London: A.P. Watt & Son, 1904.
“Mrs. Florence Elizabeth Maybrick tells her own story of “A Travesty of Justice” after fifteen years’ detention in English prisons. A wonderful story of a wonderful experience” So the Saturday Evening Post announced the serialization of Mrs Maybrick’s story. It is reprinted here in the original newspaper column format.
Mrs Maybrick was condemned to death for poisoning her husband James Maybrick, but after public outcry the sentence was changed to life in prison, and she was finally released in 1905 having served 15 years of her sentence. Even as the jury retired there was a feeling that the medical witnesses had contradicted each other and that there was no chance of resolving that conflict themselves. The Times newspaper, Thursday 8th August 1889, reported that following the verdict: “A large mob had assembled outside the court and showed much indignation at the verdict. The counsel and witnesses were hooted and even Mr Justice Stephens had to drive away guarded by police. On the other hand, as the van containing the prisoner passed out of the courtyard, loud cheers were raised.”
The case against Mrs Maybrick was based on the fact that the marriage had broken down, and she had admitted to an affair. Her husband, however, had also had affairs. The medical evidence was complicated by the fact that James Maybrick could be described as a recreational arsenic user – there was even a suggestion that he had used arsenic as an aphrodisiac. Arsenic was nonetheless present in small quantities in many nineteenth-century household and beauty products, from fly-papers to face cream, and medical witnesses had difficulty in identifying the source of the arsenic that had killed Maybrick.
Florence Maybrick’s memoir is fascinating for its insider’s view of life in prison at the turn of the twentieth century. The account of her experiences as defendant and prisoner is impressionistic yet vivid. She gives a detailed description of the daily routine in a woman’s prison: the regulations, diet, duties, and occasional tragedies. Most memorable, however, are her descriptions of the condemned cell, with its view of the execution building, and of the terrifying noises of her first night in prison – the shouting and screaming from the woman in the next cell, the tramp of feet in the darkness – gas was expensive so even much of the day passed without light being provided.
Maybrick entered prison just before the reforms of the late nineteenth century, so she experienced the ‘separate system’ in which new prisoners were kept in solitary confinement for 9 months on arrival. This was intended to give prisoners time to reflect on their crimes, but sometimes the shock of isolation resulted in mental illness. Mrs Maybrick also has much to say about the bad effects of the ‘silent system’ under which no prisoner was allowed to speak to another and which she blames for most of the distress, unrest and mental illness among prisoners. She accuses the prison system of denying prisoners their own sense of self-identity and humanity, and so “producing that which it claims to prevent,” that is, hardened criminals.
Not on display in physical exhibition