Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Florence Maybrick

When I first embarked on the Harry Devlin books, I was surprised that no fictional whodunit series had previously been set in Liverpool. One of the reasons why this seemed odd was that not one, but two of the most extraordinary and fascinating real life murder mysteries of all time occurred in Liverpool. I mentioned the Wallace case recently in connection with the death of Jonathan Goodman. The other case was that of the murder (if it was murder) of Florence Maybrick.

The Maybrick case has, in recent years, attracted renewed interest because of the purported diary of Florence’s husband, James Maybrick, who is believed by some people to have been Jack the Ripper. That’s another story (also fascinating, since whether you believe that the diary was fabricated or not, it’s an extraordinary piece of work) which I’ll talk about some other time.

Florence was an American who married a cotton broker (whose brother was a well-known composer) and settled in Battlecrease House at Aigburth, Liverpool, across the road from the cricket ground. The marriage wasn’t perfect; James had various mistresses, one of whom bore him five children, and Florence had a fling of her own. When James suffered an illness and then died, arsenic was found in his body. Florence was thought to have had motive, means (she’d bought arsenical fly-papers) and opportunity. Amidst massive publicity, she was tried, convicted and sentenced to death. The judge who presided over the case eventually went insane. Florence was reprieved at the last minute, but not before she’d heard the sound of hammering outside her prison cell as her gallows were constructed. She spent fifteen years in prison before being released and promptly wrote a book about her experiences and went on the lecture circuit. More than half a century after being sentenced to hang, she finally died in impoverished obscurity in her native USA.

And that’s only a much-condensed summary of an amazing story. It’s long fascinated me and, some years ago, I had the rare privilege of being taken around the hugely atmospheric Maybrick house by its owner – a memorable experience. The Maybrick case has inspired a number of novels – some say it even influenced the Sayers classic Strong Poison. There’s a much closer connection with Joseph Shearing’s Airing in a Closed Carriage, and The Wychford Poisoning Case by the marvellous Anthony Berkeley. For some reason, I’ve not said anything much about Berkeley on this blog. But he’s one of my favourite detective story writers of the past; more about him soon.

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