Cara Robertson has written a fine book that wonderfully weaves the context of the Trial proceedings into a “you are there” narrative flush with new insights and deft storytelling, exposing the female-suppressed culture of the Gilded Age. Drawing heavily from the Trial transcript and newspapers of the day, she tells this oft-told tale in a new way that forces the reader to reflect on the cultural influences of the era and the why and how of its sensationalism, final outcome, and enduring appeal.
Well read Lizzie Borden scholars will hear in the narrative echos of previously published books on the case which have been “go to” resources for decades, but probably my favorite sentence in the whole book is this: “Combining the enduring emotional force of myth and more prosaic intellectual challenge of a detective story, it is a ‘locked door’ mystery written by Sophocles.” (Kudos, Cara)
The book credits almost all the photographs therein to the Fall River Historical Society where, sadly, the wrong image of a purported Uncle John Vinnicum Morse is actually that of his (and sister Sarah’s) brother, William Bradford Morse. I know this to be a fact because William’s photograph is included in one of several family albums to be found at the Swansea Historical Society, housed at the Swansea Public Library – a place where I have visited for research several times. William’s name is handwritten in pencil above his image.
The image on the left is the actual John V. Morse and has appeared in countless books and documentaries. William, who was in Excelsior, Minnesota during the murders (as he had been most of his life) did, however, resemble his brother, John. (It should be noted that when I brought this error to the attention of the FRHS, I was informed they had documentation from a relative of the Morse family asserting the photograph of William was John. This fails to explain the decades of the other photograph being cited as John with credit to the FRHS).
A more blatant error appears on page 278 where the author writes of post Trial notoriety and states “Papers printed improbable reports of engagements, including a betrothal to one of her former jurors.” There is no source citation in the end notes to this statement, however, it has been widely reported of the December 10, 1896 Fall River Herald News report citing a “Swansea school teacher” as the subject of this rumor. That person was, in fact, Orrin Gardner.
Crowds gather outside the Superior Court house in New Bedford during the 1893 Trial
Ms. Robertson’s deft handling of Knowlton’s lengthy summation strips his elegant oratory to the persuasive essentials: the prosecution’s case was based on Lizzie’s exclusive opportunity and that the victims did not die at the same time -and that these were the controlling facts of the case.
As to why Lizzie remained in Fall River the entire second half of her life, the author speculates with an allegorical reference to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter: “It may seem marvelous, that, with the world before her….this woman should still call that place her home, where and where only, she must needs be the type of shame. But there is a fatality, a feeling so irresistible and inevitable that it had the force of doom, which almost invariably compels human beings to linger around and haunt ghost-like, the spot where some great and marked recent event has given color to their lifetime, and still the more irresistibly, the darker the tinge that saddens it.” (And here one can pause to ponder Donald Woods’ appropriate marketing of Maplecroft).
While I was impressed with Cara Robertson’s fresh narrative point of view, my overall expectations of the book fell short considering the author’s background. There were far too many errors. There was no new information, and indeed it seemed peppered with the redundancy of other known works. I had been anticipating more given her years of research on the case and her impeccable credentials. That said, I still highly recommend this book to anyone interested in this case and specifically to those interested in the Gilded Age and its cultural impact on women.