Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Trial of the Century by Sarah Miller Review

On the morning of Thursday, August 4, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Their killer - or killers – struck them repeatedly in the head with a hatchet until they were both dead: first Abby, while she made the bed in the guest room, then Andrew when he returned from his morning walk and was resting on the sofa. The prime suspect? Their 32 year-old daughter, Lizzie. 

Sarah Miller’s excellent non-fiction book, The Borden Murders, covers the case that has enthralled people for over a hundred years; though quite why this is described as a book for younger readers in high school is bizarre, particularly given the grisly subject matter, but also because the book reads as eruditely and comprehensively as anything for an adult audience. 

I only knew the barest facts of the Borden case before reading Miller’s book (having read Rick Geary’s entry in his superb Treasury of Victorian Murders comic series a few years ago) so it’s fascinating to discover the nuances of the crime and ensuing investigation. Miller adopts as neutral a stance as possible in explaining the case, not leading the reader down any specific theory but letting them make up their own minds (the murderer/s were never caught and the crimes remain unsolved). She also writes in a novelistic style with the people exchanging dialogue like in a crime drama, which makes for a very smooth read, though she’s careful to only use actual quotes in the right context – an exhaustive bibliography is included at the back of the book accounting for each quote used. 

It’s remarkable that Lizzie got away with the murders (I’m convinced she did it though she was found not guilty at the trial) given how she appeared when questioned by police. During the inquest she kept changing her story – when her father returned from his morning walk she was first in the kitchen reading a magazine, then she was coming down the stairs, then she was in the dining room doing some ironing. Perhaps the morphine she was prescribed caused her mind to drift? 

But then Lizzie’s suspicious behaviour continued. She claimed to have been in the barn for 20-30 minutes during the murder of her father but when police went into it, they found it so stifling, they couldn’t stand to be there for more than a few minutes. They also found no footsteps in the barn's dust that day. 

She was very calm considering she had just discovered her parents had been violently murdered and then was later seen by an officer stationed outside their house doing something with the pails containing her parents’ bloodied clothing (why didn’t the police confiscate this evidence in the first place?!). That’s all before she was seen burning a dress she said was ruined by “paint”! The police back then were such idiots. 

There were hatchets and axes in the house but the murder weapon was never found. That and the lack of Lizzie’s bloodied clothing (coughsheburneditcough), and the fact that her incriminating inquest was ruled inadmissible for her trial, and the further incompetence of the police’s conflicting testimony at the trial, led to the jury finding her not guilty in June 1893. It was the right decision given the lack of evidence and disastrous prosecution but that doesn’t mean she didn’t commit the murders. 

Miller provides a small addendum of Lizzie’s life post-trial where she dug into the community rather than leave, buying an expensive house and living with her sister Emma for many years after. Her father was very wealthy and she and her sister inherited the lot when he died. Motive for murder? Yup! She also used her family’s money to hire the best lawyers to save her from the hangman’s noose so basically if you’ve got enough money, you can get away with anything. That and hope that the police are as moronic as they were investigating this case!

Sarah Miller’s book on the Borden killings is a fascinating and accessible account of a compelling case that true crime fans, regardless of being in high school or not, will relish.

The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Trial of the Century

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