When Southern Belle, Florence Chandler, boarded a New York steamer bound for England, she must have believed the world was at her feet. Eighteen years old, beautiful and rich, she was leaving her wealthy Alabama childhood behind her and embarking upon the trip of a lifetime. The year was 1880, and she was accompanying her mother, the Baroness Von Roques, on a tour of Europe’s most fashionable spots. Had she known what the future held, she would have turned on her heels and run for home. Just ten short years later and the life of Florence Chandler would be in tatters. Her married name would be synonymous with debauchery and adultery on both sides of the Atlantic. Still in her twenties, she would find herself a convicted woman, guilty of murdering her innocent and defenceless husband.
A Whirlwind Romance
It took less than a week for the young Florence and her mother to reach the shores of England. In that short time, the fate of Florence was sealed. What should have been a ship-board romance blossomed into an engagement. Florence was smitten, not by a handsome young beau, but by a middle-aged Englishman twenty-four years her senior, James Maybrick. Months after their arrival in England, they were married.
Who was James Maybrick?
James Maybrick was a cotton dealer from Liverpool, England. When Florence met him, he was returning home after spending two years establishing a branch office in Virginia. Despite bearing the trappings of success, it wasn't difficult to see what attraction Maybrick held for the young woman. Nevertheless, Florence fell for him and the two became engaged. From the very beginning of their relationship, Maybrick kept his skeletons very firmly locked in the closet. During his time in Virginia, he had contracted malaria and self medicated using a variety of arsenic and strychnine ‘cure all’s’. The tonics proved effective not just for malaria but for boosting virility. By the time he met Florence, he was an addict. As if this secret wasn‘t shocking enough, there were more bony knuckles knocking loudly on the closet door. Maybrick kept conveniently quiet about a common-law wife in Whitechapel, London.Together for many years, Sarah Ann Robertson, bore the cotton dealer at least five illegitimate children.
A Marriage in Crisis
After two years spent living in America, the couple returned home to Maybrick’s hometown of Liverpool and set up home at Battlecrease House on the banks of the Mersey. In the early years, the vivacious young American fell in love with Liverpool society and all seemed well. By 1888, it was a very different story. James Maybrick’s fortunes had diminished and Florence had not inherited hers. Despite this, she continued to spend lavishly and lived in fear of her husband’s wrath. By this time she was also the mother of two young children who Maybrick made little allowance for. When she discovered in 1888 that her husband was supporting a mistress and second family, she became incensed. Maybrick was now fifty years old, and a drug addicted hypochondriac. No doubt the young Florence felt she was entitled to a little happiness when she embarked on her own affair with an acquaintance of her husband, Alfred Brierley.
An Unfortunate Chain of Events
- In early April 1889, the couple were still living under the same roof when Florence visited a local chemist and bought some fly papers. When she got home, she soaked them in water, releasing an arsenic substance. Later she claimed that she was preparing a tonic for her skin, a perfectly reasonable explanation at a time when women often used arsenic to improve their complexion.
- On the 27th of April, James Maybrick fell seriously ill after ingesting a tonic containing arsenic and strychnine. Taking to his bed, he was diagnosed with severe dyspepsia. When his condition worsened, nurses were employed to care for him and he was prescribed a cyanide based medicine.
- On the 8th of May, Florence Maybrick asked one of her servants to deliver a letter to Alfred Brierley. He had written to her the previous day to advise her he was leaving the country. Florence begged to see her lover one more time. Unfortunately, the letter did not reach him. Intercepted by the nanny, Alice Yapp, the note was passed first to Maybrick’s brother Edwin, then to the head of the family, Michael.
- On the 9th May Florence asked her husband’s nurse to leave his room while she attended to him. When the suspicious nurse refused, Florence removed a bottle of tonic, ‘Valentine’s Meat Juice’, and took it into the nearby washroom. When she returned, she quickly replaced the bottle next to Maybrick’s bed. Believing the bottle to have been tampered with, the nurse handed it to Maybrick’s brothers. When it was examined, it was found to contain half a grain of arsenic. Florence was to claim later that her arsenic addicted husband had begged her to add the drug to the tonic.
- The following day James’ brother, Michael Maybrick, saw Florence pour her husband’s medicine into a larger bottle. When he confronted her, she claimed that the smaller bottle contained sediment and the medicine couldn’t be shaken properly. When it was analysed later, it contained nothing suspicious. The same day the nurse claimed to hear James Maybrick complain to his wife, ‘You have given me the wrong medicine again.’ The Maybrick brothers confronted Florence, accusing her of attempting to poison their brother and effectively placing her under house arrest. With the aid of the servants, they then searched the house for arsenic and found enough to kill fifty men. The amount that Florence got from the fly papers was minuscule in comparison.
- On the 11th of May, Maybrick died.
As with all suspicious or unexplained deaths, an inquest was held. The post-mortem had discovered an amount of arsenic in Maybrick’s body but not enough to kill him. The cause of death was clearly poisoning, but how and when the fatal dose had been administered was undetermined. Interestingly, the inquest was conducted by a close acquaintance of Maybrick, who went on to take over the lease of Battlecrease House. The inquest did not consider that Maybrick’s death was a consequence of his long-term drug taking and returned a verdict of murder. On the 18th May Florence was arrested and incarcerated in Walton Gaol, a bleak Victorian prison.
The trial of Florence Maybrick took place at Liverpool’s St. George’s Hall and was widely reported on both sides of the Atlantic. The young woman was represented by an eminent barrister, Sir Charles Russell. Nevertheless, the trial was severely flawed. The all male jury was comprised of business acquaintances of James Maybrick, but it was the conduct of the judge that proved most astonishing. Within two years of conducting the trial, Judge James Fitzjames Stephen was to succumb to mental illness. From the outset, he was clearly biased against Florence Maybrick and in his summing up stated that as she was guilty of adultery, she was effectively a murderess, anyway. Florence was found guilty and sentenced to death. A public outcry followed, with many realising that the young woman had not received a fair trial, judged upon her morals rather than her actual guilt. Eventually, in a bid to calm the outcry, the Home Secretary commuted her sentence to life, deciding it was impossible to tell if Florence had given her husband the fatal dose of arsenic. Even this decision proved contentious with Queen Victoria complaining that it was.
‘Dreadful that so wicked a woman should escape by a mere legal quibble.’
Release From Prison
After fifteen long years, Florence was released from prison and returned to her homeland. For a few years, she made a living giving lectures about her dreadful experiences before eventually fading into obscurity. She was never to see her children again. She died on the 23rd October 1941, penniless and living in squalid conditions in Gaylordsville, Connecticut. Known locally as ‘the cat lady, few of her neighbors knew of her colorful past. She is buried on the grounds of South Kent School.
The Jack the Ripper Connection
Florence’s story would have ended with her death except for a bizarre discovery made in the nineties. In 1992, a Liverpool man contacted a London literary agent claiming to have found the diaries of Jack the Ripper. Over 90,000 words long, the diaries were attributed to a man never suspected before, James Maybrick. General consensus at the time concluded the diaries were a fake.Tests on the paper and ink proved inconclusive. It was the behavior of the man who uncovered the diaries that caused most scepticism about their authenticity. Mike Barrett was vague about the discovery of the diaries and twice admitted they were fake before retracting his statements. Maybrick seemed an unlikely candidate until some detective work in 2017 uncovered some further crucial information. Writer Robert Smith discovered that three acquaintances of Barrett were working at Battlecrease House at the time he contacted the literary agent. Smith claims that the three men, electricians, had pulled up the floorboards in James Maybrick’s old bedroom to lay cables. Under the floorboards, they discovered the diaries stashed away. The reason for Mike Barrett’s vagueness? The men had effectively stolen the diaries and feared prosecution.Today the jury is still out as to whether the diaries are authentic, but Maybrick is certainly one of the front runners for those trying to crack the true identity of Jack the Ripper!