Was Florence Maybrick really a killer?
Aug 1 2008 by Laura Davis, Liverpool Daily Post
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More than a century after she walked free from jail a new book questions whether Florence Maybrick should ever have been convicted of poisoning her husband. Laura Davis reports
AT THE end of her life, there was nothing left to suggest Florence Maybrick had once been anything other than a strange old lady who had died, wrapped in blankets held together by safety pins, among her colony of stray cats.
Among her effects were a recipe for a feline gastritis cure, an address book with the letter G ripped out, two rosaries and a few photographs.
The one clue to her tragic story – to her former life as the Alabama belle partial to handbags made of velvet and silk who became one of Britain’s most infamous poisoners – was a family Bible containing a list of ingredients for a facial wash.
This single piece of paper, though it was not presented during her trial at St George’s Hall, in Liverpool, in 1889, is a key piece of evidence in the case.
It was Florence’s excuse for purchasing large quantities of arsenic, a component of the wash, which the prosecution argued she had mixed into her husband’s food.
Her story has been repeated for more than 100 years with all the macabre relish of a Victorian gothic thriller, but a new book claims she was the victim of sexual injustice.
”Throughout the trial and her appeal she was judged for having had an affair but James (her husband) was not. It was sexual double standards and Florence suffered for it,” explains Victoria Blake, author of Mrs Maybrick.
Her account of the trial and of the months leading up to the death of Florence’s husband, James Maybrick, a Liverpool cotton merchant, at their Aigburth home is remarkably detailed. Victoria traced events through original court records, official correspondence and press cuttings held at the National Archives in London, before coming to the conclusion that it was an unsafe trial.
“Irrespective of whether she was guilty or not, she should not have been found guilty. I went backwards and forwards over whether she did it or not because it isn’t conclusive. On the evidence she should not have been convicted,” says Victoria, a published crime novelist.
The story began, as so many Liverpool stories do, on a boat – in this case a transatlantic liner, the SS Baltic. Florence, a petite 18-year-old with violet blue eyes, had spent much of her childhood being educated by private governesses in Europe, where she had picked up fluent French and German. James was a portly 42-year-old with large eyes and drooping moustaches.
They met in the bar and by the time they disembarked in Liverpool eight days later, they were engaged to be married.
Four years into their marriage they moved with their two children into Battlecrease House, in Aigburth, a three-storey mansion with 20 rooms which still stands today.
It was here that James would take his last breath after prescriptions of Valentine’s meat juice, Du Barry’s Revalenta Arabica invalid food, sulphonal, nitroglycerine, cocaine, phosphoric acid and Fowler’s solution of arsenic failed to restore him.
One of the most striking details of Victoria’s account of events is the sheer amount of arsenic used by the household, and indeed by many Victorians.
James Maybrick was found to have died from arsenic poisoning, yet a doctor prescribed him medicine containing the drug. When Battlecrease was searched, 139 jars and bottles containing many different concoctions, prescribed by 29 different doctors, were found as well as another 26 bottles in his office.
Inside a chocolate box in Florence’s trunk was a package labelled “Arsenic. Poison for cats”, two bottles of white fluid and a brown paper parcel of yellow powder.
Several small bottles were discovered in James’ hat boxes and a further container of liquid was found inside a table.
FLORENCE herself admitted to buying flypapers containing arsenic some months before her husband’s death, which she claimed she had purchased to use in the facial wash recipe that would be found among her few pathetic belongings in 1941.
“The Victorians’ relationship with their drugs is fascinating and you can see this from the huge mountain of stuff they found in James’ office and in their house. If we see the word ‘strychnine’ we think rat poison but they had lots of uses for it, including medicinal,” says Victoria.
“The doctors had been stuffing James with all these things for days on end so it could have been that that killed him.
“There is also evidence that he was addicted to arsenic and took it himself.”
It wasn’t just the purchase of flypapers that would count against Florence in the trial, but also her affair with Alfred Brierly, a cotton merchant from a wealthy Liverpool family who socialised with the Maybricks at Aintree races and grand balls.
James too had a mistress, but this was largely glossed over during proceedings.
By modern standards, Florence’s trial was a mess. Among the archives, Victoria found many reasons why the guilty verdict should have been overturned: there was not enough arsenic found in the victim’s body to kill him; James was believed to have developed an addiction to the drug; five days after the defendant had been arrested, James’s brothers cleared out the entire contents of Battlecrease House and put it up for auction; none of the doctors called to give evidence could agree on the cause of death.
But, the truth of whether or not Florence killed her husband aside, the main concern for those calling for a retrial at the time was the mental fitness of the man presiding over the court.
Judge Stephen was well respected but had suffered a stroke four years before and appears to have been confused by some of the evidence.
The night before he was due to complete his summing up – which took 12˝ hours over two days – a man sharing his lodgings awoke to find him pacing the room, declaring “that woman is guilty”.
His directions to the jury the following day were far from balanced. Judge Stephens, who later died in an Ipswich insane asylum, produced evidence that had not been submitted during the trial and gave incorrect information about some that had, stating that one of the bottles had contained 94% arsenic instead of two and 94 one-hundredths (2.94%).
He criticised the defence, argued for the prosecution and referred to Florence as “a horrible woman”.
It took just 38 minutes for the jury to announce its verdict.
After the trial, Florence’s lawyers began the difficult task of saving her from the gallows. The Home Secretary was unable to overturn the trial without causing embarrassment to Judge Stephens but public opinion was on Mrs Maybrick’s side.
So, three days before she was due to be hanged, he decided that “although the evidence leads to the conclusion that the prisoner administered and attempted to administer arsenic to her husband, with intent to murder him, yet it does not wholly exclude a reasonable doubt whether his death was in fact caused by the administration of arsenic.”
Her death sentence repealed, Florence spent the next 15 years in prison, her offence eventually reduced to manslaughter.
On her release in 1904, she travelled to France to meet her mother and they sailed together back across the Atlantic together. She never saw her children again.
“Part of me had a certain respect for the way she didn’t want to go into an old people’s home but had her own house and her colony of feral cats,” says Victoria.
“I think it’s amazing she lived as long as she did and in those circumstances. She was leading a glamorous life and quite a protected one and then, my God, was the carpet ripped out from under her.”
The story of the Alabama beauty who murdered her poor husband with arsenic soaked off flypapers grew in notoriety. A waxwork figure of her dressed in widow’s weeds featured in Madame Tussauds and Sadler’s Wells put on a three-act play entitled “The Poisoner”. James Joyce ever mentioned her as a “downright villain” in his seminal work Ulysses.
Yet, at the age of 79, Florence died a recluse, with just a few personal belongings and cats her only friends.
* MRS Maybrick by Victoria Blake is published by the National Archives, priced Ł7.99.