Either the victim of one of the most sensational murders of his time, or of his own addiction to poisons, James Maybrick is an enduring mystery. Did this arsenic eater’s habit get out of hand? Or did his wife kill him after a series of bitter quarrels over their mutual infidelity? And was he more than he seemed?
James Maybrick was born in England in 1839. Very little is known about his younger life. He had two brothers whom he was close to, Edwin and Michael. Michael Maybrick, under the name Stephen Adams, was a noted composer of the day, even more popular than Sir Alfred Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan fame.
If Michael was the celebrity in the family, James was the businessman. As a young man, he established a successful business as a cotton trader, and by the 1880s, he was an established figure in both Liverpool and Norfolk, Virginia.
It was in Virginia that he caught malaria. The disease was epidemic in the post Civil War American South. The medication available at the time, Fowler's Medicine, contained arsenic and strychnine, and was heavily addictive. Maybrick recovered from the disease, but not from the cure. He took regular doses of both poisons for the rest of his life.
Marriage to Florence
In 1880, while returning to England from a trip to Virginia, he met a headstrong, wealthy young woman travelling in the company of her aunt. Eighteen year old Florence Elizabeth Chandler intended to travel to Paris, but in the end decided to marry James Maybrick and stay in England.
Although he appeared to be a respectable member of Victorian British society, James Maybrick had a darker side. Not only was he addicted to arsenic and strychnine, but he also had a mistress. Long before he met Florence, he had begun a relationship with a woman living in the Whitechapel area of London. They two had several children, but never married. Their relationship continued even after his 1881 wedding to Florence Maybrick (usually called Florie).
The Maybricks’ marriage seemed to be a happy one at first. The couple had two children, James and Gladys. After six years of marriage, they moved to Battlecrease Mansion in the fashionable Aigburth disctrict of Liverpool. But James was still supporting his mistress to the tune of £100 per year. Between the cost of the house and the cost of his mistress, the family soon fell into debt.
Then Florie found out about James’ other family. She banned him from her bed and became lovers with one of his friends, Alfred Brierly. Their arguments became more bitter as time went on, and culminated in a violent fight after Florie allowed herself to be seen in public with Brierly.
Some of James Maybrick's temper was due to ill health; the years of aresnic eating were catching up with him. His dosages had slowly increased over the years, and according to his chemist, he was taking five doses a day - enough to kill anyone not habituated to the poison. It was not enough. He visited the doctor repeatedly, but, ignorant of Maybrick's drug habit, Dr. Hopper was unable to help.
Illness and Death
A few days after the worst quarrel with Florie, James Maybrick fell ill. On Saturday, April 27, he consulted his children’s doctor, Dr. Humphreys, who diagnosed dyspepsia. Maybrick was put on a strict diet, which seemed to help. But by the subsequent Friday, he was feeling worse, with pains in his legs, vomiting, and numbness in his hands. At his brother Edwin’s instigation, he sought a second opinion. The other doctor, Dr. Carter, agreed that Maybrick was suffering from dyspepsia.
Wednesday saw the visits of two of Maybrick’s friends, Mrs. Briggs and Mrs. Hugues. Mrs. Briggs in particular was alarmed at the situation, and suspicious of Florie. She sent a telegram to James Maybrick’s brother Michael, and suggested that a trained nurse be hired. Florie hired the nurse immediately.
Maybrick’s brothers, already suspicious of their sister in law, intercepted a love letter to Brierly that seemed to incriminate her. They persuaded James to change his will in their favour, and tried to keep Florie from his bedside. They also ordered tests on his food and secretions.
These tests showed that James Maybrick was not secreting any arsenic, and that the food sent up from the kitchen was also safe. But a container of beef broth that Florie had handled contained half a grain of arsenic. She later claimed that he had asked her to add some of “his powder” to it.
James Maybrick died on Saturday, May 11, 1889, two weeks after falling ill. The coroner determined that death was “due to inflammation of the stomach and bowels set up by some irritant poison.” A later analysis found some arsenic (less than half a grain) in James Maybrick’s liver, intestines and spleen, but none in his heart, lungs or stomach. 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.
Florence Maybrick was tried and convicted of her husband’s murder, in one of the most biased trials of its day. It became a cause celebre with the British public, who persuaded Queen Victoria to commute the sentence to life imprisonment. Florie was released after fifteen years, and returned to the United States. She soon sank into anonymity, and died alone, surrounded by cats, in 1941.
As if being the victim in one of his era’s most dramatic murders (if murder it was) is not enough, James Maybrick is has recently been linked to an even more spectacular case. In 1993, he joined the crowded ranks of Jack the Ripper suspects when Shirley Harrison published The Diary of Jack the Ripper: The Chilling Confessions of James Maybrick.