Virginia Club


A Virginia Club member who will live in infamy

James Maybrick (1838-1889) was a Liverpool cotton merchant. After his death, his wife,  Florence Maybrick, was convicted of his murder in a sensational trial that was widely reported in the press on both sides of the Atlantic.  To add to the intrigue, Maybrick was named as a suspect in the notorious Jack the Ripper murders.  Among his other notable achievements, Maybrick was a member of the Virginia Club. 

The story starts in 1871 when James Maybrick was unmarried and living with his mother in London.  About two years later, he formed Maybrick and Company, Cotton Merchants, with his brother Edwin as a partner. In 1874 James left England for the thriving cotton port of Norfolk, Virginia, to establish a branch office. This decision later proved to be a crucial turning point in the life of James Maybrick.

In 1877, three years after arriving in Norfolk, Maybrick contracted Malaria. After an initial, but unsuccessful, prescription of quinine, a second dosing of arsenic and strychnine was tried (unconventional by modern medical standards, but not unheard of in the 1870's). In fact, "Fowler's Medicine," which contained arsenic, was a popular tonic at the time. Arsenic also appealed to James Maybrick because it was believed it increased virility (apparently, the Viagra of its day). He was not alone, however, for arsenic and strychnine abuse was becoming fashionable among professional men in both America and Britain. Arsenic is addictive.  Evidence suggests James Maybrick carried this addiction to his grave.

In 1878, Maybrick became a member of the Virginia Club.  At this time, living as a bachelor, he rented quarters in a house on York Street.  While living in Norfolk, he was a “fairly frequent” visitor to a brothel run by Mary Hogwood.

After leaving Norfolk in March 1880, Maybrick departed New York for a transatlantic voyage aboard the SS Baltic. During the six day transit to Liverpool, he was introduced to an 18-year old beauty, Florence Chandler, and her mother, Baroness Caroline von Roques. Known as “Florie,” she was a five-foot three-inch strawberry blonde with blue eyes. Born in Mobile, Alabama, Florence was very much involved with figures in Southern society. Although Maybrick was 24 years her senior, a whirlwind romance immediately ensued. Upon their arrival in Liverpool, James and Florie had already planned their marriage.  The wedding took place on July 27, 1881, at St. James Church, Piccadilly, in the heart of London. 

Florie “prematurely” gave birth to a son, James Chandler, known as "Bobo", eight months after the wedding. In 1882, the Maybricks returned to Norfolk with their infant son, living in a house on West Freemason Street.  For the next two years, the Maybrick family divided its time between Norfolk and Liverpool.

The declining cotton trade prompted Maybrick to resign from the Norfolk Cotton Exchange in 1884, and the family returned to England and took up residency in a suburb of Liverpool. An economic recession was also taking place in England that same year. Maybrick became increasingly concerned with health and financial woes. His use of arsenic and other  "medicines" continued.  His marriage took a turn for the worse.

In 1886, Florie gave birth to a daughter, Gladys Evelyn. The birth of their second child did not improve relations between husband and wife; their marriage continued to deteriorate.  In 1887, Florie discovered there was another woman, indeed other women, in her husband's life.  Out of spite, she began an affair with Alfred Brierly, another Liverpool cotton broker.  By this time, the Maybricks were sleeping in separate beds.  The first of the Ripper murders was less than nine months away.

Maybrick had affairs with many mistresses, both in England and America.  Most were considerably younger than he, and many were great beauties in their day.  One, Sarah Ann Robertson, was considered his common-law wife.  In the 1891 British Census, Sarah Ann Robertson, listed as single and aged 44, was residing in London.  In other documents, however, this same person is shown as Sarah Ann Maybrick. For example, in her stepfather's will she is listed as "Sarah Ann Maybrick, wife of James Maybrick." Upon her death in 1927, she is listed in records as "Sarah Ann Maybrick, otherwise Robertson." She lived for a while on Bromley Street, near Whitechapel, and on Mark Lane, across the road from Whitechapel. James Maybrick's relationship with Sarah Ann indicates that he would have been intimately familiar with the Whitechapel area where the Ripper murders took place. 

In 1888, the Maybricks moved to the Battlecrease House, also in a suburb of Liverpool, and their marital discord continued. Maybrick was showing signs of drug-induced depression, including a gloomy disposition, hypochondria, and a violent temper. On the night of March 29, 1989, the couple quarreled, with James giving Florie a black eye. 

Over the next few days, James received delivery of more and more drug prescriptions.  His heath continued to fail. On April 26th, James Maybrick fell seriously ill, apparently from yet more overdoses of these medicines. He never regained his health.  He visited his doctor for the last time on May 3rd, and also made the last entry into his personal diary.  On May 11, 1889, James Maybrick died. 

Florie was immediately suspected of poisoning her husband.  She was placed under house arrest, and she was charged with murder on May 14th.  On May 30th, the remains of James Maybrick were exhumed and examined for the presence of arsenic.  On June 30th, Florie was brought before the Magistrate for the first time to hear the "evidence." James' brothers, servants and doctors all testified against her.

On July 26th, the case was committed to trial, scheduled to begin on the 31st of that month. The trial ended after seven days of testimony.  The jury deliberated for only 35 minutes before finding a verdict of guilty.

The trial was presided over by Justice Fitzjames Stephen.  The Press reported that the trial was a travesty of justice, with evidence based on “suspicion, rumour and innuendo.” Justice Stephen delivered the following decree: 

"The court doth order you to be taken from hence to the place from whence you came, and thence to the place of execution, and that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that your body be afterward buried within the precincts of the prison in which you shall be confined after your conviction. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul."

The trial was a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic and was reported in Norfolk newspapers.  Florie was not without her supporters.  Many prominent people, including three American presidents, appealed for her release.  She remained in prison for fifteen years.  In 1904, her conviction was overturned, due to judicial improprieties, and she was released.  The Maybrick case was the last ever heard by Justice Stephen.  He died in 1894 in an insane asylum.

James Maybrick was not associated with the infamous Jack the Ripper case until his diary was found in 1992. The diary contained damning evidence of Maybrick’s activities while living in London.  While the authenticity of Maybrick’s diary is disputed, forensic evidence has yet to prove it to be a forgery.

Another personal item of Maybrick’s links him as well.  His pocket watch was found to have scrawled lettering inside stating, “I am Jack.”

James Maybrick is buried in his family’s plot at Anfield, Merseyside, England.  His tombstone has been vandalized multiple times. 

Florence was reclusive and destitute for the remainder of her life.  She worked as a housekeeper in Connecticut, where she became known as the “Cat Lady.”  In 1941, she was found dead at age 79.  For one last time, she was front page news.

James Maybrick.  RIP?