Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Sacramento's historic cemetery

This post is for Loren, in my heart today. I took these pictures in February 2017, and can't wait to return to do an official tour with you someday soon.

Loren's the author of 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die

Grave of Mark Hopkins, one of the "Big Four" who brought the transcontinental
railroad to California

pockmarked cherub

Blog visitors, let me know in the comments if you have a favorite cemetery (photos uploads would be great too!)

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Monday, January 22, 2018

Did Lizzie Borden commit murder naked?

I love how this still is so close you see the texture of their skin. Courtesy, Sundance Review

The reviews for the new Lizzie movie reveal a few interesting things about the plot and its interpretation of the historical events of 1892. For one thing, it utilizes the interesting thought that Lizzie might've murdered her father and stepmother in the nude. Much easier to clean blood off skin than off fabric.

The Elizabeth Montgomery made-for-TV movie of the 1970s used this idea, and seeing the camera dwell on her beautiful calves as she walks towards murder adds a little verve to an already fantastically-rendered movie. Other notable movie moments: Lizzie sneaking down to the dining room where the victims were kept overnight, and lifting the sheet on her father's corpse to...can barely type this....kiss him. And I love it that this movie shows a dispassionate Lizzie, as she was in real life. The only moment where she ever shows horror is for herself, when the attorney forces her to grasp that she may hang for this crime.

But the new movie takes this idea a step further. Not only does Chloe Sevigny disrobe, but Kristen Stewart does too. Lizzie and her Irish maid together strip naked to perform the murders.


I have to say, my first thought is a pragmatic one. And kind of a disturbing one.

There just isn't room for two people to commit these murders. Not in the cramped quarters of the Borden home (Mrs. Borden was slain in a narrow alley between bed and dresser) and more definitively, not in the small real estate of where the hatchet blows landed.

The heads, to be exact.

Mrs. Borden had one blow on her upper back, but other that, only the heads bore wounds.

19 blows for Mrs. Borden, and 11 for Mr. Borden a few hours later.

Plaster casts of the Bordens' skulls used as evidence in the trial, now on
display at the Lizzie Borden B&B

If you think about the average head size...and now the average hatchet head size...it would just be awkward for two people to try to murder together. Maybe they each had a hatchet and took turns? I shudder.

I'm not sure how the movie will handle this, but I'm sure fans of both actresses will be happy to see skin. Sevigny told Indiewire, "It’s just a really carnal moment, and I just thought it would be really arresting. I trusted in [director] Craig’s restraint and [cinematographer] Noah’s beautiful photography that they would make me look good. Now I feel extremely vulnerable!" The murder scene was shot on Sevigny's 42nd birthday, and I applaud her bravery in letting loose with what is likely a far more toned body than the average middle-aged woman has!

By the way, Lizzie was 32 at the time of the murders.

And if you want to know about Kristen Stewart (who plays the maid Bridget Sullivan), she is now 27 years old, much closer to the age of the character she plays: 27.

If you want to read my piece about spending the night in the Lizzie Borden B&B, click here. I stayed in Bridget's attic bedroom.


. . . .

Sunday, January 21, 2018

What connects Harry Potter with Lizzie Borden?

Abby Borden and Fiona Shaw
 Why, Fiona Shaw, of course!

This talented actress played Aunt Petunia Dursley in the Harry Potter series, and in the new movie Lizzie (that premiered last night at Sundance) she plays Abby Borden, an elderly woman killed by multiple hatchet blows to the head.

Along with her husband, Andrew Borden.

But they were murdered hours apart (she earlier) and in different rooms of their family home.

Despite a lot of conjecture that a business associate of Andrew's had killed them, suspicion soon arose for Andrew's daughter (Abby's stepdaughter), Lizzie.

Lizzie hated Abby. She and her sister Emma always dined separately from Andrew and Abby, making the poor maid serve and clear every meal twice.

There may be another connection with Harry Potter if you find empathy for Lizzie. Harry was mistreated by his aunt and uncle, slept in a cupboard under the stairs and was always shunted to the background in favor of his cousin Dudley. But Harry had an opportunity to escape all that once he turned 11 and was sent his letter of acceptance from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.


Lizzie Borden had no such escape route. She begged for a trip to Europe with friends and was granted that. For five months she toured the continent and England and tasted a life of freedom. But soon she was back where she started, in a repressive home in a culture/era that didn't permit women many freedoms. She was able to drive the horse and buggy—but her father sold the horse. Someone broke into the Borden home and, oddly enough, stole trolley tickets. It is said Andrew prevented the police from investigating because he knew the thief was his own daughter.

Lizzie had passed the age of marriage and had her elder sister, still trapped in the house with her, as a cautionary tale of what she might expect in life.

Does it help to know that August 1892, when the murders took place, was a desperately hot month, with multiple deaths from heat being reported to the health department? And that Lizzie and her sister had in the past fought bitterly with their father about property he had deeded to their stepmother's family, and that very recently their beloved seaside home in Swansea was undergoing questions about its dispensation?

Greed. Despair. Lingering pain from childhood when Lizzie and Emma''s biological mother had died. Which is another thing Harry Potter and Lizzie Borden had in common: early loss of one's mother, and how that bereavement can haunt one forever.

Magic saved Harry, but Lizzie had no such savior.

If you find this historical true-crime case interesting, my novel The Murderer's Maid tells the story from the point of view of that maid mentioned above, Bridget Sullivan. And yes, that is the real Lizzie Borden on the cover.

And post in the comments below: what Hogwarts house should Lizzie be sorted into?
. . . . .

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Lizzie Borden's interconnected rooms

The floor plan: no central hallway

I’ve now read a few articles in Filmmaker Magazine that reference “interconnected rooms” on the set of the Borden house. That is so truly integral to the plot, both upstairs and downstairs.

In this piece, “Making a Film is Always a Chaotic Experience,” director Craig McNeill talks about the struggle to find an appropriate house, and concludes, “We found a house that, while different looking than the Borden home, did have several interconnected rooms which was a notable and unusual characteristic of the Borden residence.”

This article features cinematographer Noah Greenberg talking about wanting the film to be “visually elegant and ominous” with characters filmed at the edges of the shot, never centered. I found it to be a really fascinating article.  And Greenberg, too, mentioned the interconnecting rooms:

There were many scenes in Lizzie where we would move through, or see into, several interconnected rooms following a character. With a small lighting package and team and very limited time between setups it was challenge to balance/motivate the light consistently (at a useable stop) across these rooms while keying off practical sources such as a double wick candle held by an actor or an oil lamp on a side table.

All right. So why do those rooms need to flow into each other?

Downstairs: The sitting room where Mr. Borden was killed has doors leading into the front entry, the parlor, the dining room, and the kitchen. Four different ways to enter… and presumably its “fishbowl” type of layout means it would be difficult for a killer to murder him without someone in the house being aware. One of Lizzie’s alibis is that she was in the dining room ironing… well, that was mere feet away and it would simply impossible for such a noisy murder to take place so nearby without her being aware of it. I mean noisy in terms of what the hatchet did to his skull. Mr. Borden himself made no alarms because he was asleep when attacked.

Upstairs bedrooms and that famously winding staircase

Upstairs: the home upstairs is like a “shotgun shack”—you must walk into Lizzie’s bedroom to reach Emma’s and the parents. Although, famously, the door between Lizzie and the parents was nailed shut, and Andrew and Abby Borden used the servant’s stairs to access their chambers. The guest room where Abby was killed leads into Lizzie’s, although there was a desk blocking it.

The home was strange; there’s no doubt about it. It was originally intended as an apartment building, with full living quarters on the bottom and second floors. Andrew converted it to one unit when he took ownership. If you think about feng shui and the energy created by multiple doors flowing into a room and then being blocked, it creates a disturbing sense. Almost like Shirley’s Jackson’s Hill House, where the angles don’t exactly add up to 90 degrees.

It’s a disquieting house. Claustrophobic is the word that springs to my mind most often when I think about it. Small, cramped, enraging.

Chloe coyly sitting where Andrew was murdered (well, on a replica sofa)

I’m disappointed the movie wasn’t shot at the real house. When I visited there last year, there was a photo on display of Chloe Sevigny sitting on Andrew’s sofa and there was great excitement about the upcoming movie (which premiered LAST NIGHT at Sundance!). We were told Chloe had a Lizzie Borden fascination and wanted to film the movie in situ, but because there is a federal building nearby, it created too much of a security hazard for Fall River to agree.

I’m dying to see the movie. I’d love to see how they used the rooms in the house they did locate, and am glad there was awareness of the importance of the rooms flowing into each other.

The Borden House in the Lizzie movie

The real Borden home, today a B&B

I fervently hope this movie gets a distribution deal so I can see it someday soon.

If you want to know more about this story, my novel was written from the maid's point of view--Bridget Sullivan was the only other person in the house the day of the murders, besides Lizzie and the victims.

. . . .

Friday, January 19, 2018

San Francisco's Musee Mecanique

Laughing Sal: terrifying children for decades

I've never seen anything like the Musee Mecanique, a museum of machines from the turn of the century. Insert a quarter and watch a small scene play out. You can tell it once amazed people as the epitome of what technology was capable of. 

The mechanical museum used to be out at San Francisco's Ocean Beach, near the camera obscura behind the Cliff House. And that's probably a big part of why Laughing Sal is there; she was once installed at Playland at the Beach. She positively crackles and quivers as she laughs, the stuff of nightmares.

In a smart move, the museum is now at Pier 45, much easier for Pier 39 tourists to get to. No need to bring a roll of quarters; there are change machines inside.

My favorite one.

Closeup of the opium den: a crazy dragon comes out of the table
to illustrate the hallucinations the smokers face

Love the bright colors

Browsing for antiques

This one is part of a huge carnival where all the rides move. This is probably 1/4th of what is visible.


For those of you less charmed by such an old-world penny arcade (but...who would that be?), there's also an area in the back with more recent games. State of the art games. Pong, for instance.

What's your favorite tourist destination in San Francisco? Would love to see comments!

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Thursday, January 18, 2018

The 1918 Flu in Oakland (the "Spanish flu")

Flu victims quarantined at the Oakland Municipal Auditorium, 1918.
In the background, stage scenery separates the “wards.”
photo credit: Oakland History Room

Our recent swine flu scare reminded me of another time that our nation braced against an onslaught of disease—but that time it was devastating.

In 1918, a worldwide epidemic of flu killed 400,000 Americans. I first wrote about the flu in 1999 when I found an interesting file on it in the Oakland History Room.

Fear was so great here that City Council passed an ordinance that anyone not wearing a mask over his or her nose and mouth could be arrested. Oakland held the West Coast record for such arrests, estimated to be around 1,000-- this in the period between Nov. 1 and Nov. 22, when the ordinance was repealed.

But the masks were ineffectual. The California State Board of Health issued a report after the epidemic had passed, stating that the masks did not affect the flu’s progress. In fact, they might be anti-beneficial, causing the wearer to repeatedly inhale a warmed percentage of their exhale, creating a fertile ground for germs.

The flu first showed up in Oakland in early October, 1918. Those first six cases were all strangers from out of town. Since the flu originated in the U.S. in Massachusetts in late August 1918, it took a surprisingly short time to make it to our coast, given that airplane travel was not yet common.

Two weeks after those initial six cases, Mayor Davie closed down theaters, schools, churches and poolrooms, just as was recently done in Mexico [note: in 2009], so that large congregations of people would not gather to spread the infection. The wise mayor did not, however, close down the saloons; he merely dictated that they had to use paper cups or sterilize their glasses.

On Oct. 22, the Oakland Municipal Auditorium on the edge of Lake Merritt became an impromptu Red Cross Hospital. A prison chain gang cleaned and mopped the auditorium in preparation for patients.

Since there were no walls to separate the “wards” into male and female sections, someone made the creative decision to use stage scenery (the auditorium had been the site of many theatrical performances). The temporary 500-bed hospital operated for less than a month, but saw a lot of patients in that short time.

The first night it opened, 75 people showed up, and there was only one doctor on staff and no nurses. Red Cross women who were there that night sewing masks graciously offered their assistance. They simply did what they could to keep people comfortable. Later, one nurse worked five days straight without sleeping.

By late October, an astonishing 4,714 Oaklanders had the flu, according to the Fruitvale Progress. On a single day, 214 cases were reported.

By early November, the Oakland death toll was 450. Nationally, there were more deaths from the flu than on the battlefields in France—since WWI was concurrent with this epidemic. On Armistice Day, Nov. 11, a nurse from the municipal auditorium remembered people wild in the streets with celebration, while the patients still lay miserably abed.

By late November, as quickly as it had come on, the flu abated. A second outbreak came in early 1919 (Mayor Davie was arrested in Sacramento for not wearing his mask), a third in Fall 1919, and a fourth in 1920.

*  *  *
Erika Mailman is the author of several historical novels. Reach her through her website, www.erikamailman.com.
This column originally appeared in the Montclarion newspaper in 2009, as part of my "Looking Back" column which ran from 1999 to 2011.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Bridget the maid was the first to finger Lizzie Borden

The sofa upon which Mr. Borden took his endless nap

In all the hullabaloo of a proper, elderly man being found slaughtered on his own sitting room sofa, and then not too long later, intrepid women climbing the stairs to find his wife on the floor in a similar state, no one thought to ask Lizzie Borden about her possible role in all this.

Not until Irish maid Bridget Sullivan innocently—or not so innocently—asked, “Miss Lizzie, where were you?” *

Can you imagine how quickly eyes must’ve flown to Lizzie’s face? In the house by this point were several neighbors, friends, and a doctor. I loved the simplicity of this phrase so much that I used it verbatim in my novel.

Attorney Moody and Jay Huguley, who plays him in the upcoming movie Lizzie

At trial, in his opening statement William Moody spoke about this moment. He said Lizzie’s response to Bridget’s question was, “I was out in the back yard, I heard a groan, came in and found the door open and found my father.”

The neighbor Mrs. Churchill saw Bridget out of her window running to fetch the doctor, and she came over to learn more. When she asked Lizzie the same question, Lizzie told her, “I was out in the barn. I was going for a piece of iron when I heard a distress noise, came in and found the door open, and found my father dead.”

After her best friend Alice Russell was fetched by Bridget, Lizzie told her that she was in the barn for a piece of iron or tin to fix a screen (window or door screen).

Moody summed it up nicely:

There is therefore, Bridget Sullivan, to whom she said that she heard a groan, rushed in and found her father; Mrs. Churchill, towhom she said she heard a distress noise, came in and found her father; Officer Mulally, to whom she said she heard a peculiar noise like a scraping, came in and found her father dead; and all those, gentleman, you see in substance are stories which include the fact that while she was outside, she heard some alarming noise which caused her to rush in and discover the homicide.

Well, that sounds decent. She wasn’t clear on the sound, but all the stories contain the same general idea. Innocent!

But wait. Moody went on.

You will find that when she gave a later and detailed account, she said that she went into the loft of the barn, opened the window, ate some pears up there, looked over the leader for some sinkers [for a fishing line], came down, looked into the stove to see if the fire was hot enough that she might go on with her ironing, found it was not, put her hat down, started to go upstairs to await the fire which Bridget was to build for the noonday, and discovered her father. It is not, gentlemen, and I pray your attention to it, a difference of words here. In the one case the statement is that she was alarmed by the noise of the homicide. In the other case the statement is that she came coolly, deliberately about her business…and accidentally discovered the homicide as she went upstairs.

Window screens, fishing lures, pears, haylofts, ironing handkerchiefs…it all sounds like a fever dream.

Kitchen cabinets adorned with pears at the Lizzie Borden B&B

And does it help to know this was a ridiculously hot day in August (people had been dying of the heat), and that lingering in a hot loft to eat pears doesn’t sound plausible?

I love reading the old trial testimony, the antiquated syntax. All very pleasurable to me.

And on a final note, given the news that the Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart movie soon to be shown at Sundance may cast these two as lovers, the title of my post may have a special double meaning… I leave it to you to decide.

*Footnote: Bridget asked this question of Lizzie immediately, but it was more fun for the blog post to start this way.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Why did Lizzie Borden burn her dress?

A Bedford cord is a cotton dress good. This advertisement is one I'll
blog about later. You can see Bridget Sullivan's lamp reflected in the glass.

Lizzie Borden burned a dress in her kitchen stove shortly after learning she was a suspect for the murder of her father and stepmother. She was seen doing it by her friend Alice Russell, who told the city marshall.

It ended the friendship (Alice was the friend Lizzie sent for upon “discovering” her father’s body) and ensured Alice’s position as a prosecution witness a year later.

Lizzie’s sister Emma was also present during the dress burning episode although Lizzie’s actions were not visible to her. She was washing dishes in the scullery, and calling over her shoulder, advising Lizzie to burn the old, paint-stained dress.

The dress Lizzie burned was a Bedford cord. Emma said in the trial, “It was a blue cotton Bedford cord, very light blue ground with a darker figure about an inch long and I think about three quarters of an inch wide….trimmed with just a ruffle of the same around the bottom, a narrow ruffle.”

The dress had been made by a dressmaker in May; the murders were in August. It took at least two days to make the dress, and yet a few months later it was being pitched into the stove. Apparently, very soon after it had been sewn, within two weeks Emma judged, Lizzie ran into some wet paint on the house walls and ruined it. She continued to wear the dress when indoors without visitors, to the degree that it got “very dirty, very much soiled and badly faded.”

In three months???

On Saturday, the day the house was officially searched—several days after the murders, during which time Lizzie, Emma and Alice had free range of the crime scene—Emma found that she didn’t have a vacant nail upon which to hang her dress. And so she said to Lizzie, “You have not destroyed that old dress yet; why don’t you?”

Now a three-month-old gown was being called “old.”

Dresses were not “ready to wear” in those days. Mrs. Raymond, the dressmaker, came annually to the Borden household to make their dresses for the year. The disappointment of a dress being ruined by paint only weeks after its creation must’ve been severe.

And how did the dress become faded when not worn out in the sun? Perhaps the dye faded from frequent washings—but then why would it be described as soiled?

On Saturday night, Fall River’s Mayor Coughlin came to the house all loose-lipped and Lizzie learned she was a suspect.

On Sunday morning, Lizzie burned the dress. 

The clothes press is now a bathroom at the Lizzie Borden B&B

So you may be asking yourself, why did she bother to burn it after the house was searched? After all, it must’ve been seen by the officers. Well, probably not. They did very cursory examinations of the “clothes press” (a sort of closet for the family) and we can only imagine how uncomfortable the male officers would’ve been, in the “inner sanctum” of the ladies’ garments. It would have been quite easy for Lizzie to fold a dress around the Bedford cord so it wasn’t seen (in fact, multiple dresses must’ve been on single nails since Emma said she couldn’t find a free one). She might’ve even put one dress inside another.

On Monday morning, Alice Russell lied to an investigator that all the dresses had been in the clothespress that were there the day of the tragedy. (It took her a while to come clean). Lizzie and Emma expressed that she should not have lied, and must immediately retract it. Lizzie even took the opportunity to blame Alice for letting her burn the dress: “Why didn’t you tell me? Why did you let me do it?”

The clothes press was at the top of the stairs where Lizzie laughed

It's killing me that somehow I left the B&B without ever getting a photograph of the reproduction stove and the cupboard next to it where Lizzie had previously stashed the dress she burned.

There is a lot riding on that gown. Was it bloodstained? Why would Lizzie destroy what was clearly to be considered “evidence” by the officers who searched the home? After wearing it all dingy and faded for months, suddenly she couldn’t stand having it around anymore? Was there really such a scarcity of nails?

Many questions… and we don’t have answers, only guesses.

. . . . .

Monday, January 15, 2018

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.

We have this picture book Martin's Big Words and it’s in our rotation year round. It’s so hard to talk about what King fought for without being honest about what he fought against, and it’s so hard to introduce children to the hateful reality of racism. Yet it must be done.

I remember in Francine Prose’s introduction to her book about Anne Frank, she talked about her loss of innocence: the first time she saw a photograph of Holocaust victims and understood that people had been murdered for who they were.

I’d love for my kids to remain in a blissful state where they don’t know about the ugliness in other people’s hearts, but we’re raising them to be good citizens who will stick up for others and do the right thing.

I'm white, and I can imagine that discussion must be a hundredfold harder for black families. How do you tell your child, "There are people in this world who think we are inferior because of the color of our skin?" It just seems incomprehensible.

This selection from King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" has long raised tears in my eyes and made me bewilderingly angry:

"...when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: 'Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?' "

Have you too found it hard to talk about racism with young kids?

I remember once taking a picture book out of the library about slavery and then not wanting to explain to my kids what a slave was. I tried to frame it in terms of, "You're not going to believe it, but this crazy thing once happened in our country..." but then honor and duty compelled me to say, "...and guess what? There are still some people who have this hatred..."

Our local library is really good about ordering diverse picture books, books with people of color on the cover, books about people around the world.

I particularly like this "My Family" series, which features people of diverse ethnicities and sexualities:
It's about a boy with a camera who features a different kid at school in the newspaper each week, so he goes home with that kid and learns what that kid's life is like. The books are written by Claudia Harrington and illustrated by Zoe Persico.

Another great series were photograph books set in Ethiopia, such as New Shoes for Helen, which is about a girl who needs shoes for her aunt's wedding and where they go to try to find the perfect pair. And Deron Goes to Nursery School, which is self-explanatory. The author/photographer is Ifeoma Onyefulu.

Today and every day, let's honor a great man who was doing such good work to connect all people, and whose life was cut short. Can you imagine what he might've further accomplished had he lived?

. . . . .

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Lizzie Borden's cemetery

I’ve always been interested in cemeteries, and the one in Fall River, Massachusetts, holding Lizzie Borden’s body is no exception.

After my visit to the Lizzie Borden B&B, my friend and I walked to the Oak Grove Cemetery to see if we could locate Lizzie’s grave, as well as her family members’.

It turns out it wasn’t rocket science. There are literally arrows painted on the ground directing you straight to the Borden plot. Perhaps cemetery staffers were tired of answering the same question over and over and decided to permanently answer it with paint. It was helpful given it was a very hot day in August (as was that fateful day in 1892, when Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered) to not have to meander and find the plot ourselves, but it did seem strange…I wondered if others buried there were miffed they didn’t warrant arrows. 

This-a-way, please

There’s one Borden monolith for all in this nuclear family, including both wives of Andrew (Sarah died when Lizzie, the youngest, was a toddler).

The side that talks about the “Children of Andrew and Sarah” is interesting and listed in order of death date. Alice comes first, the middle child who died in infancy. Interestingly enough, although Lizzie and Emma lived together for years after the murders, they had become estranged by the time of their deaths. They died days apart in 1927.

Each person also gets an individual stone embedded in the earth, and these are scattered with coins by visitors. Please take note that Lizzie is termed “Lizbeth” on this stone and the monolith. That is the name she took for herself after the murders.

Andrew is buried between his two wives.

The monumental gates of the cemetery, from the living side…

And the dead side.

Do you have a cemetery you particularly liked visiting? Please post it (and links!) in the comments.

. . . . .

The small and big day

Today was one of those days that felt drowned on one edge, burned to char on the other.

It started with returning a rental car and going to get my real car back from the garage, with a little attendant drama because why should these things ever just go easily? A friend came over to help me with a project and our “bad car-ma” continued when we heard her car alarm going on and ran outside to see a neighbor had run into her parked car. I felt so guilty having asked her to come see me and therefore sideways responsible for the accident, which added onto her already-heavy burdens.

I then spent hours battling a new software platform rolled out by my school, which thanks to an administrative snafu, I had not been granted access to until a few days ago although I accepted the class back in November. It’s an online class, so students were panicking and emailing fretful messages.

The terrier we are dogsitting had waken me at 3 a.m. and then again at 7 a.m. with gruff little barks. Reacting to deer or turkeys in the yard? We won’t know in this lifetime unless there is a real-life Dr. Doolittle.

I’ve had a kid sick home all week and struggled with balancing deadlines and sitting on the sofa with her.

Somehow with all this going on, I managed to remain unaware of the ballistic missile alert in Hawaii that probably changed some people’s lives even though it was issued in error. My stomach feels sick thinking of those who thought they might be ending their lives within moments.

And so when I finally settled down into social media after my friend had left and the kids were in bed, I couldn’t believe it when I saw that Traci Foust had died.

How is that possible? Young, funny, beautiful, sweet, edgy Traci is not with us anymore. And I realized because of the perceived “dramas” of the last few days in my life, I had scrolled past her posts about being sick without even clicking on a damn emoticon, let alone taking the ten seconds it would’ve taken to write a nice comment offering some small comfort.

Traci’s last post on her page was two days ago, when she told her friends, “Im being admitted into the ICU with double bacterial pneumonia.” She had Lupus and being weakened by the pneumonia, coming down with the flu on top of it was too much for her body. I scrolled down her feed and saw that not long ago, she was vowing to definitely get the flu shot next year (she procrastinated this year). Given its limited effectiveness, I don’t know if the flu shot would’ve saved her, but it sucks to think it might have.

I really liked Traci and she made me laugh out loud many times on her feed. I never met her in real life. Traci friended me years ago with a compliment about my novel which she had just read, and we shared writerly PMs. She is the author of a memoir Nowhere Near Normal, which I feel like an asshole for never having read and talked to her about when she was so generous with me about my writing.

Because I knew her memoir was about mental health, when I saw the first posts from others about her death, I thought for a moment she had committed suicide. With some digging, I learned it was plain old stupid flu and pneumonia. So unfair, and so wrong. Traci, I wish I had read your book while you were still alive, and I wish you were here to write many more.

So the small and big day, wet and burned day, draws to a close with regrets and tears.


Friday, January 12, 2018

Lizzie Borden's staircase

The staircase, seen from the top looking down

In any story, there’s always some detail, large or small, that sticks with you. For me with the Lizzie Borden narrative, it’s the idea that the front stairs curved around such that at some point as you climbed, you’d be looking into an upstairs bedroom at floor level. And that when Mrs. Borden was lying murdered on an upper floor and the maid Bridget Sullivan was trying to open the front door to Mr. Borden (thus facilitating his murder), Lizzie Borden stood on the stairs behind Bridget and laughed.

She may have been looking at Mrs. Borden’s body, eye to eye, when she did that.

I believe I'm standing on the step that lets me see under the guest room bed

The idea simply chills my bones. I opened my novel with that scene (and circled back to it towards the end in an altered, poetic-license kind of way).

The 1893 jurors actually visited the Borden household to see its strange layout and, yes, to climb those stairs and see if it was possible to see a body on the floor underneath the guest room bed.

If you visit the Lizzie Borden B&B, you are given the same chance the jurors were given. A docent may even lie down on the floor where Abby Borden lay, so that you get a more visceral experience.

Stairs are somewhat creepy even without corpses at the top. Discuss?

. . . . .

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Lizzie Borden was found “probably guilty” at her inquest

Lizzie Borden trial scene, courtesy Faye Musselman

In the days immediately following the murders of Mr. and Mrs. Borden, an inquest was held to determine whether Lizzie should undergo a full trial. In an inquest, a judge sits in but not a jury. The judge listens to witnesses' testimony and at the end makes a decision.

In August 1892, Lizzie’s inquest was held. One of the things I find most interesting is that for some reason, Bridget Sullivan’s inquest testimony has gone missing. How wonderful would it be for someone to find a copy of it in their attic or in an old box in the basement? Strange that there would be only copy, and that someone took it out of the file and never returned it.

Anyway, at the end of the inquest, the judge, who had been an old family friend of the Bordens, could not find in favor of Lizzie. He pointed out that perhaps Lizzie was getting the benefit of the doubt because she was a woman.

As Edmund Pearson quotes in his Trial of Lizzie Borden, the inquest judge said, “Suppose for a single moment a man was standing there. He was found close by that guest chamber which, to Mrs. Borden, was a chamber of death. Suppose a man had been found in the vicinity of Mr. Borden, was the first to find the body, and the only account he could give of himself was the unreasonable one that he was out in the barn looking for sinkers [for a fishing line]; then he was out in the yard; then he was out for something else; would there be any question in the minds of men what should be done with such a man?”

The chamber of death as it appears today

Judge Josiah Coleman Blaisdell actually teared up as he told Lizzie she was found “probably guilty” and would have to go through a trial.

Lizzie then spent roughly a year in prison awaiting that trial…at which she was acquitted, despite the numerous contradictory alibis Blaisdell mentioned.

Blaisdell also served as judge at Lizzie’s preliminary hearing, which some have found to be controversial (he had already seen her as “probably guilty,” so she perhaps deserved a fresh set of ears to listen to her).

. . . .

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Lizzie Borden claimed her stepmother received a note from a sick friend

Lizzie at her most nubile, perhaps

One of the prevailing mysteries of the Lizzie Borden murder case is the note Mrs. Borden purportedly received the morning of August 4, 1892, which Lizzie claimed called her away to care for an ill friend.

The note was never found.

And Mrs. Borden was not visiting a sick friend. She was lying upstairs in the guest room dead for hours before her body was discovered.

Did the note even exist?

Did Mrs. Borden receive a note from a sick friend?

Or was it a way for Lizzie to explain to her father, when he returned from errands, why Mrs. Borden wasn’t home (although she was, in a manner of speaking)? And further, once Mr. Borden had been murdered and “discovered,” was it a way to explain why Lizzie, for a while, displayed no concern or worry about where Mrs. Borden might be?

Mrs. Borden never told any living witness other than Lizzie about the note. Although Irish maid Bridget Sullivan testified about it, she was only repeating what Lizzie had told her. Notices were placed in the newspaper to try to locate the person that might’ve been sick or sent the note, with no success.

People conjecture that perhaps the note was sent to Mrs. Borden by the killer. But, in Victoria London’s book A Private Disgrace, she makes a good point. Why would anyone “write a note to get her away when he was going there to assassinate her?” (London 342)

Perhaps the note writer only wanted to kill Mr. Borden, thus trying to get Mrs. Borden out of the house and out of harm's way. But then why wouldn’t Lizzie be pulled away too? And perhaps even Bridget?

Emma, Lizzie’s sister, was away visiting friends in another town. Lizzie was supposed to be away, too, at the seashore. Perhaps the killer (if it wasn’t Lizzie herself) knew this, but wasn’t aware she had changed her plans and decided to stay home?

Is it possible Mrs. Borden did indeed slip out, visit a sick friend and then return, all without being noticed? It’s unlikely. The household was small and Bridget was washing windows, indoors and out, moving back and forth to refill her bucket. It’s possible Mrs. Borden left without it being remarked if Bridget was temporarily in the barn where the tap was, or by Lizzie who was always avoiding her anyway…but the houses were close together and neighbors watched. 

In fact, neighbors witnessed and testified about Mr. Borden returning from his errands, and about poor Bridget running across the street to fetch a doctor when Mr. Borden’s body was found scarcely an hour later.  

Borden house, center. To the right, the white house is where a neighbor saw Mr. Borden
returning from errands. The house on the left is not seen in this view, but is also very close by,
and from the window Mrs. Churchill saw Bridget run across the street. The small structure
with one window is the barn where Lizzie claimed to be when Mrs. Borden was murdered.

Even if Mrs. Borden did go to the sick visit, what happened to the note? Did she burn it, drop it?

Or was it all just an invention of a frazzled murderess?

. . . .