(I originally wrote this post back in 2010)
Edmund Lester Pearson (1880-1937)
He was a noted librarian and prolific writer on true crime. In 1924 he began a correspondence with Frank W. Knowlton, son of Hosea Knowlton, the district attorney who prosecuted Lizzie Borden in her 1893 trial. Known as the “Knowlton-Pearson Correspondence” it is a remarkable assemblage – rich in content it clearly shows the eagerness with which Frank accommodated Edmund’s request. They were contemporaries, and Frank provided the author with “open sesame” to Lizzie’s contemporaries and others still living who knew her and/or were involved in the case. Pearson had access to all of Hosea Knowlton’s papers on the case, and also the preliminary hearing and Trial transcript. (Knowlton was unsuccessful, however, in tracking down Bridget Sullivan’s inquest testimony – a document still missing after all these decades).
In any event, Pearson’s investigative research resulted in Studies in Murder, first published in 1924, three years before Lizzie’s death. The book was a series of essays on notable cases, the first and expanded essay was on the Borden case. This would be the first of many writings in subsequent books by Pearson on Fall River’s most notorious citizen. But this first book was published while Lizzie still lived.
It is fairly certain that Lizzie Borden had read the very first book on the case published in 1893: Fall River Tragedy by Edward H. Porter. I think it further fairly certain she had read Studies in Murder. In the twilight of her years she was at least relieved of the awful annual editorials in the Fall River Globe commemorating the infamous crimes with their consistent innuendos that she had gotten away with the double murders.
Her life had been lived quietly and with the refinement and deportment that were her hallmarks of character. Her closest associates were her servants and a few loyal friends and relatives. But now came this publication. It must have been the talk of the town when it came out. Knowledge of Pearson’s meetings and inquiries with Lizzie’s contemporaries had proceeded the book itself, and those that assisted Pearson must have discussed it with their own associates. Perhaps it had been talked about in hushed circles long before its publication and perhaps Lizzie had heard as well through reports of who was talking to whom. The long essay left no doubt in the minds of the reader that the deed must have been done by Lizzie and only Lizzie.
Think for a moment how this must have affected her. Guilty or innocent, it must have been a devastating event to have this book circulating in Fall River, the region and all over the country, stirring up painful memories of a horrible time while also serving to provide interest to a whole new generation. Lizzie had been described as nervous and depressed, unhappy with her decision to have lived all the rest of her life in Fall River – and now, this.
Could the book have hastened her demise? Stress, nervous anxiety, depression. Lizzie had always wanted to be accepted by her peers. She lived her life kind to others and animals, generously giving and always thoughtful of the needs of others. And now, this. It must have played upon her mind and heart, a heart already long burdened and weakened by worry. Not long after the book’s success and wide readership, Lizzie would be hospitalized for gall bladder surgery and never fully recover.
Knowlton, Hosea M., white, b. May 1847, 53 yr., b. Maine
Sylvia B. Wife, Jan. 1850, b. Mass.
John W. son, March 1874, 26 b. Mass.
Abby A. dau, mar. 1876, 24, mass.
Frank W., son Aug 1878, 22, Mass.
Edward A., son April 1883, 17, b. mas.
Helen S., dau. Aug. 1884, 14, b. mass.
Sylvia P, dau. may 1890, 10, Mass.
Benjamin H., son, Jun 1892, 8 yr, b. mass.
SYLVIA BASSETT, b. New Bedford, MA, 20 Jan 1852; d. Watertown, MA, 31 Mar 1937; m. New Bedford, 22 May 1873, HOSEA MORRILL KNOWLTON, b. Durham, ME, 20 May 1847; d. Marion, MA, 18 Dec 1902; son of Isaac Case and Mary Smith (Wellington) Knowlton.
Their children, all born in New Bedford were:
The younger siblings were:
Helen Sophia Knowlton; August 1, 1885
August I. Knowlton;
Sylvia Prescott Knowlton born Ma7 29, 1890
Benjamin Almy Knowlton born June 13, 1892
Attorney General Herbert Parker is not only included in this correspondence but was also one of Pearson’s primary sources for his last essay in his book, Studies in Murder, titled “The Hunting Knife” concerning Mabel Page.
Frank Warren Knowlton, Jr. donated his grandfather’s papers to the Fall River Historical Society in 1989. (He died in October 11, 2002).