A Debut Novel Takes Its Whacks at an Infamous Crime

Sarah Harrison Smith on June 20, 2017

See-What225Hot days here in the East Coast bring to mind one of the most infamous crimes in New England history – and one of the novels I’m most excited to read this summer. 

On the morning of August 4, 1892, in Fall River, Massachusetts, Andrew Borden, a rich but miserly 69 year-old and his 64 year-old second wife, Abby, were killed, brutally, with multiple hatchet blows to their heads. Abby was struck from behind while changing a bed; Andrew died lying on a downstairs sofa. They were murdered in the home they shared with Andrew’s adult daughters, Lizzie and Emma. Emma was visiting friends, so the only other person in the house at the time was an Irish maid named Bridget -- called Maggie, because that’s what the previous maid was named.

Police immediately suspected Lizzie, then 33 years old, of the killings, and indeed her inconsistent testimony, and odd actions (attempting to purchase the poison prussic acid shortly before the murders, and burning one of her dresses shortly afterward) seem incriminating. But lack of circumstantial evidence led to Lizzie’s acquittal on June 20, 1893. She lived out the rest of her life in Fall River, ostracized by her neighbors and ultimately abandoned by her sister. No one else was aver accused of the crime.

Sarah Schmidt, a young Australian writer and librarian, says that Lizzie visited her in dreams and told her "My father has a lot to answer for." Inspired by that haunting, Schmidt decided look again at the dynamics at play in the Borden family household, and they turned out to be very dark indeed.  Atlantic Monthly Press will publish her novel, See What I Have Done, this August – the month the murders took place. The cover shows a bleeding pigeon, a reference to the Lizzie’s beloved pet birds, which her father Andrew killed before he in turn, was murdered.

As a child, the rhyme “Lizzie Borden took an axe/ and gave her father forty whacks” scared me. But from what I gather, See What I Have Done, imagines a household ruled by such cruelty and coldness that it will strike fear into your heart well before the first blow. See What I Have Done, which is Schmidt’s first novel, has been getting fantastic response in Australia and the U.K., where Hachette published it this spring. Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, two prominent industry magazines here in the United States, both gave it starred reviews. This might be one of the biggest books this summer – a chilling read that’s perfect for a hot day.


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