Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Maybrick Arsenic Case, by C. Ainsworth Mitchell 1911

The Maybrick Arsenic Case, by C. Ainsworth Mitchell

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Few trials in this country have aroused so much controversy as that of Mrs. Maybrick, in 1889, on the charge of having poisoned her husband with arsenic.

James Maybrick, who was a cotton merchant, fifty years of age, had married the accused in America in 1881, she being then eighteen years old. Four years later they had made their home in Liverpool, and apparently got on well together. In 1889, however, Mrs. Maybrick became friendly with a man named Brierley, and on the pretence of paying a visit to a relative, went to London, where she stayed with him for several days. At the end of March the Maybricks went to the Grand National Race, and the husband then became jealous of Brierley, who was also present. Following this incident came a violent quarrel, which resulted in Mrs. Maybrick’s threatening to leave him.

Shortly afterwards, Mr. Maybrick paid a visit to his brother in London, and while there complained of the extravagance and the behaviour of his wife.

He also consulted a specialist, who diagnosed his illness as acute dyspepsia, and prescribed for him certain medicines, in which, however, there was no arsenic.

After his return to Liverpool early in April, Mrs. Maybrick bought a dozen fly-papers from a chemist, and afterwards two dozen more from another chemist,[Pg 207] stating that the flies were troublesome in the house. In each case she paid for these, although she had an account with the chemist. It was found that each of these papers contained from two to three grains of arsenic, or more than the fatal dose for a man. Evidence was given that they were subsequently discovered soaking in water in Mrs. Maybrick’s room, but that they had not been used to kill the flies.

At the end of April Mr. Maybrick became very ill, and a doctor was called in. The patient was frequently given food and medicine by his wife, and arsenic was afterwards found in a bottle of meat juice. The prisoner alleged that at her husband’s own request she had put a white powder into this bottle.

On the 9th of May the doctor concluded that Mr. Maybrick was suffering from the effects of some irritant poison, and Mrs. Maybrick from that time was not allowed to come near him. On May the 11th he died.

During the illness, letters between Mrs. Maybrick and Brierley had been intercepted, and in one of these occurred the expression that her husband was “sick unto death.” At the inquest a verdict of “Wilful murder” against Mrs. Maybrick was returned, and she was committed for trial at the Liverpool Assizes.

The trial took place before Mr. Justice Stephen, who, by the way, died insane a year later, and the prisoner was defended by Sir Charles Russell, who subsequently became Lord Chief Justice.

The case for the prosecution was based upon the[Pg 208] presence of a strong motive for the crime, the quarrel between the husband and wife, the possession of arsenic (from the fly-papers) by the accused, the presence of arsenic in various foods and medicines alleged by witnesses to have been given to the deceased by his wife, and the discovery of arsenic in the body after death. In addition to this, evidence was given by the nurses that they had seen the prisoner manipulating the medicines, and by doctors and relations of Mr. Maybrick that he was not in the habit of taking arsenic.

For the defence it was urged that death was due to acute gastritis, which was the result of a chill or improper food, and that arsenical poisoning was not the cause; that the fly-papers had been purchased by the prisoner for the preparation of a cosmetic for the face; and that the presence of traces of arsenic in the body was fully accounted for by the fact that Mr. Maybrick was an arsenic eater.

Several medical men expressed opinions strongly opposed to the views of the prosecution, and it was pointed out by these that many of the symptoms characteristic of poisoning by arsenic had not been observed in this case. At the same time it was admitted that the effects produced by arsenic were often erratic, and, as Dr. Stevenson stated in his evidence for the prosecution, “There is no distinctive diagnostic symptom of arsenical poisoning. The diagnostic thing is finding the arsenic.”

The medical experts who gave evidence upon behalf of the prisoner were Dr. Tidy (who, like Dr. Stevenson, was an official analyst to the Home Office),[Pg 209] Dr. Macnamara, and Professor Paul; and their view, which was strongly expressed, was that all the symptoms which had been described to them in the evidence pointed against arsenic having been the cause of death.

The judge, in his summing up of the medical evidence, pointed out that expert witnesses were liable at times to take up the position of advocates with regard to scientific matters, and he warned the jury to take this into consideration in forming their conclusions.

The analytical evidence as to the presence of arsenic in the body and in the food and medicine was given by Dr. Stevenson and by Mr. Davis.

Davis had found no arsenic in the stomach, but it was discovered in the liver and intestines. In the bottle of the meat juice he had found half a grain in solution. Arsenic was present in the glass of the bottle, but to a less extent than in the glass of another bottle of the meat juice, in the contents of which no arsenic was present. Hence the glass could not have been the source of the arsenic found in the other bottle.

He had also found arsenic in a glass of milk in the house, in a vessel in which luncheon had been sent to the office of Mr. Maybrick, in a medicine bottle, and in a bottle of glycerine in the lavatory. In fact, one of the most remarkable features of this case was the number of articles in which arsenic had been discovered. Dr. Stevenson had also found no arsenic in the stomach, but had detected a small quantity in the kidney and the intestines. In a portion of the[Pg 210] liver he found an amount which he calculated to amount to one-third of a grain for the whole liver, and he gave as his opinion that “the body at the time of death probably contained approximately a fatal dose of arsenic.”

Dr. Tidy, in giving evidence on behalf of the accused, criticised this evidence of Stevenson on the grounds that it did not necessarily follow that because one portion of the liver contained so much arsenic, the same proportion must be present in the remainder. In his experience the amounts of arsenic retained might vary in different parts of the same organ. He calculated from the results of Stevenson’s analyses that the total amount of arsenic was 0·082 grains.

If we examine this evidence more closely it is difficult to see upon what basis Tidy calculated his total. Stevenson had examined approximately one quarter of the liver, and had extracted from two portions a total quantity of 0·076 grains, so that, according to Tidy, the remaining three-quarters could only have contained 0·006 grains of arsenic. On the face of it this seems an absurd conclusion.

The evidence of Professor Paul went to prove that arsenic was present in the material of earthenware vessels similar to that in which the lunch was sent to Mr. Maybrick’s office, and that it could be liberated by the action of an acid, so that the arsenic found in the particular vessel might have originated from the action of acids in the food itself upon the interior of the vessel.

As has been mentioned, one of the points brought[Pg 211] as evidence against the prisoner was that a bottle of glycerine had been found in the lavatory, and that this contained arsenic. There was no evidence that the prisoner had ever had this bottle in her hand, and, apart from that, arsenic is a very usual impurity in ordinary commercial glycerine.

Having regard to the conflict of the scientific testimony, and to the evidence of Mr. Maybrick having acquired the habit of taking arsenic while resident in America, it was generally expected that the prisoner would be acquitted. The judge, however, evidently believing her guilty, summed up strongly against her, and put the point to be decided in the following form: The prosecution said that arsenic was the producing cause of the gastro-enteritis which was the immediate cause of death; arsenic was found in the body, and strong proof was given that arsenic was administered. The terrible question was: By whose hand was it administered? The deceased might have taken it himself, and if there was any reasonable doubt upon that point it was the duty of the jury to acquit the prisoner; but if a crime was committed, no other person but the prisoner was suggested as having committed it.

The jury were so influenced by the remarks of the judge that, after a retirement of a little over thirty minutes, they found the prisoner “Guilty.”

The feeling was very widely expressed that the prosecution had failed to establish beyond all reasonable doubt that the deceased had died from arsenic, and that arsenic had been given to him by the prisoner, and that, therefore, she was entitled to the[Pg 212] “benefit of the doubt,” which the judge’s directions to the jury had not allowed to her.

It may be mentioned here that the judge himself, in the second edition of his Criminal Laws of England, published in 1890, states that out of 979 cases tried before him up to September, 1889, “the case of Mrs. Maybrick was the only case in which there could be any doubt about the facts.”

In consequence of this feeling that a terrible mistake might have been made, memorials for the respite of Mrs. Maybrick were signed by the physicians of Liverpool, by members of Bars of Liverpool and London, and by the citizens of Liverpool, in all of which stress was laid upon the conflict of medical testimony. Memorials were also sent in from other parts of the country, and in all 5,000 petitions, containing upwards of half a million signatures, were received by the Home Secretary.

The feeling was too strong to be ignored, and the Home Secretary, therefore, announced that he had advised the commutation of the death penalty to one of penal servitude for life, on the ground that: “Inasmuch as, although the evidence leads to the conclusion that the prisoner administered and attempted to administer arsenic to her husband with intent to murder him, yet it does not wholly exclude a reasonable doubt whether his death was in fact caused by the administration of arsenic.”

Persistent efforts were made to obtain the liberation of the prisoner, and Lord Russell of Killowen, who had defended her at the trial, and whose belief in her innocence had never wavered, brought the[Pg 213] matter under the notice of each succeeding Home Secretary, but always without avail. It was not until after the lapse of fifteen years that she was liberated at the ordinary termination of a sentence shortened by the good behaviour of the prisoner.

The course followed by the Home Secretary (Matthews) and endorsed by his successors is impossible to defend from a logical point of view.

If the prisoner was guilty of murder, there was no justification for yielding to the popular demand. If, on the other hand, there was “a reasonable doubt” as to whether the man died from the effects of arsenic, she ought to have been set at liberty. But to commute the sentence for the reason given was to convict the prisoner of attempted murder, a charge upon which she had never been tried, and for which, if found guilty, she would not have received penal servitude for life.

At the present time a case of this kind would be brought before the Court of Criminal Appeal, and the prisoner would have the opportunity of having the alleged misdirections of the presiding judge investigated, and of putting forward additional evidence—advantages that were not available to the accused in this trial.

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