The trial of Florence Maybrick

The Coroner's inquest was held on 28 May after an initial adjournment on 14 May. The body of James was exhumed on 30 May and further organs removed for analysis. More arsenic was found in them. The trial of Florence began on 31 July with Judge Stephens presiding. It was the sort of show piece trial beloved of the Victorians and the newspapers of the day were well represented in court.

Florence's defence counsel was headed by Sir Charles Russell QC, MP, then at the height of his fame. He was not unfamiliar with cases of arsenic poisoning, having successfully prosecuted Mary Ann Cotton at Durham in 1873. He knew that it was easy to belittle and trivialize forensic evidence, and he was experienced in exploiting the tensions between the older medical men, who set great store by subjective experience, and the younger doctors with their more scientific approach. In his defence for Florence he tried to offer an alternative explanation for the various bits of evidence produced against her. He hoped to rely on the Styrian Defence mentioned in two previous chapters: James regularly took arsenic as a tonic, and Florence used it as a cosmetic.

The main line of argument that Russell used was that the amount of arsenic found in James's body was too little to account for his death. His second line of defence was that even supposing James did die of arsenical poisoning, there was no proof that it was given to him by Florence. According to Russell, the arsenic was there as a result of James's habit of self-medication. Russell failed in his defence of Florence, but he was always of the opinion that he had shown that under the law as it then stood, the jury would have had good grounds upon which to return a verdict of not guilty, had they wanted to. That they did not want to, was the fault of the Judge. Russell was upset by Judge Stephens's summing-up, which ended in a vilification of the prisoner, damning her on her sexual and moral failings.

Had a Court of Appeal then existed, Russell would have been able to question the verdict on the grounds of misdirection of the jury by the Judge, and very likely his plea would have been upheld. He could have quoted several legal arguments that today would be very telling, the most damning of which would be that the Judge had introduced facts detrimental to the prisoner in his summing-up that were not produced in evidence, and so could not be challenged by the defence.

The prosecution was handled by Mr John Addison, QC, MP, who did his best for the defence by calling his witnesses in an order that was without any underlying logic. This left the court somewhat confused as to the times, dates, and sequence of events. The Judge commented on this presentation of the Crown's evidence and it certainly befuddled him, but perhaps that might not have been difficult in any case. Reading the trial report today still leaves one unclear about the chronological order of events, and it was little wonder that the Judge sometimes got his dates wrong. Nevertheless the court heard that James's liver was found to contain 20 mg of arsenic, which is about what one would expect as the residue of a much larger quantity. His intestines contained 6 mg and his kidneys gave a positive test but only 0.5 mg was judged to be present. His hair and nails were not analysed since it was not realized at the time that arsenic collected in these. It would be intriguing to have a hair of his head and to subject this to modern neutron activation analysis.

All in all, the prosecution failed to make its points and often pulled its punches. The Judge in his summing up had to do their work for them. The prosecution muddled the scientific evidence and there was confusion over the analyses of the samples removed from Battlecrease House. Much of the trial was taken up with an argument about the symptoms of arsenical poisoning, with doctors Fuller, Humphreys, Carter, and Stevenson, the Home Office expert, all supporting arsenic as the cause of death, but doctors Drysdale, Tidy, McNamara, and Paul, finding nothing in the reports of the post-mortem, or in their knowledge of arsenic toxicity, to support death from this cause.

The medical evidence of the defence experts is not without its gems of wisdom. For example, Dr MacNamara of the Dublin Lock Hospital for the treatment of venereal disease used to 'saturate' patients with arsenic in an attempt to cure them. He pointed out that James must have been suffering from gastroenteritis and not arsenical poisoning because blistering of the stomach would stop the vomiting of the former but not the latter. Professor Paul for the defence found that boiling acid could release arsenic from the glaze of pans, and that the fatal dose for a man of James's build would have been three grains (250 mg). Under cross-examination he admitted that he had never been involved in an arsenic poisoning case before this one. So it went on, with the defence really scraping the bottom of the barrel when it called witnesses such as John Thompson who was a wholesale druggist. He had been visited by James a few years before in connection with the employment of James's cousin, now deceased. The implication was that James had once had relatively easy access to arsenic, although there was no evidence that he had ever bought any from Thompson.

The defence also found a chemist from Bangor, North Wales, who appeared in the witness box to attest that people sometimes came to his shop to buy flypapers 'when there were no flies about'. Finally a James Bioletti, a women's hairdresser, took the stand and revealed that he used arsenic compounds to remove unwanted hair. Moreover on a few, admittedly rare, occasions he had been asked by his lady customers to use arsenic as a cosmetic. This evidence was called in support of Florence's contention that she bought arsenical flypapers for cosmetic purposes. However, she had never been one of Mr Bioletti's clients. He also told the court that he had once read in a newspaper that arsenic made hair grow.

Despite rubbishy evidence along these lines, Russell had been tunnelling away under the prosecution case and to some effect. His medical witnesses countered those of the prosecution's quite effectively. But then his tunnel caved in when Florence delivered her voluntary statement to the court. This had to be made without legal advice. Under the law as it then existed she could not be brought to the witness stand, but she could make a voluntary statement, and this she did. In it she admitted putting arsenic in the meat juice, although she said she had done this at James's request.

In his summing-up, Russell alluded to James's mistress, but all he says about her is 'another person, a woman, concerned in the matter'. He hinted at difficulties in getting defence witnesses. (The Judge answered this in his summing-up by asking the very relevant question of why Florence's mother, or any of her friends who knew of her supposed habit of using arsenic as a cosmetic, did not appear to give evidence for her.) Russell said that if Florence were guilty why did she not get rid of the arsenic in her room? Then he made a legal faux pas. He uttered the astonishing remark that but for Nanny Yapp's unethical opening of Florence's letter none of this would have come to light, and there would have been no trial. In other words, it was just hard luck that she had been found out.

Judge Stephens began his summing-up on the sixth day of the trial and completed it on the seventh. In the first half of his address to the jury he made a few good points but also a few blunders over dates. He openly admitted that the terms used in the scientific evidence meant little to him. Yet he did explain to the jury that arsenic may kill even though it is found in only small amounts after death.

The last day of the trial began with a continuation of the judge's summing-up, but the tone was entirely different. Whereas on the previous day Judge Stephens was fair and impartial towards Florence, the intervening night saw a marked change in his attitude towards her. To begin with, he treated her as on the day before, but as the temperature of that hot August day increased so did the heat in his words. He painted Florence as a scarlet lady. He assumed that the money-lender she met at Flatman's Hotel was also her lover. He referred to other letters that had been found in her room, which he obviously had read, and said that 'any woman having the least regards for her character and reputation would have burnt them'. He read out a letter which had not been produced in evidence, and used this to show Florence to be a liar.

The Judge then dealt with the fateful letter she wrote to Alfred Brierley, and showed the jury what a scheming, lying, adulteress she really was. (As indeed she was, but then James was also an adulterer, and violent as well, although that was never dwelt on at the trial.) The Judge went on to read Florence's statement from his collection of newspaper cuttings of the trial, and he ended his summing-up in a blaze of vituperation which ran thus:

For a person to go on deliberately administering poison to a poor, helpless, sick man upon whom she had already inflicted a dreadful injury - an injury fatal to married life - the person who could do such a thing as that must indeed be destitute of the least trace of human feeling. But I need not say more about it, and if I were to say much more it would be very easy to say more than that would be decent to say, and I should be engaged in an odious task.

A little later he followed this with a further choice phrase: 'You must remember the intrigue which she carried on with this man Brierley, and the feelings - it seems horrible to comparatively ordinary innocent people - a horrible and incredible thought that a woman should be plotting the death of her husband in order that she might be left to follow her own degrading vices.'

After this it took the jury - which consisted mainly of skilled working-class and lower middle-class Lancashire men who clearly knew a wicked woman when they saw one - only 38 minutes to reach their verdict of guilty, and of course their verdict was the right one. The Judge passed sentence of death. Such was the public furore in the weeks following, that the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. (Ironically Florence almost killed herself three years later in Woking prison, to which she had been transferred. She nearly bled to death one night when she severed an artery in her vagina while obtaining blood that she was using to prove that she was suffering from tuberculosis.)

Despite requests made on her behalf at different times by three US Presidents, she served the full life-sentence of 15 years. After her release in

1904, she returned to America where she made a living writing and lecturing about her experiences. This phase lasted a few years but eventually public interest waned and she retired to the small hamlet of South Kent, Connecticut, in 1917. There she became a recluse, surrounded by a colony of inbred cats and finally died, dirty and neglected, in 1941 at the age of 79.

It seems incredible that people should have thought her not only unjustly treated, but actually innocent. Five major facts told against Florence for which she could offer no satisfactory explanation:

1. The quantity of arsenic she had purchased and which was found in her bedroom.

2. The poisoned Valentine's meat juice which James would certainly have consumed had nurse Gore not been sufficiently alert.

3. The traces of arsenic in the jug and other utensils used for the last meal James ate at his office.

4. The arsenic found in Dr Fuller's medicine which James drank.

5. Why Florence bought a second lot of 24 flypapers and what became of them.

It is true that the total amount of arsenic discovered in the organs removed from James's body was quite small but this is hardly surprising in view of the fact that the first large dose was taken 14 days before he died. This would have been eliminated in that time. James survived for three days after the final dose on that fateful Wednesday and it was chiefly the residue of that which accounted for the arsenic found in his liver. The body expels arsenic rapidly and after three days we would expect the arsenic to be less than a fatal dose, and what was in the body was diffused throughout the tissues and no longer just concentrated in the liver.

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