Addendum to the recent post about ‘Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen’

March 31, 2019 at 8:53 pm (Art, Family)

My daughter-in-law Erica and grandson Welles also came with us on our recent visit to the Art Institute of Chicago. This made everything more festive.

Welles got to see the museum’s impressive collection of arms and armor.

Both Welles and Etta love to stop in the Family Room of the museum’s Ryan Learning Center. There’s always a new crafting opportunity on offer there – and Welles and Etta are both very crafty children!

Each time we go, there’s a different craft theme. This time it was textiles.

 

Etta and her Mom gearing up for ‘work’

Welles and Grandma ‘Berta – the least crafty person on the planet!

Along with others making crafts, Welles donated one of his creations to the ‘craft wall.’

The art theme carried over when we got home. Ron and I both felt that Welles’s creation here was museum-worthy:

Etta, on the other hand, migrated over to the culinary arts. There was a small impromptu gathering taking place in the backyard, and Etta decided to make a dish of hors d’oeuvres for the visitors. These consisted of small pieces of cheese, green olives, and sugar snap peas threaded onto tooth picks.

 

Etta presented a tray full of these items to the guests – adults and children both – and they ate all of them in record time!
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In Camille Laurens’s book about Marie Genevieve van Goethem – the eponymous Little Dancer – she mentions photos  in which Marilyn Monroe gazes, seemingly transfixed, at the sculpture. (At the time, it was situated in the apartment of a wealthy New York collector.) The author seemed to feel that her readers would be familiar with these pictures. I had never seen or heard of them:

Interesting commentary on the occasion of this photo shoot can  be found on the art history blog Alberti’s Window and on another blog, Maison Roos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine forges ahead into the Digital Age

March 29, 2019 at 4:14 pm (Magazines and newspapers, Mystery fiction)

For years now, the arrival of the quarterly publication Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine has been cause for rejoicing.  Loaded with astute criticism, numerous reading recommendations (with helpfully assigned letter grades), and author news and information, this splendid periodical is a must read for fanatical crime fiction fans like Yours Truly.

The Editor/Publisher of Deadly Pleasures is Mr. George A. Easter. In this effort he is assisted by Associate Editor Larry Gandle and a number of knowledgeable and perceptive contributors.

In the Winter 2019 issue, Mr. Easter made known his intention to transform Deadly Pleasures to a digital only entity. When I first read this announcement, I admit that my heart sank. I prefer my newspapers and magazines to be in hard copy. But Mr. Easter has good reasons for making this switch. He gives those reasons in a special editorial, where he also acknowledges that for some readers, this will be not be a welcome change.

He offered to send me the PDF version of this issue of the magazine. I admit I was deeply impressed. My doubts pretty much evaporated.

And now is the moment to say that this issue of Deadly Pleasures, in any format, is a real triumph. To begin with, this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Bouchercon Mystery Convention. To mark the occasion, George Easter was asked to come up with two booklists. One is entitled “Most Influential Novels of the Bouchercon Era,” and the other is “Great Reads from the Bouchercon Era, 1969-2019.” Mr. Easter is soliciting input from readers on both lists, but for myself, I can’t think how either one could be improved.

The second one, especially, is so full of excellent titles that I wanted to drop everything else and just read my way through it. This, despite the fact that I’ve already read several: The Laughing Policeman by  Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall, The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B. Parker, Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman, Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters, The Dead of Jericho by Colin Dexter, and so on. These are all great inclusions, and there are many, many more.

But wait! In addition to these, there are Best of 2018 lists, starting with George Easter’s own selections. I particularly loved this list because – well, the fact is I often like the same books that George likes, to wit: The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan, Snap by Belinda Bauer, The Fox by the venerable Frederick Forsyth, and three of my absolute favorite titles from last year: Broken Ground by Val McDermid, The Bomb Maker by Thomas Perry, and November Road by Lou Berney.

This issue is fairly bursting with ‘Best of 2018’ lists. Three by distinguished mystery fiction experts  Oline Codgill, Otto Penzler, and Marilyn Stasio, followed by two pages of lists from various publications and websites.

There’s more… But let’s stop there and let me now guide you directly to this cornucopia of crime fiction. George Easter is most eager for folks to subscribe to the digital version of Deadly Pleasures. Toward  that end, he is graciously allowing me to post the link to the PDF of this Winter 2019 issue of the magazine. Here it is:

https://filedn.com/lw969DNk35fFeYTvNXSLMOY/Deadly%20Pleasures%20Mystery%20Magazine%20-%20Winter%202019%20-%20Issue%2085.pdf

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‘Her name was Marie Geneviève Van Goethem.’

March 27, 2019 at 9:26 pm (Art, Family)

  The above sentence opens the first chapter of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen by Camille Laurens.

Marie Van Goethem, originally from Belgium, was one of three sisters. She joined the Paris Opera, primarily because her family needed the money. (Young members of the corps de ballet were frequently called “les petits rats” – Little Rats, or Opera Rats.) When the opportunity to pose for Edgar Degas came along, it meant additional income.

When completed, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen was not universally loved. In fact, the reaction of contemporary viewers was quite the opposite. They had their reasons. Laurens describes of the zeitgeist prevalent in the Paris of the 1880s:

France was industrializing, and its working class was  growing in importance….The ruling classes needed to be reassured about their privileges. Small wonder they clung to theories that “proved” the natural superiority of the bourgeoisie over the working class, the rich over the poor, whites over blacks, and men over women.

With regard to the sculpture itself:

The bourgeois viewer looked at the work and saw his own antithesis. Hie preference was for Madonnas, or for plump, healthy young women. He could not fathom why a common, hardworking Opera rat with the face of a “monkey” and a “depraved” aspect should be the subject of a work of art.

Degas himself was a complex personality, not an easy person to know. At one point, the author offers the observation:

It seems that Degas shared the misogyny that was rampant at the end of the nineteenth century….

Yet Degas and Mary Casssatt were good friends and genuinely admired each others’ work:

The American expatriate painter Mary Cassatt and the French artist Edgar Degas formed a long, if tumultuous, artistic relationship and friendship in the late 19th century that lasted for decades. The two admired each other’s work during the early 1870s, years before they met. In 1877, Degas visited Cassatt in her studio—possibly their first official meeting—to personally invite her to exhibit with the Impressionists, bringing her into the fold of the Parisian avant-garde.

From The Saint Louis Art Museum site

The friendship endured for many years. Neither artist ever married.

The story of their relationship is not told in Camille Laurens’s book. Yet her intense focus on Marie and her likeness in bronze pays dividends. She forces us to look more closely, and to question:

What is she thinking about? What is her inner world like? Do her face and pose reflect concentration or relaxation? Boredom or pleasure? Is she taking herself elsewhere, and if so, to what foreign parts? Is she filled with a sense of her own self or does she savor the vacuum at its core? What lies behind her closed eyes, her skinny chest? Tears, dreams. unspeakable emotions? Or a kind of absence, a beneficent nothingness in suspended time?

This past weekend, while we were in Chicago, I looked forward to our now customary visit to the Art Institute. I wanted to contemplate Marie once again, with those questions in mind. And my granddaughter Etta also wanted to see her again.

The Little Dancer, in her accustomed place in the Art Institute

Alas, when we reached the gallery where the French Impressionist paintings are hung and where we have heretofore encountered the Little Dancer, she was not there. There was information desk right outside the gallery, but the individual staffing it was sadly clueless as to Marie’s whereabouts. Had she somehow mysteriously absconded? Yet another question…. A small couplet stole into my brain:

Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen,
Little Dancer can’t be seen.

Ah, well; Etta and I must hope for better luck next time. And of course, it’s not as though we didn’t have plenty of other objets d’art with which to occupy ourselves:

The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, 1740-1741 by Michele Marieschi

 

Portrait of Marthe-Marie Tronchin, 1758-61, by Jean-Etienne Liotard

 

Calvary, Artist Unknown, Guatemala, 1760-1800

 

Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles, painted in 1889, just a year before his death

 

Being of a scientific bent, Etta was interested in this device, located in a corner of one of the galleries. A museum guard, delighted by her question, explained that it was a hygrometer, a device for monitoring humidity in enclosed spaces.

 

This time around my favorite new discovery:

Adoration of the Christ Child, Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen and Workshop, 1470-1475

 

And of course, we always make time to revisit our favorites – which are hopefully in their usual place:

Roman Theatre Mask, with Etta imitating as best she can

And finally, Un dimanche après-midi à l’îsle de la Grande Jatte, par Georges Seurat, 1886-1886:

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

Here is Camille Laurens’s poignant conclusion to the story of Edgar Degas and Marie van Goethem:

The shade of Marie melts into the deep shadow that Degas himself disappeared into. Her ghost is carried off, buried  with his remains. Nothing can separate them any longer. If we  take their two lives as one, at that point in time when  their trajectories intersected, like a momentary couple glimpsed through  a pane of glass, the resulting life is neither resounding nor insignificant. It is a life of hard  work. And also sadness, I believe. Yet it is a remarkable life, sovereign and vast in import. Both of them while still alive, she posing and he sculpting, had  the experience of death. The little statue restores their absent presence. It is their monument, their requiem.

A very special book, slight in length yet filled with grace and meaning, beautifully written by Camille Laurens and meticulously translated from the French by Willard Wood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Death of Grace Brown, 1906

March 21, 2019 at 1:48 am (True crime)

The Borden killings are baffling and appalling. The same can be said of the killing of Bobby Franks by Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold.

The murder of Grace Brown is certainly just as appalling as the above named, but it is not baffling. On the contrary, considering the circumstances in which it occurred, it was almost inevitable. Above all, it is heartbreaking.

In Bringing Down the Colonel (2018), Patricia Miller tells the story of the scandal that broke in 1893 when Madeline Pollard brought suit against W.C.P. (William Campbell Preston) Breckinridge for breach of promise. In the early 1880s, in the words of the jacket copy, Breckinridge was “…a handsome, married, moralizing lawyer running for Congress” when he initiated an affair with Pollard, then a student at Wesleyan Female College, now known simply as Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. The relationship continued for nearly a decade. The inevitable pregnancies – note the plural – resulted. When Breckinridge’s wife died in 1892 and the anticipated marriage proposal failed to materialize, Madeline Pollard had reached the end of her tether.

Very early in this absorbing chronicle, Patricia Miller states the following:

The charges were shocking, given that Breckinridge was such a well respected figure. What was even more shocking, and novel, however, was what Madeline had to sacrifice to bring the suit. She had to reveal herself as a “ruined” woman–a woman who had acquiesced to sex outside of marriage. Few things could be more injurious to a woman in late nineteenth-century America. A woman’s chastity was  the bedrock of her social capital. Its loss, the specter of the “fallen” woman, haunted society.

When stating her purpose in bringing this suit, Madeline Pollard declared bluntly: “I’ll take my share of the blame. I only ask that he take his.”

Pollard was no ingenue. She was reasonably experienced in the ways of the world, particularly when those ways involved powerful men. Grace Brown was another story altogether. An unworldly farm girl from a small town in upstate New York – South Otselic, in Chenango County – she had come to the “big city” – Cortland – in 1904 to work in the Gillette Skirt Factory. She had a married sister in that city, with whom she could live. Her family back home could use the money she would make at the factory.

In 1906, Chester Gillette, a scion of the factory owner’s family, arrived in town to work at the skirt factory. He and Grace struck up a friendship which soon turned into a love affair.

According to an account told to a reporter after Grace’s death, Chester met Grace when a ring, an inexpensive gold band with an opal stone, slipped off her narrow finger and rolled across the factory floor until it came to rest at his feet. He picked it up and made a bow and a remark before handing it back to her.

From Murder in the Adirondacks by Craig Brandon

By such small gestures are our fates determined….

The relationship was secretive. For one thing, Chester was eager to rise into the upper crust of Cortland society. There was simply no place there for Grace. In truth, she was a stopgap for Chester, someone to make him feel less lonely as he was  learning the ropes in an unfamiliar environment.

Just as Chester was starting to pull away from Grace, she gave him news that he did not want to hear: she was pregnant. In those days, if you got a girl “in trouble,” you married her. No question; it was simply what was expected and what was done. Grace was desperate for the marriage to take place. But Chester was just as desperate not to do it.

Chester advised Grace to quit her job at the skirt factory and return for a time to her home in South Otselic. This she did, but once there, she was miserable. She loved her mother and her siblings dearly, but she could not bring herself to confide in them. Eventually, she and Chester made  plan to meet in another town and travel north into the Adirondacks. It was Grace’s fervent hope that they were running away to be married. And yet, in one of her last letters to Chester, in which she describes bidding farewell to the places and people she loves, she betrays her anxiety:

And mamma! Great heavens, how I do love Mamma! I don’t know what I shall do without her (…) Sometimes I think if I could tell mamma, but I can’t. She has trouble enough as it is, and I couldn’t break her heart like that. If I come back dead, perhaps if she does not know, she won’t be angry with me.”

At length, they came upon a place called Big Moose Lake. They took rooms there.

The lake was beautiful; the country, secluded. They rowed to a remote spot. Chester claimed that Grace, though fully clothed, had suddenly jumped into the water. Unable to save her, he swam back to shore. The boat, overturned, remained out on the lake; there was no sign of Grace. Her body was recovered the following day. Soon after, Chester was arrested.

The trial was a sensation. Grace’s letters were read, bringing many in the courtroom  to tears. Meanwhile,  when speaking of Chester, prosecutor George W. Ward let loose like an avenging angel:

“He has more stability of purpose, more determination, more cunning than a wolf has got…and when a pretty flower had come down from the hills he scented her out as the instrument of his lust, plucked the petals one by one and threw them under his feet.”

Quoted by Craig Brandon in his book

Chester was judged guilty and sentenced to die in the electric chair. A subsequent appeal was denied.

There is of course much more to the story than what I have heretofore related. The post on  NewYorkUpstate.com provides a good summary of events and some excellent visuals. If you need more – and I definitely did – I recommend Murder in the Adirondacks by Craig Brandon. (Be sure to seek out the revised and updated edition, copyright 2016.)

Part Two of Brandon’s book is entitled “The Murder That Will Never Die.” First there was Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy, based on the events described above and published in two volumes in 1925. This work was adapted for the stage in the early 1930s. The film version, with the same title, came out in 1931. The film A Place in the Sun, a somewhat looser adaptation, came out in 1951. I simply must interject here that this to me is one of the most brilliant films ever made. It starred an impossibly handsome Montgomery Clift, an impossibly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor – at the time of the filming, nineteen years old! – and Shelley Winters as the doomed and desperate Alice Tripp. Utterly riveting.

Finally, an operatic version of the original novel was commissioned by New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The premiere performance was presented in 2005. The composer is Tobias Picker.

In his introduction, Craig Brandon reprints the words to a ‘murder ballad’ called Omie Wise. The crime to which it refers occurred in 1807 or 1808:

I’ll tell you a story about Omie Wise,
How she was deluded by John Lewis’s lies.

He promised to marry her at Adams’s spring;
He ‘d give her some money and other fine things.

He gave her no money, but flattered the case.
Says, “We will get married; there’ll be no disgrace.”

She got up behind him; away they did go
They rode till they came where the Deep River flowed.

“Now Omie, little Omie, I’ll tell you my mind:
My mind is to drown you and leave you behind.”

“Oh, pity your poor infant and spare me my life!
Let me go rejected and not be your wife.”

“No pity, no pity,” the monster did cry.
“On Deep River’s bottom your body will lie.”

The wretch he did choke her as we understand;
He threw her in the river below the mill dam.

Now Omie is missing as we all do know,
And down to the river a-hunting we ‘II go.

Two little boys were fishing just at the break of dawn;
They spied poor Omie’s body come floating along.

They arrested John Lewis; they arrested him today.
They buried little Omie down in the cold clay.

“Go hang me or kill me, for I am the man
Who murdered poor Naomi below the mill-dam.”

(This ballad exists in several versions; this one is offered by  Bob Waltz.)

Also in his introduction, Craig Brandon offers this provocative theory concerning why  the story of Chester Gillette and Grace Brown has such a hold on the popular imagination:

The real question–why do we still care about Chester after all this time?–continues to evade us. What is it about this story of a cruel and self-centered young man who murders his pregnant lover in a lake only to be discovered and executed? One answer that comes up over and over again is that the story is what psychologist Karl Yung called an archetype, a psychological script so compelling that, once initiated, forces the protagonist to follow it, powerless to resist–and, in this case, compels others to tell the story over and over.

So, did Chester Gillette actually kill Grace Brown? The better question is, Was he responsible  for her death? Craig Brandon quotes this summation by a reporter for the Utica Daily Press:

Whether Chester Gillette struck the cruel blow which killed the girl who loved and trusted him, or whether he overturned the boat with the purpose of drowning her, or whether, according to his own statement, he drove her to suicide by refusing her the only reparation in his power and then cold-bloodedly left her to drown without making one attempt to save her, makes little difference in the essential fact that he was morally her murderer.

Grace Mae Brown, March 20,1886-July 11, 1906

 

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The Burglar, by Thomas Perry

March 9, 2019 at 5:48 pm (Mystery fiction)

  An attractive young woman is jogging in one of Southern California’s many posh neighborhoods. She’s wiry, full of energy, good looking. She is alone; the sun, almost always blazing brightly, is setting now. This woman intrigues you, as she is meant to do. You both admire her and fear for her safety.

But you can put your anxieties to rest. Elle Stowell – that’s her name –  is well equipped to take care of herself. In point of fact, what she is actually doing as she moves swiftly and silently along this quiet street in Bel-Air is, to put it bluntly, casing the joint.

Yes, Elle Stowell is an unusual person. I found that as I read, it took some doing to get used to her. Her character is more subtly drawn, more complex than you might at first believe it to be. She gets herself in a jam early on when in the course of pursuing her “profession,” she stumbles upon a  scene of horror that she was never meant to witness. And her witnessing causes a subsequent tragedy that changes the course of her life. Among other things, it adds another skill to her resume: that of investigator, and a relentless one at that.

Perry has an offbeat sense of humor; it’s never more in play than when he describes Elle’s take on relations between the sexes, to wit:

The problem was that men thought of themselves as being more similar to anything else on the planet–male horses or wildebeests or  chipmunks–then to female human beings. Women were their opposite. To them, a thirty-two-year-old male physicist was more similar to a billy goat  than to a thirty-two-year-old female physicist.

I mostly enjoyed keeping company with Elle, although at times her ingenuity stretched my credulity. Truth be told,  I was looking for another Bomb Maker and this novel wasn’t quite it; for one thing, the structure wasn’t as cunning as it was in that masterful scare job. Nonetheless, The Burglar was an enjoyable read, and I’d be happy to encounter Elle Stowell again. She is nothing if not resourceful!

Thomas Perry

 

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Book Bash: Important Addendum

March 8, 2019 at 7:11 pm (Awards, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

  In my post covering the AAUW Book Bash last month, I inadvertently failed to mention a book that is extremely germane to AAUW’s mission: Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond, by Lily Ledbetter.

It started with an anonymous note in 1998. Ledbetter had  been working at Goodyear for nineteen difficult years when a mysterious missive informed her that she was being paid forty percent less than her male counterparts.

How did it end? From the Publishers Weekly review:

After discovering the anonymous note, she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, leading to her landmark discrimination lawsuit under Title VII and the Equal Pay Act. While Ledbetter lost the case on appeal (a decision upheld by the Supreme Court), the experience prompted her to become a spokesperson for equal pay. In January 2009, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, a satisfying coda to this inspiring tale.

The  book jacket states that Ledbetter’s determination resulted in “a victory for the nation.”

Barb C., activist member of the Howard County Branch of AAUW, adds:

The bill is not really about equal pay itself but gives the employee the right to sue about equal pay using the last paycheck rather than the first one. She maintained civility through out the challenges. I have met her at the AAUW conventions. She is a strong supporter of AAUW.

Barb C., Lilly L, and Lisa Maatz, former AAUW Public Policy

 

 

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True crime, from a librarian’s perspective: books and essays on the Borden case

March 7, 2019 at 2:50 pm (True crime)

The above mentioned librarian would be me; the subject, one to which I somehow feel compelled to return, year after year. Because of new, more recent transgressions in the news? No, although there are plenty of  those from which to choose. Instead, I find myself returning to the same older ones.

I am currently preparing a program entitled ‘Who Done It: True Crime Stories From A Librarian’s Perspective.’ This presentation, to which an hour and a half has been allotted, is to be given to a local group ten days from now. (That excellent title BTW was conceived by my friend Jean S.) Once again, I’ve become deeply immersed in this material. Three cases in particular have hijacked my mental apparatus:

The murder of Andrew and Abby Borden, alleged to have been committed by Lizzie Borden (1892);
The murder of Grace Brown, alleged to have been committed by Chester Gillette (1906);
The murder of Bobby Franks, committed by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb (1924).

Let’s start with the Borden case.

Andrew and Abby Borden

My search for an early and accessible retelling of the Borden story led me to The Borden Case by Edmund Pearson. This lengthy essay was included with four other true crime narratives in a volume by Edmund Pearson entitled Studies in Murder. First published in 1924, it was reissued in a Modern Library edition in 1938.

The edition which I now possess was put out by the Ohio State University Press in 1999 and remains in print. It  features an introduction by Roger Lane, Emeritus Professor of History at Haverford College. Professor Lane observes in regard to Edmund Pearson’s writing that he possesses a

 lively, urbane, and ironic style …, one that anticipated Truman Capote and Norman Mailer in bringing a touch of class to a form that needed it.

Edmund Pearson 1880-1937

Mr. Pearson hailed from Newburyport, a small city on the Massachusetts coast northeast of Boston. Although he later moved to New York City to take up the post of publications editor for the New York Public Library, his attachment to his New England roots remained strong throughout his life. He wrote about a variety of crimes, but the Lizzie Borden case was his chief preoccupation. Studies in Murder was published in 1924. In the course of The Borden Case, he mentions that he had the good fortune of being able to speak to some people who had  been living in Fall River at the time the murders took place.

This passage appears near the beginning of The Borden Case:

On the intensely hot morning of August 4, 1892, something more than an hour before noon, an elderly gentleman named Andrew Jackson Borden was walking through South Main Street, Fall River. He was returning to his home which was only a few steps from the principal business street, and little more than around the corner from the City Hall, and the center of the town. It is probable that his mind was chiefly concerned with business, or with his family affairs…. So securely is the future hidden from us, that there is no way to imagine the astonishment which would have been his, could he have had any intimation not alone of the sufficiently startling fact that the remainder of his lifetime was then numbered by minutes, but that his name was to engage his countrymen’s attention, for weeks and months to come, as if he were somebody of national importance.

How  about years, decades to come?  In True Crime: An American Anthology, Harold Schechter states  that “Among connoisseurs of American true crime writing, Edmund Pearson (1880-1937) is esteemed as the dean of the genre….”

In The Borden Case, Pearson includes a lengthy quote from The Fall River Tragedy by Edwin H. Porter. Written and published in 1893, this hot-off-the press title followed closely on the heels of the actual crimes. Porter was the police reporter for The Fall River Globe and a correspondent for The Boston Herald.

This  book has a curious history. For years following its publication, it was very difficult to obtain. In the Appendix to Studies in Murder, Edmund Pearson hints rather breathlessly that the Porter book may have been deliberately “suppressed.” He goes on to state: “In Fall River it seems to be on the index librorum prohibitorum; it is mentioned in hushed tones, and is not included in the catalogue of the public library.” To my surprise, I was able to obtain – rather easily – a copy of The Fall River Tragedy through interlibrary loan. The book that was sent to me is actually a facsimile edition of the 1893 issue.

Facsimile of the title page of the original 1893 edition

It is frequently alleged that before copies of this book could reach their intended audience, Lizzie Borden bought up the entire edition and destroyed it. In her 1967 book A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight, author Victoria Lincoln, herself a native of Fall River, gives credence to that legend. Supposedly there was something very damning in Porter’s book – something that Lizzie did not wish to become known.

But that legend has since been debunked by, among others, Sarah Miller, author of The Borden Murders (2016). Miller is dismissive of Porter’s efforts:

In reality, Lizzie had little to fear from Edwin Porter….If  the people of Fall River were hoping for shocking new revelations, or perhaps even a solution to the mystery, Porter was a complete disappointment.

Maybe so, but I found his minute by minute analysis of the crimes – to be cogently reasoned and quite persuasive. In other words, circumstances must have ordered themselves in precisely  the way Porter describes in order for someone from the outside to have gained entry to the house, murdered both elderly Bordens, and then escaped undetected. The following was quoted by Edmund Pearson in Studies In Murder:

 To those who stopped to contemplate the circumstances surrounding the double murder, it was marvelous to reflect how fortune had favored the assassin. Not once in a million times would fate have paved such a way for him. He had to deal with a family of six persons in an unpretentious two-and-a-half story house, the rooms of which were all connected and in which it would have been a difficult matter to stifle sound. He must catch Mr. Borden alone and either asleep, or off his guard, and kill him with one fell blow. The faintest outcry would have sounded an alarm. He must also encounter Mrs. Borden alone and fell her, a heavy woman, noiselessly.

To do this he must either make his way from the sitting room on the ground floor to the spare bed room above the parlor and avoid five persons in the passage, or he must conceal himself in one of the rooms up stairs and make the descent under the same conditions. The murdered woman must not lisp a syllable at the first attack, and her fall must not attract attention. He must then conceal the dripping implement of death and depart in broad daylight by a much frequented street….Bridget Sullivan, the servant, must be in the attic asleep on her own bed. Her presence in the pantry or kitchen or any room on the first or second floors would have frustrated the fiend’s designs, unless he also killed her so that she would die without a murmur.

In making his escape there must be no blood stains upon his clothing; for such tell-tale marks might have betrayed him. And so, if the assailant of the aged couple was not familiar with the premises, his luck favored him exactly as described. He made no false move. He could not have proceeded more swiftly nor surely had he lived in the modest edifice for years. At the most he had just twenty minutes in which to complete his work. He must go into the house after Miss Lizzie entered the barn and he must disappear before she returned.

There’s more in this vein – quite a bit more. It is very persuasively argued. Porter concludes by exclaiming:

It was a wonderful chain of circumstances which conspired to clear the way for the murderer; so wonderful that its links baffled men’s understanding.

But Porter is not quite right about the  twenty minutes required to perform the killings, as Pearson points out. Examination of the blood evidence and later, the stomach contents of each of the victims, led investigators to conclude that Abby Borden had died an hour to an hour and a half before her husband.

So: Andrew Borden had only just arrived home; he’d decided to lie down on the couch in the sitting room for a brief nap. Bridget the maid was napping upstairs in her bedroom.  Emma Borden, Lizzie’s older sister, was visiting friends out of town. A relative, John Vinicum Morse, was staying with the family, but had gone out and did not return until later. Abby Borden’s whereabouts were not immediately known. Lizzie said that she had gone out to visit a sick person. Lizzie herself claimed to have been in the barn out back while her father was being slaughtered. Yet circumstances pointed to her more than to anyone else, so she was duly arrested. And tried. (Sarah Miller’s book describes the trial in vivid detail.) And ultimately acquitted.

There is of course much more to this story than what I have related here. I recommend Sarah Miller’s The Borden Murders, a book which is rather disconcertingly – to me, at least – reviewed as a YA (Young Adult) title, and even as one for older children! (Sarah Miller has penned several works for this demographic.) My dear friend Barb L, children’s librarian extraordinaire, offered the following insight to me via email:

There is a type of older middle school reader or teen who would just eat this up.  They thrive on the dark and the macabre.  They’re wired for it.  On my website I call them the “Jokester.”  Many Jokesters are looking for intense action and plots.  They like the extremes.   Early on they want the books on volcanoes and tornadoes and emergency situations.  The Titanic fascinates them and they ask their librarians again and again for the “scary stories.”

Barb’s site, A Book and a Hug, is outstanding, a must-see for anyone who cares about children and the literature that describes and enriches their world.

One of the first things I did when I obtained The Borden Murders was to flip through the sections containing photographs. Pictures were taken at the crime scene of both Andrew and Abby Borden. The picture of Abby, which does not reveal much, is included in Miller’s book. The one of Andrew is graphic and terrible and was, thankfully, omitted.

I also recommend Edmund Pearson’s The Borden Case, in his collection Studies in Murder. Almost a hundred years after it was written, it remains eminently readable. Of course, there are numerous other books available on this seemingly inexhaustible topic. (The Fall River Tragedy by Edwin H. Porter and A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight by Victoria Lincoln are both available as inexpensive downloads.)Two online sources that are worth a look are the  Lizzie Andrew Borden Virtual Museum and Library  and Tattered Fabric: Fall River’s Lizzie Borden.

One of the central questions concerning the literature of true crime – indeed, concerning the crimes themselves – is why certain criminal acts establish a hold on the human imagination that retains its grip as the years go by. (Yes I know, there’s that infuriating bit of doggerel, “Lizzie Borden took an axe…”) My own theory is that certain crime stories contain within themselves a central mystery that has never  been resolved in a satisfactory way. That mystery bears on the even greater conundrum of human nature itself – why individuals perform seemingly inexplicable acts in the cold light of day, or in the middle of the night.No matter what anyone thinks now, or thought then, Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the murder of her father and stepmother. Was she in fact guilty? And if she didn’t do it, then who did?

Lizzie (later Lizbeth) Andrew Borden 1860-1927

The ballet Fall River Legend was made by Agnes DeMille in 1948 for the American Ballet Theater. Music composed by Morton Gould.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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