Thursday, August 20, 2015

Double Cream & Strychnine

by A.J.Griffiths-Jones

Courtesy of Wellcome Images
Creative Commons
Strychnine. A colourless, highly toxic, bitter crystalline alkaloid most commonly used as a pesticide for killing rodents.

However, in the late 19th and early 20th century, this potentially fatal poison was used by those in search of a recreational stimulant and became popular amongst men seeking a drug that would both invigorate them and calm the nervous system. It was added to tonics and remedies across Europe and America, gaining a reputation for aiding neurological disorders and acute constipation. It was also known to remedy alcohol poisoning. However, there was a much more sinister use for strychnine, one that would etch it's memory upon the criminal court cases for decades to come. That of lethal poison for the seasoned murderer.

To understand how one might subdue a victim with a dose of strychnine, we must first understand what it is. The most common source of strychnine comes from small seeds, obtained from the 'Strychnos Nux Vomica' tree. It can be introduced into the body orally or may be administered by injection. It is a bitter substance to the taste buds, therefore was most commonly dispensed by mixing with some sweet tasting liquid or by concealment inside a capsule. The subsequent poisoning results in muscular convulsions and a torturous progression of symptoms, causing a long and agonising death, in some cases lasting up to two hours. The victim may first present with nausea or vomiting, which is closely followed by convulsions caused by the muscles contorting in a series of spasms. The facial features would become rigid, set in a grimace, and frothing at the mouth would occur. Eventually the victim would die of asphyxiation as the muscles in the stomach and throat inhibited breathing. To imagine the severity of such a prolonged and harrowing death, must cause one to wonder at the mind of a criminal who would choose such a drug as their 'Modus Operandi'.

Our first strychnine murderer was Christina Edmunds, the daughter of a well-known architect, from Margate, England. Edmunds was known simply as the 'Chocolate Cream Poisoner', due to her chosen method of concealing the strychnine. The second criminal that we will look at is Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, a medical man of Scottish-Canadian origins, who earned himself the moniker 'The Lambeth Poisoner" after the area of London in which he sought his prey.

Both criminals opted to use the same lethal toxin to eliminate their victims, but methods of administration and motive were far from comparable. Edmunds was an amateur poisoner, unsure of dosage and effects, whilst Dr. Cream had been using carefully measured doses of strychnine in both his personal and professional life for many years. However, the instigating factor in the cases of Edmunds and Cream was that their criminal activities began with the intention of poisoning just one victim but then escalated into a killing spree, resulting in both murderers receiving the death penalty. Additionally, in each circumstance, adultery was a key factor.

Christina Edmunds began her villainous career in the summer of 1870 by attempting to poison the wife of her lover, Doctor Charles Beard, by lacing a box of chocolates with doses of strychnine. It is reported that the affair was extremely one-sided and that Dr.Beard, not reciprocating Edmunds’ feelings, tried to end the relationship, which then resulted in the woman trying to do away with his wife. Unfortunately for Edmunds, the lady became violently ill but eventually recovered and therefore the cause of her sickness was not immediately discovered.

 In a similar tryst, over a decade later in Chicago, Illinois, Dr. Thomas Neill Cream wrote the prescription for an epilepsy tonic which was in turn administered by his lover to her elderly husband. The ensuing trial of both parties resulted in Julia Stott, Cream's paramour, turning state's evidence which guaranteed her acquittal whilst Cream languished in Joliet State Penitentiary for the next ten years. Eventually his sentence was commuted, after much petitioning, but by the time he was released in July 1891, Julia Stott was nowhere to be found.

Several months after her unsuccessful attempt to eliminate Mrs. Beard, Christina Edmunds began buying boxes of chocolate creams, which she took home and laced with strychnine, afterwards returning them to the shop for unwitting customers to purchase. She then began sending parcels of the confectionery to prominent people, including Mrs. Beard, which in turn caused the police to connect the large number of illnesses with the chocolate gifts. Naturally, the local shopkeeper became suspicious of the quantity of chocolates that Edmunds was buying, forcing her to travel to different vendors to avoid detection. Although only one death by strychnine poisoning was recorded, four-year old Sidney Barker, Edmunds was arrested and not only charged with his murder but also the attempted murder of Mrs. Beard. It seems that in hindsight, Doctor Beard had eventually informed the authorities of his suspicions.

In Cream's case, a decade spent inside Joliet did nothing but fuel his desire for retribution and after a brief detour to collect a rather healthy inheritance left to him by his father, he boarded a passenger ship to England where he would spend the next twelve months on a poisoning spree. Whereas we have seen that Edmunds was perhaps incited to act upon her instincts as a woman scorned, Cream's motives for vengeance were interspersed with the gradual onset of syphillis, which had become a constant source of debilitation during his incarceration. Both felons suffered varying degrees of insanity, however the causes were dissimilar. At Christina Edmunds' trial her mother testified that both sides of their family had a history of mental illness and this attributed to her original sentence of death being substituted with a life sentence in Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.

Dr. Thomas Neill Cream had suffered a decade of nightmares, migraines and drug withdrawal symptoms during his years behind bars and, coupled with his desire to seek revenge upon womankind, had spent his entire sentence plotting how and to whom he would administer his lethal concoction. Initially he administered the strychnine together with a white liquid mixture of brocine, telling his victims that the tonic would help to clear up pimpled skin and give them a healthier complexion. However, after the girls complained that the medicine was too bitter, Cream ordered a box of gelatin capsules from a local chemist in which to mask the taste of the poison and make it more palatable.

Dr. Cream chose his London victims carefully; they were all streetwalkers living within the Lambeth area, a place that Cream knew well should he need to flee to his lodging house or lose the trail of ensuing police officers. In the case of each victim, Cream waited for opportunity to present itself and prepared the drugs in advance, whereas Christina Edmunds was actually unaware of the number of people she had poisoned until the time of her arrest.

Both criminals only ceased their toxic misdemeanors when they were arrested and charged. We can therefore assume that without the timely intervention of law enforcement, there may have been many more victims for both Edmunds and Cream.

Cream was tried and hanged at Newgate in November 1892, while Edmunds lived on inside Broadmoor until 1907.

It is worth noting that the hangman, James Billington, swore to his dying day that Cream confessed to being the notorious ‘Jack the Ripper’ as he stood upon the gallows. However, there is little evidence to prove the likelihood of this.

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For further reading on Cream, the author of this article has released a book named Prisoner 4374, an autobiographical account of the Lambeth Poisoner.

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