A Thousand Steps

A Thousand Steps
A Thousand Steps by T. Jefferson Parker

Thursday, June 6, 2019

TRUE CRIME THURSDAY: The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson- Feature and Review


The remarkable new account of an essential piece of American mythology—the trial of Lizzie Borden—based on twenty years of research and recently unearthed evidence.

The Trial of Lizzie Borden tells the true story of one of the most sensational murder trials in American history. When Andrew and Abby Borden were brutally hacked to death in Fall River, Massachusetts, in August 1892, the arrest of the couple’s younger daughter Lizzie turned the case into international news and her trial into a spectacle unparalleled in American history. Reporters flocked to the scene. Well-known columnists took up conspicuous seats in the courtroom. The defendant was relentlessly scrutinized for signs of guilt or innocence. Everyone—rich and poor, suffragists and social conservatives, legal scholars and laypeople—had an opinion about Lizzie Borden’s guilt or innocence. Was she a cold-blooded murderess or an unjustly persecuted lady? Did she or didn’t she?

The popular fascination with the Borden murders and its central enigmatic character has endured for more than one hundred years. Immortalized in rhyme, told and retold in every conceivable genre, the murders have secured a place in the American pantheon of mythic horror, but one typically wrenched from its historical moment. In contrast, Cara Robertson explores the stories Lizzie Borden’s culture wanted and expected to hear and how those stories influenced the debate inside and outside of the courtroom. Based on transcripts of the Borden legal proceedings, contemporary newspaper accounts, unpublished local accounts, and recently unearthed letters from Lizzie herself, The Trial of Lizzie Borden offers a window onto America in the Gilded Age, showcasing its most deeply held convictions and its most troubling social anxieties



The Trial of Lizzie BordenThe Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson is a 2019 Simon & Schuster publication.

As unsolved murders go, this is THE case that puzzles me the most. For many it’s Jack the Ripper, whose violent killing spree has been poured over and analyzed six ways from Sunday. But, in the late 1800s, a gentle spinster lady goes on trial for the horrible double homicide of her step-mother and father.

This is a crime that took place in broad daylight, the murders occurring over an hour apart, with Lizzie and the family’s maid, Bridget, being the only two people in the house at the time. Neither of them, saw or heard anything…

The trial was sensational. National newspapers followed the events closely, editorialized and analyzed and theorized, as the testimony and evidence presented shocked the country. Through it all, Lizzie remained stoic, self-possessed, almost serene.

Most everyone has heard something of the Legend of Lizzie Borden. There have been some terrific books written about the crime, some re-imaginings, both in books and movies, all of which offer some compelling theories. It still amazes me that after all these years, the mystery still haunts us.

As this book states, on more than one occasion, it is a classic ‘locked room’ mystery. Perhaps the most famous one of all. Every time I read a book about this case, I find myself searching for an obvious clue, that one damning piece of evidence that would help me make up my mind about Lizzie's case. I've waffled back and forth since I was a teenager, and first watched ‘The Legend of Lizzie Borden’ , a made for television movie starring Elizabeth Montgomery. But at the end of the day, I’m still just as stumped, unable to make up my mind one way or another.

This book, though centered around the trial, does go over the facts as we know them, leading up to the murder and explains why Lizzie became the primary suspect. Once we get to the trial, the author takes the standard courtroom proceedings and adds in the journalistic elements of the trial, especially the viewpoint of female journalists. It was very interesting to see what the newspapers printed as the trial progressed.

I enjoyed the sketches and photographs of the lawyers and witnesses and the inflections of those who testified. I love a good courtroom drama, always have done, but a trial taking place in this time frame, before flashy theatrics were commonplace, pitted the opposing council against one another in a show of one-upmanship that was absolutely riveting. Not that there weren’t a few theatrics- pulling out the skulls of the deceased without warning was drama at its finest.

The inside information about the jurors was also very interesting. It was, of course, an all-male jury since women could not serve on juries until the 1950s in the state of Massachusetts. (!!!)

The one thing this book did do for me was give me a fresher perspective on the case. Times were so different back then. Women’s issues were highly misunderstood, and they were thought to be prone to hysterics, especially if Lizzie was menstruating, which, might have been a great defense for Lizzie -insanity. She must have been mad at the time, if she did indeed commit the crimes she was accused of, because, madness was the only explanation they could wrap their heads around. Women of Lizzie’s class and station simply could not commit such a heinous crime, otherwise.

This book has an interesting journey to publication, which also made it a unique read. But, more importantly, for me, is that this book succeeded where others before it failed. I now have little doubt about Lizzie’s guilt or innocence. The facts speak for themselves, and the way this book is formatted, without going off down rabbit holes or pontificating on this or that, helped me see things that were in plain sight all along.

Lizzie’s life after the trial was quiet as she was mostly shunned by locals. But she did lead a colorful life despite that and left behind a dark legacy in her wake. I wonder what Lizzie would make of all the attention her life has garnered, all the debate, the movies, books, TV shows and documentaries outlining her case, none of them able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Lizzie Borden is guilty, nor can they exonerate her.

Without some bombshell revelation- perhaps a peak at that one file which remains untouchable- we will never really know for sure. However, this book leaves little doubt, although the author does not speculate one way or another, or give her opinion, allowing the reader to interpret the facts for themselves and draw their own conclusion, which is really how a true crime book should read.

The one downfall is the book’s ‘no-frills’ approach. Readers will probably struggle to keep awake, especially since we’ve all become so accustomed to reading true crime in novel form. Yet, for me, that no-frills approach is what made the book so chilling. The trial portions of the book were quite enlightening. Yet, even I couldn’t just sit and read this one cover to cover without taking breaks, because, yes, it is very dry reading at times. Still, I think the book is one of the most comprehensive and revealing of any I’ve read on the subject to date.






Cara Robertson is a lawyer whose writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, the Raleigh News and Observer, and the Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities. She was educated at Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford Law School. A former Supreme Court law clerk, she served as a legal adviser to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague and a Visiting Scholar at Stanford Law School. Her scholarship has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Humanities Center of which she is a Trustee. She first started researching the Lizzie Borden story as a senior at Harvard, and published her first paper on the trial in the Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities in 1997. The Trial of Lizzie Borden is her first book. 

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