Lizzie Borden on Trial

Murder, Ethnicity, and Gender

Joseph A. Conforti

Most people could probably tell you that Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks, but few could say that, when tried, Lizzie Borden was acquitted, and fewer still, why. In Joseph A. Confortis engrossing retelling, the case of Lizzie Borden, sensational in itself, also opens a window on a time and place in American history and culture.

Surprising for how much it reveals about a legend so ostensibly familiar, Confortis account is also fascinating for what it tells us about the world that Lizzie Borden inhabited. As Conforti—himself a native of Fall River, the site of the infamous murders—introduces us to Lizzie and her father and step-mother, he shows us why who they were matters almost as much to the trials outcome as the actual events of August 4, 1892. Lizzie, for instance, was an unmarried woman of some privilege, a prominent religious woman who fit the profile of what some characterized as a Protestant nun. She was also part of a class of moneyed women emerging in the late 19th century who had the means but did not marry, choosing instead to pursue good works and at times careers in the helping professions. Many of her contemporaries, we learn, particularly those of her class, found it impossible to believe that a woman of her background could commit such a gruesome murder.

“Conforti writes in the prologue that he has approached “the crime as more than a murder mystery” but his writing is so beautiful and the story so compelling that at many points the book actually reads like a novel. but it is history, good historical scholarship.

—New England Quarterly

“[Conforti] explores considerations of ethnicity, class, and gender and how these shaped the investigation, the reporting, the trial, and public understanding.

—Reviews in American History

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As he relates the details, known and presumed, of the murder and the subsequent trial, Conforti also fills in that background. His vividly written account creates a complete picture of the Fall River of the time, as Yankee families like the Bordens, made wealthy by textile factories, began to feel the economic and cultural pressures of the teeming population of native and foreign-born who worked at the spindles and bobbins. Conforti situates Lizzies austere household, uneasily balanced between the well-to-do and the poor, within this social and cultural milieu—laying the groundwork for the murder and the trial, as well as the outsize reaction that reverberates to our day. As Peter C. Hoffer remarks in his preface, there are many popular and fictional accounts of this still-controversial case, but none so readable or so well-balanced as this.

About the Author

Joseph A. Conforti is Distinguished Professor of American and New England Studies Emeritus at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. He is the author of several books, including the award-winning Imagining New England: Explorations of Regional Identity from the Pilgrims to the Mid-Twentieth Century and Another City upon a Hill, a memoir of growing up in Lizzie Borden’s hometown.

Additional Titles in the Landmark Law Cases and American Society Series