The Accused and the Guilty: Female Agency as Criminal

In England in the late 1880s, two criminal cases would stir up a sensation that rivaled the Madeleine Smith trial: the trials of Adelaide Bartlett and Florence Maybrick, both for the murder of their husbands. Occurring within a few years of each other, these two cases would be numbered in the press among other sensational poisoning cases.

These two cases share many similarities. Both Florence and Adelaide were accused of murdering their husbands via poison. In Bartlett’s case, it was chloroform; in Maybrick’s, it was the ever-popular arsenic. Both women were accused of adultery, and both occupied a fairly upper-middle class position in society. And, like Smith, the beauty and composure of these two ladies was stressed by the press. However, of these two cases, one woman was set free and the other was given the death sentence. And, according to Mary S. Hartman’s book, a very helpful and informative read, the condemned woman was probably the least likely to be guilty of the cases I have looked at so far.

“Adelaide Bartlett Trial,” Link to source in Bibliography

Adelaide Bartlett’s trial is probably one of the most confusing and surprising trials in all of history. Even the prosecution and the defense had trouble untangling all of the very odd details that surrounded the murder of Adelaide’s husband, Edwin Bartlett. On the first day of the year 1886, Bartlett was found dead by his wife who called for help. A brief investigation initially resulted in the arrest of Adelaide and a friend of the Bartletts, Reverend George Dyson, the latter who was found to have bought chloroform for Adelaide. However, the charges against Dyson were dropped, and Adelaide was the only one in the docks. In confidence to one of Edwin’s doctors, Adelaide told an incredible story about her husband’s ‘odd’ ideas of marriage and sex, who then testified about Edwin in court. Using her story, Adelaide gave room for her defense to cast her into, “the socially acceptable, passive, and dependent role,” of a devoted wife who was corrupted by the strange ideas of her morally ambiguous husband (Hartman, 199). She was acquitted by the jury, to the relief of the public.

Florence Maybrick was not so lucky. Arrested on the suspicion of poisoning her husband, James Maybrick, with arsenic, she found herself against suspicious brother-in-laws, and a household that was not loyal to her. Florence, after discovering her husband was having an affair, ventured on a love affair of her own with another man. Despite the fact that the doctors couldn’t definitely say that arsenic had caused Maybrick’s death, and the revelation that Maybrick was an abusive husband and a known arsenic eater, Maybrick was found guilty of his murder and sentenced to death. Despite the overwhelming popular support for Florence, the defense could not secure any sympathy for her from the already biased judge and the jury. The sentence was later changed to life in prison.

“The Trial of Florence Maybrick,” Link to source in Bibliography

In each of the chapters on these two women, Hartman makes it clear that of the two, Adelaide was, like Madeleine Smith, very likely to have been guilty of the crime of which she was accused. In contrast, Florence Maybrick’s guilt or innocence is much less certain. However, I believe that, as in the Vane and Smith cases, the question of agency plays a big role in the verdicts and sympathy of Adelaide and Florence.

Adelaide, as Hartman points out, commanded sympathy “as the helpless victim of a husband who had corrupted her mind by throwing her into the arms of another man.” (Hartman, 188). Not unlike Smith, Adelaide allows the press and her defense to turn her into a victim of another man’s corruption–in effect, taking her agency away in the matter. Like Smith, any blame is taken away from her, so even if there is some suspicion that she did kill her husband, she did so, like Smith, out of self-defense. Changing attitudes about sex and marriage also help garner sympathy, but a big part of the trial is the question of how odd and corrupt was Edwin Bartlett. Once attention and agency are taken away from Bartlett, the press and her defense council are free to make her into the sympathetic victim.

Not so with Maybrick. Though her defense tried to point out that her activity was not in the least suspicious–the arsenic she obtained was in full view, her husband was known to take arsenic on occasion, and so on–the fact of her very clear agency in her love affair served to ensure her guilt in the eyes of a very biased judge, and the jury of her trial. The Western Daily Press in one article under “The Maybrick Case” points out that Florence wasn’t really found guilty for murder, she was found guilty of adultery. And Florence even went on the stand and made a statement in her own defense, a move that her defense council hoped would gain more sympathy for her. Florence shows in the trial far more agency in her life than does Bartlett or Smith. It’s clear from the outset that she instigated the affair with her lover, once even renting out hotel rooms under her in-laws’ names. And she is the only one, of these three women at least, who speaks in her own defense. In fact, Florence is much more like Harriet Vane in this effect. Though the public showed to be in support of her, the press is more divided. In a list of statements in the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, most of them think that Florence is clearly capable of murder if she is capable of cheating on her husband, but while a few believe she was only found guilty because of the affair.

This then, may be the reason why Florence Maybrick, though she is the least likely to be guilty, is the only one who was found guilty in trial. She doesn’t give away any agency when she apologizes for her involvement with her lover. Bartlett and Smith allowed their agency to be taken away and placed on the men in their lives; Florence didn’t do that, and neither does Harriet Vane in Strong Poison. I think then, there may be something to be said about the role of female agency in these trials, and the way these women are consequently portrayed, as well as the verdict they receive. A woman of agency, so far as I have found in these trials, is a guilty woman in the eyes of the judge and the press.

There are, of course, plenty more things to look at. It would be very interesting, for one thing, to see how much agency other fictional murderesses and female criminals are given by their authors. Conan Doyle’s female criminals, for instance, seem to have a surprising amount of agency in their crimes. I think it would also be very interesting to look at the role of agency in murder pairs: women who murder alongside their husbands, lovers, or other partners. The Mannings would be one such famous case. Also, further study on other female murderers across history and culture would be very interesting. I’ve seen some old press articles on American murderesses and I think it may be neat to compare the portrayal of female criminals not just within England, but also across various countries around the world.


“Adelaide Bartlett Trial.”

Hartman, Mary S. Victorian Murderesses: A True history of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes. Schoken Books, 1977.

“The Maybrick Case.” The Western Daily Press, Yeovil, England, British Library Newspapers Part V: 1746-1950, Friday, August 16, 1889, Issue 731, pp. 8.

“Mrs. Maybrick.” Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, Sunderland, England, British Library Newspapers Part III:1741-1950, Thursday, August 8, 1889, Issue 4920, pp. 3.

Sayers, Dorothy L. Strong Poison. Hodder & Stoughton, 2016.

“The Trial of Florence Maybrick.”

One thought on “The Accused and the Guilty: Female Agency as Criminal

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