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.
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 shedunnitshow.com/florencemaybrick 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.