Thursday, July 18, 2019

Book Review | The Trial of Lizzie Borden


Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

I truly am baffled by the low rating this book has on Goodreads right now, a 3.41. I know to some people that seems decent, but I am a bit more strict in my own ratings, and so anything under 3.5 gives me pause before I read it. I am also confused by the readers claiming this was too much about Lizzie's trial, or it was too legal or boring and not enough narrative. Um, what the hell? First of all, the title should have given you a clue on that 'trial' part. Second of all, nothing about the Borden trial could ever be boring. Third, it's NON-FICTION, not a novel. People who call non-fiction texts 'novels' are seriously the bane of my reading existence.

Personally, I thought this book was fantastic. I couldn't put it down. It is yet another book that appears to be true crime, but that I also feel transcends the genre (I have said that a lot lately, haven't I?) because the case is so well-known, so huge that we are still talking and writing about it well over a century later.

I knew quite a bit about the case already, as I find Lizzie Borden such a confounding enigma. On one hand, there is simply no way that her father and step-mother could have been murdered such a length of time apart, that neither Lizzie nor the family's maid, Bridget, would not notice something was amiss. One of the biggest hurdles for me in any attempt to believe in Borden's innocence is the story Lizzie told about Abby receiving a note to visit an ill friend. No one ever found, or came forward, to say that they had delivered the note, or that they had been the ill friend who sent it. On top of that, the note itself was never found.

On the other hand, if we are to believe that Lizzie Borden is this criminal mastermind who managed to murder both her father and step-mother in cold blood without being caught by Bridget, or even seen through the window from someone outside as she murdered her father, isn't this something she would have anticipated, and thus created evidence in the form of a note?

I feel like for whatever piece of evidence is presented to prove her guilt, it does - but then there is a tiny little thread left dangling that you can pull at to discover a little bit more to prove she is innocent.

To say that this story has captivated the nation is kind of an understatement. It seems that everyone had an opinion on the case, and still does, but in all of that the victims get lost. This happens often, and I have mentioned so in other books of this nature. While we spend so much time deciding if we think Borden is innocent or guilty, we forget that while her life hung in the balance, two had already been taken away. I can't imagine too many more horrible ways to die than to be hacked at multiple times and not being able to defend one's self from the onslaught of the ax.

I feel some deep sympathy for Abby especially. I imagine the living arrangements got rather uncomfortable, considering the fact that her step-daughters openly despised her by the end of her life, for the property deal her father went through with for Abby's sister. The women were then given their own holding of land, because they demanded Andrew Borden make things equal in some way...yet Emma and Lizzie never forgave them anyway, and refused to eat their meals together. It's all just incredibly messy and I think the key to finding out who the killer was depends on truly understanding the dynamic in the house at the time of the murders. There are so many conflicting accounts of the tension, or lack-of. Some witness testified that Emma and Lizzie hated Abby and said mean things about her, were still harboring anger toward their father, and so on. Others said there were no problems that they were aware of. 

What makes this book on the topic so important, and the low rating again a surprise, is that there is a lot of new information here - even if that information does not directly point to the killer (except possibly for the attorney files which are still under lock and key, but more about that later). The author has clearly devoted much time and energy to telling the most complete story she can about the murders and life for Borden during and after the trial. Here she draws from many documents never seen before by the public, such as unpublished journals from attorneys. There is also a treasure trove in the form on Lizzie Borden's own letters that were recently discovered. In addition, information comes from transcripts from the legal proceedings, previously unpublished local reports, and news articles from the day.

Now, back to these files I mentioned above. At the very end of the book the author discusses the files kept by Borden's attorney after the case was over. The files have never been seen by anyone outside the law firm, and I am so incredibly curious as to why. All of the participants have long since passed away, there is no danger anymore in showing these records to the public. And yet...

"So there, in Springfield, Massachusetts, locked in a five-drawer file cabinet, the file languishes, more than 125 years after Lizzie Borden, gloved hand on Robinson's arm, walked out of the New Bedford courtroom a free woman" (page 289).

I can't possibly be the only one who wants to know once and for all if Lizzie was guilty or not and I believe something in those files will tell the truth. Why else might they be kept sealed, away from anyone outside the firm? Perhaps I should see if they have any job openings...

I feel like looking at the case today, people will think almost without doubt that she must have been guilty, there are too many little things that do not quite add up. But we must remember that Lizzie Borden lived in a very different time. The Bordens were a well-to-do family, possibly the wealthiest family in Fall River. Based on class alone, it would have been unfathomable to the upper reaches of society to believe for one moment that a person of Lizzie's station could have even committed such a crime. it was simply inconceivable, in a time when it was thought that one could tell if someone was a criminal by their features, ethnicity, etc. Not surprising for the time, but also totally wrong in its assumption. it would have been very difficult, given the actual evidence presented, for the all-male jury to convict Lizzie Borden. So much of it is circumstantial, there is no 'gotcha' that firmly points to the younger Borden sister.

Not only did Lizzie's class matter in the minds of the jury and her society circles, but gender was important too. The tiny speck of blood found on the inner part of one of her dresses was explained away in that Lizzie was menstruating. This is also set up as a way to explain the rags in the basement at the sink, where Lizzie was observed standing for quite some time, though due to the high window, the officer who did observe Lizzie later that night could not see what she was doing. Perhaps she was trying to wash the blood out of the dress she had worn when she had committed the murders? Or perhaps she was only washing said rags commonly used by menstruating women in the 19th century (side note: I am so glad I live in the 21st century). The theories at the time concluded that women who were menstruating lacked self-control and were prisoners of their hormones, unable to think or act clearly. If Lizzie did indeed have her period, and really did murder Andrew and Abby, this would have been an accepted 'insanity' defense. It would also be the only reason the upper echelons of society could have understood as a reason for one of their own to have committed such a heinous and brutal crime. I really think this social commentary that the author provides is critical to understanding why, even when given enough circumstantial evidence to lean toward guilt, those twelve men serving simply could not bring themselves to say she'd done it.

One of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much is because of the author's own background. Robertson used the Borden trial as the subject of her undergraduate thesis while at Harvard. Instead of taking her professor's advice and turning the thesis into a book then, she went off to Oxford to earn her PhD in English, then her law degree from Stanford. I think those elements in her background bring the story together superbly. Robertson also does not show any bias as she lays out the case. She gives the facts that we know and provides the reader with ample opportunity to make up their own mind. I never felt like she favored the prosecution or defense, and she truly leaves it up in the air. The research is so thorough, and the details add to the big pictures to create a stunning portrait of the murders and their aftermath. Then there are the literal pictures, the photographs that Robertson chose to include. They added further depth to the story and are valuable to it.

After all is said and done, there is no mystery at all - if you hear hoof beats, you think horse, not zebra. Lizzie Borden murdered her father and step-mother, right? She had the means - several axes found in the basement, yet none deemed to be the murder weapon. She had the opportunity - Bridget was sent out to wash the windows and Emma was out of town. (However, all this fuss was made about Lizzie not hearing a sound while she was in the barn looking for irons to go fishing - couldn't the same be said about Bridget? Did Bridget not hear cries for help?) And then what about motive? Understanding the motive seems difficult and easy all a the same time. Why then? The property deal that Lizzie and Emma were so upset about had occurred five years prior to the murders. Mr Borden was very tight-fisted with money it was said, but his daughters rarely wanted for anything - except for their father to finally move out of that home on Second Street to the more fashionable district as befitting a family of their station. He refused. So did Lizzie just finally get so frustrated one day at the thought of it, she decided to kill them?



I can't help it. I continue to waver back and forth over this, and will do so I am sure for quite some time.

Highly, highly recommended.


  1. I have recently been interested in Lizzie Borden as well and was hoping for some good recommendations, since there are a number of books about the subject. I would prefer non-fiction and reliable sources. I will definitely be looking this book up.

    1. This book is absolutely perfect for you then! Just keep in mine, it is as the title says, and focuses on the trial. The author does detail the events leading up, and the aftermath, but the trial is front and center. I read some reviews where people complained about that - not sure what they were expecting! I definitely want to talk about it after you have the chance to read it!!

    2. Excellent! I am glad I am finally finding some non-fiction readers too, otherwise it makes book discussions hard, haha

  2. You are doing an epic job of catching up on your reviews! I have enjoyed reading all of them this morning.

    1. Thank you Judy - now I am trying to catch up on the comments I put on the back-burner while I was reviewing! it's a never-ending cycle, isn't it?? :) But I think I have a good balance, and finally blogging is fun again, not a chore.

  3. I previously read a book about the murders and the trial and I pretty much think she was innocent. I'm no expert though!

    1. I go back and forth ALL. THE. TIME. And Robertson is not in any way telling you what she thinks, she just says, here are the facts we know. And half the time there is no way anyone could have murdered the Bordens but Lizzie. Then the other half I am like, but wait... I don't think I will ever feel 100% confident in an answer, and I want to see those locked files!!


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