Friday, October 4, 2019

Hugh and Florrie: Hugh Wheeler's True Crime Essays on Florence Maybrick

Note: The Passing Tramp previously looked, about fourteen months ago, at Rickie Webb's 1943 essay about accused murderess Lizzie Borden, in which he suggested a new culprit behind the brutal ax slaughters of Andrew Borden and his second wife in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892.  Here we look at Rickie Webb's companion and fellow crime writer Hugh Wheeler's essays on another notorious Victorian era accused murderess, Lizzie Borden's sister American Florence Maybrick.

At the bright dawn of life:
Florence Chandler Maybrick
In his true crime essays “The Last of Mrs. Maybrick” (1943) and its postscript, “The Ordeal of Florence Maybrick” (1962), published respectively in The Pocket Book of True Crime Stories (1943) and The Quality of Murder (1962), true crime anthologies edited by Anthony Boucher, Hugh Wheeler analyzed one of the most notorious of British murder cases, the 1889 trial of Florence Maybrick (1862-1941) for the murder of her husband James. 

Wealthy Liverpool cotton broker James Maybrick had wed the much younger Florence, a beautiful blonde American belle originally from Mobile, Alabama, eight years previously, after a whirlwind shipboard romance, but the marriage soon proved a dreadful misalliance.  The coarse and caddish James kept mistresses (one of whom bore him five children), and Florence with considerable provocation entered into her own extramarital liaisons (though just how she far did so remains in question).  Relations between the man and wife continued to deteriorate from there.

When James mysteriously died in 1889, Florence, who recently had fatefully purchased arsenical flypapers for the benefit of her complexion (or so she said), was arrested and charged with murder.  After being convicted of the crime and sentenced to hang amid much public outcry--incredibly, in the face of the verdict and sentence, it had not been credibly established just how James had died--Florence saw her death sentence commuted to life imprisonment on the theory that she had tried to murder her husband with arsenic but might not actually have succeeded in doing so.  This seemed to be an admission that the murder case against her had not been proven, yet she was not freed from prison. 

To the contrary, she spent fourteen years in harsh incarceration, returning after her release from prison to the United States, where she ultimately settled, in an increasingly abject state, in the foothills of northwestern Connecticut.  (Her two children with James she never saw again.)  In 1941, just a couple of years before Hugh Wheeler’s first essay about her was published, Florence Maybrick, now a wizened old woman of seventy-nine years living under an assumed surname, died anonymously at her residence, a tiny three-room, twenty by ten foot dwelling with a six foot porch located not far from South Kent School, a private boarding school for boys, where she had resided, with only her cats for company, for the last two decades. 

To the boys of the school, who delivered firewood and other necessaries to her door, she had been known simply as “The Cat Woman” and “Lady Florence,” but with her death truth came out, grabbing the attention of even a populace which was preoccupied with the deadly world warfare going on all around it.  “Mrs. Maybrick Dies a Recluse,” announced the New York Times of the notorious accused Victorian era poisoner a week before All Hallow’s Eve in 1941, beside disquieting front page tidings about the German advance on Moscow.  “Scrapbook in Cottage Reveals Identity.

Justice Fitzhames Stephen
who might have served as a model
for Agatha Christie's Justice Wargrave
in And Then There Were None
Certainly to Hugh Wheeler the case of Florence Maybrick held morbid fascination.  To Hugh, who with his partner Rickie Webb shared a life that then was generally deemed unforgivably unorthodox, Florence’s cruel ordeal seemed a textbook case of the ill treatment censorious society affords an individual whom it deems—and damns--as too daringly different to live.  “Mrs. Maybrick faced trial as an American hussy who had mistreated and deceived a perfectly good English husband, a man, as far as the jury knew, without a blemish on his character,” Hugh writes witheringly, adding:

Mrs. Maybrick was not merely facing trial, she was facing Mr. Justice Stephen on the bench….his dislike for her swelled within him until it reached almost psychopathic proportions.  This manifested itself finally, in his summing up, as a two-day harangue of impassioned malignity and misogyny.  In one of the most biased speeches ever to come from the English bench, he referred to poor Mrs. Maybrick as ‘that horrible woman’ and branded her as the epitome of all that was vile….the English bench has never been noted for its chivalry or its leniency toward women accused of murder, particularly where there is also the whiff of adultery. 

Yup, it's this asshole again!

Five years after its publication, Hugh Wheeler’s Pocket Book essay caught the skeptical if not scornful eye of ornery crime writer Raymond Chandler, a man who himself has been accused of misogyny (not to mention homophobia).  In correspondence with James Sandoe, the hard-boiled crime writer, who in his fiction never met a femme fatale he did not loathe, emphatically declared, with seemingly willful blindness, that he could not detect, as had Hugh, any “malignity and misogyny” in Mr. Justice Stephen’s much criticized summing-up to the jury.  (It is perhaps worth noting in this context that, five years after the trial’s conclusion, Justice Stephen breathed his last breaths in an insane asylum.)  Chandler ruminated that someday he might publish his own analysis of the case, puckishly observing that his mother’s name was Florence Chandler, the very same one Florence Maybrick had eventually adopted after returning to America.  He never did get around to it, however.

Shortly after Raymond Chandler made his derisive comments about Hugh’s essay, Hugh and Rickie for yet another Anthony Boucher anthology, Four and Twenty Bloodhounds (1950), provided a biographical sketch concerning their series sleuth Lieutenant Timothy Trant (see Crippen & Landru’s The Cases of Timothy Trant, 2016), in which they divulged that Trant attended not only Princeton University but South Kent School.  Why South Kent School?  Presumably it was because of the connection of the school to Florence Maybrick. 

Hugh and Rickie, who in the years immediately before American entry into the Second World War resided for much of the year together in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, had friends among the Connecticut educational community, including the headmaster of the Old Farm School for Boys in Avon, about a forty miles’ drive from South Kent.  It was on a motor visit to some of their Connecticut friends, Hugh surprisingly divulges in “The Ordeal of Florence Maybrick,” that he came across no other than The Cat Lady herself, clad like a hobo while collecting newspapers on the South Kent School campus, two of her few remaining teeth tied together with string.  Hugh chivalrously offered the feeble old woman a ride, which she wordlessly declined before wandering away.

At the dusky eve of death:
Lady Florence with newspaper on
the grounds of South Kent School
Was Hugh’s account of his meeting with a notorious accused murderess from the distant Victorian past merely a crime writer’s literary invention?  Perhaps, perhaps not. 
In either case, seventeen years after he penned his final essay about Florence Maybrick, Hugh’s sympathetic imagination must have been piqued by the melancholy character of Lucy Barker in Stephen Sondheim's musical Sweeney Todd (1979), for which Hugh wrote the Tony Award winning book. 

Driven insane by the dreadful misfortunes inflicted upon her by the sadistic Judge Turpin, Lucy, the once beautiful blonde wife of Benjamin Barker, aka Sweeney Todd, wanders the streets of London dressed in rags, a haunting shell of her former self, terribly in need of a beneficent protector.  She is, indeed, rather poignantly like the real-life Florence Maybrick, whom, Hugh admitted, “intrigues me far more than any fictional lady in distress that I have created myself.” 


  1. Fascinating, Curt: many thanks. The more I learn about the activities of the Quentin collective, the more interested I become.

    1. There's a lot of interesting stuff there, no question!

  2. While it may be interesting to speculate that Florence inspired the Beggar Woman of Sweeney Todd it's far from fact. Wheeler's script for Sweeney Todd is largely based on a play by Christopher Bond. He did not invent the character of the Beggar Woman or any of the situations or relationships of the characters. That was all from Bond's play; he drew from the already extant characters in the old penny dreadful "A String of Pearls" but changed the motivation of Todd's murderous spree as a thirst for revenge on both the Judge who he knows rpaed his wife and also thinks drove his wife to suicide. Later in the play (as in the musical) his revenge is directed at all of humanity. The entire conceit was Bond's invention. Wheeler adapted Bond's script and changed a bit of the structure to suit the musical. But, believe it or not, much of the dialog in Bond's script remains verbatim in the musical's book. Bond was a bit pissed off that Wheeler never mentioned him or the play on which he and Sondheim based the musical when Wheeler accepted his Tony.

    1. John, I was simply trying to say that the situation in Sweeney Todd, as it existed, must have inspired Wheeler's sympathetic imagination, given that it had a victimized woman like Florence in it. I wasn't claiming Florence actually inspired the character. Sometimes it seems to me you strain too hard to misread me. Have some sympathetic imagination! These are just blogs, it's not the Oscar race.

    2. On the credit issue and Bond's irritation, it wouldn't be the first time, sadly, that a successful writer hasn't publicly given credit where credit it due to another writer. Indeed, it has happened to me, and it's likely happened to you. It's how this wicked, competitive world works.

      The whole matter of Wheeler's credits for stage and film, even though it's not my area of study, is an interesting one. Sometimes he seems to get under credited, sometimes over. Look at the screenplays for Travels with my Aunt of Cabaret, for example. It's highly murky, at least to me. Thankfully, as I say, it's not my main focus.

    3. I should mentioned I got to interview Mr. Sondheim for the book, but I am saving that for the book!

    4. Must have been in a show-off mood that day. I re-read it now and see the tone comes across as me sticking out my tongue at you. Ugh. I'm embarrassed by it. I should not even comment on any of the blogs anymore. Most of the time I write these, re-read them looking for glaring typos, and then delete them because they come off as boringly pedantic. I should've deleted this one too.

      The Sondheim interview is very cool! Looking forward seeing and reading the entire book.

    5. It's okay, but I think a plain reading of what I wrote makes clear I wasn't saying that Wheeler created the character in homage or what have you to Florence Maybrick. Or that he even created the character! I know the genesis of Sweeney Todd--heck, it's even all on Wikipedia, I believe.

      I was just suggesting that the ST character may have appealed to him given his identification with downtrodden women like Florence. Maybe the conclusion got a little airy-fairy, but I am often interested these days in doing something other than yet another mystery review. Maybe that's what people would rather read, lol, I don't know, but there are a a lot of blogs that do that. I want to write about real people as well. Real people are often more interesting, I think,