The Separate Sphere Advantage: Lizzie Borden

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I love historical true crime and I love family crimes. That’s one of the reasons why Book 3 of my series uses one of the staples of mystery fiction: The family gathering at the family mansion for the holidays (though usually, the mansion is haunted, which isn’t the case in my book). So it’s no surprise that I, along with many other people, have always been fascinated by Lizzie Borden and the Borden family murder. 

There have been countless films, TV shows, and mini-series devoted to unraveling the Lizzie Borden case. I dug up an older movie recently, a made-for-TV film dating back to the 1970s. The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975) stars Elizabeth Montgomery (aka, Samantha in the 1960s Bewitched series) and follows the events of the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden (Lizzie’s father and stepmother) and trial and acquittal pretty much as many sources report them. The film adds another element, though — it gives a theory (that has been accepted by many) of how the crimes were committed.

Photo Credit: (Elizabeth Montgomery (as Lizzie) and Katherine Helmond (as Emma, Lizzie’s older sister) from a scene from The Legend of Lizzie Borden, where women are picketing in front of the courthouse in support of Lizzie. 10 Feb 1975, Paramount Television: 995577823Xyn/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice

The film also takes a definite stance as to whether Lizzie was guilty or not. Keep in mind that, technically, the case is still unsolved. There’s also a lot of controversy over whether the evidence really shows Lizzie’s guilt. This film takes the stance that Lizzie was guilty because she had all the necessary requirements that point toward guilt: means, motive, and opportunity.

But this film brings in also another element to the motive piece I found especially interesting. It didn’t really surprise me, considering the film was made at the height of the second-wave women’s movement in the 1970s. Part of the movement’s purpose was to bring awareness to women’s oppression in the past. We already know the 19th century was not exactly a time of freedom for most women. They were dominated by the ideology of the separate spheres which kept them confined to certain areas of life (home, family, children, church), and venturing outside of that was considered transgressive. 

For a young woman of Lizzie’s social standing (small town high society), those confines were present and oppressive. She and her older sister often complained to their father about not being able to go where they liked or do what they liked and of being chained to the house. Both unmarried, they lived with their strict father and stepmother with little or no money of their own and were expected to fulfill household duties assigned to them. The film doesn’t fail to bring this out in some scenes between the family and also in one interesting scene between the prosecuting attorney (who is dead-set on convicting Lizzie) and his own wife (who, much to his chagrin, shows sympathy for Lizzie’s situation).

But could it be the separate spheres actually worked in Lizzie’s favor during the trial? This is a theory many sources put forth and the one the film supports. Since Lizzie was a well-respected, well-to-do young woman, active in her church and high society, and, of course, a woman, she couldn’t possibly have committed such horrendous crimes as to chop up her father and stepmother. Many believe Lizzie was acquitted not based on the evidence but based on who and what she was and the jury’s refusal to believe such a woman could commit murder.

If you want to know the ins and outs of the Lizzie Borden case and weigh in on your opinion on whether she did or did not commit the crimes, I invite you to join my mailing list. In honor of the release of Book 3 of my series, Death At Will, I’ll be talking all next month about the Borden case, bringing forth the details like the crime itself, the victims, the perpetrator, and the trial. But you only get access to those emails if you’re on my list.

Oh, and did I mention you also get a free book if you sign up? If you don’t want to miss out, you can join here

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The Poison With The Pretty Name: Belladonna

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As a mystery writer, I’m always looking for interesting murder weapons. I’m sure the internet gods would be shocked if they saw my browser history with all the research I’ve done on poisons for my books! 

Poison is tricky because it’s easy to give readers the sense of “been there, done that”. When you look at the immense plant life on this planet and how many species are poisonous to humans (about seven hundred out of more than fifty thousand), there just aren’t that many a mystery writer can choose from (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if we’re talking about human life).

Now doesn’t that look like the ripest, plumpest berry you’ve ever seen?

Photo Credit: Tinieder/Depositphotos.com 

The Atropa belladonna has always fascinated me but I didn’t know its history until I started doing research on it for the third book of my series, Death At Will. It is indeed a pretty plant with a pretty name. The typical belladonna has a reddish-blackish berry similar to a cherry and is actually sweet when eaten. This is one of the things that makes it so dangerous, as it isn’t bitter like many poisonous plants. There’s no real indication it’s poisonous when you put it in your mouth.

Interestingly, the belladonna has a long history with the beauty industry (if you can call it that). In the Middle Ages, it was used as a beauty remedy. The juice of the berry made women’s cheeks redder (a sort of precursor to commercial blush powder or cream). Women sometimes rubbed the berry and leaf on their skin as a sort of skin enhancer to give it a blueish tint. Women also used a tincture of berry juice in an eyedropper to dilate their pupils. We can be thankful our ideas of beauty have changed since then!

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the belladonna was used for something else: healing. It might seem odd that poison could be considered medicine but consider we didn’t have the scientific and medical knowledge we have now about plant life nor did we have the synthetic drugs we have now so we had to rely more on Mother Nature. There was also no awareness of the long-term health effects of certain substances (think about arsenic being added to paints and wallpapers of the time). Belladonna plasters (i.e., band-aids with belladonna on them) were thought to help relieve pain and even cure tuberculosis. These plasters were sold in drug stores over the counter, an idea that makes us shudder today.

But in my book, Nin Branch, Adele’s sidekick who also happens to be a skilled herbalist, is well aware of the dangers of the Atropa belladonna. She has an argument with one of the characters about using herbs and plants responsibly or it could lead to disaster (which is pretty much what happens in the book).

Only a little over a month to go until Death At Will comes out! But you can get it here at a special discount on preorder now!

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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Impulses and Madness: The History of the Insanity Plea

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This last month, in honor of the release of my book, A Wordless Death, I wrote a series of newsletters for my newsletter subscribers about the 1914 murder of a New York schoolteacher named Lida Beecher. You can read a little about that case here

One of the fascinating things about this case is that it brought to the forefront the insanity defense in court cases in the 20th century. The insanity defense is when the defense lawyers claim the defendant was insane at the time he or she committed the crime. The caveat is the defense has to prove the accused had no conception of what he or she was doing when he or she committed the crime and had no concept of the moral or legal consequences of that behavior. To put it simply: They have to prove the defendant didn’t know what he or she was doing at the time of the crime and that what he or she was doing was morally wrong with legal consequences.

The insanity plea has actually been around since the mid-19th century. It was first used in Britain when a man standing trial for attempting to shoot the Prime Minister was acquitted when the jury decided he was psychotic and acting under the belief that the Prime Minister was conspiring against him. The insanity plea was used rarely throughout the years until the Leda Beecher case brought it back. In that case, the plea that Jean Gianini was innocent due to criminal imbecility (based partly on his results on the Binet test which found him to have the mental capacity of a ten-year-old even though he was sixteen) was accepted by the jury and Gianini was saved from the electric chair. Not that his fate was much better, as he was confined to a mental institution until his death in the 1980s. 

Photo Credit: Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where Jean Gianini spent most of his days after his trial, ariel view, 1926, War Department, Army Air Forces, National Archives at College Park: Ooligan/Wikimedia Commons/PD US Government

The difficulty of the insanity plea is obvious: Is the defendant really insane with no concept of right or wrong or that he or she had even committed a crime? Or is the defendant just putting on a good show? The controversy over the insanity defense stems from this, as many people believe most are shamming. Take the film Anatomy of a Murder (1959), which was based on a real case that occurred in 1952. In the film, an army lieutenant is accused of shooting a man who had raped the lieutenant’s wife. The defense uses the plea of “irresistible impulse,” a variation of the insanity plea. In the film, we see the defense attorney constantly coaching the defendant on what to say and how to behave to convince the jury of his insanity. And it ends up working. Like Gianini, the lieutenant is saved from the electric chair. 

We see the insanity plea used so much on TV and in films (because it makes for great drama) that we might think it’s used very often. In the early 20th century, when my Adele Gossling Mysteries takes place, it was used quite a bit in court cases. But in the 21st century, we’ve gotten wiser and perhaps more cynical. In fact, the insanity plea or a variation of it is used in less than one percent of court cases. And of those one percent, only about a quarter are accepted. It all boils down to whether juries are buying that someone, even if they are mentally ill or emotionally unstable, could really not comprehend either what he or she is doing or that what he or she is doing is wrong. Those cases where the plea is accepted usually show the defendant as having a long history of severe mental illness. 

Does mental illness or the insanity plea play a role in A Wordless Death? You can find out by getting your hands on a copy of the book. It’s still on sale at a special launch price, but not for long! All the details and links to book vendors are here

If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, sign up for my newsletter to receive a free book, plus news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history and mystery, and more freebies! You can sign up here

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🥳Release Day Blitz for A Wordless Death!🥳

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Title: A Wordless Death

Series: Adele Gossling Mysteries: Book 2

Author: Tam May

Genres: Historical Cozy Mystery

Release Date: July 30, 2022

Adele Gossling is adjusting well to small-town life after the hustle and bustle of San Francisco. Despite her progressive ideas about women and her unladylike business acumen, even Arrojo’s most prominent citizens are beginning to accept her. Provided she sticks with the business of fountain pens and letter paper and stays out of crime investigation, that is…

But that’s just what she can’t do when Millie Gibb, the new teacher at the local girl’s school, is found dead and everybody in town assumes the homely, unmarried spinster committed suicide. After all, what enemies could a harmless, middle-aged woman have?

Adele and her clairvoyant friend Nin intend to find out. But can they prove Millie’s death was foul play based on a cigar stub, a letter fragment, and a cigarette lighter before the case is closed for good?

You’ll love this turn-of-the-century whodunit where a sassy and smart New Woman gives the police a run for their money!

“The characters are true to life, and the early methods used in criminal detection are fun to read.” – Amazon reviewer

You can get your copy of the book at a special promotional price at the following online retailers.


Excerpt

After the men had left, both her brother and the sheriff rose, brushing coal dust from their clothes. 

“No glass, I take it,” said Adele.

“No, but something much more interest,” said her brother. “Something in your line of work, Del.”

He showed her what looked like a fragment of a written document. The edges were crisp and charred and written on it was a small dark print she could barely read.

“That explains why there was a fire burning last night even though it’s been rather mild these past few days except for the wind,” he remarked.

“A discouraging lover, you think?” Hatfield raised an eye.

“It wouldn’t be uncommon,” said Jackson. “Though perhaps a little surprising.”

Adele did not fail to catch his meaning. “Miss Gibb might not have been a beauty, Jack, but many men appreciate intelligence and education more than giggles and curls.”

She was rewarded by Hatfield’s deep chuckle of approval.

“Love doesn’t usually go with money, though, does it?” Jackson said. “Whatever this letter contained, it had to do with a lot of money.” He showed the sheriff what he meant.

Here, the croak sounded from Mrs. Taylor and they all looked at her.

“Begging your pardon, sir,” said the woman. “I don’t get into the business of my guests unless —”

“Unless?” Hatfield head went up.

“It’s necessary, of course,” was her resolute answer.

“You know something about this?” he asked.

“Well, no, sir, not that in particular,” said Mrs. Taylor. “But more than once Millie had to ask to delay her payment here. Had a cousin who was rather in a bad way financially.” She looked embarrassed. “I don’t like to go ‘round telling the private business of my guests but —”

“That’s all right, ma’am,” said Jackson. “We’re police, not gossips.”

“Well, now that I see everything is all right —” But she still hesitated and Adele understood the woman’s concern. Her sense of decorum had gotten a jolt at the idea a room she only rented to women boarders was now being trampled over my male footsteps.

“I’ll make sure everything is all right, Mrs. Taylor,” she said in a low voice.

The woman rewarded her with one of her gummy smiles and departed without ceremony.

“Could be this cousin was asking for money again,” Jackson said.

“Why throw the letter in the fire, then?” asked Hatfield. “I’ve had more than one of Ma’s uncles write us for a few gold coins and even when I refused, I never threw the letter out.”

“Perhaps she didn’t want other people in the house to know she had a mercenary cousin,” Adele said.

“A relative that keeps asking for money is not a favorite relative,” Jackson agreed.

“The question is, could he be a relative that kills?” Adele murmured.

About the Author

As soon as Tam May started her first novel at the age of fourteen, writing became her voice. She writes engaging, fun-to-solve historical cozy mysteries featuring sassy suffragist Adele Gossling. Tam is the author of the Adele Gossling Mysteries which take place in the early 20th century and feature amateur sleuth and epistolary expert Adele Gossling, a forward-thinking young woman whose talent for solving crimes doesn’t sit well with her town’s Victorian ideas about women’s place in society. Tam has also written historical women’s fiction. Her post-World War II short story collection, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, debuted at #1 in its category on Amazon, and the first book of her Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series, The Specter, remains in the top 10 in its category. Although Tam left her heart in San Francisco, she lives in Texas because it’s cheaper. When she’s not writing, she’s devouring everything classic (books, films, art, music) and concocting vegetarian dishes in her kitchen.

Social Media Links

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tammayauthor/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/tammayauthor/

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/tammayauthor/ 

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Tam-May/e/B01N7BQZ9Y/ 

BookBub Author Page: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/tam-may

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Death Outside the Battlefield: Lida Beecher

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Last month, I posted a tribute to World War I veterans. The war made people realize death can come too easily in the 20th century. However, not all deaths in 1914 took place on the battlefield. Some, in fact, happened in the backwaters of America and were just as, if not more, shocking than those happening in Europe. 

I’m fascinated by classic true crime, especially crimes that shifted people’s perspectives about the true capacity of human nature for evil (and good). I love giving my newsletter subscribers an inside look at a classic true crime and picking it apart to see its effect on the 21st century. 

Book 2 of the Adele Gossling Mysteries, coming out next month, is about the death of a schoolteacher. During my research, I stumbled upon the case of Lida Beecher which both horrified and intrigued me. I wasn’t the only one. Residents of Herkimer County, New York where the murder took place were so devastated by the crime that a history of the area written in the 1970s completely excludes any mention of it. 

The story involves many complex angles. To begin, there is the victim: Lida Beecher, a young and lovely schoolteacher whose eagerness to help her students usurped her experience in dealing with troubled students. Then there is the perpetrator: Jean Gianini, a sixteen-year-old who came from a very troubled and unstable family that included alcoholism, mental disabilities, and physical abuse. Gianini lured Beecher into the woods, hit her with a monkey wrench, and then stabbed her to death, hiding her body in the brush. 

The case is an example of the limitations of education and medicine in the early 20th century. Often, schools at this time, especially in rural towns, were a one-room affair (think: Little House on the Prairie). Students of all ages attended and the teacher had to accommodate different learning levels, from the six-year-olds to the fifteen and sixteen-year-olds. Teachers were then, as they are now, grossly underpaid and they were also undertrained, especially in dealing with special needs children or children with disabilities. 

Photo Credit: Herkimer County Courthouse where the trail of Lida Beecher’s murder took place, Herkimer, NY, 19 September 2009, taken by Doug Kerr: Pubdog/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY SA 2.0

All the sources on the case agree Gianini was both intellectually and mentally below average. During the trial, he went through several intelligence tests, including the Binet Test, which was used at the time to assess the mental age of children, and was found to have the intellectual capacity of a ten-year-old even though he was sixteen. He also showed signs of mental disabilities and some have said if Gianini were examined today, he would probably be diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Accounts of his time at school clearly showed neither his teachers nor the principal was equipped to understand or help him. Beecher tried but when he misbehaved, she called in the principal, who resorted to the same kind of humiliation and violence Gianini experienced at home. This set off feelings of resentment in Gianini and vows of revenge and, indeed, he gave his reason for killing Beecher as vengeance. 

There’s a lot more to this case, including a surprising ending and precedence that set the stage for the insanity plea later on. I’ll be talking about the Beecher murder case in detail in the next month up to the release of A Wordless Death in my newsletter. So if you haven’t signed up yet, I encourage you to do so here, as you’ll not only get the fascinating story of the Lida Beecher murder but you’ll also get a free Adele Gossling Mysteries novella not available anywhere else.

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