She was born Florence Elizabeth Chandler in Mobile, Alabama, the daughter of William George Chandler, a partner in the banking firm of St. John Powers and Company, and at one time mayor of Mobile. Her father died, and her mother Caroline Chandler Du Barry, née Holbrook, remarried a third time in 1872 to Baron Adolph von Roques, a cavalry officer in the Eighth Cuirassier Regiment of the German Army. While travelling to Britain with her mother, she met cotton broker James Maybrick on board ship. Other passengers were either amused or shocked by a 19-year-old girl spending so much time alone in the company of Maybrick, who was 23 years her senior. On 27 July 1881, they were married at St James's Church, Piccadilly, in London. They settled in Battlecrease House, Aigburth, a suburb of Liverpool.
Florence made quite an impression on the social scene in Liverpool, and the Maybricks were usually to be found at the most important balls and functions, the very picture of a happy, successful couple. But all was not as it seemed. Maybrick was a regular user of arsenic and had a number of mistresses, one of whom bore him five children. Florence meanwhile, increasingly unhappy in her marriage, entered into several liaisons of her own. One was with a local businessman, Alfred Brierley, which her husband was told about. She was also suspected of having an affair with one of her brothers-in-law, Edwin. A violent row ensued after Maybrick heard reports of Florence's relationship with Brierley, during which Maybrick assaulted her and announced his intention of seeking a divorce.
In April 1889, Florence Maybrick bought flypaper containing arsenic from a local chemist's shop and later soaked it in a bowl of water. At her trial, she claimed that this method allowed her to extract the arsenic for cosmetic use. James Maybrick was taken ill on 27 April 1889 after self-administering a double dose of strychnine. His doctors treated him for acute dyspepsia, but his condition deteriorated. On 8 May Florence Maybrick wrote a compromising letter to Brierley, which was intercepted by Alice Yapp, the nanny. Yapp passed it to James Maybrick's brother, Edwin, who was staying at Battlecrease. Edwin, himself by many accounts one of Florence's lovers, shared the contents of the letter with his brother Michael Maybrick, who was effectively the head of the family. By Michael's orders Florence was immediately deposed as mistress of her house and held under house arrest. On 9 May a nurse reported that Mrs Maybrick had surreptitiously tampered with a meat-juice bottle which was afterwards found to contain a half-grain of arsenic. Mrs Maybrick later testified that her husband had begged her to administer it as a pick-me-up. However, he never drank its contents.
James Maybrick died at his home on 11 May 1889. His brothers, suspicious as to the cause of death, had his body examined. It was found to contain slight traces of arsenic, but not enough to be considered fatal. It is uncertain whether this was taken by Maybrick himself or administered by another person. After an inquest held in a nearby hotel, Florence Maybrick was charged with his murder and stood trial at St George's Hall, Liverpool, before Justice James Fitzjames Stephen, where she was convicted and sentenced to death.
After a public outcry, Henry Matthews, the Home Secretary, and Lord Chancellor Halsbury concluded 'that the evidence clearly establishes that Mrs Maybrick administered poison to her husband with intent to murder; but that there is ground for reasonable doubt whether the arsenic so administered was in fact the cause of his death'. The death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment as punishment for a crime with which she was never charged. During the 1890s new evidence was publicized by her supporters, but there was no possibility of an appeal, and the Home Office was not inclined to release her, in spite of the strenuous efforts of Lord Russell, the Lord Chief Justice.
The case was something of a cause célèbre and attracted considerable newspaper coverage on both sides of the Atlantic. Arsenic was then regarded by some men as an aphrodisiac and tonic, and James Maybrick had certainly taken it on a regular basis. A city chemist confirmed that he had supplied Maybrick with quantities of the poison over a lengthy period and a search of Battlecrease House later turned up enough to kill at least fifty people. Although her marriage was clearly over in all but name, Florence had little motive to murder her husband. The financial provision Maybrick had made for her and his children in his will was paltry and she might have been far better off with him alive but legally separated from her. Many people held the view that Florence had indeed poisoned her husband because he was about to divorce her which, in Victorian society, would see her ruined. An even more compelling motive might have been the prospect of losing the custody of her beloved children.
After detention in Woking and Aylesbury prisons, Florence Maybrick was released in January 1904, having spent fourteen years in custody. Although she had lost her American citizenship when she married her British husband, she returned to the United States. Initially she earned a living on the lecture circuit, protesting her innocence. In later life, after some months spent unsuccessfully as a housekeeper, Florence became a recluse, living in a squalid three-room cabin near Gaylordsville, South Kent, Connecticut with only her cats for company. She never saw her children again. Few residents had any knowledge of Florence's true identity and the lady who had once charmed Victorian Liverpool died alone and penniless on 23 October 1941, and was buried in the grounds of South Kent School. Among her few possessions was a tattered family bible. Pressed between its pages was a scrap of paper, which, in faded ink bore directions for the soaking of flypapers for use as a beauty treatment.
Florence Maybrick wrote a book about her experiences soon after her release. A rare copy of My Fifteen Lost Years is still held by Liverpool City Libraries.
Non-fiction books and pamphlets about the case
- Boswell, Charles, and Lewis Thompson. The Girl with the Scarlet Brand (1954).
- Christie, Trevor L. Etched in Arsenic (1968).
- Daisy Bank Print. and Pub. Co. Full Account of the Life & Trial of Mrs. Maybrick: Interesting Details of her Earlier Life (ca. 1901).
- Densmore, Helen. The Maybrick Case (1892).
- Irving, Henry B. Trial of Mrs. Maybrick (Notable English Trials series, 1912).
- Irving, Henry B. "Mrs. Maybrick", in James H. Hodge (ed.), Famous Trials III (Penguin, 1950) pp. 97–134
- J.L.F. The Maybrick Case: A Treatise Showing Conclusive Reasons for the Continued Public Dissent from the Verdict and "Decision." (1891).
- L.E.X. Is Mrs. Maybrick guilty?: A Defence Shewing that the Verdict of Guilty is not Founded on Fact, and is Inconsistent with the Presence of a Strong Element of Doubt; with Reasons for Mrs. Maybrick's Release (1889).
- Levy, J. H. The Necessity for Criminal Appeal: As Illustrated by the Maybrick Case and the Jurisprudence of Various Countries (1899).
- MacDougall, Alexander. The Maybrick Case (1891 and 1896).
- Mason, Eleanor. Florie Chandler: or, The Secret to the Maybrick Poisoning Case (1890).
- Maybrick, Florence E. Mrs. Maybrick's Own Story: My Fifteen Lost Years (1904).
- Morland, Nigel. This Friendless Lady (1957).
- Ryan Jr., Bernard. The Poisoned Life of Mrs. Maybrick (1977).
- Tidy, Charles Meymott and Rawdon Macnamara. The Maybrick Trial: A Toxicological Study (1890).
Other works on the case
The Maybrick case was dramatized on the radio series The Black Museum in 1952 under the title of "Meat Juice".
The BBC Radio series John Mortimer Presents Sensational British Trials featured an episode about the Maybrick case, entitled "The Case of the Liverpool Poisoner".
Fiction inspired by the case
- Ackroyd, Peter. Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994).
- Berkeley, Anthony. The Wychford Poisoning Case (1926).
- Fessenden, Laura Dayton. Bonnie Mackirby (1898).
- Lowndes, Mrs. Belloc. Letty Lynton (1931).
- Lowndes, Mrs. Belloc. Story of Ivy (1928).
- Sayers, Dorothy L. Strong Poison (1930).
- Shearing, Joseph. Airing in a Closed Carriage (1943).
- Maybrick, Florence E. Mrs Maybrick's Own Story: My Lost Fifteen Years Funk and Wagnalls Company (1904)
- Ryan Jr., Bernard. The Poisoned Life of Mrs. Maybrick (1977)
- Davenport-Hines, Richard. "Maybrick , Florence Elizabeth (1862–1941)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
- Buckle, G. E. (ed.) The Letters of Queen Victoria 3rd ser. (1930–32), vol. 1, p. 527
- Verdict in Dispute by Edgar Lustgarten, online copy at The Internet Archive
- Casebook: Jack the Ripper - Background of the Maybrick Family at casebook.org
- Lawbuzz Famous Trials - Florence Maybrick - Preface at www.lawbuzz.com
- Jack The Ripper And A Belle From Mobile | Alabama Heritage | Find Articles at BNET at www.findarticles.com
- Florence Maybrick at www.old-merseytimes.co.uk