Arsenic and Injustice ~ The Trials of Florence Maybrick
By Brian Thomas
Her tale stretched from Alabama to England, and ended on the grounds of the South Kent School. Locally known as a solitary cat lady in shaky mental health, only a few neighbors realized that she had been one of the most notorious women of the 19th century, and the victim of a galling injustice. Her name was Florence Maybrick.
Florence Elizabeth Chandler was the daughter of a banker who was once the mayor of Mobile. On a ship to England, Florence caught the eye of a wealthy cotton dealer, James Maybrick. She was 19, he was 42. They married in 1881, and settled in Liverpool, where her beauty and her husband’s wealth guaranteed their social status. They had two children, James and Gladys. But James Maybrick had many mistresses, and even fathered five children with one. More perilously, hypochondria and an addictive streak led him to experiment with poisonous chemicals, including arsenic. At the time, arsenic was a recreational drug.
Unhappy with her husband, Florence took lovers herself. When Maybrick learned of her affairs, in a fine piece of Victorian hypocrisy he became enraged and threatened to divorce her. He tore up his will and wrote a new one that left Florence almost nothing.
James Maybrick fell ill in April 1889 after a self-administered double shot of strychnine and declined rapidly. In May, with her husband dying, Florence wrote an affectionate letter to a lover, which a disgruntled servant intercepted and passed to Maybrick’s brother, Michael. Michael loudly declared that Florence had poisoned his brother, and had her held under house arrest.
James Maybrick died at on May 11, 1889. His brothers ordered an autopsy, which revealed faint traces of arsenic, but not a fatal dose, especially not for an out-of-control user like James. Nor could they prove that Maybrick didn’t deliberately take the poison himself. Some of the specifics looked incriminating, though. Florence had bought arsenic-laden flypaper around this time to lighten her complexion, she said — also a common practice at the time.
Despite the rickety evidence, Florence Maybrick was charged with his murder and stood trial in Liverpool. The prosecutor’s summation claimed that Maybrick’s extramarital affair meant that her guilt was certain. She was convicted and sentenced to death, later commuted to imprisonment for 15 years.
From a modern legal point of view, the trial was outrageously defective. The Maybrick family held Florence incommunicado. British law prevented her from mounting a defense or giving any testimony on her own behalf (though she was allowed to read a statement). She couldn’t point out that her late husband’s stingy new will gave her a strong motive for keeping him alive as long as possible. Nor were there any courts of appeal.
What’s more, the judge, Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, had never really recovered from a paralyzing seizure three years before the trial. A legal observer at the Maybrick trial said that had never heard “such a pathetic exhibition of incompetence and inaccuracy” by a judge. In charging the jury, he spoke for twelve hours (over two days) about the defendant’s wickedness and immorality. But in England there was no mechanism for removing a judge, no matter how impaired.
During the 1890s, her supporters produced new evidence of James Maybrick’s prodigious recreational arsenic use, but without the possibility of an appeal, the Home Office would not relent. King Edward VII finally pardoned her in 1904, after 14 years in prison. Broke, she returned to the United States. For a while she earned a living on the lecture circuit, explaining her innocence and arguing for reforms in women’s prisons, but her spirit tottered from her ordeals. She drifted for some years. English law was eventually reformed to prevent the abuses that led to her imprisonment, too late to help her.
In 1918, Florence had to earn some money. A supporter referred her to Henrietta Banwell, who wanted a housekeeper in Gaylordsville. With funds from supporters, she bought less than an acre in South Kent and built a tiny house. She told everyone her name was Florence Chandler.
She never said a word of her past. A visitor saw a photo of a baby in her cabin. When asked, she said it was the child of an old friend of hers. In fact, it was one her own children, whom she hadn’t seen since her imprisonment.
Sometime in the 1920s, she gave a black lace dress to her Kent neighbor Genevieve Austin and her sister-in-law Alvy Austin. They noticed a drycleaners ticket for “Florence Maybrick.” Austin wrote to a cousin who was a librarian, who wrote back with the piping hot news from over 30 years earlier. Austin told her husband, Tom, and her cousin Connie Kissam. Out of kindness, they chose to reveal nothing. They protected Florence’s privacy, which was almost the only thing she had left.
By 1926, nobody was allowed in the cabin except her cats, and she didn’t make eye contact or pay bills. She was seen around town occasionally, but she kept to herself. Boys from South Kent School would bring her firewood. Her neighbors helped her through the Depression years. Pop Conkrite looked in on when she fell ill, and discovered her body in October, 1941.
Once she died, the Austins revealed her identity, and a flurry of press interest rehashed how her life had been poisoned by Victorian sexism, and how the case changed English law. The press emphasized every aspect of her life except the final one — as a tragic neighbor in Kent.