Saturday, August 03, 2019

Bridget on the stairs: a post for the Lizzie Borden anniversary

This post is for the anniversary of the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden, husband and wife, killed August 4, 1892. Andrew's daughter Lizzie was accused and underwent a trial that was in all the newspapers of the day, a huge national spectacle that ended in her acquittal.

I had long been fascinated by this case and the idea that Lizzie might've "gotten away with murder," for surely she was convicted by the jury of the Public, if not by the jury of her peers (well, actually, the jurymen were not her peers; I blogged about that here).

The more I learned about the case, the more my interest circled around one individual whose role was consistently downplayed: the Irish maid Bridget Sullivan. Bridget had been in the employ of the Borden family for several years, had tried to quit a few times, and was the only person in the house that fateful day besides Lizzie and the victims.

Why was Bridget's role not larger in the trial? Because of her immigrant status. In the cartoon above, originally from Harper's Weekly and found in the book Out of Ireland: The Story of Irish Immigration to America, you can see how the Irish were deplored as they arrived in the 1800s, often hungry and poor.

This cartoon ran April 28, 1883, almost a decade before the Borden murders, but is a good example of how Americans viewed the arrival of the Irish. The cartoon's title reads, "The balance of trade with Great Britain Seems to Be Still Against Us" and its text says, "650 paupers arrived at Boston in the steamship Nestoria, April 15th, from Galway, Ireland, shipped by the British Government." The sails on the dinghy rowing out to meet the ship say, "From New York, the DYNAMITE," which I initially thought to be the wish to blast the immigrants into oblivion, but has a more complex meaning, referring to Irish-American activists who used dynamite in the fight for Irish independence from Britain.

At right is Bridget Sullivan.
At left is Kristen Stewart playing her in the movie Lizzie.

Sentiment was strong against the Irish. Many shops had signs in their windows stating, "Irish Need Not Apply." On the day of the Borden murders, Lizzie called out to Bridget to fetch Dr. Bowen across the street, but when he was not available, Lizzie did not then send her to the Irish physician who lived next door (nor the French one through their orchard on the next street). No. She sent Bridget to fetch her friend.

Hosea Knowlton who led the prosecution's case against Lizzie said that he felt Bridget knew more than she was telling, and yet there was no true surge of pressing her for information.

Bridget testified for the prosecution, and yet I'm mystified why she wasn't grilled to the point that she could let go of some very interesting information. Lizzie was seen burning a dress soon after she was told (in a blunder by the mayor) that she was suspected. Where did that flammable dress come from? It had been secreted in a kitchen cupboard next to the stove in which she burned it. The kitchen was Bridget's territory. How could something wind up in one of her cupboards without her knowing? Bridget knew about the tensions in the household and erratic behavior, yet held her tongue. Why? Politeness? Misplaced loyalty to... well, Lizzie wasn't her boss. The two victims were. Who knows what was in Bridget's mind?

The door with the clock is the cupboard in question.
The stove isn't original but stands where Bridget's stove stood.

I titled this post, "Bridget on the Stairs," because this is the most compelling detail of the case to me. Mrs. Borden was killed first, and lay undiscovered upstairs. Mr. Borden then came home from his morning errands, and could not seem to make his key work (hm, inside job?) so he ran the bell and Bridget let him in. As the two were at the door, Lizzie on the stairs behind them laughed. Bridget told the court so.

At a certain point on that staircase, you can see directly into the guest room where Mrs. Borden was then dead, halfway under the bed, crawling to get away from the blows that ruined her head. One's eyes, when one stands on the stairs, are at floor level with the victim. Perhaps Mrs. Borden's eyes were open, staring in terror at whoever stood on the stairs and laughed.

Me a few years ago on the stair where you can see the upstairs floor

Well, that is Lizzie on the stairs, not Bridget. Except that...after Mr. Borden's body had been "found" downstairs by Lizzie and the alarm given (and Bridget ran to fetch the best friend)...time passed and people began to wonder aloud where Mrs. Borden was. Lizzie actually asked Bridget to go upstairs and see if she was there. Bridget wisely refused to go alone, and neighbor Mrs. Churchill accompanied her. At the same place where Lizzie had stood and laughed, Bridget saw Mrs. Borden's body. She continued up and into the room to verify that Mrs. Borden was dead, perhaps hoping she was only injured and could be revived. Yet anyone who saw that crime scene would know Mrs. Borden would never rise again.

What you see standing on that stair. That's the bed the visitor is walking towards,
and the docent is lying on the other side. She isn't, however, halfway under the bed
as the real Abby was found.

I've spent a lot of time contemplating Lizzie on the stairs, but not so much Bridget. And now as the anniversary comes around again, I think about the betrayal involved in Lizzie forcing her servant to go upstairs to find Mrs. Borden's corpse (or...was it collusion? Or was Lizzie truly innocent? Agh, we will never know). After the autopsies --performed in the dining room-- the bodies remained in the house overnight. As did the living: Lizzie, Bridget, Lizzie's sister who came back into town upon receiving a telegram, and the friend of Lizzie's whom Bridget had fetched). Did Bridget again climb those stairs to aid the sisters? Or did she shun the staircase forever? (Her stairs, to the attic, were off the kitchen...the same stairs Andrew and Abby used).

Stairs have long been held to be symbols of transitions. If you dream of stairs, it can mean you are thinking of transition and change. For sure, the staircase played a dramatic role in the Borden murders. The jury, in fact, went to visit the house during the trial and each paused on the staircase to see the view that possibly meant Lizzie laughed in exultation looking at her victim. You too can climb the stairs if you visit the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast in Fall River, Massachusetts.

My novel The Murderer's Maid tells the story from Bridget's point of view, as well as including a modern-day narrative focusing on the issue of immigration.

 “A complex and riveting parallax view of domestic crimes, decades apart.” -Kirkus

“Those interested in the Lizzie Borden tale…will appreciate Mailman’s research and be rewarded with this new perspective.” -Booklist

“Erika Mailman writes a page turner of a thriller that will fascinate as well as terrify….Don’t read this at night; it will give you nightmares.” -New York Journal of Books
“Erika Mailman’s kaleidoscopic narrative melds true crime, historical fiction, and elements of a psychological thriller, all hinging on a singular question: ‘Who isn’t a survivor from the wreckage of childhood?’” -Foreword Reviews

Tuesday, July 16, 2019


I've had some happy success with my freelancing recently. Here are a few articles I've been excited about in the last year or so. And yes, I need to blog about our most recent Paris trip, but in the meantime here is my piece about being there watching Notre Dame burn, a shock --and a sight I could've never predicted.

Our view of the fire, very soon after it started

Washington Post
"I Watched Notre Dame Burn"

This is the fence of St. Julien le Pauvre, referenced in the article,
that people were stuck behind

Rolling Stone:
"What Happened After Jonestown? In the wake of the mass suicide in 1978, friends, family and survivors had to face the aftermath of Jim Jones's cult."

The Millions:
"Death and the Poet: Inside the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast"

Oakland Magazine:
"Pixar’s Inside Out Is a Love Letter to Kids: Pixar’s latest delights with runaway emotions"

The Monthly:
"Donner Dinner Party: An Underappreciated Oakland Author Reports His Take on an Unusual Evening"

Diversity Woman Magazine:
"Ditch Your Comfort Zone: Traveling to a destination with a new mind-set can lead to the most rewarding vacation of your life"

The Writer Magazine:
"Keep your plot threads under control: When it comes to adding significant plot lines to your novel, you don’t want too many, or too few"

Parents Press Magazine:
"The Wide World of Birthday Traditions: In many ethnic communities, birthdays are celebrated with a lot more than cake and candles:"

Oakland Magazine:
John McCrea and Cake:

Sac News & Reviews:
Profile of Christian Kiefer:

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

8th annual Chin Up for Writers Day

Gulliver from the New York Public Library's collections

Yep, akin to Festivus, I invented my own national day, and it is on its eighth year: the National Chin Up for Writers Day. It originated as a response to a friend on Facebook bemoaning the seeming impossibility of achieving traditional publication, and each year I post a new take on it because it seems so important.

When you're in the rejection stage, it just feels endless. It feels like you can't refresh your email often enough. You wonder what agents are doing. You muse over whether the fact that your email account was pharmaspammed in the last few years means that your emails aren't actually making their way to agents' inboxes, because surely only something so drastic could explain why you aren't hearing back immediately with jaw-dropping interest.

In some ways, you actually deplore the arrival of Friday, because it means you have two days to live through until business hours start up again (but on the other hand, it makes Mondays something nicer than they normally are, because they become hopeful days! Cue the endless refreshing of email).

I've been there and I continue to be there, despite having six traditionally published novels under my belt from publishers like Random House and Kensington. And I too need to remind myself to keep my chin up, because it does seem harder than ever now to capture an agent's heart, mind and willingness to represent you.

Hope springs eternal, though, as I winch my chin up (I imagine a pulley system connected to my ears, something Lilliputians have hooked up to me as if I was Gulliver), and as I write this to you, dear reader, to keep your chin up, too.

It only takes one person to say yes. And in the meantime, while waiting, we can read beautiful books to learn from them, we can start a new project or turn wiser eyes on old ones, and we can even binge-watch The Haunting of Hill House while binge-eating leftover soda bread from St. Patrick's Day! Or is that just me?

Believe in yourself and your book.

That is all.

. . . .

Interested in previous year's posts?
First year
Second year
Third year

Sixth year: the year I forgot
7th year: I reposted year one, as an "evergreen" post. I never said I wasn't lazy.

. . . . 

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Introducing the Mailstrom Writing Clinic

For nine years, I taught the online novel writing classes for mediabistro, including developing curriculum for an advanced class. When that company sold a few years ago, my time ended. I've wanted since then to start up my own classes, and that is happening now.

A maelstrom is a vortex or a powerful whirlpool, so I'm playing on my name with the class title of Mailstrom Writing Clinic. I enter the confusion and turmoil of a novel in progress to cheerlead students on, while guessed it... cracking the whip.

Several of my students have gone on to find traditional publication: Lian Dolan, Lisa Beazley Kling, Jenny D. Williams, Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, and Barbara Barnett (there may be others; pardon me if I am missing you! And let me know so I can add your name). My class was featured in an article at Books Make A Difference; I love working with writers to spur them on to keep working on their book, to love it harder, to make the pages flow.

I'm opening up a small class, limited to eight writers, in March. If all goes well, I'll offer this class on a rotating basis, starting up in May when this one ends, and every three months henceforth. Here are the details for this upcoming class.

Welcome to the Mailstrom Writing Clinic
a vortex of cheerleading with a whip

These classes are intended for people who are already underway on a novel, who don't need help getting started but do need it to push forward to a final draft.

We meet online for 10 weeks, which includes:
  • Ten downloadable lectures aimed at craft issues and motivating you onward
  • The chance to share up to six double-spaced pages every week for peer and instructor critique
  • The opportunity to learn from others' work, by reading closely and offering up fair critique
  • A live, one-hour text chat on Wednesdays 5 p.m.PST/8 p.m. EST, which is fun and encouraging
  • Camaraderie with other writers on the same exciting journey
  • Accountability! Everyone loves a deadline, right?
  • An intimate environment (classes cap at eight students) to share your work privately
  • A cheerleader with a whip (me!) who loves inciting writers to productivity

Erika Mailman is the author of six traditionally-published novels (Random House, Kensington, and others) under her own name and the pen name Lynn Carthage. She has been a Bram Stoker finalist, a Yaddo fellow, and winner of several awards, including the IPPY gold medal for historical fiction. Her historical novel The Witch's Trinity was a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book and appeared on Entertainment Weekly's list of "Wickedly Great Books about Witches." She holds an MFA in poetry and taught mediabistro's online novel writing classes for nine years, as well as teaching community college English and leading workshops at many national writing conferences, including the Writers Digest Novel Writing Conference. and

Our first session is March 11-May 26, with a break April 15-21. The first chat is Wednesday, March 13, and the last is May 22.

The charge is $400, which must be prepaid by PayPal by March 8.
Financial details: If you are unsatisfied and wish to withdraw after our second chat, I will refund half the class amount. After that point, I cannot provide a refund. Please be aware that since the class is capped at eight, you may be taking a slot that cannot later be filled.

For more details or to register, contact me via email at erika {\\at\\}


UPDATE: WE'RE NOW on our second session of the class, which ends in late August 2019. We'll start another one in September. Stay tuned, or email me at myfirstname AT to learn more (remember, I'm spelled with a K!)

. . . .