Here’s a full transcript of the sixteenth episode of Shedunnit.
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Caroline: It was the spring of 1880 when a young woman named Florence Chandler and her mother, the Baroness von Roques, boarded a steamer in New York bound for Liverpool. Florence was just 17, beautiful, eager and ready for adventure. On board the SS Baltic she met James Maybrick, a British cotton broker 24 years her senior. The pair became attached immediately, spending the long days at sea in each other’s company and attending the dinners and receptions for first class passengers together.
Sixteen months later, Florence and James were married at a church in London. They had their first child in Liverpool, and then spent a couple of years living across the Atlantic in Virginia, where James had regular business dealings. Then, in 1886, they set up home properly in the prosperous river-side Liverpool suburb of Grassendale. That summer, a daughter was born, and the Maybricks generally gave the appearance of being a happy, well to do nineteenth century family. They entertained friends and family at home, took drives in the countryside, and attended the theatre and the races with the cream of Liverpool society.
That was how it looked from the outside. Behind closed doors, it was quite different. Tensions were already developing that within three years would lead to a murder charge, a death sentence, and international notoriety that was still lingering decades later when the novelists of detective fiction’s golden age were writing.
This is the story of Florence Maybrick.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. This is another instalment in my series about the real life crimes that inspired the writers of classic detective stories. Since this is kind of a complicated case, I’m actually going to tell this one over two episodes, so we don’t have to skimp on any of the details. So in this part, we’ll learn all about the domestic life of Florence and James Maybrick, how they tried to keep up appearances with showy domesticity in the 1880s, and how everything collapsed into horror and suspicion. Then in the next part, which you’ll hear on 12 June, I’ll deal with the aftermath of this poisonous tragedy, how the resulting trial influenced the way people thought about murder, and how decades later these attitudes fed into the fiction of writers like Agatha Christie and Anthony Berkeley. Oh, and there’s a Jack the Ripper dimension as well. But we’ve got a long way to go before we get there. Let’s start at the beginning.
Florence Chandler was born in September 1862 in the prosperous American seaport of Mobile, Alabama. Her mother Carrie was from a well-to-do New York family and her father William, a banker, had been one of the most eligible bachelors in the south before the Civil War started in 1861. But Florence didn’t have a particularly stable upbringing or education. Carrie herself had a colourful life long before her daughter hit the headlines. She partied hard as a newlywed in Alabama, simultaneously delighting and shocking her new southern neighbours. William died three months before Florence was born, and less than a year later Carrie had married a Confederate officer named Frank DuBarry.
There were whispers that she had been close to DuBarry before her first husband’s death, and after she was catapulted into the limelight as Florence’s mother two decades later, this old gossip caught fire as newspapers scrabbled desperately for any other scandal in the family. DuBarry had died at sea in 1864, and by the time Florence had settled down with James Maybrick in Liverpool Carrie had married a third husband, the impoverished Prussian cavalry officer Baron Adophe von Roques. She separated from him soon after the wedding, although she still went by the title of Baroness and they didn’t divorce. Burying two husbands within five years and then living apart from a third certainly raised eyebrows in late nineteenth century Britain. Carrie’s questionable social position and behaviour certainly didn’t help her daughter appear more respectable, and the disrupted, wandering nature of her childhood and teenage years just added to this effect.
Carrie had also caused problems between her daughter and her husband. She was constantly in need of money and on several occasions had convinced her son-in-law to make her loans which she then never repaid. By 1887 he was so furious with her that for a few months he forbade Florence from receiving letters from her mother, and only allowed her to write to Carrie at his own dictation. There’s also a suggestion that he was hoping for more money from his marriage to Florence. Anglo-British marriages, especially between the heirs to Old World aristocratic titles and New World ingenues with plenty of new money were all the rage at this time, perhaps embodied most famously by the marriage of Consuelo Vanderbilt to the 9th Duke of Manchester in 1895.
Neither Florence nor James was quite in that league, but given that her mother had been the toast of Alabama society and was now married to a Prussian Baron, it’s perhaps not unreasonable that James might have expected to gain something more financially from the marriage than just the responsibility for his new mother-in-law’s debts. Florence, too, could be something of a spendthrift — when relations between the couple began to sour in late 1888, arguments about money were at the heart of it.
James’s cotton trading business wasn’t quite as prosperous as he liked people to think, and he was dabbling in more risky but potentially more profitable futures rather than just straight commodity importing. Since so much of financial trading like this relied on personal reputation and gentleman’s agreements, it was vital that the household keep up a wealthy appearance, even if it was just an act. The cotton business in Liverpool was huge — the six million bales a year that arrived across the Atlantic from accounted for nearly half of the city’s imports. The links between this port city in the north west of England with the southern states like Alabama, where Florence was born, were so strong that Liverpool had actually supported the south during the Civil War, hoisting Confederate flags over its public buildings. James was trying to keep his position among a lot of competition as he tried to maintain the illusion of success and prosperity for his business partners on both sides of the Atlantic. Therefore, the Maybricks kept spending money on clothes and living in an expensive rented villa, even though — as Florence wrote to her mother in late 1887 once the prohibition on personal letters was lifted by her erratic husband — they were down to assets of just £1,500, with only £500 as cash in the bank.
But although Florence was worried about money and feeling lonely because of the lack of contact with her family and her situation as a transplanted American in Britain, the Maybricks’ life jogged along in relative comfort until early 1889. They had a cook, several maids and a nursery maid to look after the children, and the house was always busy with visits from James’s brothers and their family friends. But then in early March of that year, Florence did something that would set off a chain of events that would alter the course of her life.
More on that, after the break.
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It was in March 1889 that Florence took the trip to London that really sealed her fate. She took a room at a hotel in the West End under the confusing alias of “Mrs Thomas Maybrick”, assuming the character of her own fictional sister-in-law, and stayed there for three nights. A waiter from the hotel later testified at her trial that she had had a male companion most of the time, and that this companion had also stayed at the hotel in the same room as Mrs Maybrick. He identified this man in court as Alfred Brierley, another Liverpool cotton merchant with whom Florence was known to have a close, flirtatious relationship. While in London, she also had dinner with a childhood friend and confessed that she was planning on seeing a lawyer during her trip about a possible separation or divorce from her husband, because he was “cruel to her and struck her”.
It was her public display of affection towards Brierley at the Grand National race meet at Aintree the end of March that caused a crisis in the relations between James and Florence. She was familiar with Brierley for the whole day, going about on his arm and avoiding her husband’s company to a degree that other racegoers commented on it to James, which made him furious. When they got home that evening there was a row that culminated in James physically assaulting his wife, tearing her dress and blackening her eye. Judging by her letters, this wasn’t the first time he’d done this. On this occasion, he then tried to eject her from their home, and it seems that only the intervention of the servants prevented him from doing so. The accounts of this rely mostly on the servants’ testimony, but it seems like there was no suggestion of James knowing about Florence’s tryst in London with Brierley. He was just furious about her behaviour at the races that day. Florence had also recently discovered that James had had infidelities of his own, and that he had one long-term mistress who he saw regularly. It’s unclear how exactly she found this out — whether she worked out where some of their dwindling cash was going, or if James let something slip. But the fact that he was punishing Florence for her interest in another man while carrying on affairs of his own and expecting her to carry on playing the role of dutiful wife certainly added intensity to their quarrel.
Both physically collapsed after the scene, but the next day pretended to the household that nothing had happened, although the incident understandably only strengthened Florence’s desire to leave the marriage. She sought advice from a family friend, Matilda Briggs, who had successfully managed a separation from her husband, and had even managed to avoid the social censure that was usual when a woman in the late nineteenth century refused to tolerate an unhappy or abusive marriage any longer and sought to end it. Matilda, who was also a friend of James’s, tried to persuade Florence to attempt a reconciliation, and suggested that their family doctor should mediate. This was partially successful — James did agree to take care of Florence’s debts, but he was suspicious of the real purpose of her trip to London. However, he was willing to give the marriage another go, as long as she was.
Not long after this, James was taken ill with stomach trouble and retired to bed. Despite their recent conflict, Florence nursed him, supervising his food and making sure that he was comfortable. According to the later accounts of his friends and colleagues, James Maybrick was a huge hypochondriac and a serial consumer of patent medicines. He regularly consulted multiple doctors in both Liverpool and London, complaining variously of headaches, numb legs, gastric trouble and liver pains. As a result, he was prescribed an astonishing array of tonics, pills, powders and solutions, many of which contained toxic ingredients like strychnine and arsenic in varying quantities. Florence didn’t like this habit, and was convinced that James would one day take too much of something and do himself harm. She perhaps even suspected that he was addicted to arsenic. A few months before, when a Dr Humphreys was at the house to treat the children for whooping cough, Florence raised her concerns about her husband’s dependence on these medicines with him. In a horrible foreshadowing of what was to come, the doctor brushed off her concerns as the hysterical fears of a young wife, and even joked that if James should ever die suddenly as a result of taking an overdose of something, “You can always say that we spoke about it.” Of course, when the worst happened, the fact that she had been afraid that her husband would do himself an injury with his self-medicating habits didn’t do Florence any good.
One of the striking features about the Maybrick case is just how much poison there was everywhere. The house was strewn with it, with bottles, packets, pill boxes and parcels all over the place. It’s astonishing that nobody had died sooner, really.
James continued to feel ill on and off over the next few days. To start with it seemed like any of the other times he had taken to his bed complaining of stomach pains and numb legs. Florence tried to comfort him and the servants brought him traditional Victorian invalid foods like gruel made from arrowroot and chicken broth, and he kept recovering sufficiently to go into his office in the city, and then relapsing and returning to his bed. Different doctors were called, and all agreed that James had gastric trouble and suggested a restricted diet and ‘soothing’ tonics. So far, so usual for the time — great medical advances had been made in the preceding decades, but even a rich person’s experience of medicine in the 1880s was still shot through with guess work and home remedies. James had been sick like this before, and since he had a mortal fear of illness and death, it’s highly likely that at least some of his family and friends considered it to be an illness of the mind, rather than the body. Rest and plenty of attention from his wife and doctors usually did the trick.
But as the days went on, James didn’t get better. Gradually, suspicion began to seep into the household, like a noxious gas, filtering under the doors and spreading to the upper floors. It all began with the nursery maid, Alice Yapp. She felt that Florence wasn’t always very kind to her sick husband, refusing to rub his painful hands, and that she was trying to keep the servants out of his bedroom. One of the other maids had said that sometimes the food sent up for James to eat came back to the kitchen tasting or smelling different — sweeter, usually. Alice communicated all of this in private to two family friends when they came to visit James, and they too began to look at Florence differently.
Then Alice remembered that a few weeks before she had seen a bowl of flypapers soaking in water on Florence’s dressing table. Flypapers were readily available for purchase at any chemists and they contained arsenic. A sensational murder case in Liverpool in 1884 had widely publicised the fact that they could be easily soaked to extract a poisonous solution. Two women, Catharine Flanagan and Margaret Higgins, had been convicted of murdering the latter’s husband this way and collecting an insurance payout. After seeing the bowl in the Maybrick household, Alice Yapp immediately jumped to the conclusion that something similar was happening here.
Two more things happened around this time that proved significant later on. First, Florence, completely miserable, wrote a letter to Alfred Brierley telling him about James’s illness. She described her husband as “sick unto death” and underlined it, and implored Brierley not to leave for a business trip to America until she had been able to see him again. Ever trusting, she gave the letter to Alice Yapp to put in the post. Alice claimed later that Florence’s little daughter Gladys dropped the letter in a puddle on the way to the post office, and that was how she came to read its contents. Instead of just asking for a new envelope and sending it as her mistress had instructed, Yapp brought the letter back and gave it to James’s brother Edwin. He shared its contents with the rest of the family circle, and this apparent proof of Florence’s infidelity, together with the other issues Alice had already raised, deepened their suspicions of Florence. Michael Maybrick asked the doctor to take samples of James’s vomit to test it for poison, and banned Florence from her husband’s sickroom. These results came back negative, with the doctor confirming that he had found no poison in James’s fluids.
Shortly after, one of the nurses hired to care for James reported seeing Florence come into her husband’s room around midnight, remove a small bottle of meat juice from his bedside table, and tamper with it by adding a powder. However, the nurse maintained that James had never actually drunk from the bottle. Florence later explained this incident by saying that her husband had begged her to add one of his patent powders to the juice because he was in need of ‘a pick-me-up’.
It didn’t change what happened next. By the evening of 11 May, James Maybrick was failing fast. His children were taken in to see him one last time while his wife lay unconscious in the spare room, exhausted by the weight of suspicions around her. At five o clock, he died.
The pre-existing suspicion that Florence was in some way responsible for her husband’s death quickly set a predictable chain of events in motion. A doctor tested that bottle of meat juice that Florence had apparently tampered with, and found that it contained half a grain of arsenic. Less than 24 hours after James Maybrick died, a police inspector arrived at the house. The rooms were ransacked and a huge collection of arsenic-containing items were amassed, including plenty of James’s own medicines, some powder sold as a cat killer, several pieces of crockery, and lots of random bottles. Samples were taken from all of these and sent off for analysis. Florence remained unconscious in the spare room, unaware of what was going on until the police came to arrest her.
The scientific analysts who tried to establish whether James had in fact been poisoned had a mountain of different substances and mixtures to test. The strange thing is that the only place where they really struggled to find a substantial presence of arsenic was in the body of James Maybrick. A postmortem was performed in the bedroom where he had died, and then his body was also later exhumed so that further samples could be taken for more tests. In both cases, only a small amount of arsenic — about three quarters of a grain, way less than the fatal dose of about three grains — was found. If this was a detective story, you’d say that all of the poisonous medicines piled up by James’s sickbed were a red herring, and that he actually met his death in some other undetectable and ingenious way.
But because it was real life, there was just a huge amount of confusion, with different lawyers and police officials choosing to put more or less emphasis on the presence of some medicines, and scientists contradicting themselves and each other as they tried to make a convincing case for a cause of death. And at the heart of it all, a man was dead — a man afraid of illness who had put his trust in the apparently all-knowing doctors of his time. Yet the best they could do for him was to recommend things like the popular patent remedy Fowler’s Solution which contained a solution of potassium arsenite mixed with a drop of lavender oil. This concoction was supposed to cure everything from syphilis to lumbago to diabetes to snake bites.
Florence was soon charged with her husband’s murder, mostly thanks to the early evidence of Alice Yapp and the nurse. She was initially kept confined in the spare room at the house, unable to leave even to attend James’s funeral. Then, she was taken to Walton Jail on the outskirts of Liverpool to await the inquest on her husband’s body and any subsequent trial. The city’s three main newspapers were immediately filled with coverage of her arrest and the suspicions that her husband had been poisoned, and soon the national press were running the story too. Reporters crowded around the carriage, trying to get a glimpse of her, this American woman who had failed so spectacularly and publicly as a wife.
Because that’s what so much of this was about, and it’s also one of the reasons why the Maybrick case lived on in the public imagination — the British tabloids are still running stories about it today. Florence Maybrick lived at a time when the role of women was changing. In the preceding decades, several legal changes had altered women’s rights to their own property and children. They were no longer their husband’s chattels. The feminist movement was growing, as was the campaign for women’s suffrage. But at the same time, the strictures of Victorian morality prevailed. To a large portion of the political and social establishment, a woman’s place was in the home. Double standards around behaviour and infidelity were considered completely acceptable. This is why Florence’s downfall was so titillating to the vast majority of the reading public. She should have been the essence of conventionally passive femininity, the heart of the home, the source of nourishment and safety and security. And yet she had subverted that at every turn by seeking her own pleasure outside of the marriage, allegedly administering poison to her husband, thereby completely ruining the family’s reputation and her own. She was what society at the time most featured: a disruptive, selfish, monstrous, murderous woman. She was Flaubert’s Madam Bovary come to life. When you add to that the other details such as the prying, tale-telling servants and the hapless doctors, you begin to see why this case touched a nerve with the middle classes, high on its cocktail of adultery and arsenic. It exposed all of their fears.
Tune in again on 12 June for the second part of Florence’s story and to hear all about her sensational trial. Oh, and apparently James Maybrick was really Jack the Ripper. I’ll get into that then, too.
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find more information about all the books I’ve mentioned in today’s episode in the show notes at shedunnitshow.com/florencemaybrick. There, you can also read a full transcript.
This podcast is barely six months old and yet it already has such a solid and lovely community around it. I want to say thank you for that and all of the support, whether you’ve joined the book club, left a nice review, told a friend, bought a book from the wishlist, or just sent me an encouraging email. I’m heading into one of the busiest and most terrifying period of my career so far, because my first book comes out in a couple of weeks, and as I’m trying to convince myself to stay calm and knowing that you listeners wish me well is very comforting. Don’t forget that for more episodes and a lovely community reading experience, you can join the Shedunnit book club at shedunnitshow.com/membership.
I’ll be back on 29 May with another episode.
Next time on Shedunnit: Into The River.