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Chocolate is one of lives greatest pleasures or as Michael Levine put it ‘Chemically speaking, chocolate really is the world’s perfect food’. It seems that the majority of Britain agrees as in 2017 the UK topped the Europe chocolate eating league, comprising a third of the European market. On average Britain consumes 11.2kg or 266 Mars bars per year[1]. Our love affair with chocolate began hundreds of years ago and it seems to be a relationship which will last for many years to come.

Mmmmm chocolate. Image from Thorntons website.

A very brief history of chocolate

Aztec woman making chocolate.  Image from the Codex Tuleda via  Wikimedia.

Cacao has been used by South American indigenous cultures for centuries and until very recently it was believed that it was the Olmec people (originating from Mexico) who were the first to have consumed chocolate which they called Theobramo Cacao or ‘food of the gods’. A recent discovery now pushes back the timeline by about 1500 years and reveals that in fact the Mayo Chinchipe culture of Ecuador were processing cacao more than 5000 years ago.

Cacao was a tricky plant to grow and because of its low yield was considered extremely valuable. The Mayans preferred their cacao, hot and frothy seasoned with chilli and vanilla whilst the Aztecs liked it foamy and cold[2]. The Aztecs used the beans as currency, 10 beans could buy a rabbit and a 100 a human slave[3]. They saw it as a man’s drink and warriors drunk it before battle to stimulate aggression and sexual performance. The Spanish conquistadors were fascinated with chocolate and were able to add sugar to the mixture to dilute the bitter taste although at first not all Europeans knew what to make of these strange ‘black almonds’. A pirate ship after finding the precious cargo threw it overboard thinking they were rabbit droppings[4].

The Spanish brought back to Europe the know how to make chocolate which rapidly became popular throughout the continent. Most Europeans added coffee, wine and water to their chocolate drink whilst the English and Dutch added milk. In the 1700s Britain saw the rise of the chocolate houses. Chocolate was even recommended as medicinal for children and consumptive patients. It was popular amongst the aristocracy and a unique set of rooms especially for the preparation of chocolate has recently been found at Hampton Court dating to the reign of William III and Mary II[5].

An 17th Century European Chocolate Shop. Image via California Herb Museum.

Despite its popularity, this bitter tasting drink gained a possibly unfounded reputation as the perfect tool for poisoners.

“Beware the chocolate of Chiapas”[6]

Lady pouring chocolate. Image by Jean Etienne Liotard, 1744.. Public Domain via Wikimedia.

This popular Mexican saying refers to one of the earliest suspected cases of poisoned chocolate being used. In the mid-1600s a Bishop of Chiapas incurred the wrath of his female parishioners when he banned the drinking of chocolate in his church which he said broke religious fast laws. The women protested saying that the chocolate was a medicinal necessity for their weak stomachs and prevented them from fainting during the long mass services. The ladies tried to circumvent the ban by attending mass in other outlying parishes and convents[7]. In order to bring his disobeying congregants to heel, the bishop extended the ban to cover all parishes and forced the women to attend mass at their own parish i.e. his. The ladies still defiant stayed at home and refused for a month to attend church[8].

According to the Dominican English monk who was travelling in the Americas at the time, Thomas Gage, one of the ladies, the wealthy Doña Magdalena de Morales was so incensed that she sent the bishop a poisoned cup of chocolate[9]. Shortly afterwards the bishop became sick and died convinced that he had been poisoned. In order to prevent dissent Pope Alexander VII made a law that all drinks including chocolate did not break the fast.

Whatever the truth behind the legend, what is clear is that in the war between chocolate versus Church; chocolate wins!

“What frosts to fruits, what arsnick to the rat; What to fair Denham mortal chocolate”[10]

Lady Denham. Royal Collection.

One of the famous stories of drinking poisoned chocolate is that of the death of Lady Margaret Denham. Lady Denham was the second wife of John Denham, 30 years her senior. Her beauty attracted the attention of many men including the king’s brother, James, Duke of York. Denham a respected poet and government official was at this time suffering premature aging which had left him limp and reliant on crutches. He had also just recovered from a serious mental breakdown during which he had believed he was the Holy Ghost. A rather cruel description of the couple notes “His wife was young and beautiful; himself was old and unappetizing[11].

The evidence isn’t clear on whether Denham knew that his wife was the duke’s mistress although it was hardly a secret. Some sources imply that Denham was cuckolded and so passionately devoted to his wife that he was blind to her faults. If these are to be believed Denham only learned of Lady Denham’s indiscretion during a trip to visit his quarries in Portland, a destination he never reached as he returned, planning to make her pay.

Detail of the Poisoning of Queen Bona. Public domain via Wikimedia.

In early November 1667 Pepys wrote that Lady Denham was sick and a rumour started to circulate that she had drunk poisoned chocolate. She never totally recovered. There was minor improvement in the middle of month but in December she was still unwell. In January, the following year she died.

Aside from Denham the other poisoner in the running was the Duke of York’s wife Ann Hyde who had a double reason to hate Margaret who was not only having a very public affair with her husband but also was an advocate of a political rival faction which campaigned against her father, the Earl of Clarendon. A popular rumour was that the Duchess was so terrified by an apparition of the deceased lady that she bit off part of her tongue[12].

Pepys never gave weight to the rumour although he did express his intense dislike of Lady Denham and her influence over the Duke of York calling her a whore and ‘this bitch of Denham[13]. Despite an autopsy which suggested a ruptured appendix later generations were convinced the story of poisoned chocolate was true and it reached almost mythical proportions.

A Poisoned Pope: Clement XIV

Pope Clement XIV was born Giovanni Ganganelli near Rimini in 1705. Educated by the Jesuits after school he became a Franciscan Friar and was promoted to cardinal in 1759. A close friend of Pope Benedict XIV he was named his successor and ascended to the papal throne in May 1769[14].

Pope Clement XIV. Public domain via wikimedia.

Clement XIV inherited a Catholic Church in crisis with the Holy See being opposed, the role of the pope decreasing in importance and France wanting back French provinces such as Avignon held by the papacy. Added to this Portugal (and other Catholic countries) was threatening a schism if the interfering Society of Jesuits were not disbanded. Initially Clement prevaricated partly because of his genuine admiration of the Jesuits and partly because he was afraid of their (possibly unwarranted) reputation as assassins. Eventually under increased pressure and to avoid a total schism, Clement banned the Society and the Jesuits were expelled from all Catholic countries.

The stress which Clement had been under began to take on a toll on his mental health. He spent the last year of his life suffering from remorse, depression and a paranoid fear of assassination[15]. On the 10 September 1774 Clement was violently sick and confined to bed. He insisted it was due to poison which had been delivered to him in a chocolate drink. On the 22 September 1774 he died.

Despite being described as an ‘upright and moral man’[16] his papacy was fraught with difficulties and has been seen by posterity negatively. Was he poisoned, Clement thought he was but the autopsy said otherwise!

Napoleon’s near miss

Napoleon by David. Image via Google Art Project.

A rumour abounded in both English and American newspapers possibly the result of British propaganda[17] at its most inventive that Napoleon had narrowly avoided death when he was served a poisoned chocolate beverage by an abandoned lover. The story goes that Pauline Riotti, a former mistress of Bonaparte was left destitute by Napoleon who had promised to support her and their child. With no means of income a sympathetic priest helped her find a job as a monastery kitchen inspector.

In 1807 Pauline after learning that Napoleon planned to visit the monastery was determined to get her revenge. During the preparation of Bonaparte’s late morning chocolate Pauline emptied something into the mug. Unfortunately a cook had been watching and relayed a warning message to Napoleon. Pauline was sent for and forced to drink the chocolate. She began to convulse and an hour later she died, apparently mad[18].

This is a classic story of a failed attempt at murder by a spurned lover. Did it happen, not sure but I would love it to be true.

The Chocolate Cream Poisoner

One story of chocolate poisoning which is undoubtably true concerns a woman called Christiana Edmunds. In 1869 Christiana was living with her elderly mother in Brighton and engaged in a secret love affair with a local married doctor, Dr Charles Beard. She was infatuated and when he ended things she continued to harass him. When Dr Beard refused to see her, Christiana instead of venting her anger at her ex-lover decided her only option was to get rid of the wife.

Christiana Edmunds. Image from the Brighton Journal.

Obtaining strychnine from a dentist, Isaac Garrett under a false name and on the pretence of poisoning feral cats[19] and forging prescriptions for arsenic which were delivered by an errand boy to different chemists, Christiana injected the poison into chocolates. The chocolates having been procured from Maynard’s a local chocolate shop. Christiana’s first attempt on Mrs Beard was when she personally delivered the chocolates to her house, after which the unfortunate lady became violently sick. When confronted by the doctor, she denied any culpability and even claimed to have been ill herself. Mollified the doctor left.

Poison bottle.

Christiana began sending boxes of chocolates anonymously to not only Mrs Beard but also to other well-to-do families in Brighton, to her own friends, herself and sometimes back to Maynard’s for resale. Her targets were indiscriminate she did not care who ate the poisoned chocolates. More and more people began to fall sick.

In 1871 Christiana’s campaign claimed its first victim. Sidney Barker aged 4 died after eating chocolates bought from him at Maynard’s whilst he was visiting Brighton with his family. At the inquest a verdict of ‘accidental death’ was recorded. John Maynard was exonerated and destroyed all his stock. Christiana had the nerve to give evidence at the inquest complaining that she had also been poisoned. Her vindictive campaign against John Maynard continued as she sent three letters to Sidney’s father[20] encouraging him to sue Maynard.

The poisoning continued and it was not until six victims including Mrs Beard’s servants fell sick that the Chief Constable placed an advert in the local paper asking for anyone with evidence to step forward. Finally Dr Beard handed in Christiana’s incriminating love letters. Suddenly everything fell into place as now there was a motive for what had looked like random attacks. Christiana was identified as the anonymous author of both the letters sent to the police attacking Maynard and to Sidney’s father. She was arrested on the charge of murder and placed in custody.

Contemporary news report. Image from the Old Police Cells Museum.

After an initial hearing in Brighton it was decided that no Brighton judge could give a fair judgement and the trial was moved to the Old Bailey in London[21]. On 8 January 1872 Christiana was convicted of the murder of Sidney Barker and sentenced to death. The sensational nature of the trial was relished by the tabloids. The descriptions given in the papers varied from tall and handsome to thinking too much of herself. One damning article called her a ‘scheming, image-obsessed murdering minx[22]. Her sentence was commuted and she was placed in Broadmoor mental asylum for the criminally insane where she stayed until her death in 1907. She never denied, gave an explanation or showed any remorse for what she had done[23].

“Of all murders poisoning is ye worst and most  horrible

because it is secret

because it is not to be prevented

because it is most against nature and therefore most hainous

it is also a cowardly thing”

       Sir John Coke  [24]

The above reasons illustrate a deep-rooted fear in England in the 17th century of being poisoned even though actual cases were rare with most casualties being accidental or suicides. Literature was full of lurid tales of poisoning which only increased the paranoia. Initially poisoning was linked to witchcraft due to the mixing of ingredients and seen as the murder weapon of choice for women. For some reason maybe a guilty conscience men developed a huge fear of being poisoned by their wives[25].

Reynolds’s Miscellany [PP.6004.b Vol.21 No 525 p.1] Images Online

The difficulty of proving that someone had been poisoned is illustrated by the case of Mary Bell who was accused of killing her husband in 1663, five years after the supposed crime took place[26]. Chocolate was a popular drink, it could disguise bitter tastes and so there was no better choice. Countless other unsubstantiated rumours of chocolate poisoning attempts floated around including Frederick the Great of Prussia and King Charles II[27].

Even today chocolate poisoning cases occur. In France in 2006 Ghislain Beaumont aged 45 murdered both his parents with a poisoned chocolate mousse. He claimed that his mother kept him as a virtual prisoner and was trying to prevent him moving in with his girlfriend[28].

Interesting chocolate fact! 

Luckily chocolate itself is not lethal for humans but if you are determined to use it to commit a murder then somehow you must persuade them to consume 22lb of cacao, the equivalent of 40 bars of Dairy Milk in one go![29]

…one last wafer thin mint…? Image Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. Dir. Terry Jones.1983.


Harmony from Discords: A Life of Sir John Denham, Brendan O Hehir, 1968

Sir John Denham (1614/15–1669) Reassessed: The State’s Poet, Philip Major, 2016

John Denham (poet), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Denham_(poet)

COLUMNIST: Painting a picture of Lady Denham – the scandal and her demise, Stephanie Bateman, https://www.sheffieldtelegraph.co.uk/lifestyle/nostalgia/columnist-painting-a-picture-of-lady-denham-the-scandal-and-her-demise-1-8684708

Sir John Denham, https://www.pepysdiary.com/encyclopedia/1676/

By Permission Of Heaven: The Story of the Great Fire of London, Adrian Tinniswood, 2004

Death By Chocolate: Did You Know It Can Kill?, http://www.health-benefits-of-dark-chocolate.com/death-by-chocolate.html

Death by poisoning of His Holiness Pope Clement XIV, https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/death-by-poisoning-of-his-holiness-pope-clement-xiv-1-2402306

Papal Profile: Pope Clement XIV, http://madmonarchist.blogspot.com/2012/10/papal-profile-pope-clement-xiv.html

Clement XIV, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Clement-XIV

QI: quite interesting facts about chocolate, The Telegraph, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/the-filter/qi/5878406/QI-quite-interesting-facts-about-chocolate.html

Humoring Resistance: Laughter and the Excessive Body in Latin American Women’s Fiction, Dianna C. Niebylski, 2004

Death by chocolate, https://mexfiles.net/2010/04/26/death-by-chocolate/

When the Church said “No” to chocolate, http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/1469-when-the-church-said-no-to-chocolate

Britain is now top of the chocoholics league, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-147227/Britain-chocoholics-league.html

Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage, Louis E. Grivetti, Howard-Yana Shapiro, 2009

Poison – hidden weapon of the Tudor wife, https://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com/2015/12/poison-hidden-weapon-of-tudor-wife.html

A historical murder: The Chocolate Box Poisoner, https://robin-stevens.co.uk/a-historical-murder-the-chocolate-box-poisoner/

Christiana Edmunds, http://www.oldpolicecellsmuseum.org.uk/content/history/sussex_murders/christiana_edmunds

Broadmoor Revealed: Some patient stories: Christiana Edmunds (1829-1907), http://murderpedia.org/female.E/images/edmunds_christiana/christiana-edmunds.pdf

The Case of the Chocolate Cream Killer: The Poisonous Passion of Christiana Edmunds, Kaye Jones, 2016

Archaeologists Find Earliest Chocolate Ingredients in Ecuador, Kristina Killgrove, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2018/10/31/archaeologists-find-earliest-chocolate-ingredient/#482331ea242a

Chocolate mousse murderer: Middle-aged man kills parents by lacing pudding with poison because they wouldn’t let him leave home, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-520312/Chocolate-mousse-murderer-Middle-aged-man-kills-parents-lacing-pudding-poison-wouldnt-let-leave-home.html February 2008

The Chocolate Kitchens, https://www.hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace/explore/chocolate-kitchens/

Christiana Edmunds, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=def1-185-18720108&div=t18720108-185#highlight 


[1] Britain is now top of the chocoholics league

[2] QI: quite interesting facts about chocolate

[3] When the Church said “No” to chocolate,

[4] Ibid

[5] The Chocolate Kitchens

[6] Death by chocolate

[7] Ibid

[8] Death by chocolate

[9] Humoring Resistance

[10] Harmony from Discords: A Life of Sir John Denham

[11] Ibid

[12] Harmony from Discords: A Life of Sir John Denham

[13] Ibid

[14] Clement XIV

[15] Ibid

[16] Papal Profile: Pope Clement XIV

[17] Chocolate: History, Culture and Heritage

[18] Ibid

[19] A historical murder: The chocolate box poisoner

[20] Broadmoor Revealed: Some patient stories: Christiana Edmunds

[21] Christiana Edmunds (Old Bailey Records Online)

[22] Christiana Edmunds

[23] Ibid

[24] Poison – Hidden weapon of the Tudor wife

[25] Ibid

[26] Ibid

[27] Chocolate: History, culture and Heritage

[28] Daily Mail: Chocolate Mousse Murderer

[29] QI: Quite Interesting facts about chocolate