homepage featured image of a syringe is by Nemo (released to public domain CC0) ***
1. Muazzam, Sana, Monica Swahn, Hasanat Alamgir, and Muazzam Nasrullah. “Differences in Poisoning Mortality in the United States, 2003-2007: Epidemiology of Poisoning Deaths Classified as Unintentional, Suicide or Homicide.” Western Journal of Emergency Medicine 13.3 (2012): 230-38.
2. Shepherd, Greene, and Brian C. Ferslew. “Homicidal Poisoning Deaths in the United States 1999–2005.” Clinical Toxicology 47.4 (2009): 342-47.
Christiana Edmunds history:
“The sad tale of the Margate architect and the Brighton poisoner” by Anthony Lee
“Christiana Edmunds (1829-1907)” by the Berkshire Records Office