Why a 19th Century Murder
Still Fascinates Us
By Dawn Ius
The Lizzie Borden hatchet murders have long captured the fascination of the country, but perhaps none with as much fervor as for Cara Robertson, whose new non-fiction book, THE TRIAL OF LIZZIE BORDEN represents a culmination of more than 20 years research.
In the past two decades, Robertson—a lawyer and established Lizzie Borden expert—has published numerous academic articles and now an impressive tome that is once again cracking open a case that never seems to fully seal—or provide conclusive evidence as to Lizzie’s guilt or innocence.
Robertson’s book doesn’t draw any conclusions either, but her research does provide some additional insight not only into the events that transpired before and after Andrew and Abigail Borden were brutally murdered in 1892, but also the social environment during the Gilded Age in which Lizzie Borden lived.
“I hope it gives readers the sense of being there and understanding why the case so fascinated Lizzie Borden’s contemporaries,” Robertson says. “It was not simply that she was an unlikely killer. Rather, the very idea that someone like Lizzie Borden, who seemed on the surface to embody the ideal type of unmarried lady, could kill her father and stepmother with a hatchet was a threat to the social order.”
Of course, other factors have played into a collective juror’s inability to come to any kind of consensus on guilt or innocence, including a lack of technology and investigative tools available today. Still, Robertson says it’s difficult to predict what a modern jury would make of such a case and reiterates that Lizzie’s standing as a “good woman from a good family” played a vital role in the eventual acquittal.
“It seemed inconceivable that she would kill her father and stepmother with such frenzied violence,” Robertson says, though public perception wavered enough to inspire countless movies, TV shows, fictional retellings, and even a popular children’s rhyme.
In an effort to cast aside pop culture interpretations, Robertson waded through mountains of research, sorting through trial transcripts, newspaper accounts, contemporary diaries and more, and then laid out the events chronologically to provide the information without embellishment.
That’s not to say that this is not a creative work of nonfiction. Robertson presents a staggering number of facts, infused with enough narrative flair to create a fresh look at a centuries-old mystery and keep the pages turning.
“One of the distinct advantages of taking such a long time to research and write this book is that I’ve had access to many more primary sources than were available at the outset,” Robertson says.
“Local families donated material to the Fall River Historical Society, most notably, the papers of the defense lawyer Andrew Jennings and those of the lead prosecutor Hosea Knowlton. Those caches contained information essential to writing the book. But the most surprising items to me were the special delivery postcards the elderly Lizzie sent to the children of her domestic staff. They were signed ‘Auntie Borden.’”
Robertson herself has bid on historical documents related to the case and donated them to the Fall River Historical Society in support of the organization’s efforts to put Lizzie Borden’s story in the context of Fall River’s Gilded Age and keep discussions of this historic event in the mainstream.
Though THE TRIAL OF LIZZIE BORDEN is now in the hands of readers, it’s unlikely Robertson’s fascination will wane. Initially drawn to the mystery—comparing the real-life case to a “locked door mystery” of fiction—there are still so many loose ends that may never be tied. And of course, many more stories that will be told.
So far, “Victoria Lincoln’s A Private Disgrace is probably my favorite overall because of her deep understanding of Lizzie Borden’s milieu—though I can’t say I’m convinced by the idea that Lizzie Borden killed her stepmother and father during an ambulatory seizure,” she says. “It’s the psychiatric equivalent of the potion that turns Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde, a way of explaining how someone who seems ordinary could have done something so terrible.”
Further proof that the unexplained is often what continues to feed curiosity—no matter how many unique ways a tale is spun.