|At the bright dawn of life:|
Florence Chandler Maybrick
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
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
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.”