The Buffalo News - - GUSTOSUNDAY - By Parul Sehgal

h, Mrs. Churchill, do come over. Some­one has killed fa­ther.”

With those words – called across a yard to a neigh­bor, on a sum­mer day in 1892 – a wo­man named Lizzie Bor­den en­tered his­tory as vil­lain, vic­tim, punch­line and the me­dia sen­sa­tion of the Gilded Age.

By the next morn­ing, 1,500 gawk­ers had gath­ered out­side the Bor­den house in Fall River, Mass. There was soon spec­u­la­tion that Jack the Rip­per had come to Amer­ica.

Some­one had killed fa­ther – and step­mother, too. Their bod­ies were dis­cov­ered hacked to death; his, ly­ing on the couch where he had been nap­ping; hers, face­down in the spare room, blud­geoned al­most twice as many times.

“There was some­thing about the locked-room mys­tery of the Bor­den mur­ders that turned ev­ery­one into an am­a­teur de­tec­tive,” Cara Robert­son writes in “The Trial of Lizzie Bor­den,” her en­thralling new book, al­most 20 years in the mak­ing. A for­mer le­gal ad­viser to the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Tri­bunal for the for­mer Yu­goslavia, she draws upon court tran­scripts, un­pub­lished re­ports and Lizzie’s re­cently dis­cov­ered let­ters to tell the story chrono­log­i­cally, from mur­der to ver­dict to the case’s long, strange af­ter­life.

Robert­son does not work for the pros­e­cu­tion or the de­fense. She mar­shals us to no con­clu­sion. She only re­opens the case and presents the ev­i­dence afresh, all those al­lur­ing de­tails out of an Agatha Christie novel (the mys­tery of Lizzie’s burned dress, the cu­ri­ous dis­ap­pear­ance of a hatchet han­dle). The reader is to serve as judge and jury.

We be­gin in the sin­gu­larly un­happy home ruled by An­drew Bor­den, a dour, tight­fisted pa­tri­arch. His first wife died while the cou­ple’s daugh­ters, Emma and Lizzie, were young, and he mar­ried Abby Gray soon af­ter. An­drew sought a mother for his chil­dren, and Abby, con­sid­ered a spin­ster at 37, longed to leave her crowded home. It was a bad bar­gain for both. Lit­tle warmth ex­isted be­tween the cou­ple. An­drew gave his wife the same pal­try weekly al­lowance as his chil­dren, and never wore a wed­ding ring. Lizzie and her sis­ter re­acted to their step­mother as a usurper. By the time the girls were in their 30s, open hos­til­ity reigned, and the fam­ily main­tained par­al­lel lives. Meals were served in two sit­tings; the daugh­ters re­fused to dine with the par­ents or even talk to Abby.

These sto­ries came tum­bling out dur­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Robert­son evokes the con­di­tions that could birth and sus­tain such ran­cor – the nar­row world of Emma and Lizzie Bor­den. They were too old for col­lege, too old to marry and too high­born to work. Lizzie dab­bled in church ac­tiv­i­ties, but “there is lit­tle ev­i­dence she found these ac­tiv­i­ties sat­is­fy­ing.” She spoke wist­fully of free­dom, but she was ef­fec­tively im­mured.

When An­drew be­gan to sus­pect that one or both of his daugh­ters had stolen valu­ables from him and Abby, he started an elab­o­rate sys­tem of lock­ing his room and pro­tect­ing his pos­ses­sions. The house be­gan to feel like a cell. Robert­son ex­plains that Lizzie’s tes­ti­mony of her ac­tiv­i­ties on the day of the mur­ders was re­garded as so bizarre be­cause po­lice and pros­e­cu­tors could not con­ceive of the lack of pur­pose in the lives of un­mar­ried women of her class.

Al­most from the be­gin­ning, Lizzie, 32, was the only se­ri­ous sus­pect. Fall River po­lice be­gan their search by con­cen­trat­ing on lo­cal im­mi­grants, but an out­sider seemed im­prob­a­ble. Lizzie and the house­maid (who had an al­ibi) were both home; how would a stranger have es­caped no­tice dur­ing the mur­ders – and the time be­tween them? Other sin­is­ter de­tails emerged: Lizzie was re­port­edly seen try­ing to buy highly poi­sonous prus­sic acid the day be­fore the killings.

Iden­tity – Lizzie’s gen­der, in par­tic­u­lar – be­came the bedrock for the cases made by both pros­e­cu­tion and de­fense.

“The youngest daugh­ter?” her lawyer pe­ti­tioned. “The last one whose baby fin­gers have been lov­ing en­twined about her fa­ther’s head. Is there noth­ing in the ties of love and af­fec­tion?” The pros­e­cu­tion, mean­while, pointed to the na­ture and num­ber of the blows, clearly com­mit­ted by “an ir­res­o­lute, im­per­fect fem­i­nine hand.” The con­spic­u­ously un­nerved judge was forced to em­ploy a thought ex­per­i­ment: “Sup­pose for a sin­gle mo­ment that a man was stand­ing there,” he said. “Would there be any ques­tion in the minds of men what should be done with such a man?”

“Most in­ter­pre­ta­tions tell us more about the pre­oc­cu­pa­tions of its chron­i­clers than any es­sen­tial truth about the mys­tery,” Robert­son writes. In the 1950s, Lizzie Bor­den was res­ur­rected as a fem­i­nist hero­ine. As one book from that pe­riod put it: “If to­day wo­man has come out of the kitchen, she is only fol­low­ing Lizzie, who came out of it with a bloody ax and helped start the rights-for-women band­wagon.” In the 1990s, an­other the­ory sur­faced: that Lizzie mur­dered her par­ents af­ter years of sex­ual abuse by her fa­ther. This the­ory re­lied on the fact that their bed­rooms were con­nected by a door, the in­ten­sity of their re­la­tion­ship and the de­tail that in­stead of a wed­ding ring, An­drew wore a gold ring given to him by Lizzie.

Every gen­er­a­tion re­frames the story in the light of its sig­nal pre­oc­cu­pa­tions. Robert­son does, too, and openly. She refers to young adult nov­els and films that have of­fered more fully re­al­ized por­traits of Lizzie, as well as doc­u­men­taries like “The Stair­case” and “Mak­ing a Mur­derer,” which re­lit­i­gate old cases with fresh ev­i­dence. She also might have men­tioned re­cent doc­u­men­taries on Tonya Hard­ing and Lorena Bob­bitt – women whose sto­ries are now be­ing scru­ti­nized with more sub­tlety and with an eye to how sex­ism shaped their pub­lic nar­ra­tives.

Robert­son is a scrupu­lous writer who stays teth­ered to the ar­chives, but I of­ten wished she had per­mit­ted her­self to rove more freely, to spec­u­late and imag­ine.

The real rid­dle of Lizzie Bor­den isn’t whether she did it, or why, but can be found in the dark fas­ci­na­tion she con­tin­ues to ex­ert.

She re­mains as elu­sive in this ad­mirable book as in life, as in the pho­to­graphs that re­main to us – a round-cheeked young per­son with a de­ci­sive mouth, not quite meet­ing our eye.

“There seems to be lit­tle prospect that the mys­tery will be cleared up by the trial,” the New York Times com­mented prophet­i­cally in 1893. “The ver­dict, if there shall be a ver­dict, will make lit­tle dif­fer­ence.”

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