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True-Crime, Composition, and Sarah Miller’s (2016), The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden & the Trial of the Century
Stacy Graber, McKenzie Davis, Renee Seebacher, and Sarah Welsh
Youngstown State University
The commercial success of such attractions is an apparent reflection of the popularity of “dark tourism” or travel to locales associated with death and disaster (Madden 2019). I hadn’t considered this sort of destination travel as a social phenomenon until it was framed as such in the articles that appeared in my feed after I taught Sarah Miller’s (2016) book, The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden & the Trial of the Century, and once the Borden residence was announced for sale. Although, I have long known about people’s lurid curiosity for visiting places steeped in tragedy and despair like defunct prisons and asylums, or crime scenes and sites of carnage.
Miller’s (2016) text is engaging because it provides young readers with a narrativized dossier of evidence (e.g., crime scene photographs, floor plans, excerpts from court transcripts and journalistic accounts, etc.) for drawing independent conclusions toward solving the crime, which synchs with argument-based standards across content areas. When I taught the book in a college-level YAL course, I drew upon Cole (2009) to frame discussion on how the mystery genre catalyzes inferential thinking through the practice of cognitive strategies (e.g., posing questions, clarifying, making connections, and revising initial assumptions) (p. 331). And, I followed that up with identification of patterns of organization enacted by the detective genre in tracking the thought process of a sleuth (e.g., cause and effect, process analysis, chronological and spatial order, comparison, etc.). Finally, I concluded by reiterating Hillocks’ (2011) classic recommendation to study mysteries (print and visual) to teach the fundamentals of argument with particular emphasis on the generation of warrants (i.e., reasoned links between claim and evidence).
Therefore, the following material consists of select blueprints for working with Miller’s text, designed by 3 prospective ELA teachers at YSU. By taking their lead, a new audience can engage with the folkloric Lizzie Borden and ELA teachers can capitalize on students’ love for the genres of true crime and mystery.
Plan 1 by McKenzie Davis
BuzzFeed Unsolved Network. (2017, May 12). The murders that haunt the Lizzie Borden house. [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/LuNDAGxYHSs
This resource allows viewers to virtually step inside the Lizzie Borden house, giving students greater perspective on the configuration of the house and the murder scenes. It also addresses theories for suspects aside from or in partnership with Lizzie Borden.
Fincher, D., et al. (Producers). (2017-2019). Mindhunter [TV series]. Netflix. https://www.netflix.com/
This fictional series is based on the true-crime book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker. The series follows FBI agents assigned with the task of interviewing serial killers to get inside their minds. Select episodes from this series would pair well with Miller’s Lizzie Borden text because they provide a true-crime perspective and glimpse at the thought process of murderers.
Tartt, D. (2004). The secret history. Vintage Books.
This novel presents an insider’s view of the construction of a murder (i.e., not only does it capture the psychological perspective of characters and their motives, but it also addresses the characters’ plot to make death appear accidental). This work of fiction would pair well with a nonfiction unit on Lizzie Borden because it offers readers the opportunity to consider the makings of a murder from the point of view of the murderers themselves.
Plan 2 by Renee Seebacher
Carroll, J., & Wilson, L. (2020). About unsolved case files - The true story. Unsolved Case Files. https://www.unsolvedcasefiles.com/about.html.
North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. (2013, August 9). Types of evidence [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pW4XQM-iQWQ
In this video, Amy Garrett, a forensics instructor at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, discusses the major categories of forensic evidence and the different types of evidence that fall under those categories. This will assist students with deciding which details to include in the evidence report portion of their case file on the Borden murders.
Schimel, B. (2017). Crime scene sketch. Wisconsin Department of Justice State Crime Laboratories. https://wilenet.org/html/crime-lab/index.html
This PDF of chapter four from the Wisconsin State Crime Laboratories’ Physical Evidence Handbook details how to sketch a crime scene. This will assist students with creating their own sketch of the crime scene at the Borden home that will be included in their case file.
Unsolved Case Files. (2020, August 7). Buddy Edmunds – Unsolved case files – Who killed Buddy? Cold Case Crime Board Overview [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com-/watch?v=kawJYDBDVv0&feature=emb_title
This video, published on the Unsolved Case Files YouTube channel, lays out the case of Buddy Edmunds (a victim in one of the games). Since this project is inspired by Unsolved Case Files, this video will give students an idea of what the documents they will be asked to assemble should look like, as well as insight on how such documents are used to solve cold crime cases.
Plan 3 by Sarah Welsh
When designing a final project based on Miller’s (2016) The Borden Murders, I considered that not all students think and learn alike. Some prefer to work individually, while others work better collaborating in groups. Therefore, I designed a final project that would fit either learning style and give students the freedom to choose which assignment would suit their needs. As an individual assignment, I would have students develop a 3-4-page research essay that discusses how modern forensic technology and crime scene investigation techniques of today could have assisted in solving the Borden murders, and I would require that they use at least three supplemental sources in their research. One source I provided is a nonfiction text by Bridget Heos (2016), Blood, Bullets, and Bones: The Story of Forensic Science from Sherlock Holmes to DNA. Without having to read book in its entirety, students could skim chapters to find evidence for their papers as to how those techniques could have helped solve the Borden murders. I also provided an article from USA Today, which discusses how DNA evidence has been used to solve cold cases from decades ago. Students could use this resource to frame their argument and direct research.
Buzzfeed. [Buzzfeed Unsolved Network]. (2017, May 12). The murders that haunt the Lizzie
Borden house [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LuNDAGxYHSs
The popular news blog Buzzfeed, via their YouTube channel Buzzfeed Unsolved (a comedic true crime channel), created a video exploring the house where the Borden murders were committed tandem with real-time commentary. All students would find the format engaging, and students who choose the group assignment could use this video to see inside the actual house which could benefit research for designing the game board.
Heos, B. (2016). Blood, bullets, and bones: The story of forensic science from Sherlock Holmes
to DNA. HarperCollins.
Heos’ text offers the history of how forensic science and CSI came to be. Specific chapters that would be helpful for students completing the individual assignment are chapters 5, 7, and 11 which discuss fingerprint analysis, investigation of blood spatter patterns, and the introduction of DNA evidence respectively.
Linder, D. O. (2021). The trial of Lizzie Borden: Selected maps & diagrams.
Douglas O. Linder, professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, provides images and descriptions of the exterior and interior of the Borden property. Students can use these images for the group assignment option to build the rooms for their Clue game board based on actual details from the house where the crimes were committed.
Rae, K. [Kendall Rae]. (2020, October 1). Did Lizzie Borden axe murder her parents??! [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zga8m_T1LAk
True crime YouTuber, Kendall Rae, explains the Lizzie Borden case. Students may find this version of the story helpful because a popular YouTuber condenses the account to 30 minutes making it more engaging and easier for students pick out technical details about the case. This video could be shown during reading and/or as support during project development.
Yancey-Bragg, N. (2019, May 14). DNA is cracking mysteries and cold cases. But is genome
sleuthing the ‘unregulated Wild West?’ USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/05/14/heres-how-dna-cracking-cold-cases-and-exonerating-innocent/1159571001/
This article provides information on how DNA technology and research have been used by law enforcement to finally solve cold cases. Students can use this article to do the individual writing assignment as proof that DNA evidence has expanded the ability of investigators to solve crimes and bring justice to victims.
Cole, P. (2009). Young adult literature in the 21st century. McGraw Hill.
De Leon, C. (2021, January 21). Lizzie Borden’s notoriety is this home’s selling point. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/21/us/lizzie-borden-museum.html
Hillocks, G. (2011). Teaching argument writing (grades 6-11): Supporting claims with relevant evidence and clear reasoning. Heinemann.
Madden, D. (2019, September 25). Dark tourism: Are these the world’s most macabre tourist attractions? Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/duncanmadden/2019/09/25/dark-tourism-eight-of-the-worlds-most-gruesome-tourist-attractions/