Mike Royden's Local History Pages - Florence Maybrick

To what extent was Florence Maybrick punished due to the moralistic attitudes of the day, rather than the evidence provided during her trial?

Steven Horton

Despite occurring more than 100 years ago, the death of Aigburth cotton merchant James Maybrick still continues to spark debate as to whether or not he was murdered by his wife Florence. In her trial at at St. George's Hall, Florence was found guilty of murdering her husband by administering arsenic and sentenced to death. This is despite the fact that Maybrick was known to take regular doses of arsenic as a stimulant. After much public outcry, the Home Secretary granted a reprieve and commuted the sentence to life imprisonment on the lesser charge of attempting to administer poison. After much campaigning, she was eventually released after serving 15 years in prison. On the decision of the Home Secretary, Florence had her guilty verdict for murder overturned, but still faced life imprisonment for a crime for which she had never been tried.

This essay does not intend to examine the evidence of the trial in great detail, although its events do have to be summed up. The main focus will be on the reasons why the Home Secretary felt the need to overturn the verdict of the jury and why, despite vehement protests, Florence remained in prison for so long afterwards. In doing so I will attempt to show that pre trial publicity, coupled with the Victorian Values that placed great restrictions on women and became enforced by a near mad judge and moralistic queen, meant that Florence Maybrick simply could not go unpunished.

Interest in the Maybrick case has been revived in recent years as James emerged as a Jack the Ripper suspect, following the discovery of a diary allegedly written by him. A recent book by Anne Graham, who claims she may have been descended from Florence, points an accusing finger at Michael Maybrick, James' brother, claiming he may have deliberately planted evidence in an attempt to set up Florence on a murder charge. Whether or not Maybrick may be a realistic Ripper suspect, I do not intend to go into this for fear of moving away from the real point of the question.

When James Maybrick died on 11th May 1889 the doctors who examined the body did not sign the death certificate, instead referring the matter to the coroner. A police inspector was called to the house by his brother Michael Maybrick and was handed various pieces of evidence, including a bottle of meat juice containing arsenic. Suspicions into the death had been aroused by gossip amongst the servants, on discovery that Florence had been having an affair with Alfred Brierly, a cotton trader and the fact that fly papers had been seen soaked in water, a method by which arsenic is extracted. Florence was arrested on suspicion of murder on 14th May, following the opening of the coroners inquest which was then adjourned to await the results of a post mortem.

The night before Maybrick's death, when it was apparent he was unlikely to survive, a thorough search had been conducted of the house by Michael Maybrick and the domestics, in order to establish evidence that would incriminate Florence. Michael placed Florence under House Arrest, although it was not until after the death that police were called. It may be that Michael had decided that Florence's affair meant she needed to be punished and he was doing everything possible to have her charged with murder, guilty or not. Whatever the situation , he did not appear to have any suspicions about anybody else in the house, nor see the need to call in the police when poisons were initially found.

Moral values during this later Victorian period were much more strict than today. It may not have been unusual for married men to have a mistress, with the wife having little option but to turn a blind eye, but this was certainly not the case for the married woman. If Florence, who was very independent minded and free spirited was to have an affair, no matter how discreet, she was sure to attract gossip and feelings of revulsion. It was these values which meant that as a picture began to be built about the Maybrick's private state of affairs and the poison in the house, Florence was sure to be in for a rough ride.

It was the re-opening of the inquest on 27th May, following a post mortem, that led to a massive upsurge of interest in the case in Liverpool. The events of this coroners court and subsequent newspaper reporting meant Florence had very little sympathy in the run up to the trial. It should be remembered that the intention of an inquest was to determine cause of death, not to try the accused. However, on the first day the witnesses, which included Michael Maybrick and some of the servants, were most concerned with telling the jury how much Florence hated her husband and had not tended to him properly during his illness. With the post mortem not being able to establish any significant traces of poison, the court was adjourned to allow for an exhumation of the body. This was an unusual step, as a post mortem had already taken place. It was as if the coroner had expected the results of the post mortem to show traces of poison. Although the evidence gathered in the house may have been sufficient to have Florence charged with Attempted Murder or Conspiracy to Murder, it is as if a Capital charge was being pushed for by the coroner, perhaps even at the request of the charismatic Michael, who was a nationally acclaimed composer and musician.

The body of James Maybrick was exhumed from its grave in Anfield Cemetery on the night of 30th May, with samples of the lungs, heart and kidneys being taken away for analysis. What was now being termed the 'Aigburth Mystery' was now selling a lot of newspapers and Florence was given a frosty reception when she appeared back at the Coroners Court on 5th June. She was hissed at by women who outnumbered men two to one and once again, it was Florence's character, rather than actual cause of death which became the main topic of witnesses evidence. On the second day, her legal team finally realised this and said to the coroner, 'I think that we should before going further in this case have some evidence as to the cause of death.' In giving evidence, the analyst advised that there were very little traces of arsenic found in the corpse. Despite this, the amount of arsenic found in the house meant that by a majority of 13 to 1, it took the the jury just 30 minutes to find that Florence had wilfully murdered Maybrick. Florence was thus committed to trial by assizes on a murder charge, even though the inquest had failed to conclude that the actual cause of death was poisoning. The jury was all male and many had actually been entertained in the Maybrick household, which must have proved bad news for Florence who had been virtually cut off from Liverpool Society since James' death. Only one of his friends, who she would never name, stood by her.

Florence's next court appearance was to be at Islington courthouse on 13th June for the magistrates hearing. Once again Florence heard testimonies from her former servants and brother-in-law. Of all the evidence provided, only one piece was beyond doubt, that Florence had spent 2 nights with her lover in a London hotel in March. This did not stop Her being committed for trial in the next assizes and the Liverpool Post reported how she faced hissing noises by women in the public gallery as she rose to leave the court. She was later given a hostile reception by waiting crowds as her carriage pulled away to take her to Walton Gaol. Local presses and photographers capitalised on this, with one shop even showing a picture in its window display of Florence and Brierley together at the Grand National. In London, Madame Tussauds began commissioning a waxwork of Florence for its Chamber of Horrors.

When the trial came on 31st July, interest remained at a peak and had hardly waned. By todays standards, there was a very short time between the time of her arrest and facing the court, just over two months. St. George's Hall, which was scene of many a concert and social event, was now hosting Liverpool's biggest show in years. The trial lasted 7 days, including 2 days of summing up from the judge. The jury returned a verdict of guilty within 35 minutes, much to everyone's surprise as the evidence had been very much in the defendants favour and public opinion had turned towards Florence. The prosecution had failed to link any of the evidence in the house to Florence, that she had administered, or even that Maybrick had died from arsenic poisoning.

The reasons for the guilty verdict I believe stem from the pre-trial publicity which had virtually condemned Florence, as well as the judges summing up which was scathing towards her extra-marital activities. The jury may have been perplexed by the medical evidence, but the evidence of Florence's private life was far easier to follow. Coupled with the summing up of Mr justice Stephen, they may have felt the need to find Florence guilty. The opium smoking Stephen was at the end of his legal career and he was declared insane and committed to an asylum just two years after the trial. His attitude towards Florence's personal life in his summing up was one of. disgust. After spending the first day rambling about the complexities of medical evidence and stressing the importance of establishing that Maybrick did indeed die of arsenic poisoning, his second day of summing up was a vitriolic attack on Florence. Forgetting his previous days doubts about whether or not there was sufficient arsenic in Maybrick's body to kill him, he surmised that it could only have been put there by Florence, tearing into her for writing a letter to her lover while Maybrick was seriously ill. It was two days since Florence's defence counsel presented his closing speech and the judges summing up, which was littered with inaccuracies had lasted 12 hours. As the jury retired, it was his closing paragraph which was still fresh in their ears, one which may have helped condemn Florence.

'I could say a good many things about the awful nature of the charge, but I do not think it necessary to say any one thing. Your own hearts must tell you what it is. For a person to go on deliberately administering poison to a poor, helpless sick man upon whom she has already inflicted a dreadful injury, an injury fateful to married life, the person who could do such a thing as that must indeed be destitute of the least trace of human feeling. ...There is no doubt that the propensities which lead persons to vices of that kind do kill all the more tender, all the more manly, or all the more womanly feelings of the human mind.' (2)

So why had Judge Stephen turned against Florence so much so in his summing up? From a strong Puritan family, he had a very strict upbringing, his father believing that life was a duty, not a pleasure. His dislike of women was not unknown in the circuit, using the criminal courts as a beacon for his own moral views. Before the trial even began, he more or less condemned Florence as guilty in his speech to the Grand Jury.

'....I hardly know how to put it otherwise than this: that if a woman does carry on an adulterous intrigue with another man, it may supply every sort of motive...It certainly may quite supply - I won't go further - a very strong motive why she should wish to get rid of her husband.'

It was this trial by judge, rather than trial by jury which was to play a part in the commutation of the death sentence to life imprisonment. No sooner had the gallows begun to be erected, than the campaign for clemency began on both sides of the Atlantic, Florence being the first American woman to be convicted of murder in a British court. The Home Secretary was given petitions signed by MPs in the House of Commons, while a petition in Manchester was signed by a number of magistrates and solicitors. Petitions were also sent from across the Atlantic, with the US Government being urged to intervene.

Although Florence was American, she did not receive full sympathy from her homeland. Her citizenship was forfeited when she had married an Englishman, meaning it was very difficult for the Government to intervene. While the sentence of death to a woman may have been condemned in the press, Florence's behaviour was not. The New York Herald wrote that Florence was probably guilty, but would not have been convicted in an American court on the evidence provided. More scathingly however, the New York Sun wrote

'The truth is that Mrs Maybrick has been a very bad woman. Letters that were not read at the trial show her to have carried on a number of intrigues with different men and that she was a depraved and conscience less wanton'(3)

Florence had no right of appeal, so the only thing that stood between her and hanging was the Home Secretary. After relentless pressure from all quarters, a meeting was finally called four days before the execution date between the Home Secretary and Prime Minister. The result of this was that Queen Victoria was advised to commute the sentence to life imprisonment. A communication from the Home Office stated that, although then evidence produced in the trial showed that Florence may have intended to administer arsenic, it was not conclusive that Maybrick's death had in fact been caused by arsenic poisoning.

After the initial euphoria that Florence's life had been saved, the horrible truth then dawned on Florence and her supporters. The Home Secretary had overturned the guilty verdict for murder, but still sentenced her to life imprisonment for 'administering and attempting to administer arsenic to her husband with intent to murder'. This is a crime for which she had not been tried in a court, yet she still faced the prospect of never being released from prison.

Spearheaded by her mother, the Baroness Von Roques and her defence counsel, Sir Charles Russell, campaigning continued for the next 13 years for Florence's release from gaol and a full pardon on all charges. Unfortunately, as long as Queen Victoria remained on the throne, her release was never going to happen. After the death of her husband in 1861 she went into a decade long period of mourning. She later showed no desire to re-marry and had contempt for any widows who did so. This meant she had little sympathy for the three times married Baroness, despite her pleas. The Queen had made her views on Florence known on commuting the death sentence, writing to the Home Secretary that she felt regret that such a wicked woman could escape on a legal quibble and that her sentence should never further be commuted.

The Baroness Von Roques' first letter to the queen, nine months after Florence was imprisoned requested a full pardon and a re-trial for Attempted Murder. The hand-writing was so bad that Victoria may not even have read it in full. Acting on pre-empted orders from the queen, successive Home Secretaries resisted calls for Florence's release and even when a number of pardons were granted to celebrate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, her case was overlooked. This was despite her having served double the minimum recommended sentence for which she had been imprisoned for. Charles Russell continued to campaign for the remaining eleven years of his life, but even when he became Lord Chief Justice in 1895 he remained powerless.

Even though the American government had no direct powers of intervention, it still continued to be pressured into campaigning for Florence's release, but was thwarted by Queen Victoria. In 1891, an international incident was almost sparked when a petition signed by all the wives of the American Cabinet was passed, via the embassy, directly to Queen Victoria by the American led International Maybrick Association. The Home Office responded direct to the President that no further clemency would be recommended. By the turn of the century, it was obvious that as long as Victoria remained on the throne. Florence would remain behind bars. The US Under-secretary of State wrote in 1897 'It is understood that the Queen is inflexibly convinced of Mrs Maybrick's guilt....I am satisfied that there is not the slightest chance of Mrs Maybrick being released during the Queen's lifetime.' (4) In 1899 the American government informed the Home Office that its representation of Florence would reluctantly cease.

Florence was finally shown some light at the end of the tunnel in July 1901, just 6 months after Victoria's death. It was then that her life sentence was fixed at fifteen years, meaning she would be released in 1904. This was following a visit by the Home Secretary, although she was not aware of who he was at the time. Florence returned to America after her release and lectured on prison reforms before becoming a recluse and dying in poverty in 1941. Her neighbours were unaware of her identity, Florence having reverted to her maiden name of Chandler.

To conclude, it is impossible to see how such a case would have had the same outcome today, with moral values being so much more relaxed. Unfortunately, the attitude of Judge Stephen and Queen Victoria, coupled with the hysterical pre-trial publicity meant that she was destined to go to prison for a very long time. Although the Home Secretary did not feel she was guilty of murder, it was as if to appease moralistic opinions of the day that she still had to be punished for her indiscretion.

Steven Horton (2000)


1. Alexander William MacDougall: The Maybrick Case - A Treatise, 1891.
2. H.B. Irving: The Trial of Mrs Maybrick; 1912. (extracted from Graham/Emmas)
3. Alexander William MacDougall: The Maybrick Case - A Treatise. (Extracted from Graham/Emmas)
4. Trevor L. Christie: Etched in Arsenic; Harrop & Co. 1968. (extracted from Graham/Emmas).


Anne E. Graham and Carol Emmas: The Last Victim; Headline Books 1999

Shirley Harrison: The diary of Jack the Ripper; Smith Gryphon 1994.

Bernard Ryan: The Poisoned Life of Mrs Maybrick; Penguin 1977.

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