Saturday, June 15, 2013

Edmund Pearson's Deadly Pleasures

After publishing his Studies in Murder in 1924 (which included his 120-page chapter "The Borden Case"), Edmund Lester Pearson (1880-1937) during the mere thirteen years of life that remained to him went on to write additional murder studies, all of which should be of interest to connoisseurs of the cerebral true crime genre, a literary cousin, surely, to Golden Age detective fiction.

I distinguish "cerebral true crime fiction" from exploitative real life serial killer books and such, in that the appeal of those books seems to be a kind of hog wallow in horror, while what attracts people to Pearson's cases is the allure of the puzzle {though, to be sure, the frisson provided by that hatchet or axe in the Borden case can't be denied).

Pearson's additional murder studies are: Murder at Smutty Nose and Other Murders (1926), Five Murders, with a Final Note on the Lizzie Borden Case (1928), Instigation of the Devil (1930), More Studies in Murder (1936) and The Trial of Lizzie Borden (1937).  Studies in Murder was reprinted in 1999 by the Ohio State University Press and varied collections of Pearson's previously published murder essays were issued in 1938 (Modern Library), 1966 (Avon) and 1967 (Signet).

The Borden house at the time of the murders
Lizzie Borden said she was in the barn loft on the left
when her father was murdered.
According to Edmund Pearson the barn
"on a sultry August day was about as uninviting a place
as the steam-room of a Turkish bath."

Although Pearson isn't so well-remembered these days (outside of the specialized world of Lizzie Borden studies), a few years ago he briefly attracted the attention of Jill Lepore, a Yale Ph.D. in American Studies who is a Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer for the New Yorker (Pearson, incidentally, graduated from Harvard in 1902, got a B.L.S. from the New York State Library School, was Editor of Publications at the New York Public Library and published numerous books, as well as articles in, yes, the New Yorker, as well as other journals).

Professor Lepore does not seem to have been too impressed with Pearson's work.  In her New Yorker article, "Foul Play," she writes:

Edmund Lester Pearson, a librarian and sometime hoax-artist who spent most of his career at the New York Public Library, wrote true-crime stories for The New Yorker from 1933 to 1937. He wasn’t the first person to write about murder in the magazine and he wasn’t the best, not by a long stretch....But give E. L. Pearson this: he was the least compassionate.

This quotation catches the tenor of the piece, which is filled with swipes at Pearson.  When Lepore writes that Pearson is "best known for his lifelong obsession with Lizzie Borden" she can't forbear adding "He thought she was guilty.  He thought most people were guilty."

Professor Lepore concludes that "Pearson didn’t have much sympathy, really, for anyone. That’s because his sympathies lay somewhere else altogether: in the discrediting of sympathy. He wanted to see murderers prosecuted and killed, and believed that the spooky and the sensational—and even the sorrowful—dimmed the prospects for conviction."

When reading Pearson's account of the Lizzie Borden case in Studies in Murder, I certainly was struck by the author's obvious belief that Borden was guilty of the axe murders of her father and her stepmother and his palpable disgust for a popular press that he believed had recklessly exonerated Borden long before the trial ever started.

sitting room in the Borden house
where Andrew Borden was killed
tourists evidently get photos taken on the sofa today

Pearson writes that when, in an admittedly gruesome display, the skull of Andrew Borden "was produced in court, for purposes of illustration of the nature of the wounds" (someone had hit him ten times in the head with an axe as he rested on a horsehair sofa in the Borden house sitting room; see above), the "mawkish and sentimental newspapers--and this included three-quarters of them at this stage--made great play with this fact, and dwelt upon how it affected the poor prisoner."

Pearson expands on this point, displaying definite sympathy--for the murder victims:

The newspapers were few which did not act as if the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Borden ought to have been forgotten long ago; that the officers of the law were little better than brutes to have prosecuted anybody; and that the sole concern of mankind was to rescue, from her grievous position, the "unfortunate girl," and send her home amid a shower of roses.

Pearson quotes from the "usually sober" New York Times editorial about the case composed after Borden was found not guilty, and it does make surprising reading in its heedless embrace of Lizzie:

"The verdict, according to that paper, was 'a certain relief to every right-minded man and woman.'  The Times spoke of 'this most unfortunate and cruelly persecuted woman....There was never any serious reason to suppose that she was guilty'."

Anyone reading Pearson certainly would think otherwise, that there was in fact great reason to suspect that Lizzie Borden was guilty of the murders.

just like a detective novel house plan
the first floor of the Borden house
with the sitting room and couch
where Andrew's body was found
Cases such as this one have always attracted alternative theorists and certainly the Borden case has not lacked other candidates for the role of criminal culprit.  But Lizzie's visiting uncle had an alibi (not to mention no motive).  Lizzie's sister Emma had an alibi.  Bridget Sullivan, the Irish maid, was on the scene when the murders occurred, napping in her room, but she had no credible motive (it has been suggested she snapped because she was told, fatally, to "do windows").

Those were the surviving people within the household.  Another theory was that the killer was a homicidal maniac stranger--perhaps a passing tramp! Yet how could a stranger get in a house on a populated street, kill one person with an axe, then another with the axe an hour or more later, with two other people, Bridget and Lizzie, on the scene, then exit the house, without ever being observed?

This is a problem for John Dickson Carr!  The hollow man, indeed.

Add to this all the problems with Lizzie's story (see the book) and the fact that she had a motive (hatred of her stepmother as well as her stingy father, who kept her financially dependent) and she certainly seems the most likely candidate.  I found myself agreeing with Pearson that both the newspapers and the Massachusetts judges who heard the case seemed quite partial to Lizzie Borden, perhaps, as he suggests, from a "mental infirmity or bias resulting from an unwillingness to believe that a woman could murder her father."

And with an axe no less!  Pearson notes that "to suggest that a woman of good family, of blameless life and hitherto unimpeachable character [Lizzie taught Sunday School and was a member of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union--The Passing Tramp] could possibly commit two such murders, is to suggest something so rare as to be almost unknown to criminology."

Even today, in this jaded age, people were shocked by the animal savagery of the Jody Arias killing of Travis Alexander.  Just imagine how incredulous people must have been 120 years ago to hear that these axe murders in a prominent home in Falls River, Massachusetts might have been done by a proper, church-going Victorian maiden!

moving on up
the house Lizzie Borden moved into after her acquittal

Pearson's commentary throughout Studies in Murder is filled with interesting and felicitously-written insights (whether or not one always agrees with him) and it is disappointing to see that a noted academic like Jill Lepore can be so stinting of recognition for any of his virtues as a writer and scholar of murder (and him a Harvard man too!).

Some excerpts from Pearson:

It is almost invariably noticed that a charge of murder, or of any serious crime, acts automatically to rob a person of all right to polite address; the public promptly makes free with the first name, especially if it is a woman. [just ask Lizzie, Casey and Jody-The Passing Tramp]

[After noting that a false story had early emerged that Lizzie Borden had quarreled with her father "about a man, a lover"] This seemed at last to bring into the case the "love interest," for which many newspaper reporters had almost pined away and died.

[On crank letters] From all parts of the United States they [letters] came; written on all possible colors and shapes of paper, in every type of hand-writing, and every degree of sanity.

Is Edmund Pearson's writing unpardonably elitist and aloof from human emotion, as Jill Lepore intimates?  This, I should note, is often a charge made against the Golden Age of detective fiction, that the novels written in this era are, deplorably, "mere puzzles," lacking spiritual depth and psychological complexity.

To be sure, Pearson's frequently expressed  disdain for the mass media reflects, I think, skepticism of the mental sophistication of "the masses."  It would be interesting to compare Person in this respect with Professor Lepore's book on the Tea Party movement.  It also would be interesting to read the New Yorker pieces authored by Pearson that led Lepore to render such a negative judgment on him.  However, those New Yorker pieces are behind a New Yorker pay wall (certainly no one would confuse the New Yorker with the penny press!).

However, I think it's unfair to claim that Edmund Pearson didn't have sympathy or compassion for anyone.  In the Borden case and the Mate Bram case (the latter to be explored this weekend), Pearson lamented a total of five men and women butchered with axes wielded by malign hands.  He thought that in heavily publicized trials the mass media of his day tended to make celebrities of accused (in his view almost certain) murderers.  Is this really such a desperately eccentric notion?

Renee Zellweger in Chicago (2002)


  1. I'm a big Pearson fan. I'd say he's definitely elitist, but he's also entertaining as hell and has a sharp sense of humor.

    Supposedly, Edward Radin has discovered that in his account Pearson deliberately suppressed some information that was favorable to Lizzie. I haven't read Radin's book though, so I don't know any more than that.

    By the way, Pearson was a friend of the great Scottish crime writer, William Roughead. I have a wonderful book titled "William Roughead's Chronicles of Murder" which has a lot of their correspondence.

  2. Mark,

    I understand Gerald Gross defends Pearson in his anthology of Pearson pieces, Masterpieces of Murder. I can hardly claim to be an expert on the Borden case. There have been so many books and the real Lizziephiles have read every one I suppose! But the Radin theory, if I understand correctly, that the killer was Bridget Sullivan because she was asked to do the windows seems loopy to me. In those days especially I imagine they would have been eager to blame the servant, if there had been anything to do on in her character her history.

    I agree about Pearson being an elitist, though I think it's unfair to say he lacked any human sympathy, He reminds me of a lot of Golden Age detective fiction writers, actually. He would say he believed in justice for victims of murders (which also included the death penalty for the guilty).

    He thought there were too many murders in the United States (I imagine Professor Lepore and most people would agree today as well!). This comment is very characteristic of the day, no doubt:

    "Ten thousand tears are shed in America for persons accused of murder, and even persons convicted of murder, to every word of regret spoken for the victims of the murders. And that, according to thoughtful investigators, is one of the reasons why America leads the world in its shameful record for the unlawful taking of human life--although a few semi-civilized Oriental countries, and certain turbulent provinces of Italy, may be exceptions to this statement."

    The reference to "a few semi-civilized Oriental countries, and certain turbulent provinces of Italy" is so characteristic of attitudes of genre writers in the day and doesn't read well today, I know!

    But I think his essays are interesting and agree he was a good writer.

    I love William Roughead too and had read that they corresponded but have never read the correspondence.

  3. I see Radin won two Edgars in the late 1940s/early 1950s for his crime studies, here's a nice short piece on him:

    I also recall reading that when John Dickson Carr was living in New York in the late forties he and others acted out Radin's latest Lizzie theory at Clayton Rawson's house!

    Jacques Barzun refers to the "willful blindness of Pearson" on the Borden case and says Radin "points to a more likely culprit than Lizzie" (i.e., Bridget Sullivan). I do have trouble with the Bridget theory though!