The Beautiful Mrs Maybrick, 1889
Well, this is interesting.
I’m a sucker for a historical mystery, and the Jack the Ripper case is an enduring and gruesome loose end from a fascinating period in history. The news here that the director Bruce Robinson has thrown his deerstalker in the ring is welcome, not only because I love him as the director of one of my favourite films, Withnail and I, but also because his conclusions are intensely interesting to me. The article is to promote his new book They All Love Jack, which is now on my to-read list. It just arrived a few days ago in fact, a massive 800-pager that I can’t wait to get stuck into.
Bruce says, “I honestly think I’ve nailed the horrible fucker.” The nailee is, in his opinion, Michael Maybrick, a celebrated Victorian songwriter better known under his songwriting alias of Stephen Adams. They All Love Jack, the title of Robinson’s book, is also the title of one of Maybrick’s songs. He concludes the police knew he was the Ripper, but he was shielded by the umbrella of Freemasonry.
Interesting stuff, but this is where it gets more interesting still. Michael’s brother, the Liverpudlian cotton broker James Maybrick, has been on the list of Ripper suspects ever since the incriminating “Diary” which bore his name was released in 1992. The Diary is an unresolved piece of the puzzle – it was written in a Victorian scrapbook with what appears to be, after extensive testing, actual Victorian ink. It apparently described details of the murders only known to the police at the time. But it is also said to be more in line with 20th century writing styles, and one of the owners of the diary subsequently confessed to writing it, although he later withdrew that statement. It has been generally dismissed as a hoax in the years since, but no-one has conclusively proved that.
And then there’s the strange case of another piece of evidence related to the family, the Maybrick watch. Following the publication of the Diary, a man in Wallasey came forward with an engraved pocket watch, which suddenly looked very interesting. The watch was a genuine Victorian artefact, made in 1847-48. On the inside cover were scratched the words “J.Maybrick”, “I am Jack” and the initials of the five definitely agreed Ripper victims. It’s too incriminating to feel like it could be real – but analysis has discovered that the scratches really were made decades earlier. At least, it was definitely not created purely on the appearance of the Diary.
And so James Maybrick’s shadowy figure has remained in the line up of likely suspects. The evidence pointing towards him hasn’t been disproved, despite the fact that both the Diary and the watch give the appearance of being fake, but without any of their components actually being fake. Now, I don’t know what Bruce Robinson concludes, but if it was Michael Maybrick, then the possibility that he faked them to put his brother in the frame after his death is very interesting indeed. The idea that the real Ripper actually made them, but as a fraud, is certainly a tantalising one.
Living in Liverpool as I do, of course the Liverpool connection is the most interesting line of research to me and I have been interested in the Maybrick family for some time. The reason I am excited about the switch from James to Michael Maybrick is because of some curious piece of family history I half-came across some time ago. I used to work with a man whose girlfriend was a descendant of the family. He told me they had a family diary or some other written documents which he had read, and which had convinced him of Maybrick’s guilt. I was dying to see what the evidence was myself, but I never did, as I had the impression that this was something that the family didn’t want to advertise. I did ask if anyone else had ever seen it, and he said no, they hadn’t. Now, what confused me was that this was a decade after the “hoax” Maybrick diary had been published and it didn’t really make sense that he was referring to that. But what else could it be? And so the possibility that there is a different suspect, in the same family, is a very interesting one.
However, my post today isn’t covering the Ripper murders, but another death connected with the whole saga. The murder of James Maybrick himself, in 1889, ostensibly by his wife, Florence. She was American, 23 years younger than her husband, a popular member of Liverpool society, and a noted beauty of her day. Her trial was one of the most sensational and controversial of the Victorian era.
James Maybrick was absolutely not a Ripper suspect at the time of his murder, at least as far as it is known. His death was not newsworthy on those terms – it was widely written about because his brother was a famous composer, his wife was a beautiful younger woman, and because it was a classic whodunnit scenario of death by poisoning. If Robinson is right, though, maybe his brother was the real killer. There’s everything in there that one of those modern-day murder mystery entertainments could wish for, in other words.
We know Florence was beautiful by the fact that this was noted in newspaper reports of her arrest, subsequent imprisonment, and eventual release. Of course, there’s all the associated implications hiding between the lines – a beautiful but untrustworthy woman, a temptress, a gold-digger, a beautiful face which masks a psychopathic intent. It occurred to me that I couldn’t imagine reporting of this nature nowadays – and then I remembered the circus around Amanda Knox, “Foxy Knoxy”, and how the more things change, they more they stay the same.
This is the way Florence Maybrick’s case, otherwise known as “The Aigburth Poisoning Case”, was reported.
Florence and James Maybrick lived in Battlecrease House, Riversdale Road, Aigburth, Liverpool. The house is still there. Here’s what it looks like now, from Google Earth.
James Maybrick died at Battlecrease on 11th May 1889 after suddenly being taken ill two weeks earlier. His brother, Michael Maybrick, thought the circumstances of his illness and death were suspicious and an inquest was held in a hotel nearby. This concluded that he was most probably killed by arsenic poisoning. Rumours abounded as to who the killer may have been, with his wife’s name at the forefront of suspicion. On 20th May 1889 she was charged with his murder, the trial due to be held at Liverpool Crown Court.
All was not well with the marriage, evidently – Maybrick had multiple mistresses and Florence was also having an affair with another Liverpool cotton broker named Alfred Brierley. Alfred is presumably the person mentioned at the bottom of the following article – “The name of a third party has been freely mentioned in connection with Mr Maybrick’s mysterious death”.
There was “grave evidence” against Florence – revolving around the fact that she had been seen to be soaking fly-papers in water in her bedroom, an old method of extracting the arsenic contained within. She had also, apparently, poured James’ medicine from one bottle to another larger one, her stated reason being that the sediment in the medicine could not be properly shaken up in the smaller bottle.
She was charged and “exhibited no emotion” although she was looking “very haggard”. A rather negative spin on potentially being in shock – and shades of the way Amanda Knox’s behaviour was reported as well.
I’m a big fan of the invalid cookery of days gone by, beef tea being the mainstay of how the Victorians fed their sick. Here, beef tea destined for James to drink was said to have contained arsenic.
Rumours abounded regarding “the other man”, that Florence was involved with.
Despite being haggard on her arrest, Mrs Maybrick was otherwise “pretty and accomplished”, and of good breeding.
The motive was established – a scandal of some kind. Florence and James had argued after the Aintree Races in April and Florence was heard to say “Such a scandal; it will be all over town tomorrow.” James replied “Florry, Florry, I never thought it would come to this.” What the scandal was, exactly, was not determined.
An interesting snippet here – James was said to have become sick “from an overdose of the medicine the doctor in London had ordered.” James had, in fact, been staying with his brother Michael in London at this point.
Michael confirmed on 30th May that James had been to visit him five weeks earlier. At this point, James had been dead for three weeks, and had been ill for two weeks before that. The time frame points to Michael just as much as Florence. The London medicine was quite definitely in the frame here – and Michael may well have had access to that himself.
On being telegraphed that his brother was sick, Michael Maybrick came to Liverpool straight away. He flagged up his suspicions of poisoning very quickly indeed. In fact, he was the one to tell the doctors that he considered his brother to be poisoned, rather than the other way around.
The “smoking gun” of the trial, alongside those soaking fly-papers, was Florence’s letter to her lover, where she describes her husband as “sick unto death”. The doctors stated at her trial that, at this point, they had not described James’ condition as being inevitably fatal. Florence writes to Alfred that he can “relieve his mind of all fear of discovery now or in the future.” The rest of the letter convinces me that she means discovery of the affair, rather than anything murderous.
However, the circumstances surrounding how her maid got hold of the letter are suspicious – she was allegedly given the letter to post, but it dropped in some mud. She took out the letter, meaning to put it into a clean envelope – but instead she read it, and handed it over to Michael. She couldn’t explain why the letter showed no signs of damage from the wet mud.
More evidence – a bottle labelled “poison” and a handkerchief with Florence’s initials on were found in a travelling case. More “Scooby Doo” style obvious murderer clues, bringing to my mind the Diary and that watch. The maid seems very taken with Michael, and hands everything over to him again.
A very important point arose in the trial – James Maybrick was already known to take medicine which contained arsenic. This muddies the fly-paper-water a bit.
I’m imagining Death from Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life” pointing a long, bony finger – “The BEEF TEA!”
“Was it possible that the lady, small in figure, neatly attired in deep mourning, her fair and well-rounded face – that is the lower half of it, for the upper part was hidden behind a thick veil – showing in pale relief against the sombre hue of her attire, could be guilty of the crime laid to her charge?”
It was noted that Michael Maybrick was very harshly accusatory of Florence throughout the trial. The letter is considered to be the essential piece of evidence, along with explaining how the arsenic got in James’ liver. I don’t think the letter refers to a poisoning myself, and it was known that James had taken arsenic anyway.
After lengthy proceedings, Florence was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
Quite spooky seeing the two big news stories of the time connected here – Bonfire Night in 1889 had many instances of two very topical Guys that year – Jack the Ripper, and Mrs Maybrick. There was no sense at the time that actually these stories may be connected.
After the trial, Michael Maybrick went to ground for a few months. He reappeared in January 1890, singing his own composition “They All Love Jack”.
And he was in the public eye again in 1891, challenging James’ life insurance policy in court. He and his brother argued that the sum of £2000 should be paid out to them and the will in Florence’s favour be overturned. They were unsuccessful.
However, there was much support for Florence and a feeling that she was the victim of a miscarriage of justice, with the manner of how the judge had conducted her trial being questioned. Again, I’m reminded of Amanda Knox – a trial where, in the initial stages, she was viewed unsympathetically and with the implication that she was already guilty. Then, following conviction, a building sense that she may have been mistreated due to the lack of definite evidence and a questionable trial.
A re-examination of her case reduced her sentence to life imprisonment. In looking at the trial, an important piece of evidence was discovered – Florence had given her maid a prescription to be taken to the local chemist. The chemist refused to make it because it contained a poisonous drug and there was no doctor’s signature on it. Whether the prescription came from James himself, or Florence (or Michael?) is not known. It was also stated that James had in fact died from 21 “irritant poisons” and it had not been a downward spiral into fatal ill-health – he may have initially had gastro-enteritis, which was then exacerbated by harsh medicines, rather than being struck down by poison on day one.
Florence was definitely considered to be mistreated by many – there were numerous petitions submitted to the Home Office. One in Birmingham alone gathered an incredible 45,000 signatures, with an enthusiastic public meeting held as well.
In 1892, news arose of a purported “death-bed confession” from a man who said he had conspired to put Mrs Maybrick in the frame.
The Home Office initially refused to release her in 1894, despite the incriminating new evidence. A friend had come forward to say that James had admitted to being “an arsenic-eater” and that he “found it difficult to supply his needs in Liverpool.” Maybrick had also said to him that he “could take with impunity enough arsenic to kill any ordinary man.” An “arsenical face wash” of Mrs Maybrick’s had also been found, the prescription for which had presumed to be lost. The Victorians used arsenic in too many things.
Surprise was expressed that the Home Office had passed over such evidence with no comment. It reeked of corruption.
There were many letters written to newspapers arguing her innocence. “In my opinion there was no medical evidence that would hang a dog,” says this commentator.
Florence’s sentence was eventually commuted, and she was released in 1904. She was reported to still be an attractive woman on her release. In fact, she was “more beautiful than she was even on the day of her arrest…”
This is her after her release. She looks utterly haunted.
An aside. A specialist in mental health, Dr Forbes Winslow, died in 1913. This article at the time informs us of two points – “He took an especially active search for “Jack the Ripper” and always declared that he knew who the “Ripper” was but that the police refused to act on his information. He also took a leading part in the agitation for the release of Mrs Maybrick.” Admittedly, both were news stories at much the same time, but I still find this juxtaposition very strange indeed, particularly if he did indeed know who the Ripper was. Police refusing to act on information ties in with Bruce Robinson’s Masonic cover-up too.
Excitingly, Dr Winslow thought the world was going mad, quite literally. The numbers of lunatics were spiralling upwards, and he predicted that “one person in every four in 2159 would be mad.” I wonder why he specified the year 2159?
Michael Maybrick died two months after Dr Forbes Winslow, in 1913. He had disappeared from London society not long after the trial, got married and moved to the Isle of Wight. He apparently had become the guardian of Florence and James’ two children.
He became Mayor of Ryde on the Isle of Wight four times. I love the story above Maybrick’s news in this article. Count Zeppelin was about to make a trial trip on his new airship.
Florence died on 23rd October 1941 at the age of 80. 74 years ago exactly today.
She had been living in America since her release from prison. A further mystery was that 30 years after her trial (so around 1919) she was left the enormous sum of £150,000 – “the legacy came from a near relative of a man whose name was frequently mentioned in the trial and that at first Mrs Maybrick refused to touch the money because of its source. Subsequently she was said to have withdrawn her opposition after reading a sealed letter from the testator in which he explained the reasons for the legacy.” She partly used the money to try to clear her name, but she refused to live in the Cheshire mansion that was also left to her in the will, as the area held too many bad memories for her. The man whose name was mentioned in the trial – well, that’s most probably Alfred Brierley, I suppose.
Wikipedia says that after she was sent to prison, she never saw her children again. But this obituary says that she had been reconciled with them – although I suppose this doesn’t mean she actually saw them. I hope that she did though. I can’t imagine a sadder phrase than “never seeing your children again”. Although her son James had a tragic end himself. While working as a mining engineer at a Canadian goldmine, he apparently died after drinking cyanide, thinking it was water.