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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The War That Didn’t End All Wars: World War I

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Today is Memorial Day, and we want to honor all the people who fought and lost their lives. I want to take a look at a war that is sometimes forgotten, or, rather usurped by its older brother later in the 20th century: World War I.

There’s no doubt World War II has gained in popularity in the last several years. There was a time when you looked on the Amazon bestseller list for Historical Fiction and saw only (or mostly) books set during the Second World War. But World War I has always been more fascinating to me. I got interested in this war after binge-reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ classic series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. Though the series is set in the 1920s, Wimsey is a World War I vet and there are references to his experiences during the war and even a mystery with the foundations set during the war in the book The Nine Tailors

Photo Credit: Book cover for The Nine Tailor by Dorothy L. Sayers, date unknown, uploaded 30 September 2008 by Jim Barker: Jim Barker/Flickr/ CC BY NC SA 2.0

And when we look at the history of World War I, we find people had very high hopes for it. It was and still is, referred to as “The Great War” (even though few would deny World War II was greater) and “the war to end all wars” (which, sadly, it did not). This war was a modern war and a coming-of-age for warfare.

To begin with, World War I was the first war fought on a grand scale, involving 30 nations (including the United States). Wars up until that time tended to be confined to certain geographical areas so this war was the first real global war. It was also the first to use modern technologies such as tanks, machine guns (the infamous “Tommy gun” was originally designed to be used during the war), automobiles, and airplanes. That made mass destruction easier (sad to say) and so the toll it took physically on those fighting, including the dead and wounded was massive. The total casualties are estimated to be around forty million! While this is about half of the casualties during WWII (when there was even more highly sophisticated warfare), for the early 20th century, this was phenomenal.

But what made World War I stand out above other wars before it was the psychological toll it took on those fighting and on their loved ones. Since such death and warfare hadn’t been seen on a massive scale before, the devastation it brought was huge. Post-World War I was the first time people began to recognize war could cause heavy psychological damage. A new term came into being after the war: shell shock (which we know today is PTSD). One of the things that fascinated me about Sayers’ series is how she shows the effects of shell shock on her protagonist Lord Peter Wimsey even a decade later, including nightmares, migraines, and nervous breakdowns. 

So let me call out to honor those who fought and died in World War I. Sadly, none survive today, as the last died in 2011. But we can still appreciate their bravery and the way they showed us the effects of global war.

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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Creative License: Sherlock Holmes During World War II

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May is National Mystery Month, so what better way for us mystery lovers to celebrate than to take a look at one of the most, perhaps the most, famous sleuths in history: Sherlock Holmes?

I have to be honest here. I am not a great lover of the Holmes character. I find him too egotistical and woman-hating for my taste. However, there’s no denying Conan Doyle had something when he created this sleuth whose deductive reasoning and attention to detail wove intricate (and sometimes hard to believe) plots. I personally prefer sleuths who appreciate the value of intuition and psychology along with reasoning, such as Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, and, of course, the protagonist of my Adele Gossling Mysteries. 

Last month, I binge-watched the Sherlock Holmes films, but not the contemporary ones. I binge-watched the twelve Universal films and the two 20th Century Fox films. All were made in the late 1930s and 1940s and feature Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson. 

The series is pretty distinctive in several ways. Classic crime buffs are familiar with Rathbone playing many villainous characters so the series gave him a chance to play a good guy. Bruce, whose name might not be familiar to you, created the Watson character as the lovable but somewhat bumbling sidekick which set a precedence for the Watson character (and many sleuth sidekicks) for books, TV, and film after that. 

Photo Credit: Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, cropped screenshot from Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, 1943, Universal Pictures: Patrick CecilF/Wikimedia Commons/PD US not renewed

But the most distinctive feature of the series is that most of them are not set in the late 19th or early 20th century when Conan Doyle wrote the Holmes books. They are set in the late 1930s and 1940s (that is, in times contemporary to when they were made). The series has an interesting history. Fox made the first 2 films which were actually set in the 19th century like the original books. These films weren’t very successful so Fox dropped the series. Universal picked it up and decided to change the setting to contemporary times. It was then the series became a huge hit and went on for twelve more films. 

Why did Universal decide to change the time period? When the third film in the series (and Universal’s first), Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, came out, it was 1942 and World War II was raging. They thought the audience would identify more with a contemporary Holmes than a Holmes far removed from the war’s troubling times by fifty years. Audiences identified with the scenery of London and Europe featuring bombed-out buildings, air raids, and blackouts.

Universal took it a step further. The screenwriters revamped many of Conan Doyle’s plots to make them fit with the war. Instead of London underworld criminals. Holmes was fighting Nazi spies. For example, the fourth film in the series, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon is based on a Conan Doyle short story but features a secret code Holmes is trying to keep from falling into German hands. 

Universal’s creative license was very effective not only in making the series more successful than Fox’s version but also in inserting messages to boost the morale of British and American audiences. Many of the films end with Holmes imparting philosophical messages to Watson that are essentially telling audiences not to lose faith and good will triumph over evil in the end. 

I’ll admit I’m a purist when it comes to films based on literature. I initially resisted seeing the series because so many of the films were set in contemporary (relative) times instead of when the books take place. But once I started to watch them, I got hooked on how the films show the life and struggle of citizens living during World War II. I highly recommend giving them a chance. You can find most of them on YouTube here

And if you want more mystery, check out my Adele Gossling Mysteries here. The first book in the series, The Carnation Murder, is out! You can find out all about it and pick up your copy here

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

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