Florence Elizabeth Maybrick (3 September 1862 – 23 October 1941) was an American woman convicted in Great Britain of murdering her considerably older husband, James Maybrick.
Her father died, and her mother remarried to Baron Adolph von Roques, a cavalry officer in the Eighth Cuirassier Regiment of the German Army. While travelling to Britain with her mother, she met cotton broker James Maybrick on board ship. Other passengers were either amused or shocked by a 19-year-old girl spending so much time alone in the company of Maybrick, who was 23 years her senior.
On 27 July 1881, they were married at St James’s Church, Piccadilly, in London. They settled in Battlecrease House, Aigburth, a suburb of Liverpool.
Florence made quite an impression on the social scene in Liverpool, and the Maybricks were usually to be found at the most important balls and functions, the very picture of a happy, successful couple. But all was not as it seemed. Maybrick was a regular user of arsenic and had a number of mistresses, one of whom bore him five children. Florence meanwhile, increasingly unhappy in her marriage, entered into several liaisons of her own. One was with a local businessman, Alfred Brierley, which her husband was told about. She was also suspected of having an affair with one of her brothers-in-law, Edwin. A violent row ensued after Maybrick heard reports of Florence’s relationship with Brierley, during which Maybrick assaulted her and announced his intention of seeking a divorce.
In April 1889, Florence Maybrick bought flypaper containing arsenic from a local chemist’s shop and later soaked it in a bowl of water. At her trial, she claimed that this method allowed her to extract the arsenic for cosmetic use.
On 8 May Florence Maybrick wrote a compromising letter to Brierley, which was intercepted by Alice Yapp, the nanny. Yapp passed it to James Maybrick’s brother, Edwin, who was staying at Battlecrease. Edwin, himself by many accounts one of Florence’s lovers, shared the contents of the letter with his brother Michael Maybrick, who was effectively the head of the family. By Michael’s orders Florence was immediately deposed as mistress of her house and held under house arrest.
On 9 May a nurse reported that Mrs Maybrick had surreptitiously tampered with a meat-juice bottle which was afterwards found to contain a half-grain of arsenic. Mrs Maybrick later testified that her husband had begged her to administer it as a pick-me-up. However, he never drank its contents.
James Maybrick died at his home on 11 May 1889. His brothers, suspicious as to the cause of death, had his body examined. It was found to contain slight traces of arsenic, but not enough to be considered fatal. It is uncertain whether this was taken by Maybrick himself or administered by another person. After an inquest held in a nearby hotel, Florence Maybrick was charged with his murder and stood trial at St George’s Hall, Liverpool, before Justice James Fitzjames Stephen, where she was convicted and sentenced to death.
After a public outcry, Henry Matthews, the Home Secretary, and Lord Chancellor Halsbury concluded ‘that the evidence clearly establishes that Mrs Maybrick administered poison to her husband with intent to murder; but that there is ground for reasonable doubt whether the arsenic so administered was in fact the cause of his death’.
The death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment as punishment for a crime with which she was never charged. During the 1890s new evidence was publicized by her supporters, but there was no possibility of an appeal, and the Home Office was not inclined to release her, in spite of the strenuous efforts of Lord Russell, the Lord Chief Justice.
The case was something of a cause célèbre and attracted considerable newspaper coverage on both sides of the Atlantic. Arsenic was then regarded by some men as an aphrodisiac and tonic, and James Maybrick had certainly taken it on a regular basis. A city chemist confirmed that he had supplied Maybrick with quantities of the poison over a lengthy period and a search of Battlecrease House later turned up enough to kill at least fifty people.
Although her marriage was clearly over in all but name, Florence had little motive to murder her husband. The financial provision Maybrick had made for her and his children in his will was paltry and she might have been far better off with him alive but legally separated from her. Many people held the view that Florence had indeed poisoned her husband because he was about to divorce her which, in Victorian society, would see her ruined. An even more compelling motive might have been the prospect of losing the custody of her beloved children.
After detention in Woking and Aylesbury prisons, Florence Maybrick was released in January 1904, having spent fourteen years in custody. Although she had lost her American citizenship when she married her British husband, she returned to the United States. Initially she earned a living on the lecture circuit, protesting her innocence.
In later life, after some months spent unsuccessfully as a housekeeper, Florence became a recluse, living in a squalid three-room cabin near Gaylordsville, South Kent, Connecticut with only her cats for company. She never saw her children again. Few residents had any knowledge of Florence’s true identity and the lady who had once charmed Victorian Liverpool died alone and penniless on 23 October 1941, and was buried in the grounds of South Kent School. Among her few possessions was a tattered family bible. Pressed between its pages was a scrap of paper, which, in faded ink bore directions for the soaking of flypapers for use as a beauty treatment.
A newspaper documenting the case
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