Saturday, December 31, 2016

Want a guide to help you write a better novel?

Isn't this cover design stunning?
I wanted to let readers know of a wonderful book on the craft of writing, Jordan Rosenfeld's
Writing the Intimate Character: Creating Unique, Compelling Characters Through Mastery 
of Point of View. Out in October from Writer's Digest Books, the book includes incredible 
advice for writers, and I've been enjoying reading it because of its wit and incisiveness. 
It's inspiring, it spurs motion for writers, and delivers analysis of a tricky issue (point of 
view) that breaks it down into understandable components.
Jordan and I did a quick interview over email and I'm happy to share it with 
you here.
Q: You've had great success with your Writer's Digest books. What's the
best piece of feedback you got in response to one of them? Did anyone have
a breakthrough or reach new understanding because of reading your words?
Jordan: The two biggest compliments I've received are for Make a Scene and A
Writer's Guide to Persistence. Several people have called Make a Scene
their "writing bible" and many have said it has changed their understanding
of scenes. However, I've been most moved by the comments on Persistence,
like a 70 year old woman who heard me talk at a Writer's Digest conference
and came to me, crying after, to say she had all but given up on her
writing and now she knew it wasn't too late, that she could still write for
herself, no matter the outcome.
Q: What's the best piece of advice in your latest book?
Jordan: In Writing the Intimate Character, the best piece of advice is most likely
to remember that the best way to demonstrate all character experience, as
well as their point of view, is through sensory experiences: that is, how
do emotions and experiences feel in the body? Can you use all the senses,
plus images, to show the reader fear, for example, as something writhing in
a person's chest, rather than saying "he was mad." 
Q: Who do you think is the best audience for your latest book?
Jordan: Absolutely anyone who wants a better understanding of point of view and how
to develop strong characters. 
That's pretty much any writer, at any stage of development and experience. I found much 
to learn from with this book and highly recommend it! Jordan's had a fantastic career of 
teaching writing and writing craft books that distill her knowledge into fun and likeable 
books. Her voice is friendly and instructive, and draws you in.
Jordan Rosenfeld is the author of seven books, most recently the novel Women in Red and 
the writing guide Writing the Intimate Character. Her freelance work has appeared in 
such places as The Atlantic, New York Times, Salon, Scientific American, The Washington 
Post and more.

Order Writing the Intimate Character by clicking on the image below. And: Happy New Year!

Friday, December 30, 2016

A diptych is worth 2,000 words

Here are the actors in the upcoming Lizzie Borden movie, paired with their historical counterparts.

Lizzie and Chloë Sevigny

Bridget Sullivan (the Borden maid) and Kristen Stewart

Abby Borden and Fiona Shaw

Andrew Borden and Jamey Sheridan

Kim Dickens and Emma Borden. Emma was Lizzie's sister. Absent the day of the murders, she was sent a telegram that her father was very ill because it was thought the real news was too shocking to be delivered in that manner. Subsequently, she delayed returning to town until the evening, only to learn he had actually been hatcheted to death, and her stepmother too.

Welcome home.

Kim Dickens in L.A. Times

Jay Huguley and William Moody (junior prosecuting attorney trying to get Lizzie convicted, with Attorney Knowlton)

And Jody Matzer plays Officer Fleet of the Fall River Police Department:

Another character I'm very keen on learning the actor for: Alice Russell. She was the friend Lizzie called for after the murders (rather than, oh say, the police).

. . . .

Don't forget to follow this blog (scroll down or see column on right-hand side) and/or follow me on Twitter (@ErikaMailman) to keep up with news on this movie as I hear about it and read posts about the historical Lizzie Borden. My book The Murderer's Maid is now out in the world. As of this update (Jan. 2018) the book is on the front "new fiction" tables at selected Barnes & Nobles nationally. Or see the links below the book jacket to order.

Other historical novels I've written. To learn more, visit my official website.

. . . .

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

More about the Lizzie Borden movie

I understand filming wrapped before the holidays in Savannah, Georgia, and that the film is to be released "sometime in 2017." I for one cannot wait. Just the idea of sitting in a movie theater watching the trailer gets me all excited!

A few fun things to add: looking at a map of Fall River, Massachusetts (where the Borden murders took place), I saw that one of the streets leading to the cemetery where Lizzie and her family are buried is called Sevigny Street. Coincidence?? I've heard Chloe Sevigny--who plays Lizzie--has an interest/fascination in the story. Is it because relatives of hers lived in Fall River?

This photograph of Chloe sitting on the sofa (not the original, but very close to it visually) where Andrew Borden died can be found on the wall of the gift shop at the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast. Whaaa....t? You didn't know the murder house is actually a themed B&B? It is. I stayed there last summer in the attic bedroom of Bridget Sullivan--the character whose point of view I chose for my novel The Murderer's Maid, coming out in October 2017--and will blog about that in detail later.

This picture of the movie set came from Twitter (#Lizziethemovie), and you can see how very closely the set conforms to the actual room. Or actually, maybe you can't because the photos are taken from two different angles. EPIPHANY: Okay, actually as I'm blogging, I'm realizing this MUST be a picture from the actual home, because in the distance you see faucets on the sink. That wouldn't be the case with a period set, but is indeed the case with the true house, because after the murders a series of real people lived in it and ate in it and required modern appliances.

Okay, this one I know for SURE is the movie set, because it bears no resemblance to the actual house in Fall River.

Here's the actual house in Fall River. What's interesting to me is that the movie house is far more grand, because the family's money (wealthy) and Lizzie's access to it (restricted) forms quite a bit of a murder motive. Lizzie desperately wanted to be successful in society, hold grand parties, entertain...but her father wouldn't let her, and the house was in a part of town looked down upon (literally) by fancier hills residents.

Next door even lived Irish people (shudder!), who were considered low-class at the time. After Andrew Borden's body was discovered, the Irish maid Bridget was sent to fetch Dr. Bowen across the street....because every clearly-mutilated corpse deserves to have its absent pulse noted....when he wasn't there, instead of getting Dr. Kelly who was right next door, Lizzie instead sent Bridget to get her friend. Why not Dr. Kelly? He was Irish. And why no police? Because she was guilty. ;)

Speaking of Bridget, she's played in the movie by Kristen Stewart. She's a fantastic choice, and I can't wait to hear if her Irish accent is an authentic brogue. Stewart is 26 years old, as was Bridget at the time of the murders. Kismet? Interestingly, I just reread a section of the trial transcripts where Bridget reveals she doesn't know when her birthday is. How strange that much of our identity is wrapped up in our births and celebrating that day. Maybe I'll invent a birthday for Bridget and start celebrating it in some weird way.

Kristen Stewart on set as Bridget Sullivan, Lizzie's maid

Lizzie was 32 at the time of the murders, and Chloe is 42, but of course Lizzie didn't have access to wonderful aesthetician creams, so looks far older than lovely Chloe.

Let's see...I also saw a photograph of a seaside home on the Twitter page, which excited me because it looks like this movie is trying to cover the historically-accurate bases.

This could be a photo of the seaside cottage at Marion, a trip Lizzie was supposed to take with her girlfriends--and instead was at home on a hot August day when her father and stepmother were murdered. More likely, however, it's a picture of the Swansea home, where she and her family vacationed. It was a meaningful house sentimentally, but there is evidence that her father was about to sell it, putting it in her stepmother's name, just days before the murders. A previous example of Mr. Borden putting a home in his wife's name led to incredible angst within the household--so angsty that Lizzie stopped calling her stepmother "Mother," as she had done for nearly three decades, and instead called her Mrs. Borden until the time of her death. So: motive motive motive.  Kudos to the filmmakers for getting this right. I can't wait to read the script sometime.

And of the movie.

I'll continue to blog about Lizzie Borden and anything I hear about the movie in progress. Please follow my blog if you want more updates; see the sign-up in the right hand column when you scroll down. 

. . . .

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Harry Potter-Lizzie Borden connection

Fiona Shaw

It's not the Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans, although we know Lizzie did enjoy the many candies sent to her in jail as she awaited trial.

The real Abby Borden

No, the connection is that while the Lizzie Borden movie is filming in Savannah, Georgia, Daniel Radcliffe is in town filming something else AND I just learned that Fiona Shaw, who played Harry Potter's cruel Aunt Petunia, will portray Abby Borden.

Yes, she is Lizzie's stepmother, who will be brutally murdered.

Abby Borden was said to be very stout, at 180 pounds, so lovely slim Fiona will have to eat more of those beans. She was also 64 at the time of her murder. Ah well, Hollywood is fun in that it "adjusts" things for us. Maybe Shaw's Abby will fight back and grab the hatchet and chase the killer down Second Street.

The family maid, Bridget Sullivan, said a few weeks after the murders that Abby "was treated badly by Lizzie and [her sister] Emma...and particularly by Lizzie." She said that Abby "was too good for them and they did not like her."

Abby had been stepmother to the two girls since Emma was 14 and Lizzie a mere five. In fact, up until just a few years before the murders, the middle-aged Lizzie called Abby "Mother." A money-based dispute led to her suddenly calling her Mrs. Borden instead.

Bridget reported that the sisters never ate meals with the elder Bordens; it was a household divided. And on a hot August morning, someone was pushed too far, and blood was spilled.

. . . .

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Timberline's true name

For those of you coming to this blog because of the Book Bub promotion, I wanted to repost something about the woman depicted on the cover of Woman of Ill Fame.

Timberline's True Name

--This is a reposting; I know there is renewed interest in Woman of Ill Fame and so I'm going to put this blog post up again.

This blog is currently about witchcraft persecutions, ancient and modern, but now and then I will dip into material regarding my first novel Woman of Ill Fame. The novel is about a Gold Rush prostitute in a dangerous, brand-new San Francisco.

A few days ago, someone was in my archives and saw my post about the real-life prostitute whose image is featured on the cover. All I knew was that her name was Timberline, she was a Dodge City prostitute, and her image is in the collections of the Kansas State Historical Society.

Well, the anonymous commenter wrote that her name was Rose Vastine.

That for one thing totally threw me. Although I fashioned my character based on this photograph and named her Nora, for some reason I had “felt” that this real woman’s name was Kate.

Secondly, the commenter wrote that she earned the name Timberline for being 6’2” in height. Another big surprise. In my mind, the nickname had dirty connotations!

Armed with her real name, I consulted Professor Google.

The first link I accessed made me gasp out loud in the café I was working in, and literally grab my forehead. According to Linda Wommack’s Ladies of the Tenderloin, “Timberline climbed up into the hills above Creede and shot herself not once, but six times.”

When you have spent so much time staring at someone’s photograph and constructing an entire novel around them, you develop a strange and intense connection to them. It was almost as upsetting as hearing this news about someone I knew…but not only was Timberline a stranger to me, but she died 150 years ago. Whatever sorrows she endured, they are dust now.

I had dedicated the novel to two wonderful women the world lost at an early age, and on the second line dedicated it to “Timberline and the other girls of the line: I hope the world was kind to you.”

And here was evidence that the world had not been kind to her.

The link went on to say that Timberline did not die from that suicide attempt, but strangely enough, another link had her recovering from an “intended overdose.” Is it apocryphal that she tried to kill herself with such vastly different methods and survived both times? Whatever the truth is, she must have been an unhappy young woman.

Several sources have her living in Creede, Colorado, a silver mining camp 420 miles from the Dodge City that her photograph is labeled with. Sure enough, the website for Creede, Colorado mentions Timberline on its “About Creede” page. Bat Masterson too (whose biography the commenter mentions) lived in both cities, so maybe she hitched a ride with him.

If anyone has any more information on her, I’d most definitely love to know it.

. . . . .

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Woman of Ill Fame ebook sale

The Woman of Ill Fame ebook is on a Book Bub promotion Dec. 9-14 for only $1.99. If anything says "the holidays" more than a Gold Rush prostitute learning a serial killer's after her, I'd like to hear what it is! Check Amazon or B&N Nook to get your copy.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Lizzie: the movie

It's so exciting to know that the Lizzie movie is filming right now in Savannah, Georgia! Twitter is slowly seeping wonderful photographs from the set and I'll share some below. Apparently, Daniel Radcliffe is also in town filming something else; kind of fun to think of him, Kristen Stewart and Chloe Sevigny hanging out lifting a glass at the end of the day shooting.


Another exciting announcement comes from Publisher's Marketplace.
November 18, 2016 - THE MURDERER'S MAID by Erika Mailman
Fiction: General/Other
Bram Stoker finalist for THE WITCH'S TRINITY Erika Mailman's THE MURDERER'S MAID, in which a young woman tries to stay one step ahead of a mysterious stalker and learns she has a connection to the infamous Lizzie Borden, accused of murdering her father and stepmother with a hatchet in 1892, to Lisa McGuinness at Yellow Pear Press, in a nice deal.

I'm delighted that I'll get to see my main character*, Bridget Sullivan, the Borden family maid, depicted on the big screen by Kristen Stewart. Here's imdb's article about the as-yet-unnamed film.

*It's important to note that the movie filming now is NOT based on my novel or screenplay, but is coincidentally on the same beloved topic.

or maybe the film is titled: "Lizzie?"

My book will launch on Halloween 2017, and I'm hopeful it will coincide with the film's release. The Lizzie Borden narrative is worthy of scrutiny, as it has a lot to say about the lives of women in that era (for instance, the jury didn't believe it possible that a woman could be capable of such violence, and in fact no woman was allowed to sit on her jury). The frustrations of someone outside of society, unmarried, angry, un-air-conditioned (don't laugh, but Lizzie's town was undergoing a massive heat wave at the time of the murders)'s all a fascinating look at a bygone era.

A penetrating glance from Chloe to the real Lizzie, below

Meanwhile, enjoy these sneak peeks into the upcoming movie!

The Borden house for the movie

Texting her employer, "I still think you're innocent."

. . . .

Monday, November 28, 2016

Is Frozen Charlotte Lizzie Borden's doll?

Was this Lizzie's doll?

While at the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast, I spied a doll in a glass case behind the cash register in the gift shop. Turns out it was a Frozen Charlotte doll that had been found in a privy excavation along with other shattered bits of crockery and bottles. An employee kindly took it off the wall so I could look at it more closely. Conjecture of course has it as Lizzie Borden's doll since she was the only child living there around the time the dolls were manufactured (1850-1920 or thereabouts).

Item reflected in her glass case: a hatchet windchime with blood "droplets"
(hanging upside down in this view)

Lizzie was born in 1860 and moved to the Second Street house in 1872 when she was 12. Is it possible the doll was given her when she was younger, moved with her to the house, and was discarded in the privy after the arms and one leg were broken? It is entirely possible Lizzie (or even her sister Emma) kept the doll well past the age one would play with a doll, because of its sentimental value. It may have been a gift from their birth mother Sarah Morse. Sarah died when Lizzie was 3 and Emma 12. In that circumstance, however, you would think you would keep the doll even in its broken state. It's hard to know what the story behind this enigmatic piece is.

A quick bit of online research reveals that the bisque dolls were called Frozen Charlottes because they were frozen in one piece, without moveable limbs. No fun to dress them! Apparently they became allied with a sad poem and then ballad from the era, "A Corpse Going to a Ball," by Seba Smith. Among other things, Smith coined the word "scrumptious" and wrote the terrible saying, "There's more than one way to skin a cat."

Exhibit of items taken from the privy excavation

No surprise, then, that he wrote a poem based on the true 1840 story of a young woman riding to a New Year's Eve ball in an open sleigh, who didn't want to cover her beautiful dress. At first Charlotte complains to her husband about the cold, then later she talks of growing warmer. After ten miles of shivering, she died of hypothermia.

Here's a few stanzas from the poem:

...Her bonnet and her gloves were on,
she stepped into the sleigh,
Rode swiftly down the mountainside
and o'er the hills away;
With muffled face and silent lips,
five miles at length were passed,
When Charles with few and shivering words,
the silence broke at last.

"Such a dreadful night I never saw,
the reins I scarce can hold."
Fair Charlotte shivering faintly said,
"I am exceeding cold."
He cracked his whip, he urged his steed
much faster than before,
And thus five other dreary miles
in silence were passed o'er.

Said Charles, "How fast the shivering ice
is gathering on my brow."
And Charlotte still more faintly said,
"I'm growing warmer now."
So on they rode through frosty air
and glittering cold starlight,
Until at last the village lamps
and the ballroom came in sight...

What a great toy for a kid! A woman frozen for her vanity.

Wish I knew more about this striking image I found online

Kind of a new twist on "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."

You can still purchase these dolls on ebay or maybe find some buried in your backyard. One more fun element about the dolls; some of them have unglazed backs so that they can float in the bathtub. Apparently people sometimes baked the smaller ones into cakes. Yum, tasty corpse in my red velvet slice! And, true to Victorian sensibilities, some came with their own coffin.

. . . .

Monday, November 14, 2016

When the scales (of justice) tell a heavy tale

Abby Borden, Lizzie's stepmother, was 64 at the time of her murder. She was 5'3" and weighed 180. The autopsy record describes her as "very well nourished and very fleshy." It seems like adding insult to injury to chastise her for her weight, but that is what some chroniclers have done.   

Abby Durfee Borden

Despite this, I enjoyed one of the iconic nonfiction books about the Lizzie Borden case, Victoria Lincoln's A Private Disgrace, which won an Edgar award in 1967. The author was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1904, twelve years after the murders took place in 1892. She knew the elderly Lizzie Borden as a several-streets-over neighbor but admits she had initially remembered her as living right next door.

The fan is a hatchet: clever book design

The book is confusing at times, with vague pronoun usage and a somewhat meandering through-line, but two things mark it as special:

1. Thanks to her banker grandfather, Lincoln has a piece of insider information that she feels explains the murders: Andrew Borden (Lizzie's father) was planning to transfer a beloved bit of seaside property to Lizzie's stepmother Abby, and Lizzie found out. It helps to know that an earlier and similar deed transfer of a house on Ferry Street took place to assist Abby's impoverished sister. Lizzie and her sister Emma were enraged for some reason, and at that point Lizzie ceased calling Abby "mother" as she had done since she was a toddler and her widowed father remarried. Lincoln thinks Lizzie got wind of the idea (literally on the wind: she believes Lizzie in her second story bedroom heard murmurings from the open windows of the sitting room below) and resolved she would prevent its happening. Lincoln thinks Lizzie only meant to kill Abby, but Andrew came home too early for her to figure out what to do with Abby's body.

2. Lincoln thinks Lizzie did the killings in an epileptic fugue state.

It's well worth a read, but what befouls the book for me is Lincoln's disparaging remarks about Abby's weight.

Another cover I saw online: interesting claw hand

The poor woman took 19 blows directly to her head and neck (not the 40 whacks of the jump-rope rhyme, but still a wretched volume that implies great rage on the part of the perpetrator)...and she's still getting hit. Lincoln cannot seem to describe Abby's walking as anything other than "waddling." Throughout the book, she scorns Abby's weight. Here are a few passages:

"The day is hot; the calico is damp and crumpled with the sweat of her 80 excess pounds of fat, and her pale face shines with it."

"At the inquest, Lizzie claimed that Abby waddled almost daily to market." (Lincoln argues that Abby was basically housebound, and Emma or Bridget did the marketing).

"She only wanted peace and quiet in which to eat her way on through her living death."

Not considering it enough to cast aspersions on her weight, Lincoln attacks her cleanliness too:

"Abby, enclosed in fat and self pity, was the kind who make indifferent housekeepers in any part of the world."

Lincoln even blames Andrew's murder on Abby's weight!

"The problem was, in essence, Abby's fat; if she had weighed 30 or 40 pounds less, Andrew Borden might well have died in his bed."

I read once that making fun of fat people is the last standing societally-acceptable cruelty. The Polack jokes from my childhood have vanished, but not acceptance of the lyrics from a polka I remember from then: "you can have her, I don't want her, she's too fat for me."

Another clever design: Lizzie is the murder weapon

Abby's post-mortem indignities continued: the contents of her stomach were compared to her husband's, a slim and reedy man.

Moreover, and sadly, the crime scene photos can be easily seen online. I won't link to them here, but you can google them. Andrew, thin, reclines on his lounge, his head destroyed, while Abby lies face down on the floor, a large woman felled by her assassin. I have spent a lot of time studying the pitiful sight of her upturned shoe soles with their humbled nails. I can only hope she rests in peace. 

Abby Durfee Borden

After a handful of Lizzie Borden posts (and many more to come!), I'm happy to announce there's a reason behind them. My novel The Murderer's Maid has been picked up by Yellow Pear Press and will launch in October 2017. There is a big coincidence with the press's name: pears feature prominently in the Lizzie Borden lore—she claimed to be eating pears in a hot barn loft while one of the murders was taking place in the house. It's kismet that the press's name and the novel match up.

I'll update here as news progresses, including a cover reveal in a few months.

. . .

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Did Lizzie Borden try to poison her father and stepmother?

If a woman was accused of murdering her father and stepmother, both of whom were brutalized with a hatchet, and you knew she had been trying to buy poison the day before, wouldn't you consider that important evidence?

The judges in the Lizzie Borden case didn't.

Eli Bence, upright and concerned gentleman druggist, from

When Eli Bence, a druggist, tried to testify on the ninth day of the trial that Lizzie had come in and tried to buy prussic acid from him, the defense attorney objected. The jury was temporarily taken out, as was Bence. 

Prussic acid, by the way, is hydrogen cyanide. It was used as an ingredient in Zyklon B.

In the 1800s poison bottles were sometimes in the shape of skulls,
so even if blindly clutching a bottle in your candlelit pantry,
you would know it was dangerous. From

In a conference at the bench, prosecution attorney William H. Moody (who would later serve as U.S. Attorney General) told the judges what Bence was preparing to say: Lizzie had tried to buy prussic acid, saying it was for cleaning her sealskin cape, and he had refused to sell it to her since she didn't have a prescription. Lizzie had lightly argued, saying she had bought it there several times before.

Lizzie's attorney George Robinson (former governor of Massachusetts) objected, saying since there had been no sale, the testimony didn't matter. Hosea Knowlton, the other prosecuting attorney, stated that he had evidence she had tried to buy prussic acid in another place, also unsuccessfully. 

Robinson countered that since no poison had been found in the stomach of Andrew and Abby Borden, "There is shown no connection, as assailing the lives of these two is an attempt to charge her with an act causing death by a wholly different means, for which, of course, she is not now on trial."

Robinson went on to say that since the prussic acid attempt was on Aug. 3 (1892), and the murders were on the 4th, "the nearness of time may be considered out of this consideration; it is not sufficiently near, if it were pertinent."

Lizzie Borden, sometime after her acquittal.

Call me crazy, but the day before is pretty darn near. I guess, however, if the only way you can even begin to wrap your mind around a woman committing such a crime (please see my previous post about Lizzie not facing a jury of her peers) is if you consider it a crime of passion, then the previous day doesn't work. Because that reconstitutes the crime as one of premediation (although...if Abby was murdered at least an hour before Andrew— and she was— that also takes "crime of passion" off the table).

Robinson continued on to say  that even if Lizzie did try to buy the prussic acid, it was "an article which a person may legitimately buy." He closed with, "Does it have any tendency at all to show that this defendant killed these two persons with an ax? That is all we are inquiring about. I maintain it does not."

Moody rightfully jumped in to claim premeditation. He raised the issue that the Bordens were ill days before the murders. He said that the day before the murders*, Mrs. Borden had gone to the neighbor, Dr. Bowen, "and stated that she had been poisoned the night before." Not food poisoned: poisoned.

*Records suggest her visit to Dr. Bowen was in fact on Aug. 2 rather than the 3rd.

A late 1800s drugstore (in New Zealand). Not exactly Fall River, but we can still picture
Lizzie Borden stepping up to the counter.

Moody discusses the concept of relevance, referring to "Mr. Wharton's treatise upon Evidence." (Another blog post for another day: the Shakespeare-spouting prosecution as too erudite and professorial for the farmer jury who resented city folk. Victoria Lincoln's book A Private Disgrace contains a great rumination on this).

He then threw down precedents from Massachusetts and other states. One interesting one was from Pennsylvania, where a man had stated earlier in the day that he wanted to kill someone before the day was out, and then he was charged for the homicide of someone killed that day. Moody went on for a long time talking about other cases. (Another blog post for another day: the sheer boredom endured by the jury. The transcripts even show the attorneys talking about how they had to break for the day because no one was listening).

Robinson's last hurrah: Lizzie herself was sick; why would she poison herself? Moreover, she hadn't stated she was buying the prussic acid to kill anyone: "My friend [Moody] said in his admission that there is nothing in this evidence to show against whom she premeditated the malice." He made a strange hypothetical comparison, supposing that Lizzie had bought the poison to kill Bridget Sullivan, the maid.

Moody: "There is a tendency to show to whom the malice is directed."
Robinson: "Is that what you said?"
Moody: "That is what I said."
Robinson: "...where is it? where is the least tendency? Where a scrap, even? Well, people buy prussic acid to kill animals--it may be the cat...."

Take your choice: prussic acid or hatchet, shall we say?

More legal bickering ensued, then the justices withdrew for consultation. They thought the evidence was competent, and they would hear preliminary evidence before deciding whether Bence could testify.

The next day, preliminary evidence was heard from a pharmacist, furrier and chemist, all talking about if prussic acid could be used for the purpose stated by the mysterious shopper in Bence's drugstore (short answer: no, although my edited version of the trial transcript doesn't contain their testimony).

That was followed by a half-hour confab between justices and counsel at the bench, "all speaking in low tones and out of the hearing of the stenographer" (Pearson 252).

Eli Bence

What was said in that conference? We'll never know (but keep reading, there's a theory below). The upshot: the poison evidence was excluded, and Bence was not allowed to testify.

So here are some of my thoughts.

I think Lizzie tried some kind of homemade poison first. Everyone sickened, but no one died. So she tried to buy real poison, asking for prussic acid as a cleaning agent to disguise its real purpose, but no one would sell it to her. In frustration, she turned to the hatchet.

My response to Robinson would've been, yes, the two methods (poison and ax) are very different, but doesn't it seem like the more "genteel, woman-acceptable" form of murder would be first selected by Miss Borden?

Circling back to what was generally accepted to be food poisoning within the Borden household, a few things are important to note:

  • Everyone was sick, including the maid Bridget Sullivan and Lizzie herself. Lizzie could've claimed to be sick, going into the basement water closet and making the right sounds if anyone was listening, but poor Bridget went out into the yard to vomit. If we accept the idea that Lizzie tried to buy prussic acid:
a)      she had to poison Bridget to cover her tracks, or
b)      she didn't expect Bridget to eat the dish she'd poisoned, or
c)      Bridget only claimed to vomit, which would mean she was in on the plot.

  • They might've really had food poisoning as a strange coincidence with Lizzie's attempts to buy poison. Much was made of the sad fact that the family had been eating, in varying incarnations, the same roast of mutton for a week. Although they had an icebox with a melting chunk of ice instead to chill the leftover meat, the first week of August 1892 was unseasonably hot. In fact, I watched a play about ten years ago in San Francisco, the main thesis of which was that the heat drove Lizzie to her nefarious deeds. On the morning of Aug. 4, breakfast included, among the more-expected johnnycakes, warmed over mutton stew. One could insert a poor-taste joke that perhaps the elder Bordens did themselves in after that repast.

    Bence's low-key tombstone, from

I had long considered Lizzie's attempts to buy poison one of the two most compelling indications of her guilt, the other being her burning of a dress shortly after being informed she was a suspect.

Yet my tour of the Lizzie Borden house, led by incredibly well-informed guide Colleen Johnson, introduced a bit of explanation I had never heard before. She said that the conference at the bench was about a secret police sting whereby police officers' wives would enter drugstores and try to procure poisons without a prescription. The sting was ongoing, hence the need for secrecy. Moreover, one officer's wife resembled Lizzie Borden. It was a case of mistaken identity. 

I'd love to have the existence of the sting solidly confirmed. A few questions arise:

  • Do police files still exist to confirm the planning and implementation of such an operation?
  • Was there an upsurge in arrests for druggists during this period? Perhaps newspaper police blotters could bear this out.
  • Would such a sting, in operation in August 1892 when Lizzie was reportedly trying to buy poison, still be either happening a year later during her trial, or still so fresh it couldn't be released to the public?

In favor of this theory is the oddity of the judges so readily dismissing Bence as a witness. It would explain the very lame explanation that was given for suppressing the evidence. It would also instantly explain away Knowlton's stated knowledge of other attempts at other drugstores.

Tour guide Colleen Johnson has been incredibly helpful, answering questions for me via email after all the millions of questions I asked her in person. She sent me the following quotation in response to my questions about the sting:

According to an article in the Fall River Evening News, published on August
15th,  1892
..."The poison theory, so far as actual use of the drugs by the victims is
concerned, has been practically given up.  The importance now attached to
the alleged effort of Miss Borden to purchase prussic acid is based upon
the theory that she intended to use it herself, should she be suspected of
the crime.  This, however, is not very tenable, as Miss Borden had ample
opportunity to do away with herself since these suspicions were made known
to her by other means.   The fact that Inspector McCaffrey has several
female agents in Fall River at the time of the murders, also  leads many to
believe that the identification of Miss Borden as a person who sought to
buy prussic acid is a case of mistaken identity"
The above quote is taken from a book called Lizzie Didn't Do It, by William
Masterton, page 176.

Interesting that there was a thought Lizzie bought poison as a suicide measure if she was imprisoned (the punishment, had she not been acquitted, was death by hanging, so possibly preferable?). Then there is that mention of "female agents," which tends to support the idea of the sting.

This case has so many twists and turns it is no surprise it is so studied and talked of today.

In other news, in honor of October's witchy gloom, my novel The Witch's Trinity is on ebook sale until Oct. 24 at only $1.99. When medieval German woman Gude is accused of witchcraft by her own daughter-in-law, she must examine herself to see if the finger pointing is true.
"In searingly simple prose, Mailman probes the human psyche, peeling back the layers of the basest human instincts to expose the dangerous frailties of the human soul." —Booklist
“A disturbingly effective historical novel.” —Boston Globe

Note: All trial quotations in this post are from Trial of Lizzie Borden by Edmund Pearson, 1937 (1989 Notable Trials reprint).

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Saturday, September 17, 2016

Lizzie Borden and a jury of her NOT peers

In 1892, when Lizzie Borden was accused of murdering her father and stepmother with a hatchet, women were not allowed to vote. They were not allowed to serve on juries. Lizzie therefore didn’t face a jury of her peers; she faced 12 men who didn’t believe her physically or even foundationally capable of such a brutal murder.

Questioning at the inquest and trial looks at the height of her father, Andrew Borden. Could she, a woman, have been capable of felling such a tall man with such an instrument? Well, it helped her cause that he was reclining at the time, lying down asleep or close to it, on a lounge in the sitting room. Andrew was also very frail and thin. When I first looked at the autopsy photos of him shirtless, lying on a wicker autopsy table, I thought he was a woman. His thin chest even curves in to a bit of an hourglass waist.

And could Lizzie possibly have been capable of bringing down her very stout stepmother? Abby was 180 pounds, and short. Victoria Lincoln’s nonfiction book A Private Disgrace never talks of Abby walking without it being described as “waddling.” Her fat is relentlessly mentioned with deep scorn by Lincoln. Lizzie herself was quite solidly built and tall—but could she bring down someone likely more physically powerful than herself?

The first blow was established to be one on Abby’s forehead. She must’ve faced her killer, who raised the weapon and blatantly struck her while being watched. Now if her killer was her own stepdaughter, whom she had raised since the age of three, Abby must’ve calmly faced her hatchet-holding child, perhaps even amused to find her upstairs in the guest room with such an odd item in her hand. The wonderful Elizabeth Montgomery movie, Legend of Lizzie Borden, even portrays Abby as looking up at Lizzie from making the guest bed with a smile. Which quickly turns to a frown and then…well, you’ll have to watch the movie.

Subsequent blows were to the back of Abby’s head and neck. It is surmised that the killer straddled the now-face-down Abby and rained down the blows. It is fascinating that both deaths only involve blows to the head. Did Lizzie, or whoever the killer was (see how I did that?), read that there is not much blood flow to the outside of the head—I mean, certainly the brain gets blood, but the thin layer of skin covering our skulls doesn’t contain many blood vessels? Was the killer deliberately trying to attack a place on the body that wouldn’t create a huge flow of blood to be cleaned off, say, one’s clothes?

Getting back to the idea of that all-male jury in Fall River, Massachusetts. The name of Sarah Jane Robinson was evoked by the prosecution as an example of a woman quite capable of murder, thank you very much. Between 1881 and 1885 (the Borden murders were in 1892), and in nearby Cambridge, Massachusetts, Robinson murdered eight people. The difference to this jury, however, was that she did it in a womanly way: she used arsenic.

Moreover, Robinson was born in Northern Ireland, part of a a class of people despised at this time period (in fact, when Lizzie dispatched her Irish maid to find a doctor for her father’s corpse, she only asked for Dr. Bowen, kitty-corner to their house, and when he was not at home, she completely ignored Dr. Chagnon, kitty-corner to the back because he was French, and the next-door Dr. Kelly….because he was Irish. She instead asked for her friend Alice Russell).

Although the Robinson case first resulted in a hung jury because jurors were only permitted to know about one of the many proven arsenic deaths (bodies were exhumed and tested), a second trial allowed the admission of these other murders, and Robinson was sentenced to hang. A petition (signed by seven jurors!) asked that the sentence be commuted to life in prison and so she was, with the addition of solitary confinement. She died in prison in 1906.

I’m certain that had Lizzie Borden been found guilty, she too would not have hung. Public sentiment would’ve rallied deeply in her favor.

My point is that the Irish Mrs. Robinson, of a “dirty” immigrant class, who had used the effortlessly-delivered-in-food arsenic for her plots, was easier for a jury to find guilty than Massachusetts-born Lizzie Borden, whose father owned banks, who was very active in the church, who volunteered for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Fruit & Flower Society, who was accused of something so masculine as wielding a hatchet directly into family members’ brains.

Let’s take a moment just to consider such an act. Although perhaps farm women hefted axes to make firewood, to sever chickens from their heads, the genteel Lizzie Borden would not have done so. In fact, not even Andrew Borden did this work. A hired man came. In short, a hatchet was not a tool a woman was seen as using, so a hatchet as a weapon was an even farther stretch.

The Fall River Historical Society has a new artifact as of this summer: a letter Lizzie wrote to one of the jurors, thanking him for acquitting him. A thank you note: what a nice, ladylike thing to do!

. . . . .

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Confessions of a serial plant killer


Call me Lizzie Borden of the Lobelias.

I love plants and flowers and never intend to do them harm, but alas have some penchant for spelling their demises. Cacti, which apparently are very difficult to murder, have lapsed and sagged under my attentions. Ficus have browned. Spider plants have woven their own webby cauls and collapsed. However!

I have had good luck recently. I have not one but TWO success tales underway.

Tale the First. This narrative involves an orchid that was (!!!) $5.99 at my grocery store, and I figured even if it died within days, it would be the same as purchasing a low-cost bouquet. But I brought it home thinking, "If only I could keep it alive..." I googled how, and learned that the orchid requires, get this, "benign neglect." That is so up my alley! I calendared two week increments to soak it in boiled-then-cooled water, then ignore it. I faced it by the eastern window as the internet directed.

It has thrived. It actually opened up two blooms. I was incredulous. It has also lost two of its existing blooms, but I am given to understand that may be natural? At any rate, the losses have equaled out the gains and I feel pretty proud of my orchidal accomplishment.

Tale the Second. The same grocery store was offering bulbs in boxes for 25 cents. I figured at these bargain basement prices, the bulbs were already dead, but what the heck. So I planted the dinner plate dahlia in a cracked white cereal bowl and watered it casually when I was in the kitchen and thinking about it. In disbelief, I have watched a green shoot emerge from the brown woody stem, and get bigger each day. I did that. Me.

I'm scared to transfer it outside, especially given our 100-plus temps this summer, but eventually I will usher my fledgling to the real dirt outside. Wouldn't it be wild if it worked, and I actually grew those blooms that are the size of dinner plates? I would faint.

. . . .