More murder most foul!

From The Mail Online

In 1889 pretty young Florence Maybrick stood in the dock accused of poisoning her older husband with arsenic. But did she kill him, or was she just the victim of the hypocritical mores of her time? Kate Colquhoun reports on a cause célèbre that scandalised Victorian England.

Florence reading her statement in court.

Five foot three inches tall and alabaster-pale beneath a fine black veil, 26-year-old Florence Maybrick had never seemed more fragile than when she entered the dock of a packed Liverpool court on 7 August 1889. The focus of the room’s attention, she looked unflinchingly towards the judge as 12 black-coated men filed into the jury box. It had taken them just 43 minutes to find her guilty of murdering her husband, a verdict that many would call the greatest miscarriage of justice in English criminal history. 

Her mother later claimed that Florence was ‘a woman of little penetration’, that she had been bullied and denounced by women, including her husband’s female friends and her children’s nursemaid. But, as her ordeal unfolded, Florence’s situation also attracted early campaigners for women’s rights. They protested not only that she fell foul of an all-male justice system but that she had been condemned for immorality rather than murder by a society that held men and women to astonishingly different moral ideals.
Within hours of her husband James’s death in May 1889, and as Florence lay in a swoon, two of his old friends, Matilda Briggs and Constance Hughes – along with the truculent nanny Alice Yapp – had begun to ransack the drawers and cupboards of her home. They turned up enough arsenic in various packets of cat poison, flypapers, tonics and pills to fell a small village. Then one of the professional nurses hired during James’s final illness reported that she had watched Florence tamper with a bottle of Valentine’s Meat Juice, a concentrated stock recommended for the nourishment of invalids.

When the contents of that bottle were analysed, arsenic was detected. The police became involved. A postmortem was ordered on James’s body and, despite the fact that its findings were inconclusive and the presence of poison was not clear, Florence was arrested and charged with her husband’s murder. Confined to her bedroom and then to Walton gaol in Liverpool, she was prevented from attending James’s funeral and denied the chance to say goodbye to her two young children, who were hastily removed from the house.

The police rifled through her linen – carrying off dozens more bottles and jars for testing. They interrogated the Maybrick staff, the wider family and their friends. Claims that 50-year-old James had been not only a self-medicating hypochondriac but, unusually, a habitual arsenic-eater – believing that the toxin would maintain his sexual vigour – were brushed aside. The fact that, in the days before his death, eminent doctors had prescribed him two dozen different irritant poisons, including strychnine and morphine, was discounted. Only Florence fell under suspicion.
Why? Because, whether or not she was guilty of attempting to poison her husband, the police had proof that she was no virtuous wife.

Left: Florence's husband James Maybrick and her lover Alfred Brierley
Left: Florence's husband James Maybrick. Right: her lover Alfred Brierley

Left: Florence’s husband James Maybrick. Right: her lover Alfred Brierley

Florence, daughter of a wealthy banking family from Alabama, was just 18 when she married James, a Liverpool cotton broker more than twice her age. Marriages between vibrant American girls and dour, fortune-hunting Englishmen were particularly fashionable during the 1880s, but James would soon discover that his wife’s twice-widowed mother was poorer than she had made out. Eight years into the marriage, the differences in the couple’s ages and upbringings, compounded by debts and James’s drug addiction, were corrosive. Florence felt resented by her husband’s female friends and criticised for her ignorance of the myriad rules that punctuated English Victorian life.

Neither James’s brothers nor his doctors took her concerns about her husband’s white powders seriously. The couple argued – increasingly violent rows that startled the staff and left Florence with torn buttons or, sometimes, a black eye. Then, towards the end of 1888, she discovered that he had been keeping a mistress for years. Something snapped. In the spring of 1889 she went to London both to consult a solicitor about divorce and with something more audacious in mind. Over several days in a private hotel she cast caution to the wind, entertaining a handsome young cotton broker called Alfred Brierley, in whom all her dreams of escape were lodged.

These were dangerous waters: the double standards of the day meant that James’s infidelity, were it to become public would merely be frowned upon, whereas she would be crushed for hers. Men had only to demonstrate infidelity to obtain a divorce whereas wives also had to prove desertion, sodomy or worse. Divorcées – because they refused to submit to society’s expectations of self-effacement – were swept to the very margins of society. Women who did not conform to strict models of morality, chastity and philanthropy risked being judged depraved or even mad.

Florence had been reasonably discrete about her affair with Brierley but, exhausted by James’s final illness, she made a terrible mistake. Days before her husband died she gave  Alice Yapp a letter to post. Noticing the addressee, the nanny passed it to Florence’s little daughter Gladys to hold and, perhaps as she had foreseen, the child dropped it into a puddle. It gave Yapp the chance to open her mistress’s letter.

a newspaper documenting the case, which titillated the nation

A newspaper documenting the case, which titillated the nation

Its opening word ‘Darling!’, implying intimacy and deceit, proclaimed Florence’s adultery. Yapp’s imagination whirled. If her mistress could so transgress might she not also be scheming to poison her husband? This would make sense of oddities Yapp had noticed, including a bowl left on the dressing table in the main bedroom in which arsenic-rich flypapers had been put to steep.
Suspicions bloomed. James’s friend Mrs Briggs cabled James’s older brother in London: ‘Come quick!’ she wrote, ‘strange things are going on here!’ The management of Florence’s household was wrested from her; she was forbidden from having anything to do with her husband’s care.

Even before James died, Florence was isolated. Once arrested, after his death, apart from the presence of her mother, she was entirely alone. Her looks, her youth, the rumours of violent rows and, principally, the proof of her scandalous infidelity ensured that the story became a sensation. It titillated. It implied that even ostensibly respectable families might have thrillingly rotten cores.
At the inquest, at the magisterial hearing and at the trial, well-dressed women crammed the public benches. Once Florence’s liaison with Brierley had been made public, censure shone in their faces. They hissed like vipers when she left the dock. Her deviancy confirmed their own successful negotiation of the narrow path of virtue but it was also a potent threat to middle-class complacency. Florence’s libido was evidence, in the minds of most, of her degeneracy and guilt.

Because a number of high-profile cases during the previous two decades had already equated poison with the idea of sexually charged female evil, the fact that arsenic was involved in this case further increased the extremity of society’s reaction. The reality was that Florence Maybrick would be judged not simply by the law, but against complex ideals of womanhood.

Through the long days of her trial, prosecution and defence lawyers argued with lofty scientific advisers who claimed that James’s symptoms were clearly those of arsenic poisoning, while others countered that the cause of death was severe gastroenteritis. The reality was that, despite attempts to claim otherwise and notwithstanding the presence of the poison in the meat juice, the amount actually found in James’s body was substantially less than the smallest-known fatal dose. Additionally, there was a body of evidence to attest to James’s arsenic addiction. Some began to believe there was a chance that she would be acquitted after all.

But despite Florence’s cut-glass manners there was a certain shamelessness about her that directly confronted the forces of conservatism and propriety. She might have taken her cue from other middle-class women accused of poisoning who had maintained their silence while adopting an aura of moral purity: finding it hard to believe these women morally capable of committing the acts of which they were accused, all-male juries had often refused to convict.

Instead, Florence wanted to articulate her own version of events. The law held that defendants in capital cases were ‘incompetent’ witnesses so that they were neither questioned nor cross-examined, but it was possible to seek permission to make a personal statement. This she was determined to do.

Florence in the dock. By choosing to articulate her version of events she was perceived as shameless, a fact that went against her.

Florence in the dock. By choosing to articulate her version of events she was perceived as shameless, a fact that went against her.

As she stepped forward to speak in the dock, spectators wondered whether this slight woman dressed in full mourning was angel or Medusa. Was she a vicious whore? Had she stealthily plotted her husband’s decline? Or was it possible after all that she was a vulnerable fool whose actions had been misunderstood?

Falteringly, she began. The flypapers, she said, were left to soak in order to prepare an arsenical face wash for which she had lost the prescription. As for the meat juice, James had implored her to give him some of his powders and she had added them to the bottle without knowing what they contained; since he had then fallen asleep, none of the contents had been given to him. Finally, tearfully, and without attempting to justify her actions by mentioning James’s own long-term infidelity, Florence admitted what everyone already knew: that she was guilty of immorality. It did not follow, she proclaimed, that she was therefore equally guilty of the charge of murder.

By speaking out, the young American seemed both brave and vulgar. By appearing to lack the proper female virtue of docility, her decision turned out to be fatally misjudged. Hoping to protect her children from further scandal, she had insisted that James’s faithlessness was downplayed, but there was nothing she could do to escape her own. In a society riven by its hypocritical attitudes to sex, it was almost inevitable that she would be found guilty and sentenced to hang.

The jury’s decision polarised the country between those who believed Florence guilty of murder and those who argued that she had been tried for adultery. Over several tense weeks, petitions were presented to the Home Office along with memorials on her behalf. Her fate hung in the balance. In the end she was reprieved, but she was incarcerated for 15 years despite the unflagging appeals of her mother and, on occasion, the American government. When she finally emerged from prison the Victorian era was over and her youth was shattered.

Returning to America, she tried to hold her head high. Alfred Brierley had disappeared; she never saw either of her children again. She died destitute and alone many years later. An old scrapbook of clippings was the last slender thread linking her to Victorian Liverpool, a smart home, an addicted husband, a young lover, giggling children and watchful staff. The modernising world
had forgotten her scandal.

As I researched this story of deception, addiction and adultery, I marvelled at the gains made for female equality by many of the women interested in Florence’s case. Simultaneously, I grew alarmed by the reality of how unequal our modern reaction to infidelity remains. Florence Maybrick was judged against the perniciously double-sided standards of her day. Soon after her release from prison, she wrote of her hope that a time would come when the world would acknowledge the injustice of her case. ‘What then?’ she asked. ‘Who shall give me back the years…the friends by whom I am forgotten, the children to whom I am dead; the sunshine…my woman’s life?’

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