One March day in 1880, an attractive young woman from Mobile, Alabama boarded the SS Baltic with her aunt, bound for Liverpool. Their final destination was Paris, but eighteen year old Florence Elizabeth Chandler would never reach France. Her personal journey would instead drag her through a sensational murder trial, challenge the foundations of British law, bring her to the attention of Queen Victoria herself, and lead eventually to an anonymous death surrounded by cats.
On board the Baltic, the two women met James Maybrick, a wealthy English cotton merchant. The elder one, Baroness Caroline von Roques, tried to discourage her neice Florie from getting too attached to Maybrick. But Florie was headstrong, and insisted she had fallen in love with the 42 year old man. By the time their ship docked at Liverpool, the couple were engaged. They married in London during the summer of 1881.
Children swiftly followed. James Chandler Maybrick was born in 1882, and Gladys Evelyn Maybrick followed in 1885. In 1887, the couple moved to Battlecrease Mansion in the fashionable Aigburth disctrict of Liverpool. By this time, the first problems with the marriage were becoming apparent.
The Maybricks were living beyond their income, and Florie soon fell into debt in her household accounts. At the same time, she began to find clues to her husband's secret life. At first it was just the white powder she found stashed around the house, which caused her to realise her husband had a drug habit. He had been addicted to arsenic and strychnine for years. There was worse to come; before the year was out, she discovered that James Maybrick had a mistress. While the family struggled financially, James was sending her £100 per year.
Florie reacted in her own strong-willed fashion. After a furious argument, she banned Maybrick from her bed and began an affair with Alfred Brierly, a friend of the family. The affair lasted until March of 1889, when Brierly told Florie that he was in love with another woman. Despite the end of their affair, Florie allowed herself to be seen in public with her ex-lover at the Grand National in Aintree. This outraged Maybrick's Victorian sensibilities, and the couple's argument turned physical. Florie was left with a black eye.
The marriage very nearly ended right then. James Maybrick amended his will to cut Florie out, and she began to consider divorce. But Dr. Hopper, the family doctor, convinced them to reconcile.
On Monday, April 23, 1889, Florie bought a dozen flypapers containing arsenic from a local chemist. She left them to soak in a bowl on her bedroom washstand, to leach the arsenic out. She, like many Victorian women, used arsenic as a cosmetic to whiten her skin.
On Saturday, April 27, James Maybrick complained of feeling sick. The children’s doctor, Dr. Humphreys, attended him and diagnosed dyspepsia. By the Wednesday, Maybrick was feeling better, but his health deteriorated again the subsequent Friday. He suffered pains in his legs , vomiting, and numbness in the hands over the subsequent weekend. Dr. Humphreys attended him every day, but was unable to relieve the symptoms.
James Maybrick’s brother Edwin, who was a guest at the house, suggested on the following Tuesday that they get a second opinion. Dr. Carter, another local medical man, examined Maybrick and confirmed the diagnosis of dyspepsia. Despite the presecription of a strict diet, Maybrick suffered a relapse.
By Wednesday, James Maybrick was so much worse that one of his friends sent a telegram to his brother Michael. She also recommended a nurse to help care for him. As the nurse was settling in, Florie asked the nanny, Alice Yapp, to post a letter to Alfred Brierly for her. Miss Yapp dropped the letter in a puddle, and decided to replace the envelope. While she had the letter out, she read the following text.
Since my return I have been nursing M day and night – he is sick unto death! I cannot answer you rletter fully to-day, my darling, but relieve your mind of all fear of discovery now and in the future. M has been delerious since Sunday, and I know now that he is perfectly ignorant of everything.
Excuse this scrawl, my own darling, but I dare not leve the room for a moment, and I do not know when I shall be able to write to you again.
In haste, yours ever.
Miss Yapp decided to give the letter to Edwin Maybrick. The sick man’s brothers, already suspicious of her, tried to keep Florie from his bedside, and restricted her movements severely.
On Thursday, Maybrick’s condition got worse. Samples of his urine and stool were tested for arsenic, but none was found. During one of the few times she was alone with him at that time, Florie claimed that James Maybrick asked her to put some of “his powder” into the meat broth the doctors had prescribed. Although her evidence was not clear as to whether she did add anything, later tests showed half a grain of arsenic in the broth.
James Maybrick continued to decline for the next two days, and died at 8pm on Saturday, May 11, 1889.
The dead man’s brothers, still suspicious, searched Florie’s room and found a packet marked “Arsenic: Poison” in it. The post-mortem examination of the body determined that death was due to an “irritant poison,” and a later analysis found some arsenic (less than half a grain) in some of James Maybrick’s internal organs. Traces of other poisons (strychnine, hyoscine, morphia and prussic acid) were also found. The morphia and prussic acid was discounted, because Maybrick’s medications were known to contain those substances.
The Trial and its Aftermath
Florence Maybrick was arrested for the murder of her husband. Her trial began at the Liverpool Summer Assizes on July 31, 1889, and lasted ten days. It was a shambles. Her defense attorney, Sir Charles Russell, proved inadequate, failing to introduce evidence of James Maybrick’s history as an arsenic eater. Worse yet, the judge, James Fitzgerald Stephen, was implacably biased. The evidence was insufficient to prove her guilt, but the judge’s summing up was damning. Stephen emphasised the evidence against her, told the jury she had lied about her innocence, and dwelled heavily on her affair with Brierly. The jury took 45 minutes to find Florie guilty. She was sentenced to be hanged on August 28, 1889.
Public opinion was strongly in favour of Florence Maybrick. However, at that time there no right of appeal for criminal convictions. The only recourse was Queen Victoria, who was reluctant to involve herself in such a scandalous case. However, after several public requests, the Queen saved Florie from hanging. Her sentence was commuted to life in prison four days before her scheduled execution.
Later opinion justified Queen Victoria’s clemency. By 1891, the judge was in an insane asylum, and the Maybrick case was widely considered an example of the flaws in the British justice system. Still, Florence Maybrick was not released from prison until January 25, 1904, after serving fifteen years.
Her children, who had been raised by her hostile brother in law Michael, declined to ever see her again. She returned to America and wrote a book about her experiences, My Lost Fifiteen Years. She toured the lecture circuit for two years, then returned to her maiden name and slowly became a recluse. On October 23, 1941, she died in Conneticut, surrounded by cats.
In 1907, Britain instituted a Court of Criminal Appeals to review convictions such as that of Florence Maybrick.