On Wednesday 14th of August, 1889, at Liverpool Assizes, Florence Maybrick was found guilty of murdering her husband, James Maybrick, by poisoning him with arsenic, and was duly sentenced to death.
Her conviction caused a huge public outcry and The Illustrated Police News reported how in the wake of the verdict:-
“…the crowd assembled outside the court, cheered the prisoner, hissed the jury, and hooted the judge – came very near lynching him, indeed…A more glaring instance has seldom occurred of the madness of crowds.
TRIAL BY JURY THREATENED
The Darlington and Stockton Times, in its issue of August 10th 1889, fulminated against what it saw as the totally unjustified criticism of the judge and the jury by mob mentality, and pondered how, if this situation were to become commonplace the very ideal of trial by jury might find itself under threat.
AN OLD-FASHIONED DOCTRINE
The article read:-
“Time was, when it was an article of faith that trial by jury was the safeguard of an accused person.
We are getting far beyond that old-fashioned doctrine, and fast approaching the time when judges and juries may very well be done without.
Who can doubt that judge and jury in the Maybrick case have honestly, fearlessly, and impartially done their duty. It is not a pleasant task to have to condemn a fellow creature to death, and we may be sure that the jury were neither anxious to take the duty of trying Mrs. Maybrick nor predisposed to cut short her existence.
Ten thousand times pleasanter would it have been to have acquitted the accused, but common sense and conscience, combined with a stern sense of duty, compelled them to pronounce her guilty.
They had heard the whole of the evidence, they were assisted by the clever counsel on both sides in determining its relevancy and value; moreover, they had listened to a comprehensive and impartial survey of it by one of the ablest judges of the law; every point in favour of the prisoner was as lucidly and strongly put forth as were those which weighed against her; and they gave their verdict without fear or favour.
THE VOICE OF MOBOCRACY
Yet all this is wrong, so says mobocracy. Judge and jury and all the paraphernalia of the court of justice have all been invoked to do a poor persecuted, innocent woman to death.
The trial has been a costly and wearisome farce.
Only the “public” are competent to decide; they alone are able to secure that accused persons shall have justice. Juries are a delusion and a snare.
A prisoner has only to be interesting, or able to arouse popular attention, and he or she is sure to find tens of thousands of enthusiastic sympathisers. And these sympathisers will pick a phrase here, or an assertion there, and on these odds and ends frame elaborate arguments which satisfy themselves, and then forthwith they will propound to the world noisily enough that they alone are able to decide fairly, honestly, and impartially.
Sentiment takes the place of sense, and predilection is pronounced to be impartiality.
WE ARE NOT SURPRISED
We are by no means surprised that tens of thousands of persons are criticising and condemning the jury which tried Mrs. Maybrick.
There were hundreds of thousands who believed the claimant to be Tichborne. They made up their minds before hearing the whole of the evidence, and continued to believe in him long after his conviction; and they were just as much to be relied upon as substitutes for juries, as are the noisy adherents of Mrs. Maybrick to-day.
NO SUPPORT FOR THE JURYMEN
We are not surprised at the existence of this crowd of critics; but we are surprised to find how few there are who have a word to say in support of the unfortunate jurymen. They had an odious and onerous duty thrust upon them, and performed it; and their reward is to be howled at and scoffed at and abused, as though they were heartless, blundering, bemuddled murderers.
IT COULD CAUSE INJUSTICE
We solemnly protest against this mode of receiving a verdict. It is bad for the administration of the law, and ten thousand times more likely to cause rather than to rectify injustice.
We know that occasionally juries have made mistakes, but for all that we confess to thinking that a jury – every man of which must feel an awful personal responsibility – is more likely to be discriminating and fair than mobocracy.
Of course, this is not the popular view – at least it is not the view of that noisy section which have taken up cudgels on behalf of Mrs. Maybrick.
This self-constituted Court of Appeal is prepared to over-ride, at a moment’s notice, the verdict of the jury; and the time is coming when prudent and sensible men must ask themselves seriously whether they should not courageously, in the interests of justice, make a stand against these exhibitions of popular feeling.
Unless they do so, it will soon become more terrible to be a juryman than to be a criminal.
THE LIVERPOOL POISONING CASE
We cannot conceive of anything more indecent or more calculated to degrade our courts of justice than the attacks which have been made on the jury in the Liverpool poisoning case, and the shocking and fulsome sympathy which has been expressed towards Mrs. Maybrick.
Whether the jury have or have not made a mistake, they are entitled to respect and sympathy. They have had imposed upon them the most solemn and painful duty that can be put upon the heart and conscience of any Englishman, and they no doubt have faithfully and truly discharged it.
WHAT OF FLORENCE MAYBRICK?
But what of this convicted woman about whom so much false sentiment has been evoked?
All we know of her is that she has been environed by every circumstance which might have made her an ornament of society. Of good birth, endowed with natural talent, and married to a man of wealth and social standing, her path in life certainly might have been an honoured one.
Unhappily, Mrs. Maybrick, whether poisoner or not, seems to have untied to her natural gifts qualities which would go far to make a great criminal. The correspondence of her own friends exhibits her in the unpleasing character of a shameless intrigant, a notorious liar, and an adulteress, false to her husband, and false to both her so-called lovers.
And the evidence of the nurse, which was rebutted, showed that Mrs. Maybrick could be so cold and heartless as to refuse to chafe the benumbed limbs of her sick and dying husband.
GUIDED BY THE EVIDENCE
Of course there is a gap between callousness, lying, adultery, double deception, and poisoning.
The jury had to say whether Mrs. Maybrick took that step; and in forming their opinion, they had to be guided by the evidence.
What was it?
On the one hand several eminent medical men, who saw Mr. Maybrick during his illness, and who had examined his body after death, positively asserted that he died of arsenic poisoning; it was shown that Mrs. Maybrick did not love her husband, had predicted his death, and had in her possession large quantities of this very poison.
HIS FAVOURITE MEDICINE
For the defence it was asserted that this poison had been used as a cosmetic, but not a particle of evidence was called to prove this – though the prisoners claimed that her mother was cognisant of the fact; it was also asserted that Mr. Maybrick was habitually dosing himself, and that arsenic was among one of his favourite medicines, but this again was not proved; and again it was asserted by medical gentlemen who never saw the deceased, and who were not present at the post mortem, that he did not die of arsenic poisoning.
SHE GAVE HIM A WHITE POWDER
Lastly, as though these varying and shifting defences were not enough, Mrs. Maybrick herself stated that she put a white powder into some extract of meat at the request of her husband.
It was a remarkable admission, for this extract of meat contained arsenic; but the chemist’s evidence proved conclusively that the arsenic had been put in “in a state of solution.”
THE JURY WERE IN THE RIGHT
Having regard to the broad facts of the case, we do not see how the jury could have decided otherwise than they did, and it is a matter for profound concern that the verdict should be received with clamour and denunciation.
The effect is to destroy confidence in “trial by jury,” and to strengthen the hopes of criminals.
We are far from saying that our legal system is perfect, or that there should not be opportunities for reviewing verdicts; but we do say that the most unfit court of appeal is that of popular opinion.
Today mobs of excited people – if they could have their own way – would release Mrs. Maybrick and lionise her; tomorrow the self-same mobs would lynch without trial almost any man who happened to be accused of being Jack the Ripper.”