Did She Kill Him? by Kate Colquhoun

Did She Kill Him?: A Victorian Tale of Deception, Adultery, and Arsenic (Little Brown, 2014) by Kate Colquhoun is a recent addition to a vast number of books and other publications that have sought to illuminate the story of Florence Maybrick, convicted of murdering her husband in 1889. Born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1862, as a young women Florence Elizabeth Chandler lived a life of luxury and privilege. Following in the footsteps of other attractive young American women of fortune in the later Victorian period who attracted the attention of fortune-seeking Englishmen—including Jennie Jerome who married Lord Randolph Churchill—Florence met British cotton merchant James Maybrick in 1880 and married him in 1881. Upon her marriage to Maybrick, who was over two decades her senior, Florence and her husband took up residence at “Battlecrease House” in Liverpool. 

Although the Maybrick marriage produced two children and appearances were maintained for the sake of respectability, James Maybrick’s busy work life led to fractures in the union. Often away from home, Maybrick came to involve himself with several mistresses, including a woman who was later identified in documents as a common-law wife. Florence soon began an extra-marital relationship of her own with cotton merchant Arthur Brierley, possibly upon the discovery of husband’s unfaithfulness. In early 1889 with divorce proceedings about to begin imminently, James Maybrick suddenly took ill after self-administering a dose of strychnine. In the days that followed, Florence’s standing in the household quickly deteriorated as her affair with Brierley was revealed to the Maybrick family and the accusation was made by a nurse that Florence had tampered with a health tonic bottle which was later found to contain arsenic. From here, having set the stage for a dramatic Victorian investigation and trial, Colquhon devotes the remainder of the work to elucidating the many intricacies of the case, crafting a detailed account of the events which transpired after James Maybrick died from assumed poisoning at the hand of his wife in May 1889, and detailing the life of Florence both during and after her incarceration. 

An interesting aspect of Colquhon’s work is that over the entirety of the text the author does not make any pronouncement on the degree to which Florence Maybrick was guilty or innocent. Given the media frenzy at the time of the alleged murder and Florence’s subsequent trial and imprisonment, there were many on both sides who felt strongly about the case. Indeed, Colquhoun writes as a deft historian, simply laying out all the facts as they appear to her, leaving the reader to make their own conclusions. However, Colquhon does not just state facts, she also  provides extended explanations on prevailing attitudes concerning female criminality, medical understanding, and social attitudes toward such things as adultery which aid significantly in contextualizing contemporary views of the case and the outcome of Florence Maybrick’s trial for murder. This contextualization helps modern readers understand why this trial is one of the most famous in British legal history.   

1889 image of Florence Maybrick from The Graphic – Wikipedia

A further element that Colquhon touches upon in her already captivating narrative of an alleged Victorian murder case is the allegation that James Maybrick could have been Jack the Ripper. Although not delved into with any degree of detail in the work—likely with good reason given the many conspiracies surrounding the Whitechapel murders, and the fact that most historians reject the claim that Maybrick was Jack the Ripper—these details add a deeper element of mystery to the case and make for an even more exciting story to read. This scurrilous claim would make, and indeed has, a promising true crime publication of its own outside of this case. 

1889 image of James Maybrick from The Graphic – Wikipedia

While Colquhon’s narrative is captivating from start to finish, it is somewhat disappointing from an historian’s perspective that the author did not offer any substantial critique on the dozen or so published secondary sources related to the case. Although perhaps given the sheer volume of secondary material it would have been a rather labourious task, an assessment, or at least an overview of the literature would have gone further to establish the prominence and celebrity of Florence Maybrick and her controversial murder conviction. In fairness, Colquhon does delve a little into Florence’s 1904 autobiography, but a more extensive analysis could possibly have added a further layer of interest to what is already a scintillating story.

17 August 1889 Edition of The Illustrated Police News depicting the “Maybrick Poisoning Case” 
https://www.serpentsofbienville.com/blog-index/2015/10/5/q2wffefz17no7cb55db8qol2hurvb7
 

The story of the Maybrick poisoning case is a famous one within the history of true crime and is indeed well known; however, Coloquhon is clearly up to the challenge of offering a new perspective. Over the course of a work in which the drama of adultery, poison, and possible murder never ebbs, the author continues to circle back to the same titillating question: Did She Kill Him?


Please add Did She Kill Him? to your Goodreads shelf.

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Connor E. R. DeMerchant is an historian from Kingston, New Brunswick, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History from the University of New Brunswick – Saint John and a Master’s in History from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. In the fall of 2021, he began a PhD in history at the University of New Brunswick – Fredericton in the field of Caribbean history. Connor enjoys researching all aspects of Britain and its global empire, including the Caribbean, with his PhD research focusing on poor white communities in St. Vincent and Barbados. When not being an academic, Connor enjoys doing genealogy, collecting vintage photos, rug-hooking, and thrifting.

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