By Cara Robertson
As if the axe murders of an older couple, Andrew and Abby Borden, in their own home one August morning wasn’t sensational enough, the arrest of Andrew’s 32-year-old daughter, Lizzie, catapulted this story into a national sensation in 1892.
The shock of it was that a Victorian spinster, living with her father, stepmother and sister — a church woman, and member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) — could even be suspected of such a horrifying crime.
Attorney Cara Robertson has been researching the Borden case for more than 30 years. While she describes the events leading up to the trial, most of this book deals with the trial.
In addition to quoting heavily from the trial transcript, she also quotes contemporary newspaper reports. Far from objective journalism, reporters of the day commented in detail on Lizzie Borden’s clothing, hats, demeanor and complexion.
The prosecution had to walk a tightrope in trying Lizzie for the crime without being vilified for accusing a gentlewoman of murder. They brought in the bloodied couch where Andrew Borden had died and casts of the skulls of both victims to prove their case. They showed how a three-and-a-half inch hatchet found in the house could have made the fatal wounds.
But what they ultimately couldn’t overcome was the bias that a middle class, white woman could not possibly have hefted an axe or a hatchet and violently murdered her father and stepmother. (There were 10 or 11 wounds on Andrew Borden and 17 on Abby Borden.)
Equally interesting is that while reporters, spectators and the jury side with the defense that Lizzie was innocent, she soon found herself ostracized in Fall River, MA. When she went to church, a wide circle of empty seats surrounded her. Organizations dropped her membership. Former friends stopped calling. Lizzie become a virtual recluse.
She and her sister Emma moved from the house where the murders occurred to a house in a fancier part of town and lived together for about a dozen years. Then in 1905, Emma Borden moved out. She changed her name and never spoke to her sister again. They both died in 1927, 10 days apart.
This book is a good companion to read with Sarah Schmidt’s SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE, a well-researched but fictional version of what might have happened at the Borden house that terrible morning.
Robertson, an attorney herself, doesn’t judge the jury or second guess their verdict. Nor does she sensationalize. Her book is a fascinating study of the times and how cultural beliefs influence the judicial system.
THE TRIAL OF LIZZIE BORDEN won the New England Society Book Award in 2020.
The Author: Cara Robertson
Cara Robertson first began researching the Borden case in 1990 as an undergraduate student at Harvard University.
She holds a doctorate degree from the University of Oxford and law degree from Stanford Law School. She clerked at the U.S. Supreme Court and served as a legal adviser to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague.
She has written for a number of publications, including The Boston Globe, the Raleigh News and Observer, and the Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities. Her scholarship has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Humanities Center, of which she is a trustee.
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