The Trial of Lizzie Borden, by Cara Robertson****

“Oh, Mrs. Churchill, do come over. Someone has killed Father.”

Lizzie Borden is the subject of one of America’s most enduring legends, and Robertson is a towering legal scholar, educated at Harvard and Oxford, and then at Stanford Law. She’s participated in an international tribunal dealing with war crimes, and has been researching the Borden case for twenty years. Here she lays it out for us, separating fact from innuendo, and known from unknown. My thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The Borden family lived in the heart of Fall River, and it consisted of Andrew, father of two grown but unmarried daughters Emma and Lizzie, still in residence, and his second wife, Abby. Their mother had died when Lizzie was tiny; Andrew had remarried a woman named Abby, whom Emma never accepted as a parent, but whom Lizzie called her mother until a short time before her grizzly death. Until this time the Borden household was well respected; Andrew was possibly the wealthiest individual in this Massachusetts town, but he was a tightfisted old scoundrel, and his refusal to relocate the family to the fashionable neighborhood on the hill where well-to-do citizens lived made his daughters bitter, as appropriate suitors would not call on them in their current home.  Both had passed the age when respectable young women were expected to have married; they held that their father’s greed had ruined their chance at marriage and families of their own.  Things had come to a head when Borden was persuaded to purchase the home in which Abby’s sister lived in order to prevent her from being cast out on the street. Emma and Lizzie were angry enough that they wouldn’t go downstairs when the parents were there, and poor Bridget, the servant, had to serve dinner twice to accommodate them. Everyone locked their bedroom doors against the others. Andrew had belatedly tried to smooth his stormy home life by purchasing a comparable house for each of his daughters, but the damage was done.

The story of Lizzie Borden is not a new one, but what sets Robertson’s telling apart from the rest—apart from the meticulous research and clarity of sourcing—is her explanation of how the cultural assumptions and expectations of 1893 New England differed from ours today, and how these nuances affected the trial. They lived in a time and place in which it was assumed that women were ruled far more by their hormones and ovulation than by intellect and reason. In fact:

“Experts like the influential Austrian criminal psychologist Hans Gross contended that menstruation lowered women’s resistance to forbidden impulses, opening the floodgates to a range of criminal behaviors…Menstruation may bring women to the most terrible crimes.”

Had Lizzie confessed to the killings, she might very well have been judged not guilty; her monthly cycle would have been said to have made her violent and there was nothing to be done about it, rather like a moose when rutting.

Criminal behavior was believed to be inherent in some people and not in others, and this counted in Lizzie’s favor. The Bordens were seen as a good family, and a girl from a good family doesn’t plot brutal murders. It isn’t in her. This sort of thing, experts said, was more likely to be done by a transient or a member of the working class. The women of Fall River were polarized around this case, and though women from comfortable homes were all certain that poor Lizzie was being railroaded, working class women weren’t as charitable in their assessments.

There was a ton of evidence against her, most of it circumstantial; the most damning aspects of the case against her were ruled inadmissible, and the jury never got to hear them.

Robertson is a fine storyteller, and her narrative lays it out for us so clearly. There is occasional gallows humor, as well as amusing bits of setting not seen in cities of any size today, such as the neighborhood cow that mooed near the courtroom window at inauspicious moments while testimony was being given. However, the first half of the book is more compelling than the second half, because prosecutors and attorneys must repeat things, sometimes many times and in many ways, in order to convince judges and juries, and since this book is about the trial, Robertson must do the same. Still it is fascinating to see how the whole trial shook out.

Those interested in the Borden case, or in true crime stories in general, should read this book. It’s the clearest, most complete recounting and analysis available to the public today, written by a legal scholar that has done the work and cut no corners. `

The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film, by Bruce Chadwick****

thereelcivilwarI found this gem at my favorite used bookstore in Seattle, Magus Books, which is just a block from the University of Washington. Its strength, as the title suggests, is in tracing the story of the American Civil War as told by the cinema. Those interested in the way in which movie impacts both culture and education in the USA would do well to find this book and read it.

Chadwick spends a considerable amount of time and space carefully documenting the myth produced by Gone with the Wind, a completely unrealistic, idealized portrait of the ruling planter class of the deep South. Many of us would, in years gone by, have been inclined to dismiss this concern by saying that after all, the book and movie were primarily intended as a love story, but Chadwick demonstrates that this is not so. He ferrets out actual interviews with Margaret Mitchell herself in which she insists that this is exactly the way it was. Her sources? Former plantation owners, of course.

To this day, if an avid reader goes to Goodreads.com and under the caption “explore”, goes to “listopia” and from there selects a list of readers’ favorite Civil War titles, GWTW will place within the top ten, and sometimes be the foremost title, selected over nonfiction as well as more accurate fiction. I find this horrifying.

The research regarding the Civil War itself is nothing I haven’t seen before, but Chadwick makes excellent use of strong secondary sources to document the fact that Black folks in the pre-war South were neither happy nor well treated. He takes apart the myth Mitchell constructed in a meticulous manner, one damn brick at a time. Hell yes. About ten percent of the way into the book, Chadwick’s removed, scholarly tone changes to one of articulate outrage, and I found this tremendously satisfying.

Chadwick follows Civil War films forward, after first also examining Birth of a Nation, a painfully racist film which was famous at the time because of its length; its original claim to fame was not content, but technology. For those that have not seen the film, this will be interesting reading also, and those that have seen it may pick up some new information as well.

A couple of generations later, the more realistic and highly acclaimed Roots television miniseries told the story of Black America in a way that hadn’t been represented on film before. Chadwick is again careful in his documentation and clear in his explanation.

The book’s final film treatment is of the most positive and accurate film depiction of African-Americans is the film Glory. This reviewer used this film in the classroom. It depicts the Black Massachusetts infantry that tried to take Fort Wagner and in doing so, inspired President Lincoln to order more Black troops to be armed and trained for combat in the American Civil War.

For those interested in the connection between film and American history, and of the American Civil War in particular, this book is recommended.