Murdertown provides a new, dark perspective on places across the country, revealing how local detectives, journalists and citizens reacted to lethal crimes that took their communities by surprise.
Host Katherine Kelly travels to Brighton to look at a case which began in a particularly eerie way, with a man visiting a tarot card reader and being so affected by his reading that he was soon confessing to murder. What had triggered the killing – why had the body of his victim been left to decay in his home for days? And did religion play a role in the grisly act? The episode also looks at another Brighton murder, which led to the suspect becoming a fugitive for more than a year.
Brighton is now one of the coolest places in the UK, a bastion of bohemian living and one of the LGBTQ+ capitals of Britain. Yet, there was a time when the area had a grittier reputation. Think of the Mods and Rockers going to war on the beachfront in the 1960s, and of course Brighton Rock – the landmark Graham Greene novel about the violent razor gangs who once talked the region, made into an iconic Richard Attenborough film which showed 'another Brighton of dark alleyways and festering slums'.
Back in 1934, the era of the razor gangs, the town even acquired a ghoulish media nickname: 'the queen of slaughtering places', a spin on the tourist catchphrase 'the queen of watering places'. This was directly due to human remains being found in two trunks in the same year – a bizarre coincidence, as the crimes were totally unrelated to each other. The first case unfolded in June of that year when a nasty smell alerted staff to a trunk in Brighton train station’s left luggage office.
Yet, in a strange twist, the investigation into this case led police to discover another trunk containing another woman.
Inside lay a woman’s dismembered torso, and the before long another case was found in a London station containing the woman’s legs. The whereabouts of her head and arms remained a mystery, and the neither the woman nor her murderer were ever identified. Yet, in a strange twist, the investigation into this case led police to discover another trunk containing another woman.
While doing searches of properties around Brighton station, the body of dancer and sex worker Violette Kaye was found rotting in a trunk belonging to her ex-partner, petty criminal Toni Mancini. The word was, the couple had been tempestuous, and Mancini was even shown to have sent a fake telegram from Violette, claiming she had run off to Paris.
An open and shut case? Not quite. Mancini claimed he’d come home to find her dead in his lodgings, and – thinking the police would never believe he didn’t kill her – he decided to put her in the trunk till a better plan presented itself. Incredibly, he was found not guilty. In a final twist, Mancini eventually confessed in 1976, telling a journalist that he’d thrown a hammer at Violette during a row, accidentally killing her. He died soon after the confession.
Many years before the startling 'Brighton trunk murders', an even more infamous case unfolded in the town. This centred around Christiana Edmunds, the 'chocolate cream killer' – a person whose mode of murder made her as cartoonishly ghoulish as Sweeney Todd, but with the key distinction of actually having existed.
The details of why she embarked on her spate of poisonings are hazy. We know that, in the 1860s, the Brighton woman developed an infatuation with a local doctor. We don’t know whether or not they actually had an affair, but at some point, Christiana decided to rid herself of the doctor’s wife by giving her a gift of poisoned chocolates. The wife fell ill but recovered, and the doctor suspected poisoning. But, perhaps not wanting to cause a scandal, he didn’t contact the authorities.
Christiana Edmunds, by now maddened by the situation, escalated her activities by purchasing chocolates from a local sweet shop, lacing them with strychnine, and returning them to the shelves. They were then purchased by unsuspecting locals, who fell badly ill. Eventually, one person died – an infant boy called Sidney Barker, whose family were on a holiday to the seaside when they bought him the lethal treat.
After the doctor tipped off the police, Christiana finally fell under suspicion, although the clever killer actually mailed some of the toxic chocolates to herself, to make it look like she was being targeted by the poisoner. During her eventual trial, it was revealed that mental illness ran in her family, and she was locked up in Broadmoor for the rest of her days.
Brighton has also endured horrific crimes in living memory. One of the most notorious cases unfolded in 1986 when two young girls – Nicola Fellows and Karen Hadaway – were found dead in a park. The bodies of the girls were heartbreakingly huddled together, sparking a huge manhunt for the 'babes in the woods' killer.