Book Review: The Trial of Lizzie Borden

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Title: The Trial of Lizzie Borden
Author: Cara Robertson
Genre: Nonfiction True Crime
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: March 12, 2019
Pages: 400
Format Read: Ebook
Standalone or series: Standalone
Where I got the book: NetGalley ARC
Date finished reading:  March 12, 2019

Goodreads Description: The remarkable new account of an essential piece of American mythology—the trial of Lizzie Borden—based on twenty years of research and recently unearthed evidence.

The Trial of Lizzie Borden tells the true story of one of the most sensational murder trials in American history. When Andrew and Abby Borden were brutally hacked to death in Fall River, Massachusetts, in August 1892, the arrest of the couple’s younger daughter Lizzie turned the case into international news and her trial into a spectacle unparalleled in American history. Reporters flocked to the scene. Well-known columnists took up conspicuous seats in the courtroom. The defendant was relentlessly scrutinized for signs of guilt or innocence. Everyone—rich and poor, suffragists and social conservatives, legal scholars and laypeople—had an opinion about Lizzie Borden’s guilt or innocence. Was she a cold-blooded murderess or an unjustly persecuted lady? Did she or didn’t she?

The popular fascination with the Borden murders and its central enigmatic character has endured for more than one hundred years. Immortalized in rhyme, told and retold in every conceivable genre, the murders have secured a place in the American pantheon of mythic horror, but one typically wrenched from its historical moment. In contrast, Cara Robertson explores the stories Lizzie Borden’s culture wanted and expected to hear and how those stories influenced the debate inside and outside of the courtroom. Based on transcripts of the Borden legal proceedings, contemporary newspaper accounts, unpublished local accounts, and recently unearthed letters from Lizzie herself, The Trial of Lizzie Borden offers a window onto America in the Gilded Age, showcasing its most deeply held convictions and its most troubling social anxieties.

My Review: I received an ARC copy of The Trial of Lizzie Borden through NetGalley. It becomes publicly available today! Lizzie Borden is an infamous character in history, and yet somehow I never knew the true story, or as much of it as one can possibly know, of the murders and her trial until now. All I knew was the children’s poem about her taking and ax and giving 40 wacks, etc. Also, I have never seen any of movies or television series about Lizzie Borden (The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, Lizzie, The Legend of Lizzie Borden, etc.).

Cara Robertson decides to focus a majority of this Lizzie Borden story on the trial itself. Lizzie Borden is being tried for the murders of her father and stepmother, Andrew and Abby Borden. Trigger warning: graphic details are given of the vicious crime. First of all, Robertson draws such a clear picture of the atmosphere of the courtroom and the interactions between the prosecutor and defense council that you feel like you are experiencing all of it in real time. She utilizes passages from journalists who were present, primarily Elizabeth Jordan (New York World) and Joe Howard (Boston Globe). On a side note, I am now officially obsessed with Elizabeth Jordan, whom I had never heard of before reading this book. On another side note, I had no idea that the Boston Globe was around in the 1800s, but it was in fact founded in 1872.

Second, this trial gained such a following of intrigued spectators. They could not fathom that a woman could commit such a violent crime. The blows that killed Lizzie Borden’s father and stepmother were numerous and excessive. Those in the courtroom could not reconcile the image of this hideous crime (the Andrew & Abby’s skulls were literally on display) with the gentle image of Lizzie Borden. Also, she was criticized for her demeanor, which seemed unsuitable for a woman, because she didn’t show emotion (cry) after the murders and very little in the courtroom. She was simply still and composed and that, to many spectators, meant guilty.

Last of all, Robertson did a fantastic job reliving both the case against Lizzie Borden and her defense. Since Lizzie Borden’s testimony and the interviews from pharmacists, stating that she tried to buy prussic acid (a poison) just a few days prior to the murder of Andrew & Abby Borden, were not permissible in court, there was not much evidence that Lizzie Borden committed the murders. There were no witnesses and not much if any evidence that tied her to the murders. There was just suspicion and a whole lot of it.

Because I didn’t know much about Lizzie Borden, the trial was a rollercoaster ride of emotions that all led up to a final climatic verdict. However, the story does not conclude with the verdict, so maybe that is the author’s way of saying she too is unsettle by the conclusion. We may never know what truly happened the day that Andrew and Abby Borden were hacked to death, but there will always be theories.

This is a well-written piece of true crime!

My Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ½

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