I haven’t read a new book new for months. The only question I consider this summer is :”Did I like it when I read it before?”
Which explains how I happened to reread a book I bought for 25 cents at a long-ago sidewalk sale in central Pennsylvania: A PRIVATE DISGRACE: LIZZIE BORDEN BY DAYLIGHT by Victoria Lincoln. It was a well-spent 25 cents; a clean first edition such as the one I have sells now for north of $200.
Victoria Lincoln is smart and observant, and probably never suffered a fool gladly in her life. Also, she grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts, where the murders were committed. Lincoln got out of there young—with gratitude for the escape—but she remembers.
A note: A PRIVATE DISGRACE is the only book I’ve ever read about Lizzie Borden. I am not interested in the case. I just like Lincoln’s book.
Did Lizzie take an ax?
By Lincoln’s account, no question about it.
The murder weapon was found concealed in a place no stranger would have known about. Lizzie was seen burning a dress a couple days after the murders. She lied repeatedly during the inquest. A key witness, the Bordens’ maid, probably was bought off. Lizzie had means and opportunity. The question of motive is murkier. It was obvious that something had to happen in the Borden house soon before it spontaneously burst into flames.
Like the jury in THE PRODUCERS, Lizzie’s jury could have said, “We find the defendant incredibly guilty.”
But they did not. They acquitted her in an hour and a half.
So how come Lizzie was acquitted?
The short answer: Lizzie had a better lawyer than the one prosecuting the case. She was rich: she could buy the best. His name was Mr Robinson and he was, in Lincoln’s words, “an image maker.” The prosecuting attorney, Mr Knowlton, comes across as a decent, unimaginative man devoted to truth, logic, and reason. He was not good at working a jury; Robinson was.
After Robinson got Lizzie acquitted, he presented her with a bill for $25,000, quite a chunk of change in 1892. Lizzie objected to the fee, a fact that Victoria Lincoln notes with amusement.
The public had an opinion, too
In 1892, the term “media circus” was unknown, but Lizzie was in the center of one all right. Lincoln writes:
We Americans like a cause, or, as we say nowadays, a commitment. The world was running pretty smoothly in 1892; our problems in Venezuela were small potatoes, really. We had a lot of free-floating commitment to use up. Lizzie got it.
Lizzie’s jail cell was full of flowers. In jail she was treated her with kindness and given her special privileges. Ministers preached sermons on her innocence. Even the Women’s Christian Temperance Union had something to say about the case; they wondered how could a teetotaler have committed such an awful crime. Aided by Lizzie’s lawyer, newspapers invented a young woman pleasing to their readers—a loving daughter bullied and persecuted by the police and the district attorney.
How could this demure-looking woman in comfortable circumstances go berserk one day and murder her parents with a hatchet? No one wanted to believe that. Of course they didn’t.
When she was acquitted, The New York Times wrote that the jury did “express . . . somewhat of that justice with which God governs the world.”
What if Lizzie had been tried by a jury of robots?
Victoria Lincoln wrote coolly, “The human race has a remarkable ability to select and interpret facts according to its emotional needs.”
What would jurybots have done, faced with the same evidence? As robots are not generally programmed to disregard reality, they would not have done so. Based on the information Lincoln presents, they would have found her guilty faster than her human judges found her innocent.
Jurybots would weigh the evidence—all of it, including what Lincoln called “the sea of sand” of Lizzie’s testimony. They would not disregard the parts that contradicted what they want to believe. They would not want to believe anything. They would not, of course, be a jury of her peers.