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  • Tonya Mitchell

The Real Woman Behind The Arsenic Eater’s Wife

Just who was the infamous woman behind the alleged fatal poisoning of her husband in Liverpool, England in the late 19th century? Why did the trial fuel such grist for the gossip mill on both sides of the Atlantic?

 

The woman center stage in The Arsenic Eater’s Wife was born Florence Elizabeth Chandler in 1862 to monied, well-connected parents. Her mother, Caroline, a Northerner from Massachusetts, inherited her father’s estate (valued at over a million dollars) when he died. Florence’s father, William, came from an old Southern family. After he graduated from Yale, he met and married Caroline and was soon a partner in a reputable cotton banking house in Mobile, Alabama where his parents owned a lavish mansion.


Caroline soon gave birth to a son. Sadly, a few years later, William died at just 33 years of age. Caroline was pregnant with Florence at the time of his passing. She was born just eight weeks after he died. 


Young Florence

Caroline would go on marry twice more, her last husband coming with a title if not financial means. When Florence was ten years old, her mother became Baroness Von Rogues. It was not a happy marriage. The Baron seemed to have been merely looking for a wealthy wife. Seven years later, the two separated but never divorced.


Up until this time, Florence had lived a somewhat aimless life. Her mother traveled extensively and while Florence had seen much of the world, she described in her memoir that she was “too delicate for college life.” Her brother, Holbrook, eventually entered medical school in Paris, but Florence disliked studying. She did, however, have a knack for language: she spoke French and German fluently.


By the time Florence and her mother boarded the SS Baltic bound for Liverpool in 1880, Florence was 17. She was extraordinarily pretty, described as a 5’3” strawberry blond with blue eyes. It was aboard ship she met her husband-to-be, James Maybrick. He was a cotton broker with an office in Norfolk, Virginia, who returned to his native Liverpool in the off-season.


The couple seemed to have been enchanted with one another from the start. James was said to have openly pursued Florence and monopolized her time for the duration of the 10-day voyage. To the young, naïve Florence, James must have seemed worldly and mature. In fact, he was 23 years Florence’s senior (the same age as her mother). By the time they disembarked, they were engaged.


A couple aboard a steamer, much like Florence and James would have looked.

This went against Caroline’s wishes—Florence was still very young, James was from a different country, and her daughter might marry better given the family money—but Florence paid her no mind.


One wonders what her life might have been like if she’d listened.


The couple married the following year. Eight months later, their son James (whom they called Bobo) was born. There is speculation as to the date of his birth; was Bobo merely premature, or had the couple consummated their marriage early? A daughter, Gladys, followed in 1886. Soon afterwards, the family moved into Battlecrease House (what I call Torrence in the novel). From there, things began to unravel.


Within the walls of Battlecrease, things weren’t good.


Unfortunately, James Maybrick had concealed three things from Baroness Von Rogues and her daughter when they met him on the Baltic. One, he was short tempered, tenacious, and obsessed with his health almost to the point of madness (think hypochondriac). Second, he was an arsenic eater (a regular taker of the poison—and others—for what he believed gave him vitality and virility) and it was worsening his health.


The third secret was the biggest of all. The one that would set James and Florence on a horrific path neither saw coming. Ultimately, it would lead to a very scandalous, very public trial the likes of which Liverpool had ever seen.


To divulge the secret now would be a huge spoiler. So I’ll leave it at that. You’ll just have to read The Arsenic Eater’s Wife

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