Wednesday, February 5, 2014

More On Lizzie Borden

In a previous blog, I wrote about my 5th cousin, two times removed, Lizzie Borden. Lizzie's case has mystified people for over one hundred years and there are still questions about her guilt or innocence. I wrote an article on Lizzie for the New England Chapter of the MWA web site and another article was written by Sandra Lee for the same web site. Sandra, who graciously granted me permission to reprint her article here, takes an interesting look at how the use (or misuse) of crime scene evidence may have impacted The Trial of Lizzie Borden... By the way, for those of you who may have read my previous post on Lizzie, I made a mistake...she died in 1927, not 1947.

A Nineteenth Century Scene of a Crime – A Look Back in Time

by Sandra Lee

Crime scene evidence is that which serves to provide clues about the series of events surrounding the commission of a crime. While evidence recovered at crime scenes varies in nature, amounts and probative value, it is all essential to the practice of solving the mysteries at hand. Time has no bearing on the vitality of crime scene evidence, and it is that vitality which commands the use of great care during evidence identification, documentation, collection, analysis and preservation.
During the nineteenth century these functions were all performed locally, and crime scene evidence consisted of whatever the responding authorities decided it should.
Great advancements in sciences and technology during this era granted much efficiency to the processing of crime scenes and even expanded the scope of acceptable forms of evidence. While investigators and scientists in some states fully embraced these innovations, such as the new and evolving arts of fingerprinting and ABO blood-typing, others presented barriers of prejudice and bias, and continued practicing with methods “tried and true”.
Investigators and scientists throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts fell into the latter category, due in part to the state’s conservative nature. Other contributing factors toward the resistance of these individuals to be forward-thinking, open-minded and highly-motivated were found on local levels and included low-paying salaries and deficiencies in education and training.
All things considered, one might best define the methods of identifying and collecting crime scene evidence in Massachusetts cities and towns during the nineteenth century as primitive. The 1892 gruesome crime scene at the Borden home in Fall River might best exemplify how the application of aged practices might generate unfavorable results.
In the Borden case a skeleton crew of underpaid, poorly-skilled sleuths failed to immediately secure the scene and a head-to-toe search of the premises wasn’t conducted for days to follow. This ineptitude left much room for the contamination, destruction and/or removal of any evidence not yet collected.
Body temperatures, levels of food digestion and stages of blood drying and coagulation were used to determine the times of death of the victims. This data was gathered with the use of nothing more than human hands and the findings were applied to an ancient suggested set of standards. Clearly, a clinical thermometer would have provided more accurate readings of the body temperatures while the knowledge of, or willingness to recognize new literature available at the time would have altered other findings. The latest studies showed that each of these postmortem events would occur on different levels depending upon human individuality and upon circumstances. Also based on the results of these studies were newly introduced numbers proven to be the standard.
Performances in the lab at a local medical school demonstrated an even broader scope of deficiency in crime scene investigating. Among the evidence ultimately collected were the stomachs of the victims and a hatchet. The stomach linings were searched for scar tissue caused by poisoning because the victims were allegedly ill prior to the murders. Because the hatchet was believed to have caused the fractures in the victims’ skulls, it was studied for the presence of blood. The single instrument used to perform these searches, a magnifying glass, detected no scar tissue, nor did it determine whether a substance found on the hatchet was rust or blood. Some innovative technological and scientific alternatives might have provided more certainty about the evidentiary findings. The spectroscope would have offered significantly more magnification while the introduction of certain metals and minerals to the stomach contents may have detected the presence of poison. Similarly, the simple act of infusing water or fire with the matter on the hatchet would have proven the nature of the substance.
The discounted evidence in the Borden case arguably contained the most probative value. It consisted of the prime suspect, Lizzie’s own damning words. Spoken to a rookie investigator who failed to inform Lizzie of her rights before tuning in, the evidence was deemed inadmissible by the court based on constitutional grounds. Had a more seasoned, forward-thinking investigator interviewed Lizzie, she might have been informed of her rights.
Additionally, the court excluded a local druggist’s statement that Lizzie attempted to buy poison in his store on the day before the murders occurred. Lizzie’s counsel argued that the idea of poisoning was unrelated to the nature of the crimes actually committed. Had the scientist at the lab possessed the knowledge of and willingness to rely upon modern techniques, the druggist’s statement may have been utilized, and Lizzie’s intentions revealed.
Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the murders of her father and stepmother in June of 1893 after just over an hour of deliberation by a twelve-man jury.
Lizzie was exonerated of the crimes based on the evidence both presented and not presented at trial. All evidence in this case was a product of contemporary practices which consisted of widely varying and inconsistent crime scene investigation methods. Many believe a lack of application of common standards based on the best of accepted practices at the time in the gathering and processing of crime scene evidence may have contributed to a guilty person getting away with murder.


Monday, February 3, 2014


As of tomorrow, February 4, 2014, my novel, SNIPER, will be available at most book retailers and online. It's hard to express how much this means to me, it is my first publication in a book format (I have previously published short fiction and one early novel in eBook format). I started the novel in the late fall of 2002 and got side tracked on several other projects placing it on a back burner (forgive the cliché!). But there were some people without whom this day would not have happened:

First and foremost was my late wife, Connie. She supported me through those early years when I thought I knew how to write. I resisted some of her comments early on, but that's usually the first symptom of "I know what I'm doing-itis". I've always said that the difference between being intelligent and being ignorant, is intelligent people know what they don't know--ignorant people don't have a clue and don't care enough to see the light! I would bring my latest chapter or short story to Connie, wanting praise, instead I got her honest opinion. She would say something along the line of: "There's too much profanity." I of course, being ignorant, only heard the praise. I was like Mark Twain, who once said (don't take this as being an accurate quote, but the gist of the quote is accurate): "When I was 17, I didn't think my father knew anything; when I was 27, I was astounded by how much the old man had learned..." As I progressed as a writer, Connie just got smarter and smarter.

Second on this list of Geniuses, was Paula Munier, my friend and now my agent. Paula and I met in the summer of 2002 at a meeting of the New England Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. Later that year, she created the first writer group I had ever been a part of. I took the first chapter of one of the novels I was working on to that first meeting, expecting to hear how wonderful it was. That evening I met Skye Alexander and Susan Oleskiew, both published authors and editors (did I mention that Paula was also a professional editor?) They listened to my wonderful work (by now I assume you know where I'm going with this...) and then politely and I may add, professionally, ripped it apart! I left that first meeting limping from the chewing I'd been subjected to, swearing that I would never return. (They too assumed they would never see nor hear of me again). I got home and bent the ear of my primary support person. Connie smiled and said, "Maybe they're right." I was shocked, how could she say such a bride of 32 years nailed me with, "You think you take criticism well, but you don't. These women have all been published and are to a greater degree than you, succeeded at doing what you want to do. If you don't want to listen to their opinions or take their advice, don't. I mean, look at how successful you've been doing it your way." I limped down to my office feeling as if the little bit of my ego that the writer group had left me had just been taken by my wife. I dropped what was left of my fanny into the chair and took every bit of feedback they'd given me and rewrote the chapter. When I was done, I read it aloud and half-way through paused to say: "Hey...this is good!" I tell this story to every new or aspiring writer I meet. Yet every once in a while when Paula does an edit (even though she's my agent she is still an editor) and tells me to rewrite something or to cut something, I get my hackles up. Nevertheless, I do it...because that's how I got a book publishing contract.

In 2006 cancer took my beloved Connie and two years later I lost my full-time job to the most recent recession. I still mourn losing Connie, but not the job. I looked at my situation and realized that I could no longer afford to live in southern New Hampshire. I relocated to Maine...far northern Maine. A five minute drive past my house and you reach the end of civilization as we know it! Now I have time to write full time. The only impediment is me...I can put off procrastination! So, I did what I knew I had to do, I sought out and found a new writer group. The members may not have the resumes similar to those of my first group, but they still make me sit down and write and they still tell me what I need to hear; not what I want to hear.

Connie is gone now and I have a new first reader, my domestic partner Jane. She's not as critical as Connie and the others, but thank God she's getting there!

So, in closing...thanks to Connie, Paula, Skye, Susan, the Breathe writer group and Jane. And all of you who buy my book and enjoy it.


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

One of My Famous Ancesters: Lizzie Borden

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one

The poem, however inaccurate (she was found not guilty, only nineteen blows were counted, the nature of the murder weapon—thought to be a hatchet; not an axe—and the fact that Abby Borden was her step-mother) has kept Lizzie Borden (my 5th cousin, twice removed) a part of Americana since the murders of her father and her step-mother, Abby Durfee Gray Borden, on August 4, 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts. But few know little more than the poem. So who was Lizzie Borden and why she was considered the prime suspect in a crime for which she was found not guilty on June 20, 1893.

Lizzie Andrew Borden (1860 – 1927) was the youngest of three daughters of Andrew Jackson Borden and Sarah Anthony Morse. Her mother died shortly after Lizzie’s birth and Andrew married Abby Durfee Gray, who took over the task of raising his two daughters (Lizzie had an older sister Emma Lenora Borden and there was a middle sister who died at the age of two) and running the household. The Bordens were solid upper-middle class and nowhere near the richest family in Fall River as is generally thought. Lizzie grew up in an atmosphere of idle, not gentile living. She was never to hold a job, although she did volunteer work for church missions, temperance unions and various charities.

Andrew Borden was known to be stingy with a Scrooge-like attitude toward his customers, tenants, and those who borrowed money from him. During her trial, the prosecution attempted to depict Lizzie as a person who would not only kill for an inheritance, but would do so the avenge years of deprivation (both material and psychological) she had endured in her father’s household. There was evidence of friction between the sisters and their father over the way he catered to Abby’s relatives (or so the girls believed). It was during this time that Lizzie stopped calling Abby mother and began calling her “Mrs. Borden”.

Lizzie was considered a suspect in the killings by a number of police officers from the moment they were notified. At the time of the killings only Lizzie, Bridget Sullivan (the Borden’s domestic servant) and the victims were home. It has been thought that Lizzie murdered her step-mother while Bridget was outside the house washing windows. She later told her father that Abby had received a note about a sick friend and she was out of the house. She then encouraged her father to take a nap. Bridget, finished with her chores, went to her room to take a nap. Lizzie said that she then went out to the barn on an errand. According to Lizzie, she returned to the house after hearing a groan, a scraping noise or a call of distress (she related several contradictory stories to the police). Eventually she settled on the story that she went to check on her father and found him slain, his head mutilated.

On August 11th after appearing before an inquest she was arrested for the murders. In December a Grand Jury handed down three indictments against Lizzie Borden: one for the murder of her father, one for the murder of her step-mother, and one for the murder of both. She was removed to a Taunton jail where she remained until her trial in June 1893.

A jury of twelve, mostly Republican men, average age fifty-three, found her not guilty on all counts.

At first public opinion about the verdict was favorable—possibly because it was generally believed that Lizzie would leave Fall River and live someplace where she was less known. She did not, she returned to her home and remained in the city. The absence of closure about the murders caused Lizzie’s and Emma’s position in society to fall. The sisters had become wealthy women because Abby died before Andrew, the step-mother’s family was deprived of her estate and, as a legal matter, it fell into the sisters’s possession. The final blow to her status came when Lizzie (who had a history of stealing) was accused of shoplifting two paintings from a Providence, Rhode Island company. A warrant was never served and the matter was settled privately and Lizzie’s reputation was diminished and she became more isolated.

In 1905, Emma moved out with no public explanation. There is speculation that Emma learned something about the 1892 murders. The sisters never saw nor spoke with each other again.

Lizzie Andrew Borden spent the last twenty-two years of her life an aging spinster surrounded by faithful servants who have never broken their silence. She was quite generous with their salaries and even purchased a house as a residence for some of them.

Lizzie died on June 1, 1927, after suffering complications after a gall bladder operation. Emma died nine days later in Newmarket, New Hampshire. Neither had begotten children so the Andrew Borden branch of the family (the Borden family includes such well-know people as Sir Winston Churchill and Marilyn Monroe) came to an end.

Lizzie’s infamous name has endured and become iconic, spawning numerous books and at least one movie, starring Elizabeth Montgomery as Lizzie. Whether or not she committed the murders the unanswered questions continue to fascinate mystery lovers throughout the world.

In a subsequent blog, I'll look closely at Lizzie's trial and why it is still considered to be of great importance.
For more information about Lizzie visit

Sunday, October 13, 2013

SNIPER Now Available For Pre-Order!

My novel, SNIPER, is now available for pre-order on many of the  major book ordering websites. You can order the book at, Barnes and Noble, and Books A Million.

This will be my first published novel, my publisher (Skyhorse Publishing) has informed me that it will be released as a Trade Paperback, and I am very excited about it. My agent and I have been working closely with the publisher and I should be receiving Advanced Reader Copies any day.

This is the culmination of eleven years of hard work. I first started the novel in 2002 and it has gone through a number of revisions and at least two complete overhauls! Which, as most newly published writers can attest, is not unusual. A number of people were very involved in this endeavor and thanks are owed to them. My late wife and best friend, Connie, who gave invaluable support during those early days when I was going through the turmoil of becoming a writer (I had thought I was, but quickly learned that I was a babe in the woods!). She was my inspiration and her loss to cancer (on October 16, 2006) is one that I am still coping with. 

Paula Munier, friend and early champion of the novel's concept. Paula, along with Skye Alexander, Steve Rogers, Margaret McLean, Jim Shannon, and Andy McAleer, the Monday Night Murder Club writer group, were instrumental in making the book what it is today. Paula gave up her job as an editor to become a literary agent and immediately signed me up.

Thanks are also owed to the team at Skyhorse (Editor Jay Cassell and Associate Editor Constance Renfro) who were instrumental in smoothing the manuscript and designing the cover.

I will be posting regularly (I know, about now you're saying that you've heard that before) and communicating the marketing and publicity campaign that I am currently planning. But first, I have to attend the forthcoming 12th annual New England Crimebake. If you are lucky enough to be going, I'll see you there.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Advice For A Budding Writer

Recently I received an email from an aspiring writer who had just read one of my eBooks. The writer asked if I had any advice for a budding writer. It led me to think about my writing career and how I got to where I am now.
I wrote my first short when I was in junior high school and somehow or another, it got into the hands of one of the girls in my 7th grade class. She, in her infinite wisdom, read it in front of the class...I didn't write again for almost thirty years.
In 1989, while struggling through a turbulent period in which I felt my life both personally and professionally falling apart (I have since learned I displayed all the behaviors of PTSD) I decided to write a novel dealing with my Vietnam experiences (that novel, ELEPHANT VALLEY, is now available through, B&N Nook Books and the Kindle Store). Unfortunately, I had not a single clue about what GOOD writing was, but I wrote it anyway. For the next few years I wrote feverishly (and quite badly) completing two more novels and numerous short stories. One of my novels, THE WAR WITHIN, took second place in a literary contest and I made my first ever money as a writer ($1500.00) which I immediately wasted by working with a predator agent (I told you I knew nothing about writing...let alone about the business of writing) who charged me a $2.00 per page reading/editing fee (She told me it because I was unpublished). This bad experience led to me turning my back on any serious writing for another eleven years. In 2000 I attended my 35th class reunion and guess who confronted me saying "Why aren't we seeing any books by you in the bookstores?" yup, the same ones who embarrassed me into my thirty year long funk. This time however, I asked myself the same question.
I was going to fire up the word processor, only this time determined to do things differently. To make a long story short, I started to attend writing seminars (many at the Barnes & Noble Store in Manchester, NH) where I started to build a network of relationships with published authors. This led me to joining MWA and from there I was invited to start a writer group with several established editors and published writers (all female I might add). As a result of what those ladies taught me, I was able to offer the following advice to the aspiring author:
  1. Foremost: Get into a writer group. However, don’t join one unless all the members have a goal of being published. It does you no good if the feedback you get is from friends and family, they’ll love everything you write no matter how much work it needs. My first group consisted of two professional editors and two published authors. I walked in thinking my writing was terrific—I limped out of the first meeting so mad I swore I’d never go back again. After some serious thought, I did go back and I listened and tried what they recommended…needless to say, they were right… my writing got better within a couple of weeks. Try what more experienced group members suggest. If you feel that you aren’t getting better as a result of the group…find another one. Accept their criticism as an effort to make you better. However, if you feel that their feedback is malicious rather than constructive, leave the group.
  2.   Join a professional writers organization. Since most of my work is thriller and mystery, I belong to Mystery Writers of America. 
  3.  Find a GOOD writer’s conference and go. You’ll meet many writers who are still starting out, but you’ll also get to meet and talk with some very good, established writers. I’ve attended the first 10 New England CrimeBakes and have had the opportunity to meet and talk such noted authors as Lee Child, Robert B. Parker, Lisa Scottalioni and Janet Evanovich. Talk to everyone and anyone you meet there. It’s tough to get top writers such as those I mentioned to read your work but if you can get them to look at it you may get a reference to their agent—that is a tremendous help. Don’t expect them (or an agent, for that matter) to read anything at the conference, but take business cards and spread them out. They may ask you to forward something to them and will provide you with feedback. One thing I’ve learned is that writers love to help other writers. Make sure the conference is one that offers the opportunity for you to make a pitch to an established Literary Agent…they will usually as for a sample of your work if it interests them. My experience is that you never bring a manuscript to the pitch (the agent will not be able to carry all of them back so they will not accept it). Don’t restrict your pitch to the organized session. Try and obtain a copy of the conference program before hand and research the agents who represent the type of work you do. It does no good to pitch a romance to an agent who doesn’t represent it. Work the cocktail lounge! Agents love it when a writer will spring for drinks and will spend some one-on-one time with you. Also, do not be too aggressive when approaching an agent, they’ll be swamped with people and I’ve learned that I got more attention from them when I don’t approach them with an immediate pitch. I usually start by making small talk and eventually the agent will ask “What do you write?” Don’t go on a long dissertation of your work. Develop a 30 second pitch…imagine that you end up on an elevator alone with an agent and have 30 seconds to tell him/her about your book…make the best use of your time. 
  4. Develop a tough skin, learn to deal with rejection. Remember that writing is no different than any other business in that it’s about sales. You can write the book ever written, but if it doesn’t have a market no one will touch it. If an agent feels that it would require too much effort to sell your book they’ll pass on it. Even Stephen King was rejected hundreds of times before he made it. 
  5.  Read everything you can find by successful writers in the genre you want to write. Don’t read for enjoyment, read for how they advance the plot, develop characters and how they structure each and every sentence. 
  6. Last of all, write, write and them write some more. On average, once a person decides they want to be a writer, it takes about 10 years to really perfect your skill (not that many writers haven’t done it in a much shorter time span). Don’t get hung up on reading about writing. As a writer friend once told me, “You spend so much time reading about writing, you don’t have time to write!” You can’t learn how to drive a car or fly a plane from a book…you have to do it. 

Friday, December 30, 2011

eBook Publishing

If I can believe all I've read and heard this past year, ebooks are the hottest form of publishing, supposedly 70% of all books published last year (2010) were ebooks. The keynote speaker in the first writer conference I ever attended, Jeremiah Healy, said, "The personal computer has made it very easy for people to write. Unfortunately, it also made it very easy for them to write badly." The same thing can be said for the burgeoning number of ebooks available through any number of outlets.

I have published a number of ebooks via smashwords and Kindle Direct Publishing (for some reason Barnes and Nobles and a number of ebook sites will accept books from Smashwords whereas Amazon does not, preferring that the author use their Kindle Direct Publishing) and receive an RSS feed from Smashwords each time I access my email with Outlook. Scrolling through the uploads can be quite eye-opening. The number of amateurish books makes one believe that ebook publishers have become the vanity press of the 21st century.

I find it quite easy to identify some of the lesser experienced writers by checking the price they put on their work. I doubt any accomplished writer would publish a book for free or for as small a price as $0.99 (Barnes and Noble and several other outlets will not list a book unless they meet a certain pricing standard).
Of late, I have seen more and more books by established authors for the Nook and the Kindle so I can't arbitrarily dismiss the platform...I am seeing more an more readers carrying ereaders of one type or another.

One of the reasons it is so easy to publish an ebook is that no special software is required. In fact, Smashwords and KDP prefer that the manuscript be written using Microsoft Word. There are some things to be aware of when preparing your manuscript for submission and the easiest way to ensure that your work will look its best on an ereader is to download the publisher's style guide. It has been my experience that if your book complies with Smashwords Style Guide (available for download at most other publishers will accept it with no reservations.

It can, however, be very frustrating when your Smashwords version keeps generating format errors. EReaders do not like tabs, or a sequence of more than 3 spaces used to separate text (I recently had the wonderful experience of preparing a manuscript which contained poetry where the author had used spaces to align sentences to create a visual. For example in one poem entitled PINE, the author spent a lot of time making the lines appear to form a pine tree. It did not work as an ebook--ebooks ignore things such as page breaks and, on my Nook, the pine tree was presented across two screens.) and font can be an issue. EReaders allow the reader to increase the font size for easier reading and therefore most publishers restrict font size to 12 pitch for normal print and no more than 16 for titles etc. Most publishers also require a cover for their higher levels of service. In the case of Smashwords to be included in their Premium Catalog requires you meet certain standards.

Why is inclusion in the Premium Catalog important? To quote Smashwords: "The Premium Catalog includes Smashwords titles that meet certain mechanical requirements for distribution into major online retailers such as Smashwords partners, Barnes & Noble or Apple. Smashwords books that achieve Premium Catalog status receive the greatest possible distribution across Smashwords' growing distribution network. If you're a serious writer and you want to reach the greatest number of readers, you want inclusion in the Premium Catalog. It's free."

In summary, eBook publishing is easy (although it usually takes me 3 to 6 hours to redesign a manuscript to meet Smashwords Guidelines) and virtually instantaneous--in a matter of hours you can see your book or short story in an ePublisher's catalog.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Why I Dread The Holidays

Connie Opening a Christmas Gift From Her Sister, Shirley

Once again the holidays are upon us and I've been hit with bad news. Before I tell you the bad news, I'd like to fill you in on some history. I had a turbulent childhood, so much so that I left home at the age of 17 riding in an eighteen wheeler bound for Boston to pick up a load of beer. I had five dollars, some record albums and a change of clothes with me. During the ensuing year I bounced around like a racquet ball going from Massachusetts to Connecticut to New Jersey until I finally enlisted in the U. S. Marine Corps in June of 1966. I turned nineteen in Parris Island (my birthday had passed by three days before I realized it).

Throughout my service, I did not go home for the holidays, choosing instead to spend time with friends (especially one particular friend in Memphis) or to stay at the base. During the years I was married to my now deceased wife, Connie, I went along with the flow, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas was her favorite time of year. All I can say about those years is that for the most part I was able to get through the season without ruining it for her and our daughter. Then came 2006.

On October 16, I lost my beloved Connie, which of itself was enough to dampen any semblance of holiday spirit I had. Then on December 20 my older brother, Norman, lost his battle with diabetes and kidney failure. I attended his funeral on Christmas Eve and returned to my home in New Hampshire, where I spent the holidays in seclusion. I have not put up a single holiday decoration since my last Christmas with Connie in 2005. My dislike of the holidays was, if anything, strengthened (while I think of her everyday, I find myself reminiscing of her and our holidays more and more during the season).

Now we jump forward to 2011. Last month I learned that an old childhood friend, Bob Cyr, was hospitalized with stage four intestinal cancer. I visited with him on Thanksgiving afternoon and again the following week. During the Thanksgiving visit he was lucid and we joked about some of the crazy things we did as kids, several of which I had forgotten. The second visit was not so nice. The cancer had spread and he was unable to carry on a conversation or maintain a consistent thought. About once every five minutes I had to tell him who I was. It was earth-shaking for me...a flashback to my wife's last days. I am still haunted by the last words she ever spoke: "Vaughn, help me." All I could say was, "Connie, I don't know what to do..." Looking at Bob and remembering Connie made me think about how helpless we truly are when our loved ones need us the most.

Bob passed away yesterday, December 14, 2011, at the age of 65.

It always hurts to lose a loved one, but to lose someone at this time of year seems to hit harder. For most of us (this writer excluded) the holidays are a time for family and for giving. To have to remove a loved one's presents from under a Christmas tree has to be devastating. It's bad enough to try and fill the void they left behind... I don't think I can handle too many more holidays.