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In 1889, Florence Maybrick was tried in Liverpool for the murder by arsenic poisoning of her husband, James. This deceptively small book tells the story of the crime and its aftermath. It’s well-laid out, with a clear linear structure divided into short chapters. Blake takes us from Florence and James’ first meeting and hasty marriage, hasty perhaps because each thought the other was a better financial catch than turned out to be the case, through their marital problems, James’ illness and death, and the legal aftermath of trial and appeals, and finishes with the story of what finally happened to Florence.
Victoria Blake is a regular visitor to the blog under her more casual name of Vicky Blake, so obviously you will have to assume that there may be some bias in my review. But I shall try to be as honest as I can – not difficult, since I thoroughly enjoyed this little book, finding it both interesting and well presented.
While these old murder cases are often interesting in themselves, what I most enjoy about them is what they tell us about the society of the time. This case has all kinds of fascinating angles and Blake explores and explains them thoroughly. Both Florence and James were suspected of having had affairs, but we see clearly the double standards that were in operation, with men being much more readily forgiven for this kind of transgression. Blake shows us how the growing newspaper industry first demonised Florence and then later took up her cause – all too familiar to readers of today’s tabloid journalism.
Although arsenic was known as a poison used for murder, it was also used for medicinal and even cosmetic purposes, and Blake shows how that confused the evidence. James was a bit of a hypochondriac, who took arsenic along with many other drugs on a regular basis. Florence claimed to use arsenic in a preparation for a facial lotion. And it was easily obtainable – even flypapers contained arsenic which could be released by soaking. So could the prosecution prove that James’ death was definitely murder? Could they even prove that arsenic was the cause of death? As in so many cases, then and now, both prosecution and defence could find expert witnesses giving opposing testimony on the evidence.
But the interest in this case is less on whether Florence did murder James or not, and more on what it showed about the justice system of the time. The judge had decided that Florence was guilty and his summing up left the jury with little option but to bring in that verdict, despite the fact that many people in the legal profession felt the case had not been proved satisfactorily. But at that time there was no right to appeal against a capital conviction. The only recourse was to petition the Home Secretary. The government, however, had to consider the loss of confidence in the justice system if they were to overturn the verdict of a jury and the sentence of a judge. The question of Florence’s guilt or innocence became lost as the establishment closed ranks around its own. And Blake shows how Queen Victoria’s own disgust at the idea of an adulterous wife put added pressure on the government not to show clemency.
An intriguing story and, despite having only 108 pages of text, the book is by no means too short to present all the arguments, due to the concise, clear writing and well-marshalled presentation of the facts and theories. Blake gives both sides equal weight, presenting the evidence of both prosecution and defence without bias. Only at the very end does she express her own opinion as to Florence’s guilt or innocence, and leaves it to the reader to decide whether she’s right.
The book itself is a pleasure – small but with excellent production values. The paper is good quality and there are over 20 plates, including photos of the main participants and locations, and some of the documents in the case. Many of the references in the book are to Home Office files and documents, appropriate for a book published under the auspices of the National Archive. This would be ideal gift material for anyone interested in true crime – I’m off to investigate the other titles in the series now…