NEW MILFORD — Florence Maybrick drifted in and out of consciousness. Her husband was dead — a crime she would later be convicted of after a sensational trial in Liverpool, England, that captured the attention on both sides of the Atlantic in the late 1800s.
As a socialite in her own right — the daughter of a prominent Alabama banker — and the wife of James Maybrick, a wealthy cotton merchant, she never anticipated she would be sentenced to death for murder and somehow wind up connected to the mystery of Jack the Ripper.
So how did she end up in Gaylordsville, where she spent the last decades of her life as a recluse, living a life of squalor in a 10-by-20 foot cabin with dozens of cats?
The New Milford Historical Society and Museum is working on an exhibit with local author Ron Suresha, that answers just that.
“It’s an amazing story,” Suresha said.
The exhibit, which opens with a presentation by Suresha at 7 p.m. on Sept. 26, includes a number of artifacts and details her trial and life after in Gaylordsville.
Among the items is the black dress that gave away her true identity as the once most infamous woman in the world.
Florence Maybrick, who was going by her maiden name of Chandler while living in New Milford, had gifted a Spanish black lace gown to her friend and neighbor Genevieve Austin. When Austin opened the box, a card bearing the name “Florence Maybrick” fell out.
Austin reached out to her niece, who worked at the New York Public Library, and was reminded of Maybrick’s trial.
Florence Maybrick was charged with poisoning her husband with arsenic in 1889 back in England. Based on her account, she was in and out of consciousness at the time of her arrest. Suresha suspects she was drugged.
She was subsequently sentenced to death; but the fairness of the trial and evidence was questioned. It was revealed that James Maybrick took arsenic regularly himself, and the sentence was reduced to life in prison.
Years after, the case was reexamined and she was ultimately released in 1904, though Queen Victoria never exonerated her.
For Suresha, part of the exhibit and presentation is a way for him to clear her name.
After reading “They All Love Jack,” by Bruce Robinson, he became convinced Maybrick was framed by her husband’s younger brothers, especially Michael Maybrick, who Robinson alleges is Jack the Ripper.
Years after his death, James Maybrick was suspected of being the notorious serial murderer, but a diary and pocket watch produced as evidence for this are largely discounted as hoaxes.
“Her brothers-in-law set her up to be the scapegoat,” Suresha said. “They basically emptied the estate and took her two kids.”
The couple met while traveling from America to Europe in 1880. The two married the following year when she was 18, despite a 23-year age gap, and moved into his estate in Aigburth.
The marriage was peppered with accusations of affairs. One of his alleged mistresses had five of his children and Florence Maybrick had a rumored relationship with one of his brothers.
Suresha said the judge, who died about 18 months after the conviction in an insane asylum, used the adultery as evidence of murder.
“He told the jury that if she could be an adulterer, she could also be a murderer and sentenced her to hang,” Suresha said, adding her husband’s adultery never came up in court. “There was this incredible double standard.”
After her release in 1904, Florence Maybrick returned to the U.S. and wrote a memoir entitled “Mrs. Maybrick’s Own Story: My Fifteen Lost Years” in which she starts with an account of her arrest through the trial and then her time in prison. She then went on a lecture tour and advocated for prison reform.
“Eventually interest in her story ran out and her fortune dwindled,” Suresha said. “She became destitute.”
While there’s a lot of literature on her during this point in her life, little is written about her last 25 years or so, which she spent in Connecticut before her death in 1941.
Suresha set out to fill in these gaps by interviewing people who knew her, finding artifacts and checking other documents. He’s spent about a year and a half exploring the topic, beginning when a fellow historical properties commission member gave him a photo from the New York Times of her cabin taken the day after she died.
Suresha believes she ended up here with the help of her friend Cora Griffin, a playwright in Brookfield who got her a job on a poultry farm in Gaylordsville, helping out with housework and with the chickens.
“It was immediately apparent that she was unsuited for that kind of work,” he said.
It’s unclear how she got the money, but a cabin, which is long gone, was built for her shortly after on Old Stone Road with many openings for her cats.
Though she was seen walking around New Milford and Kent, her true identity and past was essentially unknown in the rural communities. She quickly developed a reputation for her eccentricities though, earning various nicknames such as the “Cat Woman of Kent.”
Accounts vary on her having dozens to 70 cats at one time, Suresha said. Her cats were always well fed even when she used pins to keep her ragged clothes together in lieu of buying new ones or wouldn’t get food for herself.
As she got older, her behavior became odder. She would keep her kerosene lamps burning through the night, look in neighbors windows and even stole her neighbor’s cats.
While living in New Milford, she befriended Clara Dulon, the housemother at the newly formed South Kent School and would help out with clerical and other tasks at the school. She cared about the boys there, who would bring her firewood, warm meals and milk for her cats.
The friendship is how her final resting place ended up being on the school’s grounds, next to her friend.
Suresha said it’s been fascinating to learn this local connection to this international scandal and hopes others will appreciate Florence Maybrick’s story, too.
“The more I read about this story, the more I was touched by the awful injustice she was made to suffer,” he said.