I found this story in Andrew Mangham's Violent Women and Sensation Fiction (2007). Mangham looks at medical research in the ninteenth century and how it connects to crime. His major point in this section of the book is that "all women (regardless of age and social and biological statuses) were believed to have the smouldering fires of insanity within them" (44).
There was a lot of this type of medical rhetoric used against the women's rights movement, to help show why women couldn't be put into power, why they couldn't handle independence or their own money or jobs or whatever. Their bodies were simple too fragile and too easily influenced by outside sources. Things like sensation fiction would help stoke these latent fires of insanity and could turn even the best of women into the most depraved of criminals!
This research has actually been a bit depressing for me, considering how much of this nonsense there was, and how sincerely doctors believed in it. There was an enormous moralistic intersection between biology/medicine, crime, gender, and sensation fiction. It's really interesting and I highly recommend you look into it, but steel yourself for some hideously outdated views.
"In 1872, these ideas were used to defend Christiana Edmunds, the notorious 'Brighton Poisoner' . . . . Edmunds's remarkable story seems to have been largely overlooked by modern historians" (44).
Which is precisely where I come in.
In 1871 Christiana allegedly had an affair with her physician, Charles Beard. Who was married. Christiana Edmunds was so head-over-heels in love with Charles Beard that she gave his wife a box of sweetmeats laced with strychnine. Mrs. Beard ate some of the sweetmeats, thought they tasted bitter, and her first reaction was, "Hey, I think she's trying to poison me!" Which would normally sound paranoid, but in this case was 100% true.
1.) Well, that escalated quickly.
2.) She didn't even use enough strychnine. Come on, now. If you're going to kill someone, don't do it by halves.
3.) Not exactly a criminal mastermind. No one will be able to trace you!
4.) Wait, so did Mrs. Beard know her husband was having an affair? Why else would she guess that Christiana Edmunds was trying to poison her? And if you know your husband has a mistress, and that mistress shows up at your house with some delicacies and is all like, "Yesssss, eaaaaat theeeeem!" then why on earth would you accept?
Mrs. Beard went to her husband and said, "Charles, my love, I believe I am the victim of an attempted poisoning by that younder lass," and he had the good sense to break up with Christiana Edmunds. Because when you get into Fatal Attraction territory, it's best to stop things quickly before your wife is forced to shoot Glenn Close in the bathtub.
Christiana Edmunds still thought she could salvage the situation and tried to make out like the confectioner, a man named John Maynard, had sold her contaminated sweetmeats. ('I can TOTALLY bounce back from this. Our love can withstand a little mild poisoning!') She even sent some of them to be forensically examined by another surgeon.
She became so obsessed with clearing her name for Charles Beard that she went FULL BUNNY BOILER and attempted to frame the confectioner, Maynard, as the real poisoner. She did so in the most horrifying way possible. By buying cakes from his shop, poisoning them, and then returning them.
1.) If this women is trying to frame you for poisoning (or at least to prove that you unintentionally sold her contaminated goods), y'all need to REFUSE SERVICE.
2.) If a woman keeps buying cakes and returning them, you've got to know something is up.
3.) If someone is returning cakes, don't resell them.
But it gets worse.
She started buying sweets from the shop, poisoning them, and giving them out randomly to children, "often waiting outside school gates to do so. As a result, a significant number of the Brighton population experienced symptoms of poisoning. On 12 June 1871, Sidney Barker, a boy of four-years-old, died of strychnine intoxication after eating chocolates purchased from Maynard's shop" (45).
At the inquest into Sidney Barker's death, Christiana Edmunds attended and gave evidence, saying that Maynard had poisoned her and Mrs. Beard. She then wrote three anonymous letters to Sidney Barker's father, urging him to prosecute John Maynard for selling poisoned sweets.
The detective who was investigating these poisonings received a letter from Christiana in her own name. She also urged him to arrest Maynard, and he was like, "Hmmm, the lady doth protest too much". Her letter also included details of the poisonings that had not been made public, pointing the finger at her as the perpetrator.
She was arrested not long after, specifically for the murder of Sidney Barker. The three letters that she had sent to Sidney Barker's father, all claiming to be from different people, were traced back to her during her trial. She hadn't disguised her handwriting well enough, or at all. While it was very clear that she had poisoned practically half of Brighton, her defense team called in medical experts who claimed that she was going through menopause (probably the reason she started seeing Charles Beard as a physician in the first place), and that it had led to her becoming morally insane. Her mother had even contributed to this diagnosis at the trial, claiming that mental illness ran in the family.
Their "evidence concurred with the contemporaneous medical idea that post-menopausal women were 'constantly walking about seeking to do mischief'" (46).
She was still convicted and sentenced to death, but because of her MANIC MENOPAUSAL MENTAL STATE, this sentence was turned into 'life in prison' at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. She became known as The Brighton Poisoner, or The Chocolate Cream Poisoner, and died in the asylum more than 35 years later.
What's really sad is that Christiana undoubtedly must have suffered from some sort of mental illness, but didn't get the treatment she needed or any form of rehabilitation. It was all chalked up to "Bitches be cray, what ya gonna do?", and she was locked up and the key was thrown away. Not that there is ever any excuse for poisoning dozens of people and killing at least one child, but it doesn't really address the cause of the problem and sets a troubling precedent for any woman who displays any sort of criminal (or even just socially unacceptable) behavior.