Bonox, Bovril, and Jack the Ripper …

Recently, I’ve come across a number of beef extract bottles while documenting the contents of Dow’s, including this rather decayed bottle of Beefine, which dates from the early 1920’s.


Beefine was a beef extract product similar to Bonox. So, what was it doing in a chemist’s shop rather than a grocer’s?

Looking at advertising from the time it’s clear that many of these products were positioned as restoratives for invalids recovering from 1919 flu pandemic and as a substitute for that great Victorian pick me up, beef tea. (Incidentally, Florence Nightingale was not a fan of beef tea, thinking it a waste of good beef and of doubtful nutritional value.)

Of these products, Bonox is still with us. In fact when I make a casserole, a bolgnese, or a ragout, I sometimes add a little bonox to improve the flavour, and of course people working outside in winter sometimes drink Bonox dissolved in hot water rather than tea or coffee.

Just as we have Vegemite and the English have Marmite, they have Bovril where we have Bonox.

But while Bonox dates from 1918, Bovril in something like its present form dates from the 1880’s. During the first world war it was fed to troops on the Western Front, and the Irish Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton was apparently a fan.

Certainly, he took several crates with him on the Endurance expedition and encouraged his men stuck on Elephant Island to add it to their hoosh, a stew of seal, penguin, pemmican and ship’s biscuit. Unappetising maybe, but it certainly kept them alive and in relatively good health.

However, the origins of Bovril go back to the Franco Prussian war – Napoleon III ordered a million cans of beef to feed his army, and the supply contract was won by a Scottish Canadian entrepreneur John Lawson Johnson.

Johnson had no problem sourcing the beef but getting it to the French was a logistical nightmare. To make transport simpler Johnston, a trained chemist, developed a beef extract product, Johnston’s Fluid Beef, that was probably a bit runnier than today’s beef extract, but each bottle or can contained four or five times the beef content of a standard can of beef.

However, Johnston’s fluid beef wasn’t the only such product.

Across the Atlantic, in Richmond Virginia, Mann Valentine developed a similar product, Valentine’s Meat Juice, in the early 1870’s.

The story is that he originally developed it as an easy to digest product for his ailing wife in the post civil war South, where everything was either unobtainable, or in very short supply. While his wife did not recover, the product was a success and marketed in both America and Britain,.

I first came across Valentine’s Meat Juice in Harry de Windt’s From Pekin to Calais, which I was reading to test out Lithium on the dogfood device.

[Harry de Windt was one of these mad adventurers like Fred Burnaby that the high Victorian period seemed to produce.

Independently wealthy, well connected (he was the brother of Margaret Brooke, the wife of Charles Brooke, the white Rajah of Sarawak, and had served as Charles Brooke’s aide-de-camp) he was a noted adventurer and explorer.

Perpetually restless, he went on many incredible journeys, including a journey from Pekin to Calais before the Trans Siberian or Trans Mongolian railways had been built. In it, he describes how, while riding across the Gobi Desert to Urga (now Ulaan Baatar) they had no time to stop during the day and how lunch was invariably a cup of Valentine’s Meat Juice, some biscuit, and occasionally a shot of whisky.]

However, Valentine’s meat juice also had a major role in a sensational Victorian murder trial. Florence Maybrick, had been born in Mobile, Alabama in 1862, and had married James Maybrick, a wealthy Liverpool financier and cotton merchant 24 years her senior in 1881.

Liverpool was of course a centre for blockade running during the civil war, and Florence’s father was a banker in Alabama, making it possible that he and James Maybrick had had a long standing association.

In any case Florence was obviously pregnant when she married James, giving birth to a son a few months later.

Overall, the marriage was not a success. James was a philanderer, had mistresses and neglected Florence.

Florence took a younger lover, which probably did nothing to heal the growing rift between her and James.

Finally, James died suddenly in 1889. You might think that Florence’s troubles might be over, but no, she was arrested and accused of poisoning James with arsenic.

Now we know from the Madeleine Smith case that women would sometimes use an arsenic wash to improve their complexions, and that, as Madeleine’s love Emile L’Angelier did, people might also consume small quantities of arsenic to maintain a youthful and vigorous appearance.

James Maybrick did indeed habitually take medications containing arsenic, but it was alleged that Florence had administered a dose enough to kill via a bottle of Valentine’s meat juice she fed him with while unwell.

Access to arsenic was rather more controlled by the late 1880’s than it was in Madeleine Smith’s time, but it was claimed that often women would make up an arsenic face wash by soaking fly papers in water to wash out the arsenic from the coating.

It was alleged that this was exactly what Florence did to poison James.

Like the Madeleine Smith case, it’s difficult to know at this distance whether James died as a result of an accidental overdose, or as a result of Florence poisoning him, or a bit of both. In the even the judge thought she did, sentenced her to death, which was commuted to life.

Released in 1904, Florence eventually moved to Connecticut where she lived on with her cats, ultimately dying in 1941.

That would have seemed to have been the end of it, except that in 1992 a diary emerged, that seemed to have been written James Maybrick.

In it, the author describes various of the Jack the Ripper murders in some detail, but crucially misses out some aspects of the murders, or gets some of the details wrong. Equally the provenance of the diary is highly suspect – while it is written in a genuine Victorian period notebook, some have felt the handwriting to be more twentieth century than nineteenth in style. Coupled with the inconsistencies in the diary, and the provenance problems, it could well be argued to be a fake.

We’ll probably never truly know, but we can probably say with some certainty that James Maybrick is unlikely to have been Jack the Ripper, even if his death in May 1889 fits with the abrupt end of the Ripper killings in late 1888.


About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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