When pretty Florence Maybrick was put on trial for the murder of her husband in the summer of 1889, newspaper coverage ensured that the story became a sensation. Rumours of the torrid infidelity of both the young American and her much older Liverpool cotton-broker husband, combined with accusations of addiction and the gossip of spiteful servants promised to blast the varnish from a respectable middle-class household to reveal stealthy violence at its rotten core.

Shocking and thrilling all at once, the case became the subject of drawing-room speculation, backyard chat and political debate in every corner of the nation.

The case was particularly engrossing because it highlighted the position of bourgeois women within the often-stultifying, suffocating bounds of domesticity to which ‘respectability’ compelled them. It emphasised the gender hypocrisies suffusing the prevailing moral code such that society widely differed in its attitudes about what was acceptable for men and for women. Additionally, it threw into relief the difficult position of middle-class women when they brushed up against the law and the contradictory responses of lawyers and juries to their crimes. For all these reasons, ‘The Maybrick Mystery’ pricked uncomfortably at the curiosity both of the old guard and of those who lobbied for women’s rights.

Accusations of addiction and the gossip of spiteful servants

Following James Maybrick’s death in May 1889, Florence was swiftly charged with his murder. Several of the Maybrick’s servants had noted arsenic-rich flypapers soaking in a basin of water on their mistress’ dressing table in the weeks before his final illness. Some said that they thought the food being returned from his sickroom both looked and tasted different to the food sent up from the kitchen. When friends, family and the police searched the house in the immediate aftermath of the death, enough arsenic was found in various packets to kill them all several times over.

Yet things were not as straightforward as they initially appeared. First, chemical analysis failed to locate enough arsenic in the dead man’s body to prove that he had died as a result of the poison. Then there were plenty of witnesses prepared to testify that, when he was alive, James boasted of his addiction to poisons which – he said – made him feel vigorous and alive. There were pharmacists prepared to swear that he regularly bought arsenical ‘pick me ups’ or tonics and several of the various doctors he consulted believed James to be a hypochondriac with a hearty appetite for medicines. Despite the fact that these statements threw doubt both on the cause of death and Florence’s part in it, letters were found that proved Florence to be an adulteress. And although it was known that James had kept a mistress for years, this fact of his wife’s sexual transgression changed everything. According to prevailing moralities, Florence was no better than a whore.

More like this
Florence was no better than a whore

It soon emerged that Florence had recently taken advice from London solicitors about obtaining a divorce. Victorian marriage laws had been changing since the 1857 Divorce Act, to allow women control over some of their money and to give them rights of appeal for the custody of their children. Yet, in 1889, husbands still had the legal right to their wives’ bodies without consent. More alarmingly, a man needed only to demonstrate that his wife had committed adultery while she, in addition to his faithlessness, had to prove cruelty, desertion, or worse: rape, buggery, incest or bestiality.

Double standards

Like many before her, Florence thus found herself trapped by a double standard but she was not simply subjugated by the law. Divorcees were, at best, sidelined by society while their erstwhile husbands attracted little opprobrium. Worse, as the idea of home and family became central to middle-class society, wives who did not present themselves as models of chastity, philanthropy and morality risked being judged as depraved or even mad. Her infidelity proved, it was thus but a small leap for many to believe her capable of calculation and violence.

Just a few decades earlier, middle-class women caught up in criminal investigations might have been shuffled abroad or into lunatic asylums to escape the scouringly public process of the law. By the late 19th-century, though, they had become objects of fascination to press and public alike: especially if they were young, slender and pretty and if there was even a whisper of libido.

Several high-profile cases had recently turned on the heady mix of bourgeois women, sex and poison, including those of Madeleine Smith in 1857 and Adelaide Bartlett in 1886. In both cases, in order to avoid the assumption of guilt, the women maintained unflinching poses of innocence in the dock, countering every accusation of active sexuality. It worked. Mainly because of the lack of absolute proof of scandal, both Smith and Bartlett were acquitted.

Heady mix of bourgeois women sex and poison

For those who argued for women’s right to self-fulfilment outside the home and for more equal treatment, James Maybrick’s faithlessness made a victim of his wife. Conversely, those who set themselves against the evolving position of women in society derided everything she represented. Thus the story resonated with silent challenge. Hidden in the lengthy newspaper reports and in private conversation was an unarticulated concern about the clash between the old order and the rapidly evolving moral code.

Reports in the Press

The newspapers fell on it knowing that the incendiary combination of female defendant, sex, poison and the overturning of ideas about ‘respectability’ and class would stoke sales and fuel profits. Circulations were higher than at any previous period, driven by the abolition of the newspaper tax in the mid-1850s, by the railway’s ability to distribute further and faster than ever before and by new steam-powered technologies. Lloyd’s Newspaper would soon be the first to sell one million copies of a single issue.

Thriving on reporting the kind of crime for which their readers hungered – scandal, horror and outrage – the press was expert at fanning the flames of public indignation. Thus they continually emphasised the divide between tradition and emancipation, endlessly picking over the mismatched pair’s differences.

The adulterous husband and the scheming libidinous wife reflected a battle between the sexes that came to characterise the last years of Victoria’s reign. Beyond that, the facts titillated. They entertained and delighted primarily because, in the process of exposing deviancy, they confirmed readers in their own successful negotiation of the narrow path of virtue.

The adulterous husband and the scheming libidinous wife

In addition, if it was rare to see a woman in the dock (women of all classes made up just a sixth of all criminals in the 1890s) then it was far rarer to see one of Florence’s class, let alone a lady indicted for a capital offence. Male juries were generally reticent about convicting middle-class women for crimes they found it impossible to believe them morally capable of committing. Thus the lawyers for both Bartlett and Smith had manipulated their judges and juries’ sense of chivalry to ensure their freedom. For the same reason, the sentences given to convicted women were often less severe than those apportioned to men.

Yet when it came to murder, reactions were more complicated. Where there was evidence of promiscuity, an imputation of deviancy was almost inevitable. The more spirited the defendant, the more threatening she appeared.

Tension blossomed from a simultaneous desire both to protect women and to hold them to far more stringent moral expectations than those applied to men: to mitigate the harshness of the sentence because of their sex while punishing aberrance from the norm. Consequently, the very gender of female defendants was often the defining factor in their trials, getting in the way of judicial clarity.

Beautifully dressed whenever she appeared in court, self-controlled in the dock, perfectly polite to the judge – she rose and curtseyed to him at the end of each day – Florence Maybrick elicited a confusing mixture of admiration and distrust. Some said she was made of sterner stuff than was quite attractive. It may have done her more good, in the eyes of the public, to have broken down and wept.

The public reaction

Everything about the way the country reacted to her reflected the difficult double standards of the day. When women in court hissed in her face, when crowds of women expressed their revulsion as her prison van left the court each day, they were themselves criticised for their unladylike behaviour.

Those who testified against her – especially her husband’s female friends and the children’s nursemaid – allied themselves firmly to morality and public duty. Yet their apparent lack of generosity also appeared spiteful. At times it seemed that it was not just Mrs Maybrick in the dock but the whole character and role of women.

It was not just Mrs Maybrick in the dock but the whole character and role of women

The ultimate difficulty for her defence counsel was in finding a way to untangle proven infidelity from intent to kill. Unlike Smith or Bartlett, she could not pretend purity. Indeed she admitted her disastrous extra-marital affair. Her famous barrister, Sir Charles Russell QC, focussing on the forensic evidence cautioned the jury that Mrs Maybrick was not on trial for immorality. Despite this, it took them just 43 minutes to return a verdict of guilty and Florence was sentenced to hang. This was later commuted to life imprisonment.

Feminist reaction

In the furore that followed the trial it seemed that Florence’s case was providing a stage for the vacillations of a changing world to be played out. It provided a focus for feminist views: the strength of the reaction against her, some argued, was an indication of gender inequality and the power of a patriarchal society. That women already enjoyed more freedoms than they had done for generations was not at issue. The effects of those changes on the nation, though, were.

It particularly troubled some that so much circumstantial evidence had been stacked against her while James’ infidelities remained unexplored. Josephine Butler, famous advocate of the welfare of prostitutes, believed that her judge – Sir James Fitzjames Stephen – had “exhausted the English vocabulary for terms of horror, reprobation and shame… We have not yet passed out of the old world of ‘such should be stoned’ into the new world of equal morals and just judgements between the sexes”. The wife of another suffragist Liberal politician argued forcefully in the wake of the verdict that all-male juries were absurd.

The fate of Florence Maybrick had become a national morality fable, the inevitable result of too much spirit or too little independence, depending on your point of view. It caused a commotion because it brought up so many hotly debated issues: the conflict between male and female spheres, between public and private, honesty and deception, estrangement and infatuation, dependence and emancipation.

A divided country

As the country split between those who believed she should be hung and those who lobbied for a respite, focus narrowed on the role of the chemical analyst as ‘poisons detective’. Both the leading medical journals, the British Medical Journal and the Lancet, published the results of their own interrogation of the scientific evidence.

Sir Charles Russell railed that his client had not been tried on the evidence. As he wrote to the Home Secretary immediately after the trial – “the woman had been unfaithful to her husband and I am afraid this fact and her subsequent improper letter to her paramour unsettled Judge Stephens’ ordinarily fair judgement”.

Sir Charles Russell railed that his client had not been tried on the evidence

Although Florence was released in January 1904, having spent 14 years in custody (she lived out the rest of her life in the United States) Russell believed until his death that the verdict was wrong and that his client was convicted because evidence of her libido and the apparent trouncing of her female role struck at the roots of established society. He argued that her crime was to have threatened the family and home from within.

Ancient as the story of Eve, Florence Maybrick’s case proved that, in 1889, female sexuality still went hand in hand with criminality. As a result, many argued at the time that the sentence against her represented one of the greatest miscarriages of 19th-century justice.

Series 4 of Murder, Mystery and My Family begins on Monday 27 July 10am BBC One