Friday, June 14, 2013

Axing Questions: Studies in Murder (1924), by Edmund Lester Pearson Part One

Lizzie Borden (1860-1927)
On this day in June 120 years ago, the people of the United States were in thrall to the murder sensation of 1892-93 (and one of the great such sensations of all time), the Lizzie Borden murder case.
The trial of Lizzie Borden (1860-1927) for the horrific ax slayings of her wealthy father, Andrew, and her stepmother, Abby, at their home in Fall River, Massachusetts had commenced on June 5, 1893 and culminated a couple weeks later on June 20 with a finding by the jury of not guilty.

To the jubilation of her supporters, Lizzie was free.  She would live in Fall River for the rest of her life (though not at the house of the murders, which, I understand, is now, rather creepily, a bed and breakfast).  No one else was ever tried for the crimes.

Popular opinion has tended to register another verdict from that of Lizzie's jury, however, as embodied in the famous rhyme:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her Mother forty whacks;
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her Father forty-one!

Actually, Andrew got ten whacks and Jennie nineteen, but that amount was more than sufficient to do the jobs.

By the way, the mystery writer Carolyn Wells recalled that when she once was discussing limericks with Theodore Roosevelt (only clean ones I'm sure!),  Roosevelt recalled the Lizzie Borden rhyme as the most memorable piece of "doggerel verse" that he had ever heard.

The man from whom I learned that piece of information, Edmund Lester Pearson (1880-1937), was the great American chronicler of true crime during the Golden Age of detective fiction (roughly 1920-1940).  He made the Lizzie Borden murder case the centerpiece of his pioneering 1924 true crime book, Studies in Murder.

Just as people around the globe during the 1920s and 1930s found detective fiction fascinating, they thought true crime terrible interesting as well; and Pearson made quite a splash with this book.

A man of his time, Pearson was a witty and entertaining writer who tended to view his true crime cases more as deductive puzzles than psychological studies.  Yet he also had a strong belief in the moral imperative of meting justice to murderers, which lends a serious tone to his essays as well.

Mary Roberts Rinehart'scrime novel
was inspired by a true crime case,
the Mate Bram murders
In his study of the Borden case, it's clear that, though he does not come right out and say so, Pearson thinks Lizzie, who was still quite alive when the book was published, had to be guilty, and he is scathing to the press and other institutions that he believes recklessly proclaimed Lizzie's innocence right from the start, in the process heedlessly defaming the police and the prosecutorial authorities who brought her to book.

I will have more on this later in Part 2, where I discuss Pearson's handling of the Borden case.  This case is, I think, the most interesting one that Pearson covers in his Studies in Murder, although I will talk about another one Pearson deals with as well, the Mate Bram murders.  This was another 1890s American ax slayings case, one that took place on the high sea and inspired Mary Roberts Rinehart's 1914 mystery, The After House.

See what Pearson thought of these cases, both classics of American murder.  And if you have any thoughts about it all, please comment!


  1. The most interesting theory ever put forward about the murders was from Richard Webb (of Patrick Quentin fame) who suggested that Andrew Borden killed his wife. Lizzie witnessed it and killed Andrew afterwards.

  2. By coincidence, I just finished reading (and commenting about) Stuart Palmer's "The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan," in which Hildegarde Withers is hired as a technical consultant by a movie producer putting together a "biopic" of...Lizzie Borden. There are some VERY funny scenes where Miss Withers learns how Hollywood (circa 1941) works...such as the producer complaining that Lizzie Borden in HIS movie can't use a hatchet - it's far too small for one of his pictures. She needs a BIG weapon...a broadaxe or halberd. And so it goes...

  3. I wonder of anyone has ever tried to work Jack-the-Ripper into this case? Only a few years apart!

    Les, that sounds great, will have to read this!