A Woman Scorned

I gave my undernourished Churchyard Index some attention yesterday and, while looking for information about the death of Thomas SWIFT, happened upon a murder mystery.

Thomas is curiously connected to Filey. His first wife, Dinah SAMPSON, was born in Lincolnshire but the family later crossed the river and her mother is buried in St Oswald’s churchyard. Mary Alice, the Swift’s firstborn  opened her eyes in Prescot, Lancashire, and closed them forever 15 months later in Filey. She is remembered on the headstone of her great uncle, John OAKDEN, who had died the previous year. The birth of her brother, John Oakden Swift, was registered in Prescot the following year.

Findmypast offered three hints for Thomas Swift’s death in Lancashire and rather than guess, I turned to newspapers. Several reports of his sudden death in Liverpool in 1899, at the age of 66, agreed that he was a man of exceptional ability, well-known in Liverpool and St Helens and held in the highest esteem. As a solicitor he was particularly expert in licensing law but after being called to the bar in 1882 he acted as counsel in some high profile cases. In 1889 he was involved in the prosecution of Florence Elizabeth MAYBRICK for the murder of her husband, James.

The case against Florence was weak but the judge successfully persuaded the jury to find her guilty. She became the first American citizen to be sentenced in Britain to hang. A public that gleefully trashed her character at the beginning of the trial, had doubts about the fairness of the verdict at the end. Following an appeal, Queen Victoria reluctantly commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.

In 1891 Florence was in Knaphill, Woking, the first purpose-built female convict prison. When it closed in 1895, the inmates were transferred to the new female prison in Aylesbury. Florence was enumerated there in 1901, given age 37.

She served fifteen years for a crime for which she hadn’t been tried. At some time between 1889 and 1904 she had been cleared of murder but not re-tried on a lesser charge.

On release from prison she made plans to return to the United States. Her son James was then 22 years-old but had changed his surname to FULLER. He would die in Canada seven years later after drinking cyanide, thinking it was water. Daughter Gladys Evelyn would marry Frederick CORBYN in 1912 and die, childless it seems, in Haverfordwest in 1971. One source says that Florence “never saw her children again” after the trial.

You can see Florence’s application for a United States passport here. She did, as promised, undertake literary work. You can download her Memoir – My Fifteen Wasted Years ­from the Gutenburg Project at no charge. How she came to find work on Henrietta Banwell’s chicken farm in Gaylordsville, Connecticut remains a mystery. But she lived in poverty there in a small bungalow – described by some as “a shack” – with a lot of cats. Reverting to her maiden name, it seems that nobody in South Kent knew of her notoriety until after her death from acute myocarditis on 23 October 1941, aged 79 years, one month and 22 days, according to her death certificate.

There is a lot of information online about Florence. If you are curious…

There is a photograph of her grave and a short biography here. On the FamilySearch Shared Tree she awaits the sad gift of her children. Her husband’s five children by just one of his mistresses are also not yet recorded.

Tree 59 · Country Park

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