The story of a little-known prison reformer who lived out her days incognito in New Milford
The towns of Kent and New Milford celebrated a newly revived piece of Connecticut history this past Saturday. Eighty years ago, a key figure in prison reform, Florence Chandler Maybrick, died in the village of Gaylordsville.
Historian and author Ron Suresha first heard the story when a friend shared a photograph of a ramshackle house in town. The caption read, “Here was where Florence Maybrick, who had once escaped the noose, came to her death.”
Maybrick died, not by the noose, but in her three room bungalow in New Milford on October 23rd, 1941.
“The day after she died, there was a top of the page, front page New York Times obituary for her,” Suresha said.
It was world news because Maybrick, an American, had been charged with the murder of her husband in Britain in 1889 and subsequently sentenced to death. Suresha says the outcome of her trial became an international controversy.
“Hundreds of thousands of signatures were gathered,” Suresha said, “there were personal appeals to the queen for her pardon, [and] from the vice president at the time, as well as all the wives of the members of [the president’s] cabinet.”
Her husband had been addicted to arsenic powders. The evidence presented during the trial was seen as flawed by her supporters and the judge as unstable.
All the attention worked: Maybrick’s sentence was commuted to a life sentence, which was 20 years for women at the time. She got out early after 14 years for good behavior.
Without her husband, Maybrick had no British citizenship or source of income. She returned to America and toured as a prison reformer, speaking out against solitary confinement and calling for better sanitation.
“A lot of federal prisons didn’t really have plumbing in the cell,” Suresha said, and her visits to prisoner’s cells and facilities called attention to the inequities.
But it couldn’t last forever: Suresha says that after the touring circuit dried up, Maybrick came to live with a friend in Gaylordsville, Connecticut. She left her notoriety and name behind. And, by this time, she went by the name Florence Chandler.
Suresha wants the towns to remember her name. As he is writing a book on Maybrick’s days in Connecticut, he proposed resolutions to the towns of Kent and New Milford to celebrate her. On Saturday, October 23rd, the 80th anniversary of her death, both towns celebrated “Florence Chandler Maybrick Day.”
It’s Suresha’s way of making sure her legacy goes beyond “accused murderess” to “prison reformer” and beloved resident of Gaylordsville, Connecticut.