The first time I heard about Lizzie Borden was on a trip to Salem, a charming Massachusetts town whose violent history keeps visitors coming year-round. Most of it has to do with the witch trials, but one shop had a display that did not feature broomsticks and love potions. Instead, it was about Lizzie, who became notorious in the late 1800s for being accused of murdering her father and stepmother. A cursory look at a copy of official investigation notes and contemporary newspaper reports left me with an image of a crazed, blood-drenched woman screaming and wielding a hatchet when the police came to arrest her.
So I was surprised that in The Murderer’s Maid, a new novel by Erika Mailman based on the infamous case, Lizzie is presented as calm and collected, if not stoic. The crimes have never been officially solved – Lizzie was acquitted by an all-male jury that refused to believe a woman capable of such savagery. But the weight of the circumstantial evidence is pretty clear.
Lizzie was unruffled when the two bodies were discovered and during the ensuing investigation. In fact, she is presented as placid – if not particularly likeable – throughout the novel, which is well-researched using archival material, court transcripts and contemporary media reports. But this façade is illusory. The story that emerges is one of a woman who may have been flawed and spiteful towards those of the lower classes – like the eponymous Irish maid Bridget Sullivan – but who was also wronged, by society and by her own family.
After the death of her mother, young Lizzie and her sister Emma were raised by a father who, it is abundantly clear, was not up to the job. The late 19th century was an era when men were not expected to know anything about child-rearing. Moreover, Andrew Borden was a miser – a wealthy businessman who lived in a shabby house in downtown Fall River, which he refused to equip with the latest technology of electricity and telephone.
Mr. Borden married Abby, a quiet woman who failed to gain the children’s affection. Neither she nor her husband apparently put much thought into marrying their daughters off at a time when marriage was the only way for a woman to secure a social status and economic safety. Both women lingered in the family home well into their 30s, paying for their needs – dresses, transportation, and entertainment – out of their father’s meager allowances. The novel chronicles an atmosphere of growing tensions, resentment and bitterness, culminating in the vicious crime on a hot August morning in 1892.
I may be one of the few readers who walk away from The Murderer’s Maid feeling a certain sympathy for Lizzie Borden. Without justifying a crime, it is not difficult to imagine that had she been born in a different era, none of it would have happened. Lizzie was intelligent, ambitious, and single-minded, qualities that would help her achieve her dreams today, but not in the Victorian era. Chained to a home with parents wholly unconcerned for her needs, and nowhere to turn to outside that home, it is possible to see how an evil instinct could be stirred in a prone mind.
The Murderer’s Maid brings the story of Lizzie Borden vividly to life, and is made even more gripping by a parallel storyline featuring one of her descendants potentially involved in a crime of her own. As such, it will satisfy a broad range of readers – from historical fiction and true crime to murder mystery fans.