Lizzie Borden, research
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The Borden Box: rediscovering the case

It’s been a while since I’ve had to deal with Lizzie as a character, had to figure out how to move her from A to B, think about how she would feel about a particular situation. It was the break I needed. In the space between edits, I’ve read quite a few books and have ripped a data-hole in my Netflix account.

There’s been a different kind of break too. My dreams have normalised. Somewhat. Last night I dreamt I was cutting people’s fingers off, ate those small delicacies then spat them out, watched them regenerate. This is nothing compared to what I dream when Lizzie is around.

But all that’s coming to an end. I’m about to begin the ‘final’ edits of SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE and hopefully within the next few months, Lizzie, her family, all those things , will become slightly removed from my life rather than these ‘things’ that I’ve been dragging around with me for years and can’t let go of.

And yet. I am more drawn to the Borden’s than ever. It’s the distance that has done this. Recently I rediscovered a cardboard box that had been in my garage. Inside were some of my Borden files: notebooks full of early drafts and ideas, questions I had for myself, travel journals I kept when I visited Second Street (I’m actually missing one of those notebooks – I’m still searching for that one), print outs of the trial transcripts I barely used, and so on. Finding this has made me want to relearn and rediscover some aspects of the case that I didn’t want to touch because I wanted the freedom to be able to write what the novel needed, not what history needed.

Here’s a very rejected, very terrible scribble from 8 November 2012:

rejected emma 2012


Here are some things about the case and Lizzie I’ve rediscovered:

  • When Lizzie was in Taunton jail she kept strawberry plants in her cell and would sit down to a ‘meal’ of strawberries and sugar from time to time
  • For awhile – maybe weeks, maybe months – Lizzie felt that she would never be released from jail and her mental health declined during this period
  • Annie, a friend of the Borden sisters, recalled that Emma once told her that when she first received the telegram summoning her home that afternoon,  she thought nothing more than an illness had befallen her father.
  • Ten months after the Borden murders, another axe murder was committed in Fall River. This time, the victim was 20-year-old Bertha Manchester.Her father last saw her alive as he went on his milk route. When he returned home later that afternoon, he found his daughter in the kitchen, her body drowned in her own blood, the top of her head split open. two of her teeth were found next to her. (Read more about this in the excellent resource, Parallel Lives By Michael Martins and Dennis A. Binette)
  • At the time of the murders, Lizzie was the treasurer of Young Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The group was formed in 1883 but seems to have disbanded after 1892.
  • When Andrew was 9 years old, his aunty discovered human remains on the banks of the Quequechan River. Next to the skeleton was a breastplate, a belt of brass cylinders and a number of arrowheads. Many locals believed the body belonged to a Viking.


There’s still some time left before the next draft. I’m looking forward to reaching back into that cupboard trove and sharing some more finds.

This entry was posted in: Lizzie Borden, research


writer, observer, reader, procrastinator. My debut novel, See What I Have Done, published by Hachette (ANZ), Tinder Press (UK), Grove Atlantic (US), Piper Verlag (German), Editions Payot & Rivages (French), Hollands Diep (Dutch), Edizioni Piemme (Italian), GW Foksal (Polish), Palto Publishing (Turkish), MunhakDongne (Korean) Represented by: Pippa Masson, Curtis Brown Australia Dan Lazar, Writer’s House (US) Gordon Wise, Curtis Brown (UK) SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE (Awards and Some Praise) WINNER OF THE ABIA LITERARY FICTION OF THE YEAR 2018 WINNER OF THE MUD LITERARY AWARD 2018 Longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2018 Shortlisted for the Indie Book Award for Debut Fiction 2018 Shortlisted for the Strand Critics Awards for Best First Novel Longlisted for the ABIA Matt Richell Award for New Writers 2018 Longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award 2019 For the originality of its voice and the power of its language and imagery, See What I Have Done deserves to be considered a Gothic classic - THE SATURDAY PAPER See What I Have Done is a meticulously researched and boldly imagined book that crackles with tension throughout. Schmidt's portrayal of Lizzie is haunting and complex, a deeply psychological portrait that forces the reader to question their preconceptions about what women are capable of - for better and worse. Both disturbing and gripping, it is an outstanding debut novel about love, death and the lifelong repercussions of unresolved grief. - The Observer Schmidt is a consummate storyteller whose account of the Borden murders is utterly compelling. - Australian Book Review Schmidt's writing is rich and confident, painting a vivid portrait of a household with something rotten at its core. It's a strong debut that promises much from an original and compelling new voice in Australian literature. - The Guardian There are books about murder and there are books about imploding families; this is the rare novel that seamlessly weaves the two together, asking as many questions as it answers. - Kirkus Reviews [An] unforgettable debut ... Equally compelling as a whodunit, 'whydunit,' and historical novel. - Publishers Weekly Heralds the arrival of a major new talent ... Nail-biting horror mixes with a quiet, unforgettable power to create a novel readers will stay up all night finishing. - Booklist This novel is like a crazy murdery fever dream, swirling around the day of the murders. Schmidt has written not just a tale of a crime, but a novel of the senses. There is hardly a sentence that goes by without mention of some sensation, whether it’s a smell or a sound or a taste, and it is this complete saturation of the senses that enables the novel to soak into your brain and envelope you in creepy uncomfortableness. It’s a fabulous, unsettling book. —Book Riot Eerie and compelling, Sarah Schmidt breathes such life into the terrible, twisted tale of Lizzie Borden and her family, she makes it impossible to look away. —Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train

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