The Victorians were terrified of women poisoners. It might seem like an obvious observation; after all, who wouldn’t be frightened of a poison-wielding woman? But there’s more to this relationship than self-preservation. In fact, the fear of the female was a social construction, brought into being by contemporary understandings of gender roles, particularly cultures of domesticity, and a deep-rooted suspicion of the the so-called female nature. The wide availability of a range of poisons also fed the Victorian imagination. While legislative attempts to curtail the sale of poisons were enacted, in 1851 and again in 1868, they did little to affect women’s access to poison, as shown most famously in the case of Christiana Edmunds, the Chocolate Cream Killer, who terrorised Brighton over the summer of 1871 by poisoning confectionery and dispersing it around the town.
Beginning with poison, the Victorians feared it above all other murder weapons. Tales of convulsions, of writhing in agony and of vomiting to excess dominated the popular press of the 19th century. What made poison even more terrifying was the difficulty in detection. Arsenic, for example, is colourless, tasteless and odourless, making it ideally suited to the hideous crime of murder. A victim would have no idea that he had been poisoned until it was too late. Even if he detected a hint of something unusual, like the bitter taste of strychnine, what really could he do? By the time he had realised his fate, it was too late: death was almost certain in a matter of minutes.
But what of the women who administered poison? What was so frightening about a society of mothers and daughters? Well, the clue lies in the description. Middle-class Victorians idealised women as guardians of the home, tasked with the physical and spiritual well-being of their families. But what of the women harboured murderous intentions? This became the source of much debate during the aptly-named ‘poisoning panic’ of the mid-century when scores of women were tried for murder by poison. Here, one journalist sums up the general state of feeling: “It seems almost clear that a woman who would not lift her hand against a man or child will unhesitatingly drop arsenic into their food.” In reality, there were only 254 women accused of murder or attempted murder in the period 1750-1914, that’s less than two every year.
But, as this journalist argues, when a woman committed the crime of poisoning, it wasn’t just a crime against society, it was a crime against morality. It was an inversion of the natural state of women, as wives and mothers, and it stank of deception and betrayal. But what about women who weren’t wives and mothers: did they fare any better in their construction?
Well, the short answer is not really. When Christiana Edmunds stood trial at the Old Bailey in January 1872, she was a middle-aged spinster. But the press were keen to point out her alleged motivations, specifically that she was a woman driven to murder after being spurned by the (married) man she loved. She had subverted traditional ideas about courtship and marriage and the press couldn’t quite fathom her out. In fact, they turned to physiognomy, the study of facial features, in an attempt to understand her and found something perverse-yet-sensual about her appearance:
“Christiana Edmunds has a way of compressing the lips occasionally, when the left side of the mouth twists up with a sardonic, defiant determination, in which there is something of a weird comeliness.”
After trial, Christiana was diagnosed with insanity and was the first woman who have her death sentence respited to a permanent stay in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. But scores of women soon followed her and, in doing so, reveal another aspect to the construction of the Victorian murderess: that such criminal behaviour was indicative of madness. But, whether mad or just plain bad, the social experiences of women like Christiana, particularly at trial, shed light on the dark and complicated relationship between the female criminal and Victorian society.
Kaye Jones is the author of The Case of the Chocolate Cream Killer: The Poisonous Passion of Christiana Edmunds which is due for publication in April. You can read more about her research at kayejoneswriter.com
 The Times, 8 August 1849.
 Daily News, 16 January 1872.