Reviewed by Jeannette Hartman
It was a case that has haunted true crime followers for 130 years.
Two books provide interesting perspectives on this sensational event.
The first, SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE (2017) by Sarah Schmidt, is a well-researched, fictional depiction of the psychology of the Borden family and events leading up to the discovery of the murders.
The second, THE TRIAL OF LIZZIE BORDEN (2019) by Cara Robertson, is a factual presentation based on witness statements, newspaper reports and testimony from the inquest and trial. (Robertson is an attorney.)
Schmidt’s book helps explain how and why the murders might have occurred. Her story is clearly inspired by the facts and suggests explanations for some of the information provided by witnesses at the time.
Various theories about the murders have proposed that Lizzie’s maternal uncle or a strange man seen outside the house were the murderer. Many questions linger: if Lizzie was the killer, why was she not spattered with blood? What happened to the murder weapon? What was Lizzie burning in the stove the day after the murders? (She said a paint-stained dress; but why on that day was she burning it?)
Schmidt proposes fictional explanations for these questions.
Robertson’s book helps explain why Lizzie Borden, who had motivation and was the only person in the house at the time of Abby’s murder and one of only two there when Andrew was murdered, was acquitted on June 20, 1893. Two-thirds of Robertson’s book is devoted to the trial and to contemporary newspaper coverage. Journalists reported on Lizzie’s wardrobe, hats, complexion and comportment as much as they did on the evidence presented.
The impossibility — in the Victorian mind — of a middle-class, white woman, a church-goer and member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union raising a hatchet and striking her father 10 or 11 times and her stepmother 17 made it impossible for the jury to convict her. It simply wasn’t credible to them.
But while reporters and spectators cheered Lizzie’s acquittal, according to Robertson, Lizzie was shunned by her community. When she attended church on Sunday a wide circle of empty seats surrounded her. She eventually became a recluse.
She and her sister Emma moved out of the house where the murders were committed and into a house in a fancier part of town. They lived together for a dozen years before Emma in 1905 suddenly moved out. She changed her name and never spoke to her sister again. Oddly, both sisters died in June 1927, 10 days apart. They are buried near each other in the Borden family plot with their father and stepmother.
Technically, the murders remain unsolved.
Jeannette Hartman is the creator of and book reviewer for Book-reviews-by-Jeannette.com and Jewish-books-reviewed.com.