Author: caroline

20. The Lady Detective

Meet Maud West, a real life lady detective from the golden age of detective fiction who lived a very colourful life — as well as sleuthing, she liked to dress up as Charlie Chaplin and once threatened to shoot a ghost. But who was she, really?

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Susannah Stapleton, author of The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective

Books mentioned in order of appearance:
The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stapleton
British Women in the Twentieth Century by Elsie M. Lang
Lady Molly of Scotland Yard  by Baroness Orczy

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20. The Lady Detective Transcript

Here’s a full transcript of the twentieth episode of Shedunnit.

Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.

Caroline: If you’re listening to this podcast, I feel like I can reasonably make the assumption that at some point in your life, you have read a detective novel. I’ll go further: you have probably read at least one whodunnit where the sleuth you followed so avidly was a woman, whether that was Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple or Ariadne Oliver, Dorothy Sayer’s Harriet Vane, Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley, or perhaps a more modern creation set roughly when these queens of crime were working, like Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody or Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher.

But while you have enjoyed the fictional adventures of these sleuthing heroines, have you ever stopped to wonder who their real life counterparts were? Were there any actual lady detectives dashing about solving crimes when these authors were working, or was it all pure invention because society at the time would never have stood for the idea of a woman doing anything as grubby as catching a murderer or foiling a theft?

Well, wonder no longer. Today, we’re going to meet the lady detective.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.


This story starts, as all the best ones do, with a woman reading a Gladys Mitchell novel one evening.

Susannah: Well, it actually started with crime fiction — with Gladys Mitchell in fact. I’ve been a golden age crime fan since I was in my early teens. And I was reading Gladys Mitchell one evening and just thinking were there really lady detective in the Golden Age of crime, doing the job for real? And so I thought Oh Google will tell me I fancy. Right. So I fancy reading a book about this. And I just order one from the library or something and I couldn’t find anything.

Caroline: This is Susannah Stapleton, a freelance historical researcher and the author of a new book that I think you’re all going to want to buy by the time we get to the end of this episode. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. What happened after that first failed google search?

Susannah: Then started looking a bit deeper and I came across just one one mention in the National Archives catalogue which was a description of a photograph of Maud West as London’s leading lady detective. And it all started from there

Caroline: Susannah ordered a copy of this photograph, intrigued by who this Maud West might be, and got her first glimpse of the woman she was about to spend an awful lot more time with.

Susannah: She’s very normal looking. So she’s the photograph when it eventually arrived. Just shows is a middle aged woman. She’s got a beautiful dress on with the most amazing pleating and everything. But she’s at her office in a very ordinary office. Pick the desk is piled with papers and she’s looking through a magnifying glass at a piece of paper which I say in the book it could be a laundry list. Who knows. You know it’s it’s a publicity photograph. But she’s got sort of brown permed hair. It’s you know a little jowly. It is. And she just looks like a normal person. So not the glamour. There’s no sort of red lipstick or anything like that. Not the sort of the the glam kind of lady detective a lot of people often think about but not quite. Miss Marple either.

Caroline: So Susannah now had an idea of what this supposed lady detective looked like, but she had no other information. Luckily, though, she’s rather a dab hand at solving mysteries herself, using the power of archival research and a lot of persistence. She tracked down a few other references to Maud online, and traced them all back to a single source.

Susannah: There were just a couple of mentions online once I started to look deeper and I looked all the all of them went back to just one book which is Elsie Lang’s Women of the 20th century which is something I use all the time and I didn’t remember there being a detective in it. It’s basically a book about it was written in 1929 I think. And it’s just about the amazing things women were doing at that time. And yes and it turns out she’s just again in another list. You know it’s sort of six words: ‘Miss Maud West is a detective’.

Caroline: After another tantalisingly brief mention, the next stop was newspapers.

Susannah: The first couple of things I found were one her adverts which were in the classified ads all the time and they were just it was just like something out of Agatha Christie — adverts for her services. And for that she actually ran out ran an agency. So she had staff she had male and female staff and she was based in the centre of London in New Oxford Street.

Caroline: Suddenly, that figure in the photograph had a backstory, a business even — Maud West wasn’t just someone messing around with a magnifying glass for a photograph. She had her own agency, and was advertising for clients in Britain’s biggest newspapers. Even more thrillingly, Susannah found that Maud’s life had intersected at least once with an author of detective fiction.

Susannah: The other thing I found on that first trawl in the Times was a mention of her chairing a meeting at which Dorothy Sayers was the guest of honour talking. It was a meeting of the efficiency club which I had no idea what that that was but erm I’ve looked into it in the book and a fascinating club of professional women that were set up in 1920 when 1919 and they had guest speakers they had social nights it was all about sort of women helping other women in the business world and Dorothy Sayers came along to do a talk on efficiency and murder and Maud was in the chair at night.

Caroline: But the next set of articles that Susannah found were a lot more confusing. It seems that as well as placing advertisements and posing for publicity photographs, Maud West also wrote articles about her own exploits. And what articles they were! You can read excerpts from them between the chapters in Susannah’s book, and they are really something. In them, Maud describes in the most extravagant terms how she has foiled blackmailers, narrowly escaped armed assailants, recovered diamonds, and travelled the world, often while in disguise as a man.

Susannah: That’s when I realised I’d bitten off quite a bit more than I thought I could chew in that Maud used the tropes of detective fiction to write supposedly true stories about her work in order to publicise herself.

Caroline: Quickly, though, Susannah realised that Maud wasn’t really expecting anyone to take these stories completely seriously. They made her a bit of money, but more importantly they helped to lodge her name and brand in the minds of any prospective clients among her readers. Again and again in her ridiculous tales, she focuses on the main kinds of cases that were the real-life Maud’s bread and butter: missing persons investigations, blackmail cases, and divorce. She also did slightly more specialised work, such as attending country house parties to catch card cheats and kleptomaniacs.


Divorce was the mainstay of the private detective business in Britain in the early twentieth century, for Maud and for other proprietors of detective agencies. To understand why this was, we need to go back to the mid nineteenth century when a bill called the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 moved the dissolution of marriages from the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts to the civil courts. Up until this point, divorce had been something that was only accessible to the extremely wealthy and privileged, since it required a lot of arcane legal argument and a private bill to be passed through parliament.

Once divorce became a matter for the ordinary civil courts and lawyers, the volume of cases increased enormously, from three in the year before the act to 300 the year after. There were still some major hurdles and inequalities that wouldn’t be corrected until the twentieth century, including the fact that although a husband could seek a divorce just because his wife had committed adultery, a wife had to prove adultery as well as another factor such as rape, desertion or incest. The history of divorce, especially from a feminist perspective, is a fascinating topic in its own right, but the relevant point for our story today is that using adultery as grounds for a divorce required proof — there was no such thing as a no fault or mutual consent divorce as there is today.

Adultery was the easiest and most popular grounds for divorce at the time when Maud was working, but couples who wished to use it needed to have proof and witnesses to present in court in order to get their marriage annulled. As divorce was still a highly controversial and scandalous proceeding, it was often difficult to persuade the people involved to appear, especially if participating in the case would result in notoriety or damage to their reputation. This problem created a market for an impartial but reputable observer, who could be hired by a suspicious spouse in order to collect the required evidence for the divorce petition. And this observer, of course, was the private detective. There are even some excellent accounts of how in cases where there was no adultery, but a couple wanted to get divorced, a detective could help “create” the required evidence for the courts by providing a husband with a sham mistress and a cast iron set of witnesses. This was commonly known as a “Brighton quickie”, since Brighton, a seaside town on the south coast of England, was a popular location for Londoners seeking to end marriages in this way.

As for the rest of Maud’s work? Well, she did all sorts, Susannah says.

Susannah: Blackmail really came into its own in the 1920s. And so Maude was working between 1985 and 1939 so it covers an amazing period of social change and and especially change in women’s lives. So that so divorce and blackmail and missing people. Nothing. It was very much easier to disappear in those days without term social media and CCTV and everything like that. So. And everything from checking up on people’s fiances to the business credit checking services because there weren’t credit checking agencies. They were basically snooped on everyone and anyone it want to hear and they would travel abroad to do it as well — they would they would go wherever they were needed [00:09:00][4.2]

Caroline: It would seem that there was plenty of work for a private detective in London in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century. But was Maud the only woman to become a professional sleuth? More on that, after the break.

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Welcome to the intermission, the brief break in the episode where I interrupt the story to tell you about one of the ways that you can support the podcast. Today, I want to tell you about an offer I have with Audible that is a bit of a win win — you can get a free audiobook, and I get some money to keep the podcast going. This is how it works: if you take out a one month free trial of their audiobook subscription using the podcast’s link at, I get £5 back as a kind of finder’s fee. You get to keep your audiobook even if you cancel the subscription, which is handy because I don’t have to give the fiver back! There are thousands of great books to choose from, including plenty of detective fiction adaptations and readings, but today I want to particularly recommend that you choose the audiobook of Susannah’s book, The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective, which is read by the author herself and includes loads more detail that we weren’t able to cover in this episode. Visit and click the link at the top now to get your free audiobook and give the podcast some free money. Now, back to the show.


So, was Maud West the only lady detective in London?

Susannah: No she wasn’t. She was one of only a handful to actually run an agency. There were hundreds hundreds of female detectives because women were needed to be able to go undercover in places that men couldn’t. You bet. But no there were there were few very few who ran their own agencies and most of them didn’t last very long. But Maud had one great rival called Kate Easton who actually ran a detective agency literally across the road from her office.

Caroline: Maud and Kate were direct competitors, as women who ran rival agencies on the same street in London. Susannah is actually going to read us the bit of her book where she explains how this went down:

Susannah: So for 20 years their adverts battled it out in the newspapers jostling for the attention of readers in a pingpong of superlatives indefinite articles. Maude west London’s lady detective Kate Easton the lady detective Maude west London’s foremost lady detective Kate Easton London’s leading women in every branch of detective work and so on Maude won eventually if only because Kate Easton retired in 1929. By then of course Maude had been sending photographs of herself to the press with the caption London’s only lady detective for quite some time

Caroline: It’s interesting, I think, that both Maud and Kate made much of their gender in their advertisements — they clearly saw it as an advantage in their work and a possible attraction to their clients. It’s not hard to imagine why, either. Although much had changed for women in the decades during which Maud worked, British society at the time was still very rigid and governed by class hierarchies. A woman, especially dressed in the uniform of a servant, wasn’t of much consequence to most people, and could thus pass mostly unseen in lots of scenarios.

Funnily enough, we have an example of this tactic in fiction in the form of Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, a collection of short stories published in 1910 by Emma Orczy (who is more famous as the creator of the Scarlet Pimpernel). Lady Molly is a professional detective with the Metropolitan Police, and she relies heavily on what she calls her “feminine intuition” to solve cases, although a lot of the time it’s more owing to the fact that she can disguise herself as a charwoman and work in the house of a suspect to gather intelligence that a male detective would never get just by asking for it in the official manner.

Maud West was rather fond of a disguise, both for her publicity stories and her real cases. But who was she really? And what would make someone want to devote themselves to the life of a private detective, which was still considered a rather shady and seedy profession? Susannah has spent an awfully long time trying to find out.

Susannah: She was very elusive for quite some time and it was only when I started to find out that she was very elusive quite some time because as I found out she actually wanted to be. She had a sort of another persona hidden away which I eventually sort of found out. And it was only when I sort of managed to dig beneath the Maud West persona which is an absolute who I mean she would dress up as Charlie Chaplin and to show off her disguise skills and at one point she threatened to shoot a ghost. To say on such a publicity set as a publicity stunt to prove that it wasn’t real. But beneath that it was only when I managed to get beneath that that veneer theatre. Yes she did. I start to get a real sense of her as a person and of her her real life.

Caroline: We’re not going to say much more about this, because Maud’s story is a great whodunnit in itself and you should read the book to find out more. But something I am still curious about is how her life and work intersects with the detective fiction of the period — she was a professional, after all, not an amateur, and as a result her work differed quite a bit from that of Miss Marple, say. There’s a bit less murder and a bit more routine missing persons cases in Maud’s casebook.

Susannah: Well I would say that you do find her type of work in those things but there subplot subplots you know it. And private detectives rarely dealt with murder mainly because that was the police’s job. But then when you start talking about private detectives and the police it gets very tangled. Because the majority of private detectives in London during that time were in fact Scotland Yard inspectors who had retired set up their own agencies and then hired ex bobbies you know from the beat. So almost it’s sort of that apart from the fact that one was official and one wasn’t — it’s a real old boys network. Maud and Katie Easton also both employed ex police on their staff and everything. So there was there was that connection between police and private detectives. And I think when it came to murder cases I would be amazed if they weren’t consulted you know in some sort of swift pint after work kind of way. And but it would have been very much sort of behind the scenes and not something that would’ve ever come up in court which is one of the main ways that we can trace what was happening at this time because private detectives records very very rarely exist now because they just destroyed the confidentiality

Caroline: This last point is a good one: the reason why Maud West isn’t somebody that lots of people, even diehard fans of detective fiction know about, is because she was deliberately trying to fade into the shadows. That made Susannah’s job all the harder — Maud trod very lightly through the pages of history, and what traces Susannah has been able to find were very difficult to winkle out. In a way, she had to become a lady detective herself, tracking down a missing person.

Susannah: I think if I had known what it was going to be like I probably wouldn’t have started it. It was thrilling and hilarious. I mean I haven’t laughed as much doing any other research before. It is just wonderful things come. But there is one thing I like the fact this is the first quote in the book you find it which absolutely sums up how I feel at the end of writing this book. And it is something that Maud West wrote in 1914. “In all good faith to other women who would become detectives, I would utter one word of advice: don’t”. And she is spot on.

Caroline: You have been warned, aspiring lady detectives. Sleuthing isn’t quite as easy as the stories make it seem.


This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books and sources I’ve mentioned at the show notes for this episode at There, you can also read a full transcript. Special thanks to my guest today Susannah Stapleton, and to The Brain Charity in Liverpool for hosting our recording.

Just a reminder, you can get the audiobook with Susannah reading her book about Maud West for free if you sign up for a trial with Audible, and by doing this you’re also making a £5 donation to the podcast. Head to to do that right now. I’ll be back on 24 July with another episode.

Next time on Shedunnit: Murder Goes On Holiday.

19. Back To School

School is an enclosed world that breeds tension and suspicion and stress. No wonder it’s such a perfect setting for a murder mystery.

Find links to all the books mentioned and more details about my guests at

Become a member of the Shedunnit book club and get bonus audio, listen to ad free episodes and join a book-loving community at

Moira Redmond, author of the Clothes in Books blog
Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike book series

Books mentioned in order of appearance:
The Governess, or The Little Female Academy by Sarah Fielding
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
David Copperfield  by Charles Dickens
Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes
A Terrible Tomboy by Angela Brazil
The Naughtiest Girl in the School by Enid Blyton
The School at the Chalet by Elinor Brent-Dyer
Moira’s blog about The Silent Three
First Term at Mallory Towers  by Enid Blyton
The Clue in the Castle by Joyce Bevins Webb
A Question of Proof  by Nicholas Blake
Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey
Cat Among The Pigeons by Agatha Christie
Quiet as a Nun by Antonia Fraser
The Secret Place by Tana French
Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens
First Class Murder  by Robin Stevens
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

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The podcast is on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram as @ShedunnitShow, and you can find it in all major podcast apps. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss the next episode. Click here to do that now in your app of choice.

Find a full transcript of this episode at

Music by Audioblocks and Blue Dot Sessions. See for more details.

19. Back To School Transcript

Here’s a full transcript of the nineteenth episode of Shedunnit.

Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.

Caroline: School is enclosed world. Perhaps you finished your education just a handful of years ago, or perhaps it’s been decades. But either way, I bet you can still remember the claustrophobic atmosphere of the place: its cliques, its gossip, its competitiveness, its feuds. Memories of our schooldays are inexorably intertwined with our feelings about being young, and then leaving that time behind to join the grown up world. Recalling it in too much detail can be a melancholy exercise.

For a lot of these reasons, schools have long been a popular setting for fiction — there’s a well defined set of characters, the emotions can easily boil over, and the rumour-mongering power of such a closed community can be a very useful plot device. Boarding school stories in particular have a history going back a couple of centuries at least, as authors have enjoyed imagining adventures for children and teens relatively free of adult supervision.

You might have spotted, though, that a lot of the factors that makes schools and colleges great settings for fiction in general also make them a perfect backdrop for detective stories. Everything from the strict adherence to a timetable to the application of school rules can help build a rigid structure for a sleuth to subvert. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that plenty of authors from Agatha Christie to Dorothy L. Sayers to Nicholas Blake and more have experimented with whodunnits set in the world of education, and that the tradition continues to this day.

Today, we’re going back to school.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.


The very first school story is generally considered to be a set of linked short stories by the writer Sarah Fielding, published in 1749 under the title The Governess, or The Little Female Academy. Fielding’s schoolmistress, who was brilliantly named Mrs Teachum, is “a gentlewoman who undertook the education of young ladies”. She has nine pupils at her little school, and one day after lessons they start fighting over who should get the biggest apple in the basket. The subsequent chapters are all about how the girls begin to grow up and learn to be less selfish, interspersed with fairy stories and fables with clearly relevant morals. It’s a very early example of a full-length work written to be read by children, and appeared at a time when it was only beginning to be appreciated that children had their own tastes and interests separate from adults.

Up until this point, the few books for or about children that had been published were generally very transparently aimed at moral or religious education — thinly disguised versions of the catechism or Bible stories. But through the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century, middle class children were more and more seen as a profitable market for publishers, and more and more authors began to include school-based plots in their works — whether they were aimed at adults or children. After all, school should be a pretty universal experience, and we start to see that in fiction, from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre from 1847 to Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield in 1850, and then perhaps the most famous nineteenth century school story, Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes, which was published in 1857. The wild popularity of this last book made this subgenre of books set in schools a fixture.

In England, boarding school — also sometimes called public school — was a popular educational route for the very rich who could afford to pay the fees. Through the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, it was residential schools that inspired some of the most famous school stories. Since there were different schools for boys and girls, different authors were writing different stories on each side. Some of the most famous girls’ school stories come from Angela Brazil, who published her first one A Terrible Tomboy in 1904, and Enid Blyton, who began her school-writing stories with The Naughtiest Girl in the School in 1940, quickly followed by works in her other school series St Clare’s and Mallory Towers. For boys, the Billy Bunter stories by Charles Hamilton and the Jennings series by Anthony Buckeridge, also both from the first quarter of the twentieth century, dominate.

I was a huge fan of all of these series when I was a child, but my absolute favourite was the Chalet School series by Elinor Brent-Dyer. I devoured those books, reading them over and over again, and to be quite honest I often do open them again when I feel like my brain needs a rest or I want to feel cosy and safe. But it wasn’t until recently that I began to see the connection between the closed world of the early twentieth century boarding school story and the classic whodunnit. Yet crime is a popular theme in these stories, albeit mostly of a “who took the last biscuit from the tuck box” kind, and pupils often take on the mantel of impromptu amateur detective to solve the puzzle. Long before Agatha Christie wrote a murder mystery set partly in a girls’ boarding school, authors like Blyton and Brent-Dyer were experimenting with what it could mean to introduce a sleuthing element to a school story.

A really good example of this crossover can be found in a popular comic strip for girls called The Silent Three which ran in a comic for girls called School Friend from 1950 to 1963. Here’s Moira Redmond, a long time fan, to tell you more:

Moira: Most of the girls reading the comic would not have been as gone to a boarding school. So there was Bunty, there was School Friend Crystal — they all changed names over the time. The particular favourite was The Silent Three, who were in School Friend and they were girls who dressed up in robes and cowls and masks to solve crimes. I mean they were quite extraordinary but we loved them we thought they were wonderful. They were at St. Kitts and they nobody knew who they were. They were was hidden amongst the schoolchildren everybody knew that the silent three would solve crimes and they would find a justice and they would fight it but nobody knew who they were. Well any any seven eight nine year old girl worth her salt is just going to a door There’s a classic one with a maid has been is being fired because she’s thought to have broken something or stolen something they will find out who really did before the crime it’s nearly always somebody is wrongly accused and they go to help her. I think there was also cheating in exams stealing from the top boxes and all that kind of thing. The usual stuff.

Caroline: Moira was also an avid reader of school stories growing up, and credits Enid Blyton’s miniature whodunnits with inspiring her love of detective fiction as an adult.

Moira:  I still wonder if my great love of crime fiction as an adult in fact dates from First Term at Malory Towers where there is a very memorable plot line where Darrell Rivers who’s the heroine of the books she’s been wrongly accused of breaking another girl’s pen heaved a very important piece of kit and she is being sent to Coventry by the other girls because it seems clear that she must have committed the crime. Now another girl shy Mary Lou who hero worship ships. Darrell decides that she knows that drill could not have committed this crime so she has to find out who did it. She thinks about it and she thinks I’m somebody. I’m gonna be able to find this through someone’s shoes a stamp stamped on the pant and there’ll be ink on the shoes. And brave Mary Lou goes down in the middle of the night and such as the cupboards till she finds the shoes which have been hidden the ink stained shoes. And that means she can prove to everybody who committed the crime and the really embarrassing thing is that I haven’t had to check that or look that up. I remember every detail of this plot. It’s not embarrassing. That’s just that’s just really a rather large number of years I haven’t had to check any of that. I know that that’s what happens in first time a man retires. And I was so struck by this the fact that Darryl was wrongly accused the fact that someone else could go forward and solve this crime. I loved it and that was the start.

Caroline: There are lots of other examples of this — a suspected thief is caught stealing the supplies for a midnight feast at St Clare’s, numerous instances in different stories of pupils found stealing from their peers so that they can give the items back and thus gain social standing, even a hunt to find a crucial alibi in a castle guest book in the brilliant if eccentric novel The Clue in the Castle by Joyce Bevins Webb. Within the world of the school story, it seems plausible that pupils would take matters into their own hands and solve their own mysteries, because parents aren’t involved and teachers are merely remote cyphers, there to have pranks played upon them. Indeed, some of the schools, like the Chalet School and the unusually progressive boarding school in Enid Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl series actively encourage the students to dispense their own justice. The latter has a kind of school tribunal, where miscreants are investigated and then, if guilty, punished with no involvement from the teachers.

This is the special attraction of the boarding school setting, really, Moira says.

Moira: The boarding school is great because it’s a closed world, there’s no parents. There are teachers but you’re allowed to ignore those to some extent. So you’ve got those aspects which will make the story interesting and I think also that children reading them. You can imagine yourself in that situation and you’d think suppose that everybody thought that I’d stolen Jane’s sweets and it wasn’t me. What would happen. I think we like the idea that actually somebody would believe in us because the very striking thing is that in the injustice ones is the people’s certainty that the person who’s been accused wasn’t guilty which is a personal knowledge thing and that I think is quite an important trait in these.

Caroline: It’s that naturally enclosed, unsupervised world, which is just so perfect for detective fiction. And we’re going to find out all about how mystery writers have used it, after the break.

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Welcome to the intermission, the brief break in the episode where I interrupt the story to tell you about one of the ways that you can support the podcast. Today, I want to tell you about the Shedunnit book club, the membership scheme that I’ve started alongside the podcast that is both helping to fund the show and proving to be such a lovely, supportive community. If you’re listening to this episode on the day it is released, the members will be gathering in the secret club forum to discuss our June book, Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers, and I can’t wait to get on to the July title, because it’s going to be the first time reading Josephine Tey for some. If you’d like to be introduced to new detective novels and make some new online pals while you do it, you can join now for just £5 at Now, back to the episode.

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When I think about true golden age detective fiction that has effectively utilised the school setting, the most school story-ish title that comes to mind is Nicholas Blake’s A Question of Proof from 1935. As we heard in episode 14, Blake was the pseudonym of the British poet laureate Cecil Day Lewis, and this was the first of over a dozen detective novels he wrote featuring his amateur sleuth Nigel Strangeways. In this story, Strangeways is called into a boys’ boarding school by a friend who is a teacher there, after one of the pupils has been found strangled inside a haystack on the school sports day. As he gently probes into the various goings-on at the school, he brings to light all kinds of tensions among the staff, including illicit affairs and workplace bullying, as well a brilliant, mysterious secret society run by the boys. The rigid framework of everyday school life proves invaluable to Blake in constructing the plot too, which Strangeways able to rule people in or out of the frame by testing where they really were against where the school timetable required them to be. It’s a smart, only mildly improbably story that, in my opinion, far outshines the rest of the Strangeway novels, just because it makes such good use of its boarding school setting.

Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night was published the same year as A Question of Proof. Although it isn’t strictly a murder mystery — there’s no actual body — it does concern a spate of more minor crimes including vandalism and a vicious campaign of anonymous letters happening over a couple of terms in a women’s college at Oxford University. The students and dons all live in the college, so it’s an awful lot like a boarding school, with a set routine, uniform and controlled entrance and exit points to give the writer some restrictions around which to mould her plot. There’s a lot to say about this book that isn’t strictly relevant to this theme, since it’s mostly a novel that tackles issues of women’s education and societal role, plus some stuff about academia vs so-called real life and so on, but as a pure school story, I think it’s very nearly perfect.

Harriet Vane, an alumna of the college, is asked by the dons to take up residence again on the pretext of doing research for a new novel, and so be on the spot to investigate the antics of the “poison pen” without having to face the kerfuffle of calling in the police or university authorities. There are numerous incidents where the socially and physically closed environment of the college is brought to the fore, such as when the malefactor is dashing around the college at night removing all the fuses so that nobody can turn on an electric light, and Harriet pursues her, trying to use it as an opportunity both to unmask her villain but if not that, then at least remove some people from the suspect list who she can see are still in their rooms and thus can’t be the miscreant. This is very useful to the plot, but only possible because of the traditional quadrangle style college buildings, where a sleuth can stand on the lawn in the centre and see all the windows on all four sides. With so many bright women, all with their way to make in the world and their worth to prove over and over, in such close proximity to each other, is it any wonder that things begin to go off the rails? That’s the central question of the book, and it underlines again and again how vital the setting is to the subject.

Josephine Tey also chose a further education establishment as the setting for her “school” based mystery, Miss Pym Disposes, which was published in 1947. Leys is a physical training college for young women who want to work as sports teachers, and the titular Miss Pym is a psychologist and a friend of the head of the college, who visits to give a talk. Almost all of the book is taken up with Lucy Pym’s observations of college life, of how the young woman cope with the stresses of the extremely rigorous course they are taking, and of how they interact with each other. She sees how tightly scheduled their time is and how all-consuming all of the studying and practising they have to do is, and then when there is a death, all of that factors very heavily into the way she thinks about the case. This rigid timetable, as well as the enclosed world at Leys make Miss Pym Disposes a classic school mystery, even if the pupils are a bit older. I’ve actually talked about this book before with Moira Redmond on the queer clues episode of this podcast, episode 3, so if you’d like to hear more about it from another perspective do go back and check that out.

Perhaps the most famous detective novel set in a school is actually the one that has the least to add to a discussion of the setting. Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons was published in 1958, arguably too late to be truly from that golden age between the world wars, and it’s also got elements of espionage and thriller that move it away from being a classic whodunnit. There are several chapters set in a fictional middle eastern country called Ramat before we even arrive at Meadowbank school, although that is then where the actual murders take place. Although there’s plenty of tension and drama between the staff, most of the pupils don’t have much character, other than the two who take centre stage in the mystery and eventually bring in Hercule Poirot to look at the case. As a school story, then, Cat Among the Pigeons has very few of the classic tropes of the genre, although once again the closed setting and the reputational difficulties caused by a murder at a high end girls school are both strings that Christie pulls on to get her plot running. It’s still a great read though — we read it in the Shedunnit Book Club in May and I think it went down pretty well.

So we’ve established why schools are popular settings for detective novels, and looked at a few examples of how writers have handled them. But something I’m very aware of with this topic is that authors are still tackling it today. Just in the last few years there have been some great examples of school or college-based crime stories, such as Antonia Fraser’s Quiet as a Nun, Tana French’s The Secret Place, and — most significantly for me, because I’m a big fan of hers — Robin Stevens’s Murder Most Unladylike series. This last is probably the most classically-inspired school-based detective story since the golden age. It’s set in the 1930s, at the fictional girls boarding school Deepdean, and follows the adventures of two pupils, Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong, as they solve the murders that seem to happen fairly regularly in their vicinity. Here’s Robin, explaining how she got the idea to combine these two kinds of story:

Robin: when I was 13 I was sent to boarding school at Cheltenham Ladies College in Cheltenham which is of course one of the very big very old very fancy British boarding schools. And I turned up there as I mean I grew up in England. I was born in America but I was raised very American my mother gave me old American food American holidays American accent as you can hear. So I turned up at Cheltenham and I just was bewildered by it. There are all these rules but nobody told you but you just had to know like there was a staircase. You could only go up if you were a fifth former or above. But I didn’t know that. And I went up it and I got told off and I just kept being brought up short by all these strange things that everyone acted like were normal. And I thought then it would just be such a great place to set a murder mystery because it’s so enclosed It’s so weird. Everybody knows each other very well it’s got ticks all the boxes for a perfect setting and I also really wanted to write a story about my own experience of boarding school because I had been a big fan of Enid Blyton and all her school stories and I was really thrilled to go off to boarding school. And it was sort of like that but it was different in this small but crucial ways. I wanted to put those differences down into a book. And so just the idea floated in my head I think even while I was at Cheltenham thinking it would be so great to write a story about my experiences it was so great to write a murder mystery it is so great to write a murder mystery at boarding school. And so even though I didn’t sit down actually start to write murder most unladylike till I was 22 and I left school about four or five years. I’ve been out of school I’ve been through university. I think I was thinking about it from a very early age. I added in some thing that I wished had been at my school but wasn’t. So at Cheltenham there was a bricked off blocked off little passageway that it used to go from I think it was from the hall to this to the west wing of the school and girls used to go under there to go hide from rain while they went between lessons and the whole. And I wish that that had been open. I thought that was it a cool creepy thing. And so in my deep dream it is open. It is still there and as it heads off get into it at one important point of murder most unladylike.

Caroline: Robin’s books, like most early twentieth century school stories, are written to be accessible to younger readers, but she’s also very conscious of working within the traditions of detective fiction. As such, she keeps both the Deepdean school rules she’s invented and the rules of detective fiction in mind when creating her plots.

Robin: I take rules seriously. I like thinking about them I like working within them and playing with them and choosing which ones to break careful and then breaking them as hard as I can. So yeah I’m definitely an observer of fair play like Agatha Christie. I like to drop all of the hints possible. I like to make sure all the suspects are really well defined. So I’m thinking about the the 10 Rules that Father Knox put in place and I’m sort of problematising them. I’m playing with them and I’m using them

Caroline: Beyond her characters and plots, something that makes Robin’s stories great fun for grown ups who like detective fiction to read is how referential they are within the genre. Daisy is a huge fan of detective novels, and tries very hard to conduct her investigations with Hazel along the lines of her sleuthing heroes. This has a function beyond just adding fun easter eggs to the books, though, Robin says — it helps to embed her stories in the detective tradition.

Robin:  All of the books that Daisy reads are my favorites. And you can I hope that readers can track her reading list and read read it themselves and get a really good grounding into my favorite Golden Age detective stories and the stories that influence me but I also think that it’s quite a golden age detective trope to have the detective. Oh quite self-aware and aware of themselves as being in a story that is slightly fictionalized slightly weird like detectives will say quite a lot. They’ll be like. Good thing we’re not in a detective story. Or like if this was a detective story. The murder of walk into the room right now. And so I kind of love that self knowing this and the richness of it. And so I’m trying to give Daisy and Hazel a little bit of that of that kind of consciousness. [

Caroline: As a nice bonus, Robin is also training up a new generation of detective fiction fans.

Robin: A lot of children say that they read my books and then they move on up to Agatha Christie which is exactly what I was hoping for. And you know partly I created the books to be in the space between Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie which of course there wasn’t that space when I was younger and the fact that there is now is so great and especially lovely. They read my third book first class murder which is obviously based on murder on the Orient Express by the Christie. It’s very influenced by that in terms of its setting and then they go and read or watch murder on the Orient Express and that’s how they get into Agatha Christie. So it’s all working perfectly as I hoped.

Caroline: Robin has now written seven full length Deepdean novels and some short stories, and the eighth instalment, Top Marks for Murder, is out on 8 August. However, she’s not tired yet of working with the school setting — it’s endlessly interesting to her.

Robin: I think boarding school particularly is just so fascinating because it’s got the element of being enclosed being separated off from the rest of the world and all of the people inside a boarding school are in some way separate in some way special I mean partly special you know because they’ve sort of been selected in some way by wealth or attainment or some other characteristic. But it does make them make them different makes them interesting and it makes them really weird and I think that any setting where you’re in a small enclosed space with people all around you you become you get your own slang you get your own way of thinking and you will talk to each other in a way that you sort of forget isn’t the way that everyone else in the rest of the world talks. And so you can get very sort of then very narrow focus and sort of start forgetting the wider world exists and myself as well. I remember from my boarding school days that all that mattered were the girls around me and how you know whether what we were friends whether we were arguing who had been mean to who. What you heard about this teacher that teacher you know it was all just so precise and so narrow. And I think that it breeds resentment it breeds tension and suspicion and stress. And also I do remember at my boarding school there was a lot of pressure there’s pressure to get good marks and exams there was pressure to behave. There was pressure to be the best and the most important and brightest and that kind of pressure does it breeds this stress and confusion and jealousy which is great for a mystery writer. That’s what you want.

Caroline: The heyday of the pure boarding school story and the golden age of detective fiction might both be far in the past now, but it’s reassuring to know that the tropes that first attracted writers to them remain a strong draw. The school setting just works too well for mysteries for it to be left behind.


This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books and sources I’ve mentioned in today’s episode at the show notes for this episode at There, you can also read a full transcript. Special thanks to my guests, Moria Redmond and Robin Stevens. You can find links to Moira’s blog about schoolgirl detectives and Robin’s books in the description for this episode.

I’ve been a bit rubbish recently about updating the podcast’s social media accounts, but I’m determined to get back on it — follow me at ShedunnitShow on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to see pictures of the books I’ve discussed and plenty of other detective fiction trivia.

I’ll be back on 10 July with another episode.

Next time on Shedunnit: The Lady Detective.

18. Florence Maybrick II Transcript

Here’s a full transcript of the eighteenth episode of Shedunnit.

Click here to listen to it now in your app of choice.Noise of train approaching

Caroline: A few weeks ago, on a rainy Monday afternoon, I took a train towards Liverpool from the village where I live.

Train announcer: This train is for Liverpool Central

Caroline: Then, from the city centre, I took another train out to the suburbs that stretch along the river Mersey to the east of Liverpool. I got off at a station called Aigburth and started walking away from the train line through the rainy streets.

Sound of footsteps.

There was a main road not far away, I could hear the rumble of traffic, but these leafy avenues were quiet. I could hear birdsong and the rattle of rain in the mature trees that grow out of the pavements here. Already, I was slipping into sleuthing mode, and these trees were a clue. The trunks are thick and gnarled and the canopies spread wide. They’re far older than some of the houses that sit in their shade, some of which look as if they were built in the last couple of decades.

I rounded a final corner and came into a street with low rise modern flats on one side and Liverpool Cricket Club’s ground on the other. So far, so conventional. You could find the same kind of buildings in a thousand other suburban streets across Britain.

But as I got further south, closer to the river the houses changed. Now they were big, gracious, multi-storey buildings, set back and shielded from the road by an imposing stone wall. The frontages were white, the sash windows large, and the gardens mature. I was nearly at my destination.

Finally, I stopped in front of a particular gate, at the address I had researched and marked on the map before setting off. The house looked like all the others in the row: an impressive Victorian villa with a bay window at the front overlooking the lawn. Except this house has a history. Although it now just goes by its number and street name, it used to be called something different. This is Battlecrease House, and this is where in 1889 a young woman called Florence Maybrick was arrested on suspicion of using arsenic to murder her husband.


I wanted to see Florence’s house for myself, because I wanted to feel sure that her extraordinary story did have its roots in reality. Aspects of her case seem too fantastical, too improbable to be true, and yet they are as solid and enduring as the building I had trekked through the rain to find. On 14 May 1889, three days after her husband died, she was placed under arrest in the spare room here. On Saturday the 18th, her solicitor was told to be at the house by 2pm. Eight men, including a magistrate and the police superintendent, entered Florence’s room, and she was formally charged with murder. Two policeman carried her, white as a sheet, downstairs in a chair. She was put into a carriage and the horses were whipped into a brisk pace, down to the main Aigburth Road and then off to the jail. Meanwhile, Florence’s mother, the Baroness von Roques, hammered on the locked door of the bedroom where she had been sent to ‘rest’, so that she would not be able to obstruct the removal of her daughter by the police.

What came next was a trial that gripped the nation and tested Britain’s legal system to the limit. It also had lasting repercussions for the public’s awareness of poisoning, the role of women in society, and the myth of middle class domesticity as somehow immune from vice and degradation. Today, we’re continuing the story of Florence Maybrick.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.


In this episode, I’m concluding the story of Florence Maybrick. The first part of this tale appeared as episode 16 of this podcast, so do go back and listen to that first if you haven’t already. Just in case, a brief refresher of the story so far: Florence Chandler, aged 17, met a Liverpool cotton merchant called James Maybrick on board a ship crossing the Atlantic in 1880. They soon got married, settled down together and had two children, and to all intents and purposes looked like a prosperous, happy nineteenth century family. But behind closed doors there were whispers of cruelty, abuse and adultery, and in 1889 James became ill and died. He was unwell for several weeks before he finally passed away, and during that time his servants, friends and relatives began to suspect that he was being poisoned by his wife. Although there was no immediate evidence or even verifiable testimony that showed this, Florence was arrested and removed to prison to await the inquest on her husband’s body.

In the intervening period between her arrest and the beginning of the legal proceedings, the press went wild. Although, of course, any subsequent trial should be conducted independently of any pre-existing speculation, it’s highly unlikely that those involved didn’t have their opinions coloured by the sheer mass of conflicting theories and libellous allegations that were flying around. Florence’s mother Carrie came in for a good deal of the latter. Her rather colourful life, which I talked about in more detail in part one, intensified the public’s prejudices against her daughter. Reports from American newspapers were republished in the British dailies. It began to be pointed out that her first husband, a wealthy banker, had died extremely suddenly soon after Florence’s birth, and that the precise cause of his death wasn’t widely known. Carrie had married a Confederate officer very rapidly after, and then he had died quickly too, and was buried at sea with what some considered to be unseemly haste. Lastly, the fact that she was separated but not divorced from the Baron von Roques made her less respectable too. One newspaper even called her “a Lucretia Borgia incarnate”.

Of course, none of this had any direct bearing on Florence’s case or James’s death. But it’s worth understanding a little the atmosphere in which Florence Maybrick had to prove her innocence. She was already an outsider as an American, and now she was commonly understood to be the daughter of an adventuress who may or may not have poisoned one or more husbands herself. Kate Colquhoun in her great book about this case, Did She Kill Him?, writes that quote “Florence would be judged not simply under the law but against complex ideas of womanhood”. Ideas about what kind of woman she was weren’t formed by reliable evidence or scientific analysis. They were a more nebulous cultural formation, knitted together from scraps of gossip into the late Victorian maelstrom of modernity and morality. This aroma of unrespectability and sin was to follow Florence around for years, long after the events of 1889. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.


The inquest on James’s body was carried out in a public court, which meant that all the servants from Battlecrease House were questioned by the coroner in front of a breathless gallery full of excited onlookers. The nursery maid Alice Yapp repeated her suspicions about Florence’s handling of James’s medicines, as did the nurse engaged to look after him near the end. The cook mentioned the confusion in the kitchen about the master’s food coming back from upstairs tasting sweeter than it had been made. Several of the servants spoke about seeing Florence soaking flypapers in a bowl of water and described the violent confrontation between Mr and Mrs Maybrick the night they returned from the Grand National race meet at Aintree. Although Florence’s lawyer William Pickford was careful to establish that the flypapers had not been soaked in secret — they were in a bowl on Florence’s dressing table and she left the door wide open — there can be no doubt that observers left the court with a strong impression of a husband and wife who had come to hate each other, and a lethal concoction that had been quietly stewing away under everyone’s nose. Given the fame of the so-called “Black Widows of Liverpool” case just five years before, in which two women from the city had been convicted of using flypapers to murder a husband, it’s not surprising that this was the conclusion everyone jumped to. Florence’s unguarded letter to her lover Alfred Brierley was also read out.

Yet the police analyst had still not established a conclusive cause of death for James Maybrick. As I said before, there was arsenic everywhere in Battlecrease House, mostly in the wide variety of patent medicines he loved to take, but very little actually in his body. The state gave permission for an exhumation so that further samples could be taken, and in the meantime Florence was remanded in custody. She had now been in prison for over two weeks. The further tests on her husband’s corpse were similarly confounding for the prosecution. There were only tiny traces of it in his intestines, liver and kidneys, but none in his stomach, which would have been expected if he had died from a fatal dose. Florence’s lawyer triumphantly pointed this out when the analyst gave this evidence to the inquest. He made a special point of drawing the jury’s attention to this paucity of arsenic in the victim’s body, clearly believing that without its presence Florence could not be held any further on the charge of having administered it.

But he was wrong. After a brief deliberation of just thirty-five minutes, the jury returned and the foreman announced that by twelve to two they considered that James Maybrick had been deliberately poisoned by his wife in an act of wilful murder. The jury, by the way, was made up only of men from the professions and trades. It would remain illegal for women to serve as jurors in Britain for another three decades, until the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed in 1919, and even then certain land ownership requirements remained in place for jurors. Which is not to say of course that the outcome of James Maybrick’s inquest would have been different had the jury selection pool been wider. It’s just worth noting that this is one of the many ways that the legal system was restricted and biased at this time. But that’s by the by. Florence Maybrick was now bound over for a criminal trial at the newly-built St George’s Hall, a vast neoclassical civic building in the centre of Liverpool. If found guilty, she could face the death penalty.

More on that, after the break.


Welcome to the intermission, the brief break in the episode where I ask you to do me, and the show, a big favour. Today, I’d really love it if you’d pause this episode right after I finish this sentence, and spend five seconds either leaving a review for the show in your podcast app, or texting a friend to tell them to download it. If you include the link in your message, they can start listening right away, no matter what kind of platform they usually use for podcasts! I don’t have a marketing budget or anything for this how, so I really rely on you, listeners, to help me spread the word about Shedunnit and make it a sustainable thing I can keep doing. Done that? Right, let’s get back to poor Florence.


Florence was brought from the prison to the assizes at St George’s Hall in a closed carriage. A new jury had been sworn in for this fresh trial, men drawn from the Lancashire region beyond the Liverpool. The public benches were stuffed with the city’s most notable citizens, eagerly anticipating the next chapter in the drama of what the newspapers were calling The Maybrick Murder (all caps). Florence wore a mourning dress and a veil, and when asked how she plead to the charge of murder, she answered firmly: not guilty.

It was relatively rare to see a woman in the dock on such a serious charge at all, let alone one from the prosperous middle class like Florence. Perhaps this had something to do with the unusual numbers of women who chose to attend the trial as spectators, too — the newspapers made much of the quote “strange spell of fascination” it exerted over them.

Over the days of the trial, all of the same evidence from Florence’s servants and James’s brothers was went over again, as well as all of the conflicting testimony from the medical experts who had examined James’s body and the other materials taken from Battlecrease House for poison. For a detailed blow by blow account of what was said in court, I recommend Kate Colquhoun’s book or the Maybrick volume from the second series of Notable British Trials. Suffice it to say here that things got very complicated and confusing, with witnesses qualifying statements they had made at earlier hearings with new details and impossibilities emerging. For instance: it was fairly well established that Florence had added a powder to a bottle of meat juice (she said she did this at James’s urging, he wanted relief from one of his favourite medicines) and she was seen by the nurse to do so. But the nurse was sufficiently concerned by Florence’s behaviour that she made a point of replacing the bottle with a fresh, unopened one, and was positive that her patient never drank anything from the supposedly tainted one.

This pattern kept coming up — there were damning moments for Florence, but nothing that absolutely unequivocally showed she had actually caused her husband direct harm. In fact, the early suspicions of the nursery maid and James’s family almost acted in her favour at this late stage — by removing her from the sickroom and watching her more carefully, they were actually able to give a better account of her actions than perhaps would have been the case had there been no concerns. However, their statements didn’t clear her either. Her defence rested on two main points: there was no conclusive evidence that James Maybrick had died from arsenic or any other kind of poisoning, and there was no direct evidence that his wife had administered said poison. In addition, in his summing up her lead barrister Sir Charles Russell made a good deal of the fact that she was relatively alone and friendless in Britain; that she had expressed concerns about her husband’s use of patent medicines to a doctor long before he became seriously unwell; and that she was merely the victim of nasty suspicion.

Russell also took the unusual step of allowing Florence to make a direct statement to the court, since under the rules of the time she was not otherwise allowed to speak in her own defence or give evidence. Having Florence, heavily veiled and sorrowful, speak openly added greatly the drama of the trial. She briefly mentioned her children, and said that on his deathbed James had forgiven her for her sins against him (no doubt referring to her adultery). The two key points she addressed though, were the matter of the bottle of meat juice, which she explained as I mentioned before, and also this matter of her soaking flypapers. She said that she had been in the habit for a long time of doing this to make a face wash that contained arsenic, according to a recipe given to her by a chemist back in the United States. Her appearance and manner seems to have been reviewed relatively favourably by the press at least — she didn’t do herself any harm in their eyes by speaking out. Although the atmosphere of the trial was still highly charged, I suspect that her lawyers were fairly confident of getting a favourable verdict, given the lack of conclusive proof provided by the prosecution. That is, until the judge began to speak.


The judge, James Fitzpatrick Stephen, undoubtedly swayed the case against Florence. He summed up for a full 12 hours, during which he cast substantial doubt on the reliability of the scientific evidence, but ended with a vicious censure of Florence’s adultery and other behaviour. It was, he said in the final moments, “a horrible and incredible thought that a woman should be plotting the death of her husband in order that she might be left at liberty to follow her own degrading vices”. As an afterthought, he added the customary words to the jury that they must not find Florence guilty unless they were absolutely sure that the case against her was proven. Stephen, incidentally, was an older brother of the critic and author Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. James Stephen was a philosophical sparring partner of the influential theologian John Henry Newman, and had a reputation as a staunch traditionalist. By the time Florence Maybrick came up before him, he was very near the end of his life, and there have been suggestions that his powers were waning. Abruptly, after all those hours of speaking, he dismissed the jury to deliberate about 3pm.

It took just 43 minutes. Some of the women in the public gallery were holding bunches of flowers when the court reconvened, ready to hand them to Florence in congratulation for her exoneration. Except… when the foreman of the jury was asked whether they had found the prisoner guilty or not guilty of the murder of James Maybrick, he replied: Guilty. Judge Stephen put on the black cap and sentenced her to death. The crowd hissed and then yelled as, half fainting, she was dragged away.


A storm erupted in Britain after the verdict in Florence Maybrick’s case. The newspapers for the time are stuffed full of furious letters and interviews, as lawyers protested that her case had never been properly proved, and scientists argued that the analysis results hadn’t been properly understood by the jury. Reading it now it feels like the fallout from a culture clash: modernity, in the form of more enlightened judicial and medical practices was butting up against Victorian traditionalism, and this poor woman was caught in the middle. The Home Secretary, Henry Matthews, was besieged with petitions and attempted deputations pleading for a new ruling in Florence’s case. In fact, the popular outcry almost counted against her, since Matthews was known to be a stubborn man and was loathe for it to appear that newspapers and plebs could change his mind. He remained closeted for days with experts and clerks, trying to recalculate the amount of arsenic found in James Maybrick’s body, and straighten out all of the tangles produced by Florence’s trial. Meanwhile, she remained in prison. The mechanism for her execution was checked, and the date was set.

On the evening before she was due to be hanged, Matthews recommended to the Queen that her sentence be commuted to life imprisonment. He believed that Florence Maybrick was guilty, but he also felt that there was quote “grounds for reasonable doubt whether the arsenic administered was in fact the cause of his death”. He was satisfied that she had the intent to murder, but not that she had actually done so in this particular manner. She was therefore to be imprisoned on the lesser charge of attempted murder, even though she had not actually be tried or found guilty of this, and her death sentence would be rescinded. Soon after, Florence was moved south to Woking Gaol and began her indefinite stay at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.

And that’s where she stayed for years, as times changed, the Victorian age came to an end, and attitudes to women shifted. Her mother and representatives of the US government campaigned periodically for her release, but successive new home secretaries kept kicking her case into the long grass, reluctant to take the reputational hit that would come with releasing her and admitting that a grave legal mistake had been made. Because that’s really what all this was about, ultimately: I’ve read a lot about this case and I still have no idea if Florence Maybrick was actually guilty of killing her husband, but I do feel pretty certain that nothing against her was ever properly proved during her trial. Justice isn’t as black and white as ‘she did it’ or ‘she didn’t do it’. Innocent people end up in prison and the guilty walk free. But the system is nothing if it doesn’t adhere to strict standards of evidence and that basic tenet that people are innocent until proven otherwise. And Florence, to my mind at least, was never proven guilty.


Then, in 1903, a new home secretary announced that Florence would be released the following year, having served 15 years in prison. There was no public inquiry into her case, or even real explanation as to why she was now being let go after so many years of having her appeals denied. The times had changed; she was no longer infamous. A new generation had grown up while she had been behind bars, and the idea of the arsenic-wielding husband-killer was no longer such a powerfully disruptive one. She was transferred to a convent in Cornwall for the final six months, so that she could transition back to normal life, and then on 20 July 1904, she walked free. She went first to France to visit her ageing mother, and then back to America. For a while, she was something of a celebrity, and was asked to speak on her case and on prison reform. She published a book soon after her release called “My Lost Fifteen Years”, but she quickly faded out of the limelight. Many of the people who had followed her case so voraciously at the time had moved on, or had died themselves. It was a new century now, and she belonged to the dramatic moral battles of the one before. Florence gradually withdrew from public life. She moved to rural Connecticut and lived in a small cabin under a different name, and kept cats. She never saw her children again — they were fostered by Michael Maybrick’s London doctor and grew up without her. When she died in 1941, it was as a lonely old American woman. There was little to connect her to the charming young girl who had once turned the head of all British society.


As I’ve hinted, the Maybrick case had a profound effect on the way murder, and in particular domestic murder, was thought of in Britain. It was one of the cases mentioned by George Orwell in his essay about the “Elizabethan period’ of murder, and it was alluded to by several novelists of detective fiction’s golden age. Anthony Berkeley in particular was very affected by it. He was inspired by the Maybrick case to write 1926’s The Wychford Poisoning Case, which he called “a psychological detective story”, and considered a departure from the puzzle-based plots popular elsewhere at the time. The parallels are obvious: a foreign born woman (in this case, she’s French), is sentenced to hang for poisoning her husband. She supposedly extracted arsenic from flypapers and it was found in his medicine as well as his food and drink. Berkeley’s amateur detective Roger Sheringham sets out to prove her innocence, when even her lawyers think she did it.

Sheringham is no feminist, though — notably in this book he declares that quote “nearly all women…. are idiots”. Berkeley too had a complicated relationship to this topic, which I hope to unpack in more detail in a future episode. His interest in Florence Maybrick (and in Edith Thompson, whose case I explored in episode seven) was centered on adultery more than anything else. He had a passion himself for the married novelist EM Delafield, and believed that the censure and societal discrimination still meted out to those who ended or escaped from marriage was severe and unwarranted. He and Delafield debated this often, for they were close friends, even if Berkeley never did succeed in pairing up with her. Golden age critic Martin Edwards has written that they regarded both Thomson and Maybrick as quote “victims of a hypocritical morality that punished them for having sex outside marriage”. Perhaps that’s how Berkeley saw himself, too.

For writes like Berkeley, Sayers, Christie and their colleagues, the Maybrick case encapsulated so many of the themes they grappled with in fiction. Florence had, whether deliberately or unwittingly, exposed the seedy underbelly of the supposedly respectable middle class Victorian way of life. The real horror was in the home, not out there in the dark alleyways of Whitechapel where Jack the Ripper stalked his victims. Spousals poisonings appear so often in detective fiction, and they can all be traced back to the Maybricks. Then the legal quagmire Florence experienced spoke to the detective novelists’ interest in injustice, and the plot potential of unpunished guilt. Finally, Florence was that tantalising object, the potential female murderer. They’re so rare in real life, yet so prevalent in fiction. The idea of the angel of the house transformed into an avenging demon is compelling on the page, although perhaps unconvincing in reality.

For all that Florence Maybrick lived on in the collective psyche, it’s hard not to find what happened to her unutterably sad. She called her autobiography “My Lost Fifteen Years”, but it seems more accurate to say that it was the rest of her life that was taken from her, even though her death sentence was never carried out.


By way of a postscript: I promised to reveal the Jack the Ripper connection to the Maybrick case, and it is this. In 1992, more than a hundred years after his death, a diary was produced purporting to be written by James Maybrick, in which he confessed to the murders of the five women commonly identified as the Ripper’s victims, plus two others. It was published the following year and has been the source of great controversy ever since, with its finder recanting and reaffirming its provenance a number of times. A few experts have verified it, but most dismiss it as some kind of ephemera or hoax. As someone who has no interest in the vast enterprise that is Ripperology, I find this posthumous connection to the Maybrick case extremely amusing. There is so much that is genuinely horrible about what happened to James and Florence; it’s almost laughable that this got tacked on afterwards. Anyway, if you’re interest, there’s a lot you can read about this online, and I’ll include some links in the show notes.


This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books and sources I’ve mentioned in today’s episode at the show notes for this episode at two. There, you can also read a full transcript.

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I’ll be back on 26 June with another episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: Back To School.