Whether or not her husband was, in fact, Jack the Ripper, Florie Maybrick herself holds a certain notoriety in the annals of crime history. Even before the emergence of the infamous diary, her trial was the subject of many volumes of work, mostly pertaining to the allegations of gross incompetence and negligence displayed throughout the trial by the presiding Justice Stephen. Found guilty, sentenced to death, having had her sentence commuted to life imprisonment only days before her execution, and finally having been released after fifteen years, her story is a fascinating one in and of itself, and should be just as appealing to any crime historian as the story of the man her husband allegedly claimed to have been.
Prelude to the Trial
The daughter of a banker in Mobile Alabama, Florence (or Florie as she preferred) was the archetypal Southern Belle -- she was often described as being quite pleasing to the eye, but her love of luxuries was more often destructive to her husband's pocket. They moved to Liverpool in 1884 and were frequently known to throw lavish parties at which she would most often be the focus of attention. Such practices took their toll, however, and in 1887 James Maybrick admitted to his wife that they were in severe financial trouble. He placed her on a strict budget, but Florie reverted to borrowing against her jewelry and expected land inheritance in America in order to maintain her lavish lifestyle in the shops and at the racetrack. In a letter to her mother written in that year she writes:
I am utterly worn out, and in such a state of overstrained nervousness I am hardly fit for anything. Whenever the doorbell rings I feel ready to faint for fear it is someone coming to have an account paid, and when Jim comes home at night it is with fear and trembling that I look into his face to see whether anyone has been to the office about my bills... my life is a continual state of fear of something or somebody... Is life worth living? I would gladly give up the house tomorrow and move somewhere else but Jim says it would ruin him outright.
Such behavior wasn't uncommon in Victorian England, but as with any drug addiction, it was looked upon with disdain and mistrust. Maybrick himself disclosed his using of the drugs to a few friends and acquaintances, telling one of his associates around 1883, "You would be horrified, I dare say, if you knew what this (powder) is -- it is arsenic... We all take some poison more or less; for instance, I am now taking arsenic enough to kill you. I take this arsenic once in a while because I find it strengthens me." When he learned that his wife had disclosed his abuse to one of his brothers, however, he became quite angry and ordered her to "mind her own business."
One final blow that came to Florie in that same year was her discovery that James Maybrick was allotting the sum of over one hundred pounds per year to a mistress he had been keeping for the past twenty or so years. When she confronted him about the fact, he seemed impassionate and showed very little compunction. From then until the death of James Maybrick, the couple slept in separate chambers.
In the autumn of 1888, Florie Maybrick extracted her own measure of revenge against her husband by turning her attention toward a younger cotton broker named Alfred Brierly. She herself began an affair, but was more easily discovered than her husband, for it is suspected that he discovered the infidelity in December of that year. According to Florie in a letter written to her mother, he violently tore up his will which bestowed everything upon her and vowed to make their children the sole recipients. It is speculation, however, that this was because Maybrick discovered his wife's affair -- it very well might have been a number of other things.
The reason her affair might have been discovered so easily was the simple fact that she was so shamelessly open about it (a fact which leads many to conclude that the affair was motivated more by revenge than by any corporeal desire). In March 1889, she booked a hotel room for her and Brierly under the names "Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Maybrick," her brother- and sister-in-law. As Hartman writes in Victorian Murderesses, this act was propelled either by "monumental stupidity or blatant calculation." For on the one hand it would seem a terrible mistake to use the name of the brother of her husband, unless of course the entire incident was an attempt (remember her motivation of revenge) to elicit a response from her husband, perhaps even for him to file for a divorce. Regardless, Maybrick didn't mention anything that would lead anyone to believe he knew about the incident.
Later that month, however, Maybrick's knowledge of the entire affair became quite apparent. At a gathering at the Grand National steeplechase, Maybrick made a scene when Florie walked off for a moment with Brierly. Later that night, at home in Battlecrease, the home lived up to it's belligerent name. The couple had an intense falling out, and the topic of infidelity was risen by both of them. When Florie threatened to leave the house, Maybrick grabbed her, ripping her dress, and blackened her eye. The servants then intervened, and with the help of a family friend and doctor, the couple reconciled their differences. Maybrick agreed to pay off her debts in total and she agreed to break all relations with Brierly.
Neither fulfilled their obligations, however. Soon after that incident, Maybrick became quite ill, and his condition was quite serious by the end of April. He complained of headaches and of a coldness in the limbs, and in the weeks of late April and early May abdominal and gastrointestinal problems began to arise. Doctors were called in from all over London, prescribing countless drugs and tonics in order to ameliorate his condition.
A little earlier (in about mid-April) Florie purchased a good number of flypapers and proceeded to soak them in a sink. She claimed to have had "an eruption of the face," and wanted to extract the arsenic from the flypaper in order to formulate a facial cream which would clear up the problem in time for a ball she was attending in late April. Indeed, arsenic was a common home remedy for skin problems, but it was difficult to come by the poison -- a common practice was to soak flypaper in order to extract it. The entire staff of Battlecrease noticed the soaking papers, as Florie made no moves to hide them.
Maybrick's condition continued to worsen throughout the first few days of May and throughout Florie was by his side. Between her nervous attitude throughout the ordeal, her soaking of the flypapers, and the recent events concerning Brierly, suspicion began to arise among the nurse (Alice Yapp) that Florie was poisoning him. So on May 8th, after being informed by Yapp, a friend of the Maybricks' named Mrs. Briggs telegraphed to both brothers Michael and Edwin, "Come at once; strange things going on here." That same day, Florie (still unaware of the rising suspicion) handed Alice Yapp a letter to be posted, addressed, "A. Brierly, Esq." Instead of doing so, she opened it and read the contents, immediately divulging the information to Michael Maybrick. Upon reading the letter, Michael ordered no one but the nurses to wait upon his brother, and finally Florie began to realize the rising suspicion growing around her.
The letter was in answer to one received two days earlier from Brierly, which read:
My Dear Florie -- I suppose now you have gone I am safe in writing to you. I don't quite understand what you mean in your last about explaining my line of action. You know I could not write, and was willing to meet you, although it would have been very dangerous. Most certainly your telegram yesterday was a staggerer, and it looks as if the result was certain, but as yet I cannot find an advertisement in any London paper.
I should like to see you, but at the present dare not move, and we had better perhaps not meet until late in the autumn. I am going to try and get away in about a fortnight. I think I shall take a round trip to the Mediterranean, which will take six or seven weeks, unless you wish me to stay in England. Supposing the rooms are found, I think both you and I would be better away, as the man's memory would be doubted after three months. I will write and tell you when I go. I cannot trust myself at present to write about my feelings on this unhappy business, but I do hope that some time hence I shall be able to show you that I do not quite deserve the strictures contained in your last two letters. I went to the D. and D., and, of course, heard some tales, but myself knew nothing about anything. And now, dear, "Good-bye," hoping we shall meet in the autumn. I will write to you about sending letters just before I go.
The letter which was intercepted by Nurse Yapp (sent from Florie to Alfred Brierly) reads:
Dearest -- Your letter under cover to John K. came to hand just after I had written to you on Monday. I did not expect to hear from you so soon, and had delayed in giving him the necessary instructions. Since my return I have been nursing M. day and night. He is sick unto death. The doctors held a consultation yesterday, and now all depends upon how long his strength will hold out. Both my brothers-in-law are here, and we are terribly anxious. I cannot answer your letter fully to-day, my darling, but relieve your mind of all fear of discovery now and in the future. M. has been delirious since Sunday, and I know now that he is perfectly ignorant of everything, even of the name of the street, and also that he has not been making any inquiries whatever. The tale he told me was a pure fabrication, and only intended to frighten the truth out of me. In fact he believes my statement, although he will not admit it. You need not therefore go abroad on that account, dearest; but, in any case, please don't leave England until I have seen you once again. You must feel that those two letters of mine were written under circumstances which must even excuse their injustice in your eyes. Do you suppose that I could act as I am doing if I really felt and meant what I inferred then? If you wish to write to me about anything do so now, as all the letters pass through my hands at present. Excuse this scrawl, my own darling, but I dare not leave the room for a moment, and I do not know when I shall be able to write to you again. In haste, yours ever.
The next morning (May 9th) Florie approached Alice Yapp and said, "Do you know that I am blamed for this?" The nurse replied, "For what?," to which Florie answered, "For Maybrick's illness." This is the first incident in which Florie lets on that she is aware of the suspicion growing around her. Later that day, the food and water, as well as the feces and urine of the patient were taken away and examined by doctors for traces of arsenic. They found none.
That night, however, the incident of the meat juice occurred. Edwin (Maybrick's brother) had procured the juice as a pharmaceutical and the nurses were under orders to administer it to the patient. Around midnight, Nurse Gore was waiting on Maybrick when Florie entered the room and took a bottle of Valentine's meat juice into the washroom where she was sleeping. She closed the door behind her, and emerged some minutes later, returning to the sick room and requesting that Nurse Gore leave to get some ice to cool her husband's forehead. The nurse refused and observed Mrs. Maybrick "surreptitiously" placed the bottle of meat juice on the nightstand. The bottle was taken away the next day at the urging of Nurse Gore and doctors found half a grain of arsenic in the juice.
On Friday the 10th, Michael Maybrick saw Florie moving medicine from one small bottle to a larger one. He protested, "Florie, how dare you tamper with the medicine?," to which she replied that there was too much sediment in the small bottle so she moved it into a larger bottle so that it could be shaken up properly. The bottle was later analyzed, however, and no traces of arsenic were found. Later that day, Nurse Callery over heard Maybrick say to his wife, "You have given me the wrong medicine again." Florie replied, "What are you talking about? You never had wrong medicine." Around six that evening, Maybrick was heard to have said three times, "Oh, Bunny, Bunny, how could you do it? I did not think it of you!" Florie replied simply, "You silly old darling, don't trouble your head about things."
That night, a search was made of the house primarily by the Maybrick brothers and the domestics in order to find some evidence of Mrs. Maybrick's guilt. Alice Yapp found a sealed envelope labelled "Arsenic -- poison for cats," as well as five bottles, a container of Valentine's meat juice, a rag, a glass, and a handkerchief. The first contained large amounts of arsenic, while the others carried either small or trace amounts -- enough arsenic was found in that house, it is said, to have killed fifty people (two grains being enough to kill one man).
By Saturday, May 11th, it became painfully clear that Maybrick would not survive the night. Florie had fallen into a swoon that afternoon which would last another twenty-four hours -- she would be bed-ridden until the 18th. By the time she had regained consciousness, her husband was dead.
On the 13th, a post-mortem was held in which it was concluded that death was "due to inflammation of the stomach and bowels set up by some irritant poison." On the 14th, Florie, still lying ill in bed, was informed that she was in custody under suspicion of murder. Frightened and confused, Florie complained to Mrs. Briggs that she had no money with which to contact her friends. She replied, "in sarcasm," that she should write to Brierly. Florie took the suggestion at face value and wrote to him immediately, saying:
I am writing to you to give me every assistance in your power in my present fearful trouble. I am in custody, without any of my family with me, and without money. I have cabled to my solicitor in New York to come here at once. In the meantime, send some money for present needs. The truth is known about my visit to London. Your last letter is in the hands of the police. Appearances may be against me, but before God I swear I am innocent.
The letter never reached Brierly, and, like the previous one, ended up in the hands of the police. On the 18th, a magistrate visited Florence at Battlecrease and opened an investigation, at the end of which he ordered her to be removed to Walton Jail. At the inquest on the 28th, Florie was represented by Mr. William Pickford, barrister.
The Inquest and Hearing
The official coroner's inquest began on May 14th, and was adjourned to the 28th after formal identification of the body. The hearing heard evidence from the chemists who sold Mrs. Maybrick the flypapers, and testimony from the nurses and servants, as well as that of a certain Mrs. Samuelson. This witness mysteriously disappeared before the trial, but she presented testimony at the inquest that Mrs. Maybrick told her she hated her husband about two weeks before the incident at Grand National steeplechase.