Caroline: There’s something about the combination of sweetness and poison that was irresistible to the writers of golden age detective fiction. Perhaps it’s merely the symbolism that appealed: the sugary flavour of a treat that conceals the bitter taste of death is the ultimate in contrasts. Maybe there was a practical aspect to it too: poisoners need to introduce their deadly wares to their victims unobtrusively, and it’s far less suspicious to make a gift of a nice treat than a meat pie, say.
Whatever the reason, crime fiction of the 1920s and 1930s is littered with sweets that pack a deadly punch. Boxes of chocolates especially — every experienced reader of whodunnits knows to check the bottom of their favourite truffle to see if it shows signs of having been tampered with.
But half a century before the likes of Agatha Christie and Anthony Berkeley were gleefully serving up these deadly treats, the case of the so-called Chocolate Cream Killer had made real the idea that an innocent gift of chocolate might not be quite so innocent after all.
Today, we’re biting into some delicious death by chocolate.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
When you think about it, there are really few better vehicles for poison than a traditional box of chocolates. First, there’s the chocolates themselves. They’re usually small enough that the recipient will put a whole chocolate in their mouth in one bite, meaning that they aren’t going to be nibbling and studying what’s inside. With some skill, the outer chocolate shell can be pierced and then repaired, making the addition less obvious. Chocolates with a filling are perfect for adulterating, because they’ve got a molten core that can conveniently hold whatever illicit substance our villain wants to insert. Some poisons carry distinctive flavours or scents: strychnine tastes bitter, cyanide smells of almonds, and so on. A strongly-tasting chocolate centre, such as ones flavoured with liqueur or liquorice, can help to conceal the poison long enough for the victim to swallow it down.
And then there’s the psychological factors. A box of chocolates is a classic gift, given to express affection or gratitude or sympathy. It’s a positive gesture, not one to be suspicious or defensive about. It’s a luxury item, too, more expensive than your everyday sweets or bar, to be treasured and savoured. The recipient is likely to be pleased and surprised rather than cautious and distrustful. There’s something quite sensual about chocolate, too — that’s why it’s associated with courting and romance. If the murderer gets it right, their victim will already be two chocolates in before they realise that they should be afraid.
Chocolates crop up often in golden age detective fiction, sometimes as innocent gifts, sometimes as red herrings, and sometimes as vehicles for a deadly poison. They’re useful to a writer plotting a mystery for all the reasons I’ve just outlined, but also for their potential for causing chaos. Unlike a bullet, say a box of poisoned chocolates is a weapon that cannot be closely controlled. All the intended victim has to do is generously offer a taste of their gift to someone else, and the wrong death has occurred.
This is exactly what happens in The Poisoned Chocolates Case, a 1929 novel by Anthony Berkeley that is surely the crowning achievement of the “death by chocolate” story. The set up is fairly straightforward: a Sir Eustace Pennefather receives an unsolicited box of chocolates at his club that appear to have been sent as part of a marketing campaign. Having no want or need for them, he hands them over to another member, Graham Bendix, who happens to be nearby and in need of a box of chocolates to give his wife as he has recently lost a bet to her. The Bendixes both try the chocolates, with Joan having a few more than Graham, and a few hours later she is dead and he is ill but recovering. The subsequent investigation shows that the chocolates have been injected with nitrobenzene, clearly done with murder in mind. But who was the intended victim, and was the plot a success? Did Sir Eustace dodge a nasty death because he didn’t fancy any chocolate, or were the Bendixes always the target?
Those are just some of the questions that Berkeley’s Crimes Circle of amateur detectives must answer. The six members, called in by a baffled Scotland Yard inspector, each investigate on their own account and then take it in turns, evening by evening, to present their explanation to the group. In this way, Berkeley creates a cascading series of solutions, each one seeming plausible in the moment before being debunked by what comes next. As a piece of writing, it’s a tour de force that manages to be both a surprising mystery and a meta commentary on detective fiction as a form. It’s as if Berkeley thought about what makes a whodunnit exciting — the big reveal at the end — and decided to write a book that was just one big reveal after another. And at the heart of it all is the poisoned chocolates, which get ruthlessly investigated and considered from every angle by the six eager sleuths.
Agatha Christie was rather partial to a box of chocolates, too. So much so, in fact, that she made them central to the career of her most famous sleuth. Hercule Poirot is rather partial to a cup of hot chocolate himself, and as he tells us in the 1923 short story “The Chocolate Box”, it was a box of poisoned chocolates that brought about one his rare failures as a detective. The case dates back to his time in the Belgian police force before he came Britain as a refugee during the First World War. A French deputy living in Brussels dies suddenly, seemingly of heart failure, and after a tip off that the death was not natural, Poirot investigates. He finds that the dead man was in the habit of eating a few chocolates every night after his dinner, and the night of his death had finished a box.
The trail leads Poirot to interrogate a doctor, several local chemists, and the other inhabits of the house. I don’t want to completely spoil the ending of the story for those who haven’t read it yet, but it’s worth noting for the purposes of this episode that the box, as well as the chocolates it contains, that helps to provides the key to the mystery. As Poirot tells Hastings about his failure to guess the correct solution at the time, he reiterates what it taught him about considering the full meaning of every clue, rather than jumping at the first possible connection that occurs. If he ever gets bumptious in future, Hastings is to say “chocolate box” to him so that he can be reminded of his failure to fully consider every detail.
Christie several times features poisoned chocolates as a subsidiary device in a wider plot. This tends to rely on a certain amount of knowledge in the reader; it is presumed in 1932’s Peril at End House, for instance, that we know to be wary of a box of chocolates that turn up at the nursing home bedside of a young woman who has recently had several near escapes from murder. She eats one from the box, which were allegedly sent by Hercule Poirot himself, although he denies ever doing such a thing. When analysed, the chocolates are found to contain cocaine, and had the intended victim eaten more than one she would have died. So who really sent the chocolates to the place where she was in hiding, with only Poirot supposed to know where she was? It’s one of several mysteries that pile up in advance of the novel’s denouement.
There’s a somewhat similar incident in 1965’s At Bertram’s Hotel. By this time, readers are most definitely alive to the fact that a box of chocolates is a perfect way of delivering death at a remove, and are thus rightly suspicious when one turns up a bit too conveniently in a whodunnit. Central character Elvira Blake, who has been threatened several times in the book so far, tells the police inspector investigating the matter that while she was at finishing school in Italy she received a box of chocolates from an anonymous admirer and was ill after eating them. Upon closer examination, she and her friends found that all of her favourite ones, the violet creams, had marks on the bottom where a hole had been made and something else pushed in. The inspector, quite rightly, points out what a bizarrely risky way this would be to kill Elvira — naturally, a girl at school is going to offer her chocolates around her friends, and who could say how many of them might be poisoned? It doesn’t seem like an efficient way of killing one person at all. You can almost feel Christie raising her eyebrows at the reader, deliberately twisting the classic golden age clue into something that doesn’t quite fit.
A few other honourable mentions for fictional deaths by chocolate. In Guy Cullingford’s 1956 novel Framed For Hanging, someone dies by poisoning and every foodstuff is placed under suspicion. Although written well after the golden age, this story is set before it in a slightly ill defined Edwardian time, and several characters make references to famous Victorian poisoning cases such as that of James and Florence Maybrick. When the police start gathering up boxes of chocolates to check for poison, the suspects can’t help but joke that perhaps the detectives have a sweet tooth rather than any real suspicions of what they might find inside those sweets.
Sweet Poison by Rupert Penny is a school-based mystery novel from 1940 that is very concerned with chocolate in all its forms — as you might expect when many of the characters are boys under the age of 13. Early on in the story, both some liqueur filled chocolates and some cyanide go missing, which feels like the equivalent of a smoking gun from a detective story of this vintage. Deed Without A Name by Dorothy Bowers is set during the “phoney war” of 1939 and has a rather good chocolate sub plot too, with protagonist and amateur sleuth Archy Mitfold taken ill after eating some anonymous chocolates that arrive for his birthday. And although not strictly a box of chocolates, I have to mention Christie’s 1950 novel A Murder is Announced in this rollcall of deadly chocolate stories, because it contains a chocolate cake known as “Delicious Death”.
After the break: the Chocolate Cream Killer.
In the early 1870s, Brighton was briefly terrorised by an anonymous poisoner of chocolates. Children who ate chocolate creams from one particular shop, Maynard’s, seemed to get sick fairly regularly, and on 12 June 1871, a four year old boy named Sidney Barker died after eating some of these same treats. Sidney’s uncle had, unknowingly, purchased a bag of the sweets that had been returned by a previous customer and put back on display in the shop. Within twenty minutes of eating the sweets, young Sidney died. Because of its rapidity and his otherwise good health, Sidney’s death was treated as suspicious by both the doctor who attended the child and the police, meaning that both his stomach and the chocolates were taken to London for analysis. The tests conducted found conclusive proof that the child had died from strychnine poisoning.
At the inquest, a woman named Christiana Edmunds appeared as a witness. She was herself a victim of Maynard’s poisoned chocolates, she said — she had twice eaten them and been ill, and had even gone to the trouble of getting the second batch analysed privately to find the cause. The chocolates had contained zinc, she said, but close questioning of Mr Maynard himself found that this was used as a colouring agent and that there was no point in the manufacturing process when strychnine might reasonable have been introduced to the sweets. The police were left with no clear suspect for this apparently motiveless killing of a small child. The case lay dormant.
Then on 10 August 1871, several parcels of cakes and preserved fruits were delivered to houses in the vicinity of Brighton’s Grand Parade. including that of a Dr Beard and this Christiana Edmunds. All came with anonymous notes written in a hand the inhabitants claimed not to recognise. Dr Beard himself was away on business, but his wife let the servants have the treats, and two of them were later ill enough to require a doctor. There were several other cases on the street the same night, including a mild one in Christiana Edmunds, and the doctor who treated them all began to have serious suspicions as to their source. He referred the matter to an Inspector Gibbs, who was already investigating the chocolate cream matter earlier in the year, and he had his suspicions about who might be leaving poisoned sweets and cakes around the town.
The breakthrough in the case came, though, when Dr Beard returned from his business trip and heard what had happened to his servants and neighbours. He finally decided that propriety and discretion were no longer as important as making sure nobody else was harmed, and he went voluntarily to the police to make a quite extraordinary statement. As a result of this, on 17th August 1871 Christiana Edmunds was arrested on suspicion of the murder of Sidney Barker and several counts of attempted murder against other people in the town.
What Dr Beard had to reveal is so odd and intense that it feels ripped straight from the pages of a slightly overdone murder mystery. He related that one evening in September 1870, when he himself had been out for the evening, Christiana had arrived unexpectedly at his home and was shown in to where his wife Emily was sitting with Miss Richardson, the Beards’ elderly lodger. The Edmunds and the Beards were friendly, the former being newcomers to Brighton, they had been introduced by their landlord. It wasn’t unusual for Emily and Christiana to call upon each other in the way that middle class women did in 1870. Christiana was also a patient of Dr Beard’s. He treated her for neuralgia, a term used to refer to intermittent nerve pain usually in the face and head.
On that particular visit, Christiana explained that she had brought a box of chocolates as a gift for the Beards’ three children. She then removed a chocolate cream from the box and popped it straight into Emily Beard’s mouth. Emily, startled by this and finding it to have an unpleasant metallic taste, immediately left the room to spit it out. Christiana then made her excuses and left; later that night Emily was mildly unwell with diarrhoea and excess saliva, but made a full recovery. She later told her husband about Christiana’s strange behaviour with the chocolates, and he became privately alarmed because he had already received a number of letters from Christiana declaring her love for him.
It’s very difficult to say definitely whether the relationship between Christiana and Dr Beard ever amounted to anything more than that of neighbours and acquaintances. None of their correspondence survives and the huge amount of speculation about what happened later has muddied the waters almost entirely. However, it is possible to say that Christiana wrote to Dr Beard a lot even though he lived very nearby, three or more times a week, and that her manner changed the further into their friendship she got. Indeed, her mother moved their lodgings to a different house in the next street in part because their highly respectable landlords became disconcerted by Christiana’s “wildness”. Perhaps Dr Beard took advantage of his patient and then retracted his affections; perhaps they barely exchanged more than a few words and it was an entirely one-side emotional affair. We don’t know.
What we do know, though, is that the day after Christiana tried to force his wife to eat a bitter-tasting chocolate, Dr Beard went round to the Edmunds’ rooms to demand an explanation, and in the course of doing so accused Christiana of attempting to poison his wife. She denied it indignantly, saying that some chocolates from the same shop had recently made her ill as well, but he didn’t believe her and announced that he was cutting off all contact with her before departing.
The idea that the chocolates had just been accidentally toxic wasn’t as absurd as it might sound now. Food production was barely regulated in England in the 19th century and there had been cases before of children dying after eating sweets prepared with dangerous ingredients employed by unscrupulous manufacturers to cut costs. In 1860, the Adulteration of Food and Drink Act had been passed in an attempt to minimise this risk, but it was still the case in the 1870s that confectioners added things other than sugar to their sweets to stretch their ingredients and their profits further.
Dr Beard repeated his accusation that Christiana had tried to poison his wife a few months later, in early 1871, and this time Christiana’s mother got involved. She hinted that unless he was willing to substantiate his claims and involve the police, there would be legal action taken for his spreading nasty rumours about her daughter. Dr Beard, with no evidence to offer, retracted his statements and the two families parted, they thought, for good.
That is until a couple of months later, when a mysterious veiled lady started appearing around Brighton, offering chocolate creams to newspaper boys and shop assistants. Several experienced serious illness as a result of eating these treats, and noticed that the sweets always came in packaging from the same shop — that of a well known Brighton confectioner, John Maynard, and the same place where the chocolates that Emily Beard had received were from. Christiana Edmunds also made a complaint to Mr Maynard that chocolates from his shop had made her ill.
During her subsequent trial at the Old Bailey in London, the extent of Christiana’s activities was revealed. It was shown that she had several times successfully bought strychnine from a local chemists’, claiming that she wanted to use it to kill cats that were a nuisance to her household. She signed the poison book — a requirement since the Pharmacy Act of 1868 — as “Mrs Wood of Hillside”. Later on in 1871, she used a forged letter pretending to be from a coroner to obtain this poison book, but once she had it she did not destroy the evidence of her own purchase and instead cut out some other, irrelevant, pages. Perhaps this was all part of a master plan to throw suspicion on the chemist, but it seems convoluted to say the least.
When Christiana was first arrested, the police were fairly confident that they could provide evidence of what she had been up to — she had bought strychnine, inserted it into chocolate creams bought from Maynard’s, and then paid local street urchins to return the chocolates which were then put back on sale in the shop. What they had no idea about was motive: why was this seemingly respectable middle class woman strewing Brighton with poisoned chocolates? It made no sense, and it was thus very hard to show that she had any particularly murderous intent.
The revelation that she had demonstrated an obsessive interest in Dr Beard and tried to feed a chocolate to his wife, though, unlocked the case. Prosecutor William Stuckey, with the help of the Beards on the witness stand, teased out a horrible narrative in court. All of the seemingly random poisonings had been aimed at proving that she, Christiana, was not to blame for the initial attack on Emily Beard. It was all supposed to show Dr Beard that Maynards’ chocolates were generally toxic, and that he had been wrong to accuse her and cut off ties with her.
That revelation was enough for the jury, and Christiana’s trial lasted just one day. It also contributed to her sentencing, for although found guilty of murder at a time when the death penalty was very much still in effect, her sentence was commuted to that of life imprisonment on the grounds that she was insane and not therefore responsible for her actions. The judicial consequences of this outcome, in which medical experts could seemingly undo the verdict of a jury, was much debated in the newspapers at the time, but the outcome was the same: Christiana was sent for detention to the Broadmoor Hospital and remained there until her death in 1907.
As Judith Flanders notes in The Invention of Murder, the case of Christiana Edmunds did not attract much public attention beyond Brighton at the time. Unlike some of the other nineteenth century cases I’ve discussed on this podcast, it didn’t become a national or international preoccupation. The Lewes Bonfire Society did burn an effigy of Christiana as she awaited trial, but she didn’t become a gruesome celebrity in the manner of Florence Maybrick or Dr Crippen. There is lots to her case that I’ve haven’t been able to cover here, including questions of hereditary insanity and syphilis in her family. Those interested might like to seek out Kaye Jones’s book The Case of the Chocolate Cream Killer, which goes into lots of intriguing detail about this.
Among the crime writers of the 1920s and 1930s Christiana Edmunds was quite well known. She is referenced by name in Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case, in which each of his six amateur sleuths must offer a historical true crime parallel for their own solution. And John Dickson Carr’s 1939 novel The Black Spectacles, also known as The Problem of the Green Capsule, is about a similar poisoning spree in a small English village. And as we’ve already covered, plenty of other golden age stories make use of chocolates as a hands off way of executing a murder.
But don’t let that put you off the next time you feel a craving for something sweet. Outside of whodunnits, death by chocolate is a blessedly rare occurrence.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. Find links to all the books mentioned and other information about this episode at shedunnitshow.com/deathbychocolate. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts. If you’d like more Shedunnit, consider joining the Shedunnit Book Club — I make two bonus episodes a month for members, or three if you join at the higher level. You can find out more and sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. The show’s production assistant is Angela Sullivan. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
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