Cara Robertson started researching the Lizzie Borden case when she was an undergrad at Harvard in 1990. She also attended Oxford and Stanford Law School. Cara knows the judicial process. The book was made possible by transcripts of the legal proceedings, modern newspaper accounts as well as unpublished local accounts and recently discovered letters written by Lizzie Borden.
The first thing Cara and I discuss is our mutual love of unearthing old papers. Nothing pleases both of us more than jimmying open a forgotten drawer and stumbling upon old letters. And yes we both like the smell of musty papers.
Her book, The Trial of Lizzie Borden, gives us a rare glimpse into the other side of true crime…the part that happens after we catch the alleged bad guy. We also get to see how one woman possibly used the prejudices of the time in her favor. And yes, I ask Cara if Lizzie did it.
Brightest Young Things: What got you interested in the true crime genre?
Cara Robertson: I found a book on big public trials and I remember reading that and being really interested. Sometimes I would have an inkling that I would end up as a lawyer. I’m not sure which came first but I would say that and then Agatha Christie novels. I know that’s not true crime but it’s a puzzle.
BYT: So you were attracted to trials themselves?
CR: I’ve had a little more time to consider it and I didn’t think about it until I was done with the book because at that point I thought “Oh my God there’s been all this interesting work in what we call true crime,” that I kind of missed because at the time I was working on the book. For me that would have been a busman’s holiday. Excuse me, every now and then I realize I’m using antiquated colloquialisms. I was kind of late to Serial and The Staircase and Making a Murderer so I had to catch up on those but I was fascinated by them, of course. They’re really compelling but I guess what I thought of myself as doing is something that is much less concerned with the individual psychology of someone who might commit a crime than the community reaction to a crime that’s taking place. And of course what stories about the crime the community likes to tell itself either to make sense of it, for reassurance, as distancing or just to have an answer.
BYT: It’s more of the sociological impact of what was going on in the world at the time that would inform the trial itself which is awful because in theory that shouldn’t be fair. The court of public opinion is really quite strong which is unfortunate?
CR: If you think about a crime going before a jury, the jury is supposed to be representative of the public. They’re told what to consider and what not to consider so the idea is they’re getting information professionally filtered. The advantage from my perspective of looking at a historical crime where there’s some distance and also looking at one that seems to touch the tender points of the culture, is you see the way in which even the professionals are affected by exactly the same biases or preoccupations as the public at large. It’s interesting in and of itself but also maybe makes some of the more recent miscarriages of justice, or the more recent disturbing accounts of trials, more explicable.
BYT: I would say it’s on the opposite side of the spectrum but the Casey Anthony trial while we can all agree on some things, there were definitely things that were applied to Casey Anthony in terms of the way people think she should have reacted that are very similar to Lizzie Borden. People deciding you should be acting a certain way is how a jury will decide whether or not they think you did it which is crazy.
CR: Technically the jury is allowed to consider the demeanor of the defendant.
BYT: I do think that’s a little insane. You, a human being, just have no idea how you would act in a situation. People shouldn’t apply how they think you should react. I do think when women are on trial a whole new set of ridiculous rules are applied and again that’s why I think the Lizzie Borden case is so interesting. All of the ideas of what women should be at the time were applied to this case in an alarming way.
CR: That’s right and for me there were two parts of that I really found fascinating. One was that the same behavior can be viewed in opposite ways depending on the perspective of the journalist who’s writing about it, so the self-possession she displayed is almost this masculine nerve that’s consistent with violence or it’s the sign of a well-bred woman bearing up against an unjust accusation. It’s the same thing but it depends on how you choose to see it and either can be used to fit a feminine stereotype. Secondly, you could say Lizzie Borden used that to her advantage in that the lawyers made the argument “Can you imagine Lizzie Borden doing such a thing?” She chose her outfits with care. She presented herself in a certain way.
BYT: It sounds like Lizzie Borden was creating a brand.
CR: Yes, I think that’s a fair illustration. She’s not totally passive even though she’s not someone that has more than one line at the trial.
BYT: To go back to the public trials book that got you interested in true crime, is this the trial that stood out for you or is there another trial that the world is less familiar with that spoke to you?
CR: I think this one is the one I remembered but it started with the trial of Socrates.
BYT: That would be an interesting podcast, though I’m not suggesting you start a podcast. The last thing the world needs is another podcast however you should do a podcast called Great Trials or some similar name wherein you examine these trials. I would listen to that. That’s interesting to me.
CR: Sadly I’m not exactly up to date with the latest modes of communication!
BYT: You could start a podcast called Trials and Errors about all the hideous mistakes that were made in trials that made a case turn in the direction it should not have gone. I love mistakes! Okay back to Lizzie, when doing this research what was the piece of information you discovered that surprised you the most.
CR: For me the oddest and most interesting piece of evidence is this pail that’s in the basement, of bloody towels or menstrual cloths, and how little is made of that on either side. The defense used it pretty cleverly as a way to explain…there’s one tiny tiny dot of blood on her skirt the police find. The defense also gets to use it to explain any oddity in Lizzie Borden’s stories or presentation. The defense lawyer says she was “in the midst of her monthly illness,” and we all know at that time a woman’s mind can’t be trusted. It was amazing to me that the police and the prosecution just seemed to accept that. The policeman who finds the pail asks Lizzie Borden and she doesn’t explain it directly but tells the policeman to talk her doctor. The doctor explains what it is and that’s basically it and yet we know that there were a whole range of supposed female complaints including ones that could have led to violence that were linked to women’s reproductive cycle. There was something known as “menstrual insanity,” so if you’re looking for an explanation that was current at the time of why someone who seemed pretty normal suddenly does something out of character, there was a solution at hand in the basement. The prosecution chose not to bring that up nor did they use it to suggest as a practical matter that Lizzie Borden could have used it to wipe herself down.
BYT: This is what’s interesting about that. On the one hand the ideas of women could work against her but then she very smartly could use the misconceptions about women in her favor. Men were very uncomfortable about that and she knew they wouldn’t press the issue. No spoilers but Cara, did she do it?
CR: Many of the people who were looking at the case at the time which is to say as a practical matter despite what we just talked about and despite the fact that she burned a dress, it still would be difficult for her to have committed the crimes and cleaned herself up properly. On the other hand it’s virtually impossible that anyone else could have done it. That’s the balance. The balance is more towards the impossibility of anyone else. It’s not literally impossible that someone else could have done it but it’s pretty close to it. I think that’s why there’s such a cottage industry of trying to figure out accomplices.
BYT: The lesbian lover angle? That’s my favorite.
CR: As a practical matter it’s the best because it explains how it could have been done in a way that fits with the timeline. In the most recent movie with Kristen Stewart, Lizzie commits the first one. We know the maid is outside washing windows when Mrs. Borden is killed which is part of what clears her because it seems implausible that there would have been two separate murderers on a given day but if you imagine them in cahoots then that’s a different thing. Unfortunately there is no contemporary evidence that suggests that’s right.
BYT: That’s a shame. Disregarding, and maybe this is an unfair question, the concept of DNA evidence. Do you think she would have been convicted today? Again we would have ways to test the evidence but let’s apply some modern sensibilities to this crime, do you think she would have been convicted today? I do. There is no reason for me to think this, most of the evidence was circumstantial.
CR: I think there would have certainly been less resistance to the idea that there was a money motive and there wouldn’t have been quite the sense, the shared sense, that it was impossible a woman would kill with a hatchet. On the other hand I think it really poses this fundamental question that is at play in all criminal cases it’s just that we think of them as being more directed by the evidence and that’s do you really think this is a person that could have done such a thing? I think without the extra Victorian layers she still would have been a person who led a fairly unremarkable life up until that moment, had been active in that church and all the things you would expect of a woman of some leisure who ticks all the boxes of respectability. The thought that she’d suddenly pick up a hatchet and commit murders that were that horrible…I’m not sure she would have been convicted today. There would still be a resistance to that. There would probably be an attempt to find some neuro-scientific basis or some deep psychological, DSM V reason. It still presents exactly the same problem it’s just without all the layers of the Victorian sensibilities.
BYT: I’m going to reveal something about myself here, as a feminist, there’s some small part of me that wants her to have done it to prove that women can do anything men can do and that includes violent murder. I know that sounds a little bit crazy but there is a feminist part of me that bristles at the idea that people are like “A woman wouldn’t do that,” and to that I say “Hey even though I’m defending something incredibly awful…yes we can.”
CR: Exactly, you’re defending the capacity not the act itself.
BYT: Is there another historical trial that you find as interesting?
BYT: Is this something you’re working on so we can’t discuss too much of it? I’m already interested.
CR: I am working on it and I’m hoping it won’t take 20 years!
BYT: The first cut is always the deepest and if you’re Lizzie Borden there are 39 more! I’m kidding. I think this is a very interesting side of true crime we don’t really get to explore which is the judicial process. It’s always been deeply flawed and you are more qualified than most to write about it which is an extra layer of goodness in the true crime world.
CR: I’m definitely more interested in that side of true crime.