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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