41 THE MAYBRICKS OF LIVERPOOL
There is a myth amongst some on Merseyside that Liverpool is unique in having two cathedrals. It is not. Manchester has three cathedrals, and Glasgow has four. Neither is Liverpool the only city in the UK that has supplied more than one Ripper suspect. It must be, though, the only place that has two Ripper suspects in the same family. When suspect James Maybrick died, his wife was convicted for causing his death through poisoning. Today most people believe that the wife Florence Maybrick was innocent. What happened between the members of the Maybrick family was complicated.
James Maybrick was born in 1838 and he died in 1889. He was a successful cotton merchant. Maybrick and Company was based in Liverpool but also had a branch office in Virginia. Florence was born in Mobile, Alabama. Florence and James met while travelling across the Atlantic. At her trial Florence was convicted of adding arsenic to the diet of her husband James and sentenced to hang. There was widespread doubt about the conviction. James was addicted to arsenic and, after years of dependency, fast becoming a wreck before he died. It may have been the attempts of James to kick the arsenic habit that killed him. Author Paul Begg suggests this in Jack the Ripper The Facts. Only a small amount of arsenic was found in the corpse of James Maybrick but the judge had little interest in the anomaly. Florence was sentenced to hang but, because of the doubts about the conviction and what happened in the trial, her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. She served fifteen years in an English prison before returning to south of the Mason Dixon line and home.
Almost akin to the six stages of separation, Liverpool scrap dealer Mike Barrett claimed in 1992 that he had a connection to the Maybrick family. Barrett had in his possession an elegant black and gilt calf bound Victorian book designed to record notes and to hold postcards and photographs. At this point Mike Barrett felt the need of an alter ego. Using the name Michael Williams, he contacted Doreen Montgomery a literary agent and revealed that inside his Victorian book there was a confession of 63 pages written by James Maybrick. The confession concluded with an extended signature. ‘I give my name that all know of me, so history do tell, what love can do to a gentle man born. Yours truly, Jack the Ripper. Dated this third day of May 1889.’
The first 64 pages of the book had been removed, and the final seventeen pages were blank. Barrett explained to Doreen Montgomery that he used to visit his 67 years old friend Tony Devereux in hospital. During one of these visits Devereux handed Barrett a parcel wrapped in brown paper. Something similar happened to Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. In 1991 Devereux died in Walton Hospital. Down in London the confession, which was now being described as a diary, was referred for scientific tests by the people at the literary agency. The tests were inconclusive. The book itself was regarded as a genuine article. The concerns, though, were about the ink, the missing pages, some discrepancies in the account of the murders, and the handwriting of the author. Proving the age of ink is difficult. The difference in ink used by the Victorians and that used at the end of the last century is slight. It is also relatively simple to age ink prematurely. Although probably sinister the missing pages may have been the result of nothing more than a change of ownership between members of the Maybrick family. The discrepancies that existed in the detail could be attributed to the normal limitations of human memory. The handwriting, though, was a poor match for what existed on the will and marriage certificate of James Maybrick.
Meanwhile both Mike Barrett and his alter ego Michael Williams were having problems. His marriage collapsed, and his heavy drinking increased. Assuming that the diary was perhaps responsible for the change in his fortune, or so Barrett said, he decided to abandon his interest in the diary. In 1994 Barrett contacted Liverpool journalist, Harold Brough, and confessed that he had written the diary. Brough was unconvinced because Barrett was unable to explain how he bought the book and ink. Later, Barrett contacted Brough again. He now remembered that he had bought the book in an auction held by Outhwaite and Litherland and the ink from an art dealer in the Bluecoat Chambers. A director of Outhwaite and Litherland stated that there was no record of the sale and neither would they sell such an item in the way Barrett described. Believing that ducking and diving were key components in survival, Barrett retracted his confession. This process of confession and subsequent retraction was repeated in the years that followed. Alternative storylines appeared. The identity of the forger alternated between being Barrett, his wife Ann, Barrett and others, and his wife and others.
The estranged wife of Barrett reverted to what her name had been before marriage, Ann Graham. Determined to create a plot almost as complicated as that in The Maltese Falcon, Graham claimed that the diary had been left to her father by her grandfather. Graham said she had given the diary to her husband because he aspired to be a writer. She hoped it would help him to write and find an alternative to heavy drinking. If only someone had told this Liverpool woman about the alcohol problems of Faulkner, Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald. The father of Ann Graham insisted that she was telling the truth. Not much, though, made sense. Interest in both the diary and Mike Barrett faded.
But, instead of a line being drawn under the affair, something odd happened on the other side of the River Mersey. Albert Johnson lived in Birkenhead. He decided to buy a gold antique watch as an investment. In 1993 he reported that the watch had markings on the inside case. These markings consisted of the initials of the canonical five Ripper victims, the signature of James Maybrick and the words, ‘I am Jack’. The watch was referred for expert analysis of the etchings on the inside case. The experts were not in agreement but at least two credible analysts thought that the markings could have been made around 1889. There is agreement, though, about the integrity of owner Albert Johnson. He paid for the watch to be tested and never sought to use the watch to make money. The existence of the watch and admittedly dubious diary constitute a mystery.
For most this would be mystery enough but in 1997 author Paul H Feldman in Jack The Ripper The Final Chapter affirmed the Ripper belonged to the Maybrick family but added that the assassin was not James but his brother Michael. Since then Feldman has not been a lone voice. Two more books have identified Michael Maybrick as the Ripper. These are The Diary Of Jack The Ripper Another Chapter by James Stettler and They All Love Jack by Bruce Robinson. All three assume that the diary of James Maybrick has Victorian authenticity but the three authors argue that it was drafted by brother Michael. Yet the diary did not appear until well after both brothers had died and it achieved little for brother Michael. It is possible that Michael found recalling his crimes in print cathartic but thought it prudent to sign a name other than his own. Few, though, will be convinced by this assumption, especially as doubts already exist about whether the diary is genuine.
Like the plays of Shakespeare, letters are important to the Ripper plot described by Bruce Robinson in They All Love Jack. Matthew Packer claimed that he sold grapes to a man and Liz Stride on the night that Stride was murdered by Jack the Ripper. Robinson not only regards Packer as an honest witness he believes that Packer received a threatening letter from Jack the Ripper. Robinson notes the similarity of the handwriting in the letter sent to Packer to that in the ‘Dear Boss’ letter sent to the Central News Agency. Once Robinson thinks he has a discernable letter writer he links some of the letters to the travels of Michael Maybrick, who was a popular singer and songwriter. Two letters were sent from locations where Maybrick was appearing on the stage. These were Glasgow and Manchester. A small child in Bradford was murdered in a ritualistic fashion after Maybrick had arrived there to perform on stage.
210 letters were sent to the police and newspapers by people claiming to be Jack the Ripper. The theory of Robinson requires a belief in an ability to identify which of those letters were genuine and which shared the same hand. Robinson also argues that the Ripper had the ability to disguise his handwriting. This means that the identification depends on recognising the disguises. A casual attitude to the possibility of coincidence in the timing of events is also beneficial. They All Love Jack may be an entertaining and essential read but its achievement consists of an unforgiving exposure of Victorian hypocrisy and the ability of the author to raise doubts about what others regarded as fact. The identity of Jack the Ripper remains elusive, and needs something more than a scrapbook handed in by a Liverpool scrap dealer struggling with an alcohol problem.
Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.