Lizzie, by Frank Spiering. 8/10

Published by Random House, 1984. Pinnacle edition, 1985. (All page numbers cited in this review are from the Pinnacle paperback edition).

A good look at the infamous Lizzie Borden case of 1892; in which she was accused of the axe murders of her father and stepmother, Andrew and Abby Borden. Although circumstantial evidence pointed to Lizzie’s guilt, she was found not guilty at her trial the following year. The author does a thorough job of setting the stage, recounting the murders and the immediate aftermath, and going on to the courtroom denouement; there’s follow-up history of Lizzie and her sister Emma’s later lives.

The over-riding motif is the extremely hide-bound society of Fall River, Massachusetts “an oppressive place” (p.7). Admittedly, with this quote, the author speaks directly of the physical and environmental aspects of Fall River, detailing the factory-induced pollution (also page 7), “the grating roar of the cotton mills and often dense smoke issuing from the smoldering furnaces of the Iron Works.” But the cloistered existence of Lizzie and Emma, technically ‘spinsters’ (Lizzie was 32 in 1892, Emma ten years older); unmarried women living with their father and stepmother, left very little room for personal growth or achievement.

The Borden sisters, though close, were very different. “Emma idolized Lizzie. Lizzie was everything that Emma could never be: socially outgoing, fashionable, eager to travel and experience life…Lizzie had been the darling of the family since she was two years old” (p.28). Nonetheless, jealousy didn’t seem to be a problem “Emma loved Lizzie and wanted to protect her” (p. 28). Emma was so resentful of their stepmother that she moved into a much smaller room, so as not to be as close to Abby (pp. 29-30).

The fact that Emma was at the Borden house that morning–having arrived from a friend’s house in nearby Fairhaven–was something not dwelt on much in the police investigation of the murders, and noticed only indirectly, as her carriage was seen in front of the house. Apparently, she made a pretty convincing witness, to an observer at the trial “‘she was extremely believable'” (p.231). The oddest thing about Emma’s trial testimony was that it seemed to focus entirely on “Lizzie’s dress, the relationship with the stepmother, and Emma’s stay in Fairhaven, which was never explained” (p.227). Since the author squarely puts the murder weapon in Emma’s hands, it’s worth speculating that she was able to dispose of it in or about Fairhaven.

The daughters’ particular circumstances, thanks to the penny-pinching habits of their nonetheless wealthy father, might’ve contributed to Lizzie’s sense of thwarted ambition. Their house was a sort of schematic of the father’s (Andrew’s) no-nonsense personality. It would seem to be large enough for four people, but had no hallways either up- or downstairs, meaning that the daughters’ bedrooms opened directly into each other, virtually negating privacy.

On the other hand, the master bedroom, at the other end of the house, was kept locked. To go from the dressing room to the guest room, even though they were on the same floor, necessitated going downstairs on an outside staircase, walking through the first floor and then up the staircase at the front of the house. But, the most awkward features were that there was only one sink on each floor, and that the only toilet was in the basement.

Another environmental factor was the sultry heat during that summer. In any case, other than the maid Bridget, who was working at window-washing during the fateful August day, Lizzie and Emma was the only other people in the house with Abby and her father. No decent evidence pointed out any other person who could’ve been present. Nonetheless, for an amateur criminal, Lizzie/Emma seemingly made the murder weapon vanish into thin air. Lizzie’s dress, which probably had more than a bit of blood, she managed to burn. But authorities knew that she did so.

Then she had the ludicrous alibi that–during the time when the murders occurred–she was in the barn making sinkers for fishing (pgs. 112-114). It was well-established that she liked to fish; but note this exchange (p. 113) between the prosecuting attorney Knowlton and Lizzie, regarding the barn, (it was) “I suppose the hottest place on the premises?” “I suppose so.” And the spot she said she was at showed undisturbed dust.

The best bit of good fortune for Lizzie came from a very unexpected source–Justice Dewey, the presiding judge at her murder trial. After the testimony and the final statements were in the books, he gave the jurors what was in effect a character reference for Lizzie; and went on to mount nothing less than an additional defense, even mentioning “the real assassin” (p.244). The author observes “Never before had a judge been known to give a jury his opinion of a case.” (p. 244). Syndicated columnist Joe Howard remarked “‘The judge’s charge was remarkable. It was a plea for the innocent.'” (p.244)

That speech could only have helped influence the jury’s returning a not-guilty verdict. The author doesn’t speculate as to Justice Dewey’s motive for such an irregular move. Possibly, it was a sort of unintended consequence of the prevailing view that women, being inherently less capable than men, and simultaneously more virtuous, were therefore unlikely to commit such horrific crimes as ax murders.

The author, in contrast with most folks then and since, was certain enough that Emma was the murderer, with Lizzie at least an onlooker, if not a willing accomplice. He recreates, in effect, both murder scenes (pgs. 42-43 and 48-49). Lizzie, in addition, is fingered for the poisoning incident the day before; Abby, Andrew, and Bridget were violently ill that night, and still recovering the following day.

It’s interesting that the author, having singled out Emma as the mastermind and instigator of the murders, remains focused on Lizzie. Perhaps he is following both the official and unofficial assumptions regarding Lizzie’s guilt–after all, that Lizzie murdered her father and stepmother was the story. Yet that guilt remains as much folklore as fact. Why was Emma quickly discarded as a serious suspect?

Despite these loose ends, Lizzie is a well-written and professional account of the case. We get a very good feel for the locale, the era, and, most importantly, the personalities of those involved. 8/10

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.