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Florence Maybrick: A Sensational Victorian Murder Trial

Florence Maybrick's story shows how the Victorians judged and misjudged women.

Florence Maybrick, 1889.

Florence Maybrick, 1889.

Florence Maybrick: Newlywed in Liverpool

American-born Florence Maybrick was either a calculating killer or a woman damned by society for her adultery and subsequently branded a murderer. In Victorian England, Florence became notorious as hungry tabloid journalists used her situation as fodder and she became a spectacle to decry or champion.

Ultimately her tale has endured because it offers a fascinating insight into life, values and the law.

When banker's daughter Florence Chandler was 19 years old, she captivated James Maybrick, an English cotton dealer. He was 42 and wealthy so her parents approved of the match. The newlyweds made their home at Battlecrease House in an affluent area of Liverpool in northwest England in 1881. They had two children named James and Gladys.

Maybrick’s wealth and her natural charms secured them an enviable social status in the thriving port city. It all looked perfect from the outside.

The Cheating, Drug-Addicted Hypochondriac Husband

James Maybrick was not the model husband. He took mistresses, he had at least five children with one of them, and he cared little about the effect that his shenanigans had at home.

He was a hypochondriac, and alongside medications, he took arsenic and strychnine as recreational drugs, which he soon became addicted to. The link between arsenic, strychnine and death was yet to be made; consumers could purchase arsenic over the counter from a chemist and it was used in green wallpapers, paints and several beauty products.

James Maybrick, drug addict and murder victim?

James Maybrick, drug addict and murder victim?

A Bitter End to the Maybrick Marriage

Unhappy Florence took a lover, and in the double standard of the day, James was outraged. He threatened to divorce her, which would have ruined her reputation and probably his by association. He stopped short of this, but he did rewrite his will bequeathing her much less than he had set out in the original version.

She did not give up her lover, but decided to meet him secretly when the opportunity next presented itself.

In April 1889 James Maybrick fell ill after he gave himself a double dose injection of strychnine. By May it was obvious to his physicians and Florence that he was dying.

As he lay on his deathbed, Florence wrote a letter to her lover, Albert Brierley, which one of the household servants passed to James Maybrick’s brother Michael. He was incandescent and claimed to anyone who would listen that Florence had poisoned James. He made her a prisoner in her own home.

Florence Maybrick Accused of Murder

On the 11th May 1889, James died. Michael and the Maybrick family ordered an autopsy to prove that Florence Maybrick was a murderer and that she had used the arsenic which they’d found in numerous locations, including in beauty papers in her bedroom and in containers discreetly stored in cupboards, probably procured by James. The family refused to believe that he was addicted to arsenic or strychnine.

The autopsy revealed a tiny amount of arsenic in Maybrick's system but nowhere enough to kill an erring spouse. It was proven that he was a regular user of arsenic, some days calling into the chemist shop five times for a "pick-me-up." There was no evidence to suggest foul play.

What happened next has been the subject of controversy for over 140 years. Florence Maybrick was arrested for the murder of her husband.

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St. George's Hall in Liverpool today. This was where Florence Maybrick's trial was held in 1889.

St. George's Hall in Liverpool today. This was where Florence Maybrick's trial was held in 1889.

A Sensational Trial Held the Country's Attention

Florence was not permitted to give testimony and was only allowed to read a prepared statement at her trial, but otherwise she was prey to her enemies. The logic used by the prosecution at her sensational trial in Liverpool was laughable and yet it resonated with people in the courtroom, in the press and the wider Victorian society.

The prosecution counsel claimed that if Florence Maybrick was depraved enough to have an extramarital affair, then her moral compass was broken. Therefore, she must have murdered her husband because there could be no other explanation for his death.

No one on the prosecution team thought to note that James Maybrick’s will was a motive for Florence not to have killed him. She was wealthier with him alive as the paltry sum that he left to her in his revised will meant that committing murder was hugely disproportionate to the financial reward.

Florence was found guilty and sentenced to death. This was later commuted to incarceration for 15 years. There were no courts of appeal. After her imprisonment, James and Gladys never saw their mother again. They were taken in by a Mr. and Mrs. Fuller and changed their surname.

After the Verdict

Doubt was cast on the presiding court judge Sir James Fitzjames Stephen by an expert who asked if he had truly recovered from a seizure that he suffered in 1886. The observer believed that he had not seen such “incompetence and inaccuracy” by a judge before the Maybrick trial.

The judge had spoken for 12 hours over two days to the jury and most of his oratory was to claim Florence was wicked, immoral and that she should be convicted.

Florence Maybrick’s supporters provided evidence to the Home Office in the 1890s of James Maybrick’s regular habit of taking arsenic. The Home Office was unmoved.

There couldn’t be an appeal, there was no precedent for it. Queen Victoria was appealed to but she was not known for her compassion in legal matters. Finally, King Edward VII pardoned her in 1904, towards the end of her prison sentence.

Florence Maybrick Discovered in America

Upon her release, she managed to find funds to travel back to America and for a short time she appeared on the lecture circuit telling her story, defending herself against the verdict and hoping to alter how prisons operated for the good of others.

English law eventually provided for women like Florence, but it was far too late for her. Her spirit was broken.

Using money from her supporters, Florence, calling herself Florence Chandler, bought a small plot of land in Kent, Connecticut and had a small house built. She was reclusive and kept cats. In the 1920s Florence made an error. She gave a dress to a neighbour and the old cleaning ticket attached to it showed Florence Maybrick as the customer's name.

Despite the neighbour’s investigations and knowledge of who Florence really was, the secret was maintained and her privacy was protected.

She died in October 1941. At this point the neighbour revealed Florence Chandler’s true identity. The press of the 1940s took a more sympathetic view and argued that sexism and legal flaws in Victorian England were probable reasons for the guilty verdict.


© 2022 Joanne Hayle

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