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 at age xxx, 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!

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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.

. . . .

Contentious attorneys in Lizzie Borden case

Reading through trial transcripts in the Lizzie Borden case (1892) can be mildly entertaining in terms of the touchy interactions between defense and prosecution attorneys. They were trying to get to the bottom of a horrible and upsetting crime, yes--the murder of an older man and his wife--but that didn't stop them from getting frustrated with each other.

Not only that, their formal language was sometimes so obfuscated that witnesses pled confusion. Here's an interaction I was re-reading yesterday that made me laugh out loud. This follows a long and complex description of the individual hatchet wounds: where they were placed by the assailant on the victims' heads, and their measurements:

I laughed at Mr. Knowlton's spunky, "I submit whether the questioner himself understands the question." Hosea Knowlton was attorney for the prosecution, trying to get the jury to find Lizzie guilty (they didn't).

Adams rather defensively replies, "I do. I understood one of yours a little while ago, that you had trouble about understanding yourself." Adams then returns to the witness, asking, "Well, do you understand the question now?" although no explanation had been offered, and the witness meekly asked, "If I may be permitted to state what I think the question is?"

It's Laurel and Hardy, practically. Who's on first? What's the question?

A few lines later, Adams inadvertently insults the witness, Dr. Dolan, by referring to his "attempt at an autopsy," which phrasing Dolan calls attention to.

At any rate, a bit about the book. It's a lovely bound version of Edmund Pearson's Trial of Lizzie Borden, with incredible paisley end papers, gilt page edges, and that wonderful red ribbon you see above (blocking the rest of the testimony) which provides a built-in bookmark. It's a treasure of a book and there's a bit of a story behind it that I'll blog about later.

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Thursday, August 04, 2016

Anniversary of Lizzie Borden double murders

Today, August 4, 1892, in Fall River, Massachusetts, a middle-aged woman named Lizzie Borden called out to her maid to come downstairs. The cause of the alarm? Her father had been killed. Bridget Sullivan came down and thus proceeded the strangest of mornings, with contradictory tales told of what Lizzie had been doing at the time her father bore the brunt of multiple hatchet marks to his head and face.

With the alarm raised and neighbors and a kindly doctor surrounding her, Lizzie then reacted to the question where her stepmother might be during all this commotion. "I thought I hear her come in," she said vaguely, asking Bridget to go upstairs to check. Bridget quite rightly refused to go alone, and neighbor Mrs. Churchill climbed the stairs with her. Towards the top of the stairs, as they turned their heads, they could see under the bed in the guest room where Mrs. Borden lay on the other side, also hatcheted to death.

Lizzie Borden was acquitted, but history has wondered for over a century if those jurors did right.

In the 1970s, a made-for-TV movie starring Bewitched's Elizabeth Montgomery did a very decent job of telling the tale. It's called The Legend of Lizzie Borden. The movie set features a floorplan replicating exactly the Borden household (for those who follow this story, the floorplans play an important role in untangling the who-was-where-when stuff, replete with locked doors and doors blocked by desks). Elizabeth portrays Lizzie quite well, despite being younger and more attractive. They shared an ancestor in common, it turns out.

Elizabeth Montgomery as Lizzie Borden

Lizzie Borden
The movie is worth watching. It's out of commission, but I found a DVD through my library. One of the scenes I found the most interesting I will link to here. When Lizzie's lawyer tells her she faces the possibility of death by hanging for the crime she's suspected of, she reacts with such horror that it literally made my heart leap.

And of course, what is most telling about that moment is that at no other time does Lizzie show horror in the film. Not when she sees her father's body--disinterestedly lifting up the sheet in the middle of the night where his body rests in the dining room, awaiting its autopsy, a brilliant choice on the part of the filmmakers, for those bodies did indeed rest in the house with living occupants... Not when she discovers it, not when she worries (as one would) that the murderer may yet lurk in the house. Mr. Borden's head was so destroyed that his eyeball was cut in half, and yet the only moment Lizzie shows horror is when her own fate is endangered.

Was that Hollywood license? No. The court testimony has repeated witnesses testifying to Lizzie's remote character within moments after the murders. "She was cool," said a police officer. Lizzie never cried, never screamed, never showed distress. To me, most importantly is that she never showed fear. If some intruder came into the house and murdered her father and stepmother, why was she not running into the street in terror that she might be the next victim?

One answer: she knew there was no intruder.

Here's that clip. It's ten minutes, and the moment of her realizing she may hang for the crimes comes around 4:00.


The credit for it: "Lizzie Borden - No Longer Believed" Oct 07, 2013. Aug 04, 2016. .

Monday, August 01, 2016

Doing what we can...


Two pleas today, and both cancer-related. Yeah, the C word, the thing that makes us enraged because we're helpless and don't know how to fight it.

Well, here's two meaningful ways to help.

Anyone who's read my blog over the years knows about Jennifer L. Kranz, the sweet, cute six year old who died of DIPG a mere 3.5 months after diagnosis. Her parents created the groundswell Fluttering movement, in which people purchase a Fluttering kit of lawn-ornament dragonflies and commit to moving the dragonflies yard to yard throughout September, with official Unravel paperwork that requests a donation to the nonprofit foundation in return for selecting where the dragonflies go next. Today there is a flash sale of the Fluttering kits. Fluttering is a good thing to do with your own kids--talk to them about how to use our bodies to help others, that the daily task of moving the dragonflies is raising money to help researchers figure out kids' cancer. You can Flutter in the name of someone you know who is fighting now or in memory of someone. It's a meaningful, intense, beautiful thing to do. Purchase your Fluttering kit here.

And here's a silly video from Jennifer's mom explaining the "flash" part of the sale.

The other way to help: my friend Nanea Hoffman is the founder of the popular and wildly-clever blog Sweatpants & Coffee. She was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. She has created the "Anxiety Blob" to squeeze at moments when the world seems too much. These blobs are for sale now here. Also, subscribe to the blog and follow her caffeinated story!

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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

An engaging look at the past

Mary Volmer's Reliance, Illinois, is a book I've been enjoying in slow sips, like a glass of very old sherry. It rewards slow reading, for Mary's prose is unlike any other writer's. I first got to know Mary through her novel Crown of Dust, which for a Gold Rush novel is unusually dark, somber, laden with ochre. This isn't the ebullient "Westward, ho!"'s about the people who didn't strike it rich and got stuck in a part of the west not well traveled. Its quiet beauty is memorable. But I digress...I'm talking about Reliance now!

Again set in the 1800s, Reliance is about a small town and its secrets, and one girl at the center of it all. Look at this gorgeous cover.

I asked Mary to do an interview on my blog and she agreed to answer these three questions. Mary's doing a reading at Face in a Book bookstore in El Dorado Hills, California, this Friday the 22nd at 6:30 p.m. I'll be there, and I hope I'll see you there too! Mary's a great presenter, and it's sure to be a fun and witty night!

1       1. Why are you so drawn to the 1800s?
Mom always had biographies and historical novels lying around the house.  When I was a girl, she read me books such as Johnny Tremain (a revolutionary war novel), and 19th and early 20th century authors like Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott. I suppose it’s no surprise my imagination turned to the past when I started making up my own stories. I guess another reason is that when I started writing seriously I was living abroad in Wales, a country with a rich history, physically apparent in the castle ruins and standing stones that graced the landscape of my university town, Aberystwyth. Living there, I felt oddly compelled to look back on the history of my own town and country, and also to question the national narratives, those simplified (often sanitized) origin stories, I learned in school. I discovered the relatively short history of the United States was full of vibrant and volatile landscapes, contradictory accounts and fabulous characters. It seemed natural to write about them. And the disconcerting fact of the matter is, we’re dealing today with many of the same issues and fears that consumed us generations ago. 

2. Your characters are often downtrodden, powerless. Can you address that?
I’m drawn to survivor stories and tales of resilience, and I’m equally drawn to stories about women, who in the 19th century were largely downtrodden. Until the latter half of the century, women possessed few economic or political freedoms and had little access to education. While they were not universally powerless, any authority they wielded had social consequences far more serious than the many layered stigmas powerful women endure today. I’m fascinated by the lives of these women and the communities they loved and struggled within. If history is written by the victors, I think an argument can be made that fiction (a great deal of it, at any rate) is written for the downtrodden, the forgotten, the novel and unnamed.    

3. What are you working on now?
I’ve been working on three projects, but will need to settle into one of them in the next month or two (or none will get finished!). The first is a contemporary novel set in the Sierra Nevada Foothills, the second is a detective novel set in two time periods: contemporary and colonial Virginia. The third is set in Boston, Northern England and South America after WWI. That’s a vague answer, I know, but I don’t want to give too much away! And, of course, the stories will change as I write them. 

. . . .  

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Beautiful Montpelier

I grew up in the capitol of Vermont, and it is the most beautiful place in the world. I hadn't been back in literally decades before we went two years ago, and this year we returned to see the lovely Fourth of July bunting.

This is the City Hall, which used to contain the police department, but I noted that has moved to a standalone building in its back parking lot.

This is the fire station.

This is a magnificent indie bookstore. There are actually two downtown--amazing for a city with a population of less than 8,000!

And this is a sign in a storefront that cracked me up. Yes: this is Montpelier. Thanks for being a great place to grow up!

. . . .

Monday, June 06, 2016

Summerwords Creative Writing Festival 2016

I think this festival gets more fun each year. Our keynote speaker was Luis Alberto Urrea, who simply couldn't be a funnier, more witty, more poignant speaker and reader. I heard many "lightbulb ah" gasps from the crowd when his short story (which he had memorized and delivered as a performance) concluded.

I presented on writing series fiction and had a full room with lots of great energy and laughter--love it when group dynamics make this kind of thing an outright pleasure. Thank you all who attended my session!

A brief writing activity in my session on writing series fiction.

I also attended many presentations myself and of course the magnificent barbecue that crowns Saturday night at the festival. People may be amazed to realize that their ticket, very reasonably priced for a four-day conference, also includes a stellar barbecue with free-flowing beer and wine. Just saying, mark it on your calendar for 2017!

We've had amazing keynote speakers in the past: Carolyn Forche, T.C. Boyle and now Urrea (I've only attended the last three years), but the conference really revolves around the daily sessions, usually four to pick from each hour. American River College faculty teach these, as well as visiting writers. It's the kind of literary event you would imagine a major university pulling off, but American River College is a small community college in Sacramento with a passionate creative writing faculty that designs and implements this large-scale conference. ARC's literary magazine also consistently wins national awards, beating out schools like Harvard...

The video for this year's Summerwords somehow features me as the freezeframe, which I found preposterous and fun:

I wish I'd done more pre-Summerwords social media but a) we sold out anyway and b) I was in the throes of a move...yes, we moved house two days after the conference which took place May 26-29 . That was...let's see...less than a week ago. I'm still looking at boxes as I type this. May I mention for purposes of eliciting deep sympathy that it was 100 degrees the day of our move?

Next I'll have to blog about the wonderful Gold Rush Writers Conference. In the meantime, a writer friend is part of Barnes and Noble's new Teen Book event, B-Fest. Lynn Carthage (winkety wink) will be appearing at the Natomas B&N in support of Betrayed and Haunted this Friday, June 10, at 7 p.m.