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book review

Will we ever know who killed the Bordens?

In this courtroom sketch, Lizzie Borden faints after a prosecutor produced a black bag containing the skulls of her parents, which were going to be presented as evidence during the trial. The image was printed on page one of the Wednesday June 7, 1893 edition of the Globe.
In this courtroom sketch, Lizzie Borden faints after a prosecutor produced a black bag containing the skulls of her parents, which were going to be presented as evidence during the trial. The image was printed on page one of the Wednesday June 7, 1893 edition of the Globe.Boston Globe

Lizzie Andrew Borden is the stuff of New England legend. Acquitted in the 1892 axe murders of her father and stepmother, the woman from Fall River has been memorialized in folk rhyme, film, opera, theater, literature, and even a feminist rock musical.

In “The Trial of Lizzie Borden,” Cara Robertson delves deep into the record, recounting every twist in the legal proceedings, as well as Borden’s life. Drawing on transcripts, contemporaneous newspaper accounts, and newly available letters and a defense lawyer’s papers, Robertson, even-handed to a fault, details the inquest, the preliminary hearing and the trial step by step.

She offers insight into the prevailing weirdness of the Borden household, with its penchant for locked doors, and mounting familial resentments. She also provides thumbnail sketches of a variety of characters, including the lawyers and the reporters covering the trial. But her mostly chronological approach is plodding and repetitive, slowing her narrative to a crawl.

Robertson began researching the case in 1990 for her Harvard undergraduate thesis. She has since earned a doctorate in English (from Oxford University) and a law degree (from Stanford), clerked at the US Supreme Court, and served as a legal adviser to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

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Her legal expertise serves her well. But she’s a neophyte at crafting narrative nonfiction, which demands tighter control of the material.

Robertson draws her epigraph from a prescient 1893 New York Times story that seems to predict the longstanding controversy. “There is so little absolute evidence that everybody can interpret the probabilities and circumstantial indications to suit himself,” the Times suggests. “There seems to be little prospect that the mystery will be cleared up by the trial.” Nevertheless, the reader is bound to hope that Robertson will supply the puzzle’s missing pieces.

“The Trial of Lizzie Borden” opens with a Fall River pharmacist’s account of a failed attempt by a woman he identifies as Lizzie Borden to buy prussic acid, a poison. (This incident, like many, is revisited throughout the narrative.) Then Robertson sketches the Borden ménage: Andrew, a frugal, self-made businessman; his second wife, Abby; his two grown, unmarried daughters, Emma and Lizzie; and a servant, Bridget Sullivan.

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As Robertson recounts, Abby’s success at persuading Andrew to help her half-sister purchase a house galled her envious stepdaughters, transforming “chilly tolerance to open animosity.” Andrew’s general miserliness apparently was another source of household distress. But was any of this enough to motivate murder?

On Aug. 4, 1892, Lizzie raised the first alarm, to a neighbor, about her father’s slaying. In the Borden house, that neighbor and the housemaid also spotted the corpse of Abby. It was unclear how the two murders, committed about an hour and a half apart, could have been the work of a stranger — especially without Lizzie or Bridget, both of them home, spotting the intruder.

Robertson occasionally steps back from her narrative to situate Lizzie in the context of her times. Like most 19th-century middle-class women, Robertson writes, she “was relegated to unproductive marginality,” all the more so because she never married and still lived in her father’s house.

More inculpating than Borden’s unhappiness, however, were her inconsistent accounts of her whereabouts and other details of the day of the murders. “Her stories were contradictory,” Robertson reports, and “the inquest presented a damning picture,” leading to Borden’s arrest.

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During her subsequent ordeal, the defendant was fortunate in her legal representation and key judicial rulings. She never testified at trial, where she sat “unruffled, the still center of the spectacle unfolding around her.”

Press coverage was voluminous, sometimes sympathetic and often sensationalistic. Its nadir was the claim that her father had threatened to evict a pregnant Borden from their home if she did not reveal her lover’s name. An “elaborate hoax,” it nevertheless made its way into The Boston Globe.

Direct evidence of Borden’s guilt was lacking: There were no eyewitnesses; the murder weapon was never definitively identified; and no blood was discovered on Borden herself, despite the grisly nature of the slayings. (Her burning of a dress — spattered with either paint, as she claimed, or blood — is one of the case’s many mysteries.) Still, opportunity (if not clear motive), the lack of other viable suspects, and Borden’s own shifting accounts pointed to her as the killer.

For the New Bedford jury, the circumstantial evidence proved insufficient. But many of Borden’s acquaintances would later shun her, including her own sister. Controversial then as now, the verdict, on June 20, 1893, hardly resolved the matter of her guilt. Despite Robertson’s impressive research, “The Trial of Lizzie Borden” won’t either.

THE TRIAL OF LIZZIE BORDEN:

A True Story

By Cara Robertson

Simon and Schuster, 384 pp., illustrated, $28

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Julia M. Klein, a cultural critic and reporter in Philadelphia, has been a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter, @JuliaMKlein.