Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Maybrick Case

The Maybrick case, or The Aigburth Mystery as it was first known by the Liverpool press, has fascinated criminologists for over a century.

Liverpool cotton broker James Maybrick (left), a hypochondriac who was known to take arsenic as a stimulant, died on 11th May 1889 at Battlecrease House in Riversdale Road, Aigburth, after being ill with a stomach upset. The doctor refused to sign a death certificate and referred the case to the coroner. His American wife Florence (below left), 14 years his junior, was arrested on suspicion of murder three days later.

Gossip had started against Florence when it became apparent that she was having an affair with another cotton broker, Alfred Brierley, who lived at 60 Huskisson Street (right). When a maid who had been asked to post a letter to Mr Brierly opened it, she found that Florence had written that James was near to death. A search of the house by Maybricks brothers found quantities of arsenic  and police decided to act.

The initial post mortem showed no traces of poison and the body of James Maybrick was exhumed on 30th May for analysis of samples from the heart, lungs and kidneys. Although these showed very little traces of arsenic Florence was found guilty of wilful murder by the coroners court, meaning she was committed to stand trial at Liverpool Assizes.

The August trial at St. Georges Hall lasted 7 days and the jury took just 35 minutes to find Florence guilty of murder. This was a surprising verdict, as the prosecution had failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Maybrick had indeed died from arsenic poisoning. The judge in the case, who was committed to a lunatic asylum two years later, had spent the first day of summing up stressing the importance of establishing exact cause of death, but switched track the next day to a vitriolic attack on Florence's private life. Florence was sentenced to death leading to an outcry on both sides of the Atlantic.

Just four days before she was due to hang, the Home Secretary overturned the guilty verdict on the grounds that it was not conclusive that James Maybrick had indeed died from arsenic poisoning. However, Florence was still sentenced to life imprisonment for 'attemptting to administer arsenic to her husband with intent to murder'. This was a crime for which she had not been tried in court, yet she still faced a lifetime behind bars.

Despite numerous appeals, Florence stayed in jail for 15 years. Queen Victoria had made it known at the time that she believed Florence to be guilty and felt that the life sentence should never be commuted. It was not until after her death in 1901 that moves could begin towards release. Just six months after Victoria's death, 1904 was fixed as the release date. 

After her release (when the picture on the left was taken) Florence returned to America where she wrote a book, My Fifteen Lost Years. She lived her last years as a recluse in Connecticut where she died in 1941. 

Maybrick is buried in Anfield cemetery but his grave, pictured below, has been vandalised in recent years.

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