I took a break – a fact some of you (gently) brought to my attention. I’d like to say I was writing something else. I was, in a manner of speaking, though the words have yet to actually appear on a page. I would be a great writer if I didn’t have to print my words (I’m going to let the joke about eating them move on down the road). I’ve spent 3 months, more, researching the Lizzie Borden murder case of 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts – the trial transcript and newspaper accounts from all corners of the globe. Growing up in Massachusetts, we skipped rope to the popular 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.” Nevermind that the rhyme is wrong, on at least four counts. We sang it, and we believed it. Lizzie Borden was creepily guilty. We didn’t need to read about it. Who would make up a rhyme like that if it weren’t true? We didn’t learn about it in school (it would have made a great college course). We knew of it solely from the playground, and no one questioned whether or not Lizzie was guilty; no one knew she had been tried and acquitted; no one much cared.
It is generally referred to as the Lizzie Borden case. In fact, the victims were Andrew Borden and his wife, Abby (Lizzie’s father and, alas, stepmother – a distinction which were among the first words to come out of Lizzie’s mouth when the police sought to question her the morning of the murders). It was apparently important to Lizzie that dear Abby (dear Abby?) not be confused with Lizzie’s real mother, the one who counted in Lizzie’s eyes (though her “real” mother died when Lizzie was barely 3 years old; Abby had been around for about 27 years).
The police investigation was slipshod, even given the forensic limitations of the times. Fingerprinting, though dating back to the times of Hammurabi, was not yet considered reliable. In the same year of the Borden murders, an Argentinian police chief obtained a confession from a mother to the murder of her two sons after he confronted her with evidence of her bloody thumbprint at the murder scene. No attempt was made, though, to obtain fingerprints from the Borden house. The premises were not even formally searched until several days later (there was a more cursory search when the police first arrived on August 4th), while Lizzie and Emma were at the cemetery for internment services. The (remaining) occupants of the household (Lizzie, Emma, the maid, and a visiting uncle) were allowed to come and go as they pleased, though they were closely followed if they left the house. On the Sunday after the murders, Lizzie was seen burning a dress on the kitchen stove, quite possibly the dress worn by her on the morning of the murders. A friend (with raised eyebrows) suggested to Lizzie that perhaps burning the dress was not an appropriate thing to do, particularly when there was a police officer standing sentry in the backyard. Lizzie’s response? She stepped to the right so as to be out of view of the police officer.
With all of the police bumbling, there was still one seemingly inescapable conclusion: the only people in or around the house at the time of the murders (which were committed approximately an hour and a half apart, between 9 and 10:30 a.m. on August 4, 1892) were Lizzie and the maid, Bridgett Sullivan. Suspicion quickly centered on Lizzie. In the following week she was summoned to testify before a private inquest. She was not permitted to have the benefit of her own counsel and was subjected to a lengthy questioning that was more in the nature of a cross-examination – indeed, a badgering. Upon the conclusion of the inquest Lizzie was formally arrested. Rather than incarcerate her with the other women prisoners, Lizzie was permitted to take up residence in the matron’s quarters in the police station, from which she regularly sent out for dinner and other perks to make her stay more enjoyable. She read Charles Dickens, and she entertained visitors. The police themselves seemed conflicted about whether a woman of Lizzie’s social standing (and prior unblemished record), a regular church-goer, could possibly be guilty of such a horrific crime.
The “did she or didn’t she” part doesn’t much interest me (I think she did). For the record, though, it was not 40 whacks, and then 41 for her father. Abby received 18 or 19, while poor Andrew suffered 12 or so. In both cases, more than enough to get the job done. Dead is dead. The fact that it was more than enough (I think), points to the rage of the murderer. While not conclusive, many hackings of that sort are the result of personal relations (many times family members) going woefully adrift. It seems preposterous to suggest an unknown intruder snuck into the house, hacked Abby to death, then hid for an hour and a half, hacked Andrew to death, then made his (her?) escape in broad daylight from a house fronting on one of the busiest streets near the center of town. Even so, and assuming the culprit was Lizzie, the police were gloriously inadequate in constructing the necessary circumstantial case against her.
There is a new book just published, Parallel Lives, which purports to provide an in-depth look at Lizzie (she changed her name to Lizbeth after the murders) and Fall River in the Gilded Age. The Gilded Age is a term coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in the book they co-authored: The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Instead of a Golden Age, Twain and Warner saw the societal excesses (read Newport mansions) brought on by the exponential growth of the modern industrial economy as “gilded,” with all of the ostentatious wealth nothing more than a thin veneer of gold. The same might be said about other periods in American history that spawned McMansions on places like Nantucket Island and the sale of $20 million apartments in Manhattan.
Parallel Lives is 1000 pages – that should keep me busy for another 3 months. I want to read it (and I would if it weren’t so damn expensive). There is something fascinating about the Borden case and the times in which it happened; about the fact that a gruesome double murder became “news” not only across the rapidly expanding United States, but throughout many parts of the world – all without benefit of television, Internet, e-mails, cell phones, fax machines, cars, and for the most part, telephones. It is true that the first official notification of the crime was made (not from the Borden house but a nearby commercial establishment) to the Fall River Central Station Police Headquaters by telephone. But that call resulted only in the police sending a junior officer to investigate, by walking over dirt roads the short distance to the Borden residence at 92 Second Street. Once there, the officer was shown the body of Andrew Borden, hacked to death on a sitting room settee, one eye-ball split in two. It wasn’t pretty. There was no mention, indeed no thought, of Abby, except that she perhaps was out because (according to Lizzie) a note had been received that same morning about someone taking sick. Neither the “note” nor the “sick” friend was ever found. The police officer dutifully walked back to the Central Station to report the murder of Andrew, saying something to the effect: “He’s dead.” Following instructions, he then returned to the house, whereupon the body of Abby was discovered in an upstairs guest room. It also was not pretty. Once again the police officer again walked (well, let’s hope he was at least trotting) back to Central Station to amend his report: “She’s dead too!” And thus begat the most intense of police investigations, seemingly unrivaled (at least to that point in our history) both in thoroughness and incompetence, with a little corruption thrown in for good measure (see the “Trickey Affair”).
Parallel Lives promises to provide us with another, more in-depth, view of Lizzie and the Fall River in which she lived. The authors, members of the Fall River Historical Society, do not try to solve the murder (smart), but promise new documentation of the life and times of Lizzie Borden. Okay, we know she was kind to animals (she left a part of her estate to endow the Fall River Animal Society), and sometimes had sticky fingers in the downtown department stores. Those hawking the book on websites and in other places promise that a reading of Parallel Lives is an “eye-opening” experience – a strange choice of words considering Andrew’s fate. Andrew and Abby have now been dead for close to 110 years; Lizzie and her sister Emma (they died within a week of one another) have been gone for going on 80 years. There is an economic benefit to many for keeping the murders a mystery. I don’t have a problem with that. It got me to read through all the newspaper articles, a fascinating journey. Without the mystery, there’s less to talk about and much less money for those interested in making it. But the idea behind Parallel Lives is a good one. What is most fascinating about the Borden murders and the trial of Lizzie is the times in which it occurred, in the waning moments of the 18th century. Yet it was a criminal case that mesmerized the entire United States, even the world. Crowds of people jostled to read the wall to wall newspaper coverage, as each edition was taped outside the newspaper offices fresh off the printing presses. Something like 55 reporters covered every day of the trial, along with telegraph runners to get each story published at the first moment possible. Sketch artists provided in-depth scenes inside the Court room, and both the Government and Lizzie were represented by the best available lawyers.
If the Borden murders happened today, Lizzie would get her 15 minutes of fame (whacking someone with a blunt instrument will do that). But she would probably not get much more than, say, Edgar Smith got back in 1968, when he wrote his book while on death row (Brief Against Death). Championed by William F. Buckley, Jr., (of all people) Smith argued his murder conviction was all a horrific mistake. I read the book and was convinced. I was on his side, one of the few times I found myself agreeing with Buckley. Edgar finally got a new trial. Just before the trial was about to start, he copped a plea to manslaughter in exchange for time served. Before he was off the Courthouse steps, Smith let everyone know his plea was a fraud, made only to guarantee his release from prison. I nodded approvingly. Who could blame him? We’d all do the same thing. That was all well and good, until Edgar went out and tried to kill another girl in 1976. He was caught almost red-handed. Whoops. It was all a lie, even though – in a brief showing of chutzpah – the now twice accused felon tried to defend the second attempted murder charge by citing the claimed injustices of his first murder conviction. Huh? The result: guilty and life in prison. So far as I know, that is where Smith remains, far from the public view, his 15 minutes on the scrap pile. And yet Lizzie, who was exonerated by a jury of her “peers” (translation: 12 rural male farmers), remains in our consciousness.
When Lizzie Borden confronted her “peers” in June of 1893, it was, perhaps, the first truly great “trial of the century.” That it occurred in a country courthouse in New Bedford, Massachusetts with the windows open (no air conditioning) and a cow mooing in an adjacent pasture did not stop celebrities from attending, usually arriving by train from Boston – the same train that Dr. Edward Stickney Wood, a Harvard University chemistry professor and the prosecution’s expert witness, used to travel back and forth from his Cambridge offices, sometimes with the severed skulls of the victims in a dark valise at his side. There was even a celebrity reporter, Joe Howard, infamous in his own right – an 18th century Dominick Dunne (or maybe it should be the other way around). He signed his columns Howard and provided the world with much of the flavor and atmosphere inside the Courtroom. Reading his articles is a treat.
Nowadays, a trial of the century seems to come along every ten years or so, but the Lizzie Borden case was from a different era. It was a link in the chain between rural America and modern communication. Word of mouth, newspapers, magazines, telegraph – these were the ways in which the news and gossip of that case was devoured by people all over the world. In 1892, people traveled by train and carriage, maybe a horse, or they walked. One day soon after the double murders, a man walked all the way from New Bedford to the Fall River Central Precinct Police Station to confess to the crimes. He asked to be hanged immediately. It soon became apparent he was a little bit “off” from having served in the War Between the States. On the promise of his family to “look after” him, he was sent home. They were different times indeed.
There are parallels to O.J. Simpson. O.J. lingered in our public consciousness because he was already a star athlete (retired) and celebrity. There was nothing star-studded about Lizzie. In fact, because Lizzie was so “ordinary” – a churchgoing, Victorian spinster living at home with her father and step-mother – it made the accusations against her all the more extraordinary. But even O.J., in time, wore on our patience, to the point where his (incredible) feats on the football field were more an embarrassment than an accomplishment . Both crimes were grisly, and the evidence pointed to the guilt of each accused. In 2004, the public had trouble accepting that a celebrity, a national sports icon, known for leaping through airports in Hertz car rental ads (as a female helpfully implored “run O.J., run!”), could be guilty of such a horrendous crime. Many in the black community thought Simpson was being treated differently solely because he was black, an interesting twist for someone who had seemingly “made it” in white society. Others shook their heads as they watched O.J. hunkered down in the back seat of that white Ford Bronco, ominously followed by all those patrol cars and police helicopters. When we found out he had $10,000 in cash with him and seemed headed for Mexico, the tide of public opinion took a seismic shift towards guilt. Simpson’s days of superstardom were soon to be replaced by a lifetime of super ignominy.
In 1892 the public had trouble accepting that Lizzie, a Victorian single woman living at home (all of 32), could be guilty of splitting open the heads of her father and step-mother. Lizzie was a 9th generation Fall River resident and, yes, even distantly related to the same clan that brought us Borden’s milk. O.J. used a knife. Lizzie was accused of using a hatchet (which was never recovered – it may have been tossed in the slop of a backyard outhouse or the handle may have been burned on the kitchen stove, along with the dress which Lizzie wore the day of the murders). There were seemingly tense family relations in both instances. O.J., it soon became apparent, was insanely jealous and had a history of domestic issues with Nicole, his ex-wife. Lizzie barely spoke to her stepmother, and both she and her sister implored their father to move out of Second Street (which had no indoor plumbing or other modern improvements of the age) to a wealthier section of town. Andrew was a good businessman. He also was cheap. 92 Second Street was a house of locked doors.
Both O.J. and Lizzie had financial resources to pay for the best legal help. Each trial endured questionable judicial decisions and actions. Both trials attracted worldwide attention. The public ultimately came to accept that both Lizzie and O.J. committed the crimes. Even though both were acquitted, they were convicted in the Court of public opinion. Lizzie went on to a relatively quiet life in the better part of town (motive?), save for a little shop-lifting and a dalliance with a lesbian actress (Nance O’Neill), with whom Lizzie may or may not have had an affair. She was also kind to animals. O.J. went on to commit other nefarious acts, succeeding in falling even further from grace. In addition, Simpson was held accountable for the murders in a civil lawsuit (requiring a less stringent burden of proof), something unheard of in Lizzie’s day. There also did not appear to be anyone around in Lizzie’s time with either the money or fortitude for such a lawsuit. Lizzie’s sister, Emma (who was out-of-town visiting friends the week of the murders), moved with Lizzie to the house on French Street in the better part of Fall River. They called it Maplecroft. Whether or not Lizzie committed the murders, she and her sister (from whom she subsequently became mysteriously estranged), ended up with what they claimed was lacking when her father and step-mother were alive.
In both cases there was evidence of police incompetence, perhaps worse. The public was ravenous for information. What is fascinating is the manner in which the press met the needs of the feeding frenzy in 1892 and 1893. One deputized Rhode Island private detective (Edwin D. McHenry) in the Lizzie Borden case sold phony information to the press (the “Trickey Affair”). Henry G. Trickey (Dickens would have liked his name) was a young star reporter for the Boston Globe. He arranged to buy information concerning the police investigation from McHenry, who had been deputized to help with the murder investigation (which had already grown well beyond the capacity of the Fall River Police Department). The information, the $500 payment for which was presumably authorized by Lizzie herself (to find out what the prosecution had up its sleeve), was scandalous. It claimed that, the night before the murders, Andrew discovered Lizzie was pregnant and confronted her, whereupon Lizzie refused to reveal the name of the man who had impregnated her. Andrew essentially threatened to throw Lizzie from the house. Armed with this information and the names of numerous witnesses allegedly prepared to swear to its truth, the Boston Globe rushed into print with a front page story. The case had been broken! Lizzie was pregnant! The only problem was . . . it was all a big fat lie. The story was concocted and Trickey (?) and the Globe were duped. With egg on its printers, the Globe rushed an apology into print and thereafter wrote generally favorable and sympathetic stories about Lizzie throughout the course of the ordeal. Trickey, for his part, took off, first visiting his family in Illinois, then heading to Ontario, Canada to escape indictment (a sealed indictment was handed down at the same time as the formal indictment for Lizzie). Once in Canada, he registered in a hotel, using the name Henry Meltzar. On December 3, 1892, Trickey attempted to board a moving westbound train in a Canadian depot when he lost his footing and fell to his death. The whole Trickey affair paid dividends for Lizzie in the court of public opinion, where a debate raged as to the true meaning of innocent until proven guilty.
You could say, concerning Back Bay Baby (oh yeah, the adoption story….), that I have been procrastinating. Guilty. I think anyone who has undertaken a search for their personal history, especially those who were in any sense abandoned, will understand. It is interesting to me that I chose this point in Back Bay Baby to take a break. With the success in getting access to my birth records came both excitement and fear. The fear part had to do with having to accept what I already knew – somebody gave me away. Looking at the signature of my mother, Virginia, on the Petition for Adoption, somehow made things different. It was no longer what someone was telling me, following a script that even I recognized concealed as much as informed. Was that a good thing? One can say, and it would be right, that my adoptive parents did not wish any further harm to come to me. In time, I would come to see there was more to it than that. But after that day at the Dedham Probate Court came the limited success of the Simmons Detective Agency, interspersed with my foray into the adoption reform movement. The rap groups were filled with sharing and with pain. I felt for the others, but I also withdrew. I told myself I just wanted to find my mother, just wanted to know what happened to me. I was very lawyerly about it, removed almost, as if I were my own client. As Abe Lincoln pointed out, that is not usually a good thing.
In the Fall of 1972, after speaking with Emma May Vilardi, I took personal control of my search, with her help. It became quickly obvious this was not a search that was going to be completed overnight. That had, perhaps, as much to do with me as with the circumstances. I think adoptees, in general, search in relation to their emotional well-being. It’s no secret that many adoptees begin looking shortly after they get married, or around the time they have a child. While I began searching about a year after I got married, it was more a matter of coincidence because that was when I discovered I could see my adoption records. If I had found out earlier, I would have started earlier. But the pace with which I undertook the search was tied to my emotional well-being – there were plenty of times when, for whatever reason, I crawled back into the rabbit hole and hung out, my “search” suspended. There were any number of ready excuses. In a pre-Internet age, access to records and public information was decentralized, more difficult. Further, I was in my second year of law school in New York City. I was commuting back and forth to classes, a half hour drive each way. And I also got a job clerking at a labor law firm in Manhattan. The firm was a short walk from the New York City Public Library, which runs along Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets.
While the idea for the Library came out of the Gilded Age, the cornerstone was not laid until 1902. The building was not opened until 1911, a year after my adoptive father and mother were born and a year before the greatest ship ever built met an iceberg built better. The library building, facing Fifth Avenue, is graced by 2 enormous stone lions, originally named Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, after the founders. Later the lions’ names were changed to Lady Astor and Lord Lenox, a nice touch which ignored the fact the lions were both male. Finally, in the 1930’s Mayor Fiorello La Guardia nicknamed them “Patience” (the one to the south) and “Fortitude,” qualities he felt New Yorkers would need to survive the Great Depression. LaGuardia, considered one of history’s best big city Mayors, used to sit as a Judge in New York City Municipal Court while he was Mayor. He once presided over a misdemeanor case against a woman accused of stealing a loaf of bread. She said she stole it to feed her family. LaGuardia insisted on fining her $10, then announced he was fining everyone in the Courtroom 50 cents for living in a city where a woman needs to steal a loaf of bread to feed her family. With her fine paid, the woman left the Courtroom with close to $50.00. Not a bad guy.
In late 1972 I walked between Patience and Fortitude for the first time, turned right to walk through the great reading room (worth the trip in itself) and made it to the Genealogy Department. I was told to keep things quiet, not because it was a library but rather because I was looking for information to which some people thought I might not be entitled. All I was going to do was search the birth and microfilm records for any mention of Virginia Peters or Edward Yedlin. I searched birth records, telephone records, voter registration lists, starting in the 1920’s for birth records and in the mid 1940’s for telephone and voter registrations. There were adoptees searching there for their own information, sitting at large wood tables and pouring over birth record books.
Like almost all other states New York sealed its records upon an adoption, but hospitals were required to report births within 15 days. Those records were compiled in Birth Record books, copies of which were kept in the Library. Later, once adopted, the information from the original birth certificate would be “amended,” with the adoptive parents added and the original parent/parents deleted. All other information remained the same, including the birth certificate number. No attempt was made to amend the birth record indexes. Thus, if you were born in New York City, you could use the identifying number on your amended birth certificate to search through all the birth record books for the year in which you were born. It was like beating the system, a little known (at that time) fact that genealogists shared with one another.The records, however, were not chronological (for one thing they were compiled from among the 5 separate boroughs of New York City – Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.) Thus, one needed to look through all of the thousands of births recorded for a particular year of birth (and sometimes overlapping into the following year). The typeset was small, and the searching tedious. One distraction and the number could be missed. Sometimes books were searched two and three times. Since I was born in Massachusetts and already had my identifying information, I didn’t need the birth record books for that purpose. However, I soon found myself helping others find their records, sometimes spending hours looking through the books, certificate number by certificate number, solely to see the look on the face of another adopted person discovering a crucial part of their identity. Painstakingly, with an emphasis on pain. Another form of procrastination, but one with a good purpose.
At the time, the word was that the professional librarians who worked in the genealogy department did not approve of people using their records to “subvert” the sealed records laws. Rumor was that they would not help. The aura was that it was wrong (as if adoptees needed anyone else to add to their guilt). Nevertheless I played the game, never divulging the reason why I was looking and, indeed, not asking for help unless it was absolutely necessary. If it was, I made up a story. Either I was a surprisingly effective liar or they really did not care, because I never encountered one bit of resistance.
In time, I located a number of families named Yedlin (the surname of my mother’s husband) in the phone directories, the last one in the 1950’s. There was one address in particular on the upper West Side, which happened to be in the same neighborhood where my wife’s uncle lived with his family. I made note of every entry and, of course, searched all the current telephone records as well. After discussing this with Emma May, I then expanded the search and located other Yedlins (fortunately not a common name) throughout the country. In particular, there were a number in New York, some in Florida, and in a few other places. After I compiled the information, which I accumulated over the course of several months, I did absolutely nothing with it. I was not really sure what to do, other than to call. The few numbers I did try were no longer in service. Also, I did not like lying, at least not about this. I didn’t think I could pull it off. It was one thing to go see my birth records, another to have a detective agency search, a third to gather information from public records. But now I needed to act, and that was difficult. It involved picking up the phone, actively engaging people in my search. I felt like I was betraying my adoptive parents and, in general, doing something I was not supposed to be doing. I had it pretty good – grew up in a nice house, summer-house in New Hampshire, good friends from high school and college, married to a nice person, in my second year of law school. Was I just opening a can of worms? Was it fair to my parents to go behind their backs searching for the persons and the place from which they saved me? As much as I felt guilty, I also felt compelled to proceed. My head could not register the conflict among feelings that I did not seem able to control. The result? Procrastination.