Friday, 17 October 2014

A Treasury of Victorian Murder: The Borden Tragedy Review (Rick Geary)


On August 4 1892, the bodies of Mr and Mrs Borden were found brutally murdered in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts . Also in their house were Mr Borden's daughter Lizzie and their servant, Bridget Sullivan. Mrs Borden (Lizzie’s stepmother) was murdered first in her bedroom and then approximately 2 hours later Mr Borden was murdered in the sitting room. Both murders were carried out by a hatchet. Both Lizzie and Bridget were shocked at the murders but claimed not to have heard or seen anything to indicate a murderer. Lizzie was the prime and only real suspect in the case and was arrested. 

Rick Geary goes through the build up to the murders, then the day of the murders, and the case in the aftermath, in his usual detailed, unbiased and engrossing way. He creates real tension where there really shouldn't be and gives the reader a strong sense of the case's sensation at the time. Though I knew little about the case beforehand, I did expect to find out Lizzie was the murderer. As it turns out there were many aspects of the case that threw doubt on Lizzie's guilt. For example, Lizzie discovered the bodies of her parents and alerted the maid minutes after. Given the immediacy and shortened timeframe between the murder and the alert, as well as the particular brutality of the crimes, Lizzie would have had some measure of blood on her clothes as well as the look of someone who had exerted considerable energy but she was spotless. 

Geary throws out a detail of the time which is inadvertently funny - he writes that there were a number of axe-wielding maniacs running about the countryside at this time! The suspected murderer then would have been one of these maniacs brandishing an axe who had broken into the house and committed the crimes. There was a similar murder that took place a couple of weeks after the Borden murders where an immigrant murdered a scorned love interest with an axe (though this man was cleared of the Borden case after it was found the man wasn't in the country at the time of the murders). 

There are some intriguing details that point to Lizzie Borden as the murderer. The following day Lizzie is seen by her sister, maid, and neighbour burning in the stove a dress with what looked like blood all over it that she claimed was paint. Also the maid claimed to have heard giggling in the time between the murder of the stepmother and the murder of the father – chilling, and possibly signalling hysteria over the acts. There is also the curious case of the 2 hours between murders. That would have meant that someone would have had to have hidden somewhere in the house for 2 hours before committing murder #2. Yet both Lizzie and the maid were quite active that morning so a hidden person would have surely been spotted/heard. 

Anyway, I'll stop there. All details of the case are explored in this book and Geary also includes several newspaper facsimiles from the time to illustrate the sensation of the case on the world. I actually came away thinking Lizzie was innocent but none the wiser as to who had committed the murders and why. And yet someone did. Madness. Fascinating reading!

A Treasury of Victorian Murder: The Borden Tragedy

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