Lizzie Borden on Trial: Murder, Ethnicity, and Gender by Joseph A. Conforti (review)
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Lizzie Borden on Trial: Murder, Ethnicity, and Gender. By Joseph A. Conforti. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015. Pp. ix, 241. $27.95 cloth; $19.95 paper).

In this thoroughly researched and fascinating monograph, Joseph A. Conforti analyzes the infamous murders of Abby and Andrew Borden and the trial of Andrew’s daughter, Lizzie Borden. Conforti examines the crime from shortly before the murders occurred to the 1892 trial and its aftermath. He is the first historian to have delved deeply into this sensational case, and he uses his expertise to dispel myths created by popular writers while guiding readers through the evidence. Conforti, raised in the Bordens’ hometown of Fall River, Massachusetts, just a generation after Lizzie’s death, contextualizes the murders, investigations, and trial by using gender, class, and ethnicity as categories of analysis. Conforti explains the tensions within Fall River in the 1890s as well as those within the Borden household—between [End Page 105] Andrew and his second wife Abby, daughters Emma and Lizzie, and the family’s servant, Bridget. He then recounts the crime and the numerous investigations that preceded Borden’s well-known trial, including the police investigation, judicial inquest, preliminary hearing, and court trial. As Conforti gives the background of the investigation and trial, he weaves in elements of the trial itself and also demonstrates how his work differs from previous accounts.

While popular writers have treated the Borden case as a mystery that only they can solve, Conforti analyzes the case as a crime that shaped and was shaped by its local history. He relies on over three hundred pages of court transcripts as well as arrest and trial records, local and national newspapers, and every book that has been written about the case. In the 1890s, Fall River was the site of ethnic and class conflicts as Portuguese, French-Canadian, and Irish immigrants moved into the mill town, threatening the supremacy of native-born, Protestant, middle- and upper-class white families like the Bordens. Although he does not quite prove his claim that Lizzie’s acquittal served to reinforce the dominance of families like the Bordens, Conforti does demonstrate that class, ethnicity, and gender all shaped the court’s view of Lizzie at trial. Prosecutors reluctantly tried the case, largely because they doubted that a conviction was possible. In part, a hung jury was the best possible outcome because of the circumstantial case that the prosecution presented, but it was also inextricably linked to the fact that Lizzie was a respectable, church-going, native-born white woman from a prominent family. In her trial, Lizzie exploited her identity as a respectable Victorian woman. Lizzie’s supporters, including members of her church and even the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), used her service work as evidence of her innocence. Conforti argues that while Lizzie’s acquittal stemmed, in part, from how badly police mishandled evidence, the court also contributed to the verdict by limiting much of the evidence the prosecution could present to the jury. Conforti convincingly argues that the court, made up of middle- and upper-class white men, sympathized with Lizzie because they believed in the notion of “true [End Page 106] womanhood”—that Lizzie and other women of her race, class, and faith were inherently virtuous and nurturing. The prosecutor sought to convince a jury that Lizzie did murder her father and stepmother by asking the jurors to consider the evidence as if an Irishwoman, like Bridget, the Bordens’ servant, were on trial. His strategy failed; the jury deliberated briefly before rendering a verdict of “not guilty.”

Conforti stands apart from other writers because he never states his position on Lizzie’s guilt or innocence, although readers would like to know, at least in the epilogue. He strongly suggests that Lizzie was guilty, and that her hatred for her stepmother and desire for her father’s money were her motives. Yet, one will have to read this exciting book to decide. [End Page 107]

Sarah Lirley McCune

SARAH LIRLEY MCCUNE is a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri, where she is writing a dissertation about death using gender, class, race, and...