3 “Wrong” But Worthy Books on Lizzie Borden

07 Aug

Phlash Note:  Unrelated to this post but in answer to the “Recent Comments” section below (on the right side of this page) about the “new photo of Lizzie Borden” where the writer thinks it not Lizzie but Abby Borden:  The photo was found in a family album belonging to Emma Borden.  Since the photos were of the Borden and Morse families it’s unlikely Emma had a photo of Abby as a young girl included with her beloved relatives.

Here are 3 books with chapters on Lizzie Borden worthy of reading if only to validate how authors continually get things wrong and serve to perpetuate myths about this enduring case.


Murder on Trial 1620-2002, Robert Asher, Lawrence B. Goodheart, and Alan Rogers, editors (270 pages),  State University Press of New York, 2005.  The chapter on Lizzie Borden is titled “Bodies of Evidence:  Photography in the Trial of Lizzie Borden” written by Tiffany Johnson Bidler, and its the only chapter with illustrations.  I get the sense she wrote this as a thesis to her Ph.D. or publication requirement for accreditation.   Photography was a new medium in crime scene evidence gathering (1890) and Bidler cites many theorists on photographic intepretation.  All is well and good until you get to the fifth page where she writes:  “The inquest photographs of the Borden murders were taken between 11:15 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. on August 4, 1892.”   Point in fact, Marshall Hilliard received notice that something was amiss at the Borden household via a phone call from newsdealer Cunningham at precisely 11:15 a.m., according to the wall clock at the Central Police Station.  Point in fact, the photographs were not taken until much later in the afternoon.   This is all in sworn testimony.

I personally think Bidler stretches her similarities in comparative photographs (Andrew on the couch compared to Sarah Berhardt in a swoon on a sofa) as well as drawing psychological conclusions, i.e., Lizzie holding her fan “close to her womb”.  She also elaborates on the meaning of pansies and points out the May 21, 1892 issue of Harper’s Bazar detailed an article about what pansies mean.

While I didn’t buy into the theories and felt they were not as persuasively presented as they could have been, I am impressed with the extensive sources cited in the Notes.  This is a rather rich chapter in the book and presents a new way to look at the photographic evidence, whether you agree with it or not.

Not your typical true crime compendium lightweight publication, all chapters take a fresh and new look into old and familiar cases.  I would recommend buying this book.


Stackpole Books paperback series on True Crime in various states includes a 20 page chapter on Lizzie Borden in its True Crime: Massachusetts by Eric Ethier.  This 115-page book, published in 2009 has been available thru Amazon the past couple months.  Erroneous or unproven assertations include 92 Second Street being “cramped” – which it was not; “Maplecroft” referred to as a mansion, which it was not; Lizzie being driven to tears at the Coroner’s Inquest under questioning by Knowlton – also untrue.  If anything, Lizzie was an unflappable sphinx who frustrated the District Attorney on more than one occasion during the 3 days  he attempted to get a logical explanation of her whereabouts during the murders.

The author states Andrew was a “major investor” in many of the mills, which he was not.  Although he  sat on a couple of  Boards, owned some mill stock, and his counsel on real estate matters was sought,  for the author to state Andrew was a “major player in the industrial and financial scene of Fall River” is a bit of an exaggeration.

The best part of the book is the interview with Shelley Dziedzic (“Google” her), who does a very good and comprehensive job in citing the various “who dunnit” theories.  But Ethier has her saying: “prime evidence was not allowed at the Grand Jury Trial.”  Well, the Grand Jury was a secret hearing for a jury to decide if there was enough evidence *for* a Trial.  And we really don’t know what evidence was not allowed, if any.  I know Shelley personally and I know she is very knowledgeable on the facts and nuances of this case so I gotta believe its an editing error.


Other chapters in this book include Sacco and Vanzetti, The Brink’s Job, The Boston Strangler, The Robin Benedict Murder, The “Big Dan’s” Rape Case (another Fall River crime later made into a film starring Jodie Foster), and The Stuart Murder Case.  Do I recommend this book be purchased?  If you’re into true crime and like short reads, sure.  Also the cover art is pretty good.


This last one is really fun and entertaining. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Unsolved Mysteries, Michael Kurland, Alpha Books, 2000 (378 pages).   The first “wrong” here is in the chapter title and it is an often made error:  “Did Lizzie Borden Take an Axe?” Well, crime fans, the answer is No.  She did not.  Because it was a hatchet.  HATCHET.   I wish people would get used to saying:  Lizzie Borden took a hatchet and gave her mother 19 whackets. Life for us purists would be so much simpler.

By the second paragraph we read that the daughters urged their father to “move to a nicer house in a better neighborhood, ” and that “Andrew refused.”  We don’t know that.  Also, the times given of when people awake and leave and arrive are often  incorrect, but that’s minor.   A major error is in the statement that it would be unlikely to hit a person over the head with “an axe” and not get “heavily splattered.”  Point of fact, medical testimony indicated the assailant would NOT necessarily be heavily splattered.   The writer fails to mention the Coroner’s Inquest at all.  Another “wrong” is the statement that when Emma parted with her sister she moved to Fairhaven, Ma.  That’s it.  Nothing further.  Emma lived her last years in New Hampshire.

The little factoids in this chapter, formatted in the typical “Dummie” books fashion are pretty accurate, and while we learn nothing new here, it still is a good read and the entire book is well worth having.

One of these days a book will be written that gets the facts right.  So far, the closest (IMHO) has been The Trial of Lizzie Borden, by the excellent and prolific writer (and Librarian) Edmund Lester Pearson, Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1937.   Pearson had entre to attorneys, witnesses, and other Fall River folk in the early 1920’s through introductions by the son of District Attorney Knowlton.   If Pearson is to be faulted it could only be on his failure to include some testimony in his book, but what he wrote, he got right.


Posted by on August 7, 2009 in Books - Good & Not So Good



2 responses to “3 “Wrong” But Worthy Books on Lizzie Borden

  1. Eric Ethier

    October 10, 2009 at 12:58 AM

    I won’t bother quibbling over whether Andrew Borden was a “major” investor, exactly what constitutes being “cramped,” or whether a very large, comfortable house can be accurately refered to as a “mansion.” This $10 paperback was written as part of a paperback “beach reading” series–not as a groundbreaking effort at solving the case. While the Borden folks fall over over themselves picking apart what you consider questionable choices of adjectives, you ought to consider the market for which “True Crime: Massachusetts” was intended. As for Ms. Dziedzic’s comments, they were trimmed only for length by the editors, and I certainly did not misquote her.
    –Eric Ethier

    • phayemuss

      October 10, 2009 at 12:20 PM

      I stand by my review, Eric. And yes, I did and do understand its a “beach read” kind of book. You’ll note that I recommend the book to Borden enthusiasts. I still don’t think Shelley would have made that “Grand Jury” evidence quote. If she did, then SHE was wrong and not you, for which I offer my apology.


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