Friday, 7 February 2014

Two For The Price of One - The Curious Case of James Maybrick

With Liverpool's James Maybrick, you get, not one, but two scandalous mysteries. First there's the infamous Diary of Jack The Ripper and then there's the way he met his untimely end. So, was he or wasn't he? 

Did she or didn't she?

In 1998, more than 100 delegates at the International Investigative Psychology Conference at the University of Liverpool, failed to determine whether a diary, belonging to Victorian cotton merchant,James Maybrick and purporting to confess to the murders of Jack the Ripper, was genuine. It had apparently been discovered by a fitter, Michael Barrett, while working on his former home. The delegation of psychologists, historians and police officers from all over the world could only agree that the diary was "fascinating" and written by someone with "a disturbed mind".

 Pyschological profiling, Professor David Canter said, showed that it could theoretically be the work of the man known to history as Jack the Ripper. "This was either produced by a very skilled author or someone with detailed knowledge of the Ripper history, or someone with enormous insight into carrying out these crimes and the person most likely to have that is the person who did carry out those crimes."

Shirley Harrison, author of the academic work, The Diary of Jack the Ripper, said: "Although I have not been able to prove that it is genuine, I seriously believe the diary deserves serious historical and academic consideration." 

 But areas of concern included certain errors in historical detail, such as the naming of a pub as 'The Post House', when it didn't acquire that name until after 1888 - the year the diary was supposed to have been written.

 A final vote on the subject declared 30 delegates convinced the diary was indeed a fake.


 Whoever Jack the Ripper really was, he had a short career and a bloody one. The known murder victims were Mary Ann Nicholls, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Kelly. They were all working as prostitutes at the time of death, at the very lowest rung of the Victorian social scale. Their ages ranged from 25-47. All were horribly mutilated, in the Whitechapel area of London between August and November 1888. There may have been others, including Martha Turner. She was stabbed, but not butchered with the Ripper's trademark style. As the murders grew in number, so did the level of violence used. Then, without warning, they stopped. 

Duke of Clarence
Many famous and not so famous men have been suspected - from Queen Victoria's grandson, the Duke of Clarence, through to Lewis Carroll, the painter Walter Sickert (Patricia Cornwell favoured this suspect in her book Portrait of a Killer), the Queen's physician, Sir William Gull, and a host of others in between. From the discovery of Maybrick's alleged diary in 1992, he joined an illustrious, infamous group, at least for a time.

Walter Sickert
While investigation and speculation as to the authenticity of the diary amused the delegates at the 1998 conference, earlier events had already cast considerable doubt on whether Maybrick had even written it. In 1994, Michael Barrett told the Liverpool Daily Post that he had forged it. He later retracted this statement, only to retract that later and insist that he had in fact forged it. This is at odds with assertions made by his ex-wife that she had the diary in her possession from 1968 when her father had given it to her. He, in turn, had told her he had received it in 1950, along with a pile of other books. In 1992, she allegedly gave it to a (now deceased) friend of Barrett's, urging him to pass it on to her ex-husband. She said she thought he might write a story based on it, as he seemed to lack purpose and direction in his life at the time. She didn't think he would actually attempt to publish it as it was. He did.

Now, it is generally believed that the diary's many details of error in relation to, not only the pub name, but also to the murders themselves, put Maybrick out of contention as a serious suspect. There is also a discrepancy in the style of the diary's handwriting with known examples of Maybrick's own, so there remains the mystery of who actually did write the diary?

This is a question to which no answer has yet been offered (except for the contentious confession of Michael Barrett).

As forJames Maybrick, we now move to the second mystery. His death.

 Enter Maybrick's American wife, Florence. In 1889, she was convicted of his murder, by arsenic poisoning and, while she escaped the hangman, she remained incarcerated until 1904. The trial attracted widespread coverage on both sides of the Atlantic and many considered her innocent of the crime. But, if she was guilty, why did she kill him?

The Maybricks were well known on Liverpool's social scene, but their marriage was a severely tested and troubled one. James Maybrick had a string of mistresses, one of whom bore him five children. He was also a habitual user of arsenic, for 'medical' purposes, as were many in Victorian times, where it was used for - among other ailments - treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, such as syphilis. Maybrick, though, was said to have taken it as an aphrodisiac, or tonic.

Florence also had affairs, including one with a brother in law and one with a local businessman, Alfred Brierley. Maybrick found out about this and a furious row ensued between the couple. Maybrick declared his intention to divorce Florence. This would have ruined her socially - a fact which would have, undoubtedly, troubled her greatly. She is then said to have purchased arsenic soaked flypapers, which she then soaked in water. At her trial, she claimed this was for her own, cosmetic use - another widely employed Victorian practice.

On May 9th, 1889, a nurse reported that Mrs Maybrick had interfered with a bottle later found to contain a half-grain of arsenic. Florence testified that her husband had begged her to administer it to him as a 'pick-me-up', but never drank its contents. He died two days later, at his home. A post mortem discovered traces of arsenic but not enough to kill him. Following an inquest, Florence Maybrick was charged with murder and, following conviction, sentenced to death. A huge public outcry deplored this decision and her sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. Influential people fought for her to have a retrial, including Lord Russell, the Lord Chief Justice, but it never happened.

On her release, she initially went to the USA, where she toured the lecture circuit, protesting her innocence. Later, she returned to England, where she lived as a virtual recluse, with only her cats for company. She died, penniless, on October 23rd, 1941. Her neighbours weren't even aware of her true identity.


  1. This case continues to fascinate today. Amazing. I wonder if we'll ever find out the Ripper's true identity. Did he ever leave any notes and if so, how did the handwriting stand up to Maybrick's diary? Thanks Cat.

  2. I certainly find this case fascinating too, Sue. The diary, as I've mentioned above, has rather too many inconsistencies for my liking and Maybrick's verifiable handwrititing is apparently not the same as that in the diary, so on the balance of evidence, it is probably a fake - but who knows for sure?

  3. Cat..... Florrie for Jack... Hmm. Got a lot or research on that subject. Fascinating . But then you always are.

  4. Fascinating and sad. At least her cats enjoyed her company at the end.

    1. Thanks Sheila. And I'll bet they were a great comfort too