Title: Did They Really Do It? From Lizzie Borden to the 20th Hijacker
Author: Fred Rosen
Nine of the most controversial violent crimes in America’s history are reexamined in these compelling stories of true crime
Dr. Samuel Mudd set John Wilkes Booth’s broken ankle, but was he actually part of the larger conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln? Did Lizzie Borden brutally murder her own parents in Massachusetts? Was admitted jihadist Zacarias Moussaoui really involved in the terrorist plot to destroy the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001? In a series of provocative and eye-opening true crime investigations, author Fred Rosen revisits some of the most shocking and notorious crimes in America over the past two centuries to determine once and for all . . . did they really do it?
Applying logic and techniques of modern criminology while reexamining the crime scenes, official police records, and the original courtroom testimonies of witnesses and the accused, Rosen explores nine infamous crimes that rocked the nation and the verdicts that were ultimately handed down. From Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s execution for treason to the kidnapping and killing of the Lindbergh baby to the Ku Klux Klan slayings of three civil rights workers in Mississippi to 9/11, the alleged perpetrators get another day in court as Rosen calls into question the circumstantial evidence and cultural context that may have determined guilt or innocence in each case.
It feels a bit like the author picked out some true-crime cases that interested him and then tried think of something that could link them together and came up with ‘Did they really do it?’ even though in some cases that is not the most burning question. A more accurate link is probably that in most cases the circumstances and the time had huge influences on the trial and the verdict.
And if Rosen had just gone down that road, delved deeper into the Rosenbergs, Zacarias Moussaoui etc. and thrown out Lizzie Borden, the Boston Strangler and Bruno Hauptmann which all feel like badly done filler this might have been a much better book. Instead, we get a very mixed bag.
So, according to Rosen, Lizzie Borden did kill her father and step-mother. The proof? She never married.
Yes, you see Lizzie was abused. Physically by her step-mom and her father didn’t do anything about it or sexually by her father and the step-mom didn’t know/care/do anything. Or perhaps both. He isn’t quite clear on that. But that’s why she killed both. And then ha suddenly decides that she was sexually abused and that’s the reason she never married. Because as we all know that is the only reason why a woman would never marry. All others just have to throw herself at the first guy that comes along…
And that is actually all the “proof” we get for his conviction that Lizzie Borden was a killer which is…weak.
When it comes to Bruno Hauptmann he thinks that he was rightfully convicted of abducting and (accidentally) killing Charles Lindbergh Jr. He might have had a partner but that’s not what the chapter is about. The chapter is actually about Lindbergh Senior’s antisemitism and support for Hitler. Now I’m not saying these things should be ignored because of what Lindberg did and what happened to him but it has no relevance for the question of whether Hauptmann was innocent. The abduction happened in 1930. Lindbergh only declared his sympathy for Hitler and his views years after that. There is no connection between that and the death of his child and therefore no need to spent over a third of the chapter on it.
Now the chapter on the Boston Strangler really does take the cake for ‘useless filler-chapter’. Yes, Albert DeSalvo did commit some of the murders but not all of them. (He reaches that conclusion, not by a meticulous study of the sources but because by now there has been DNA-testing was done that exonerates him in one case). So the Boston Stranger were most likely Stranglers. How many were there? Which murders were most likely to be DeSalvo’s doing? Who knows or cares? But apparently, the author has a minimum page-count he needs to reach…
And that is a shame because the chapters that are more about how time and circumstances like the Red Glare, racism and antisemitism or the post 9/11 chaos influenced the courts: they’re pretty good. Though to come back to one of my initial complaints: One of the chapters is about three murdered civil rights activists in 1960s Mississippi and from the way the case is presented I didn’t get the impression that there was ever the question ‘did they really do it?’ The problem was rather that due to racism, the way the justice system worked back then, more racism and even more racism it wasn’t possible to get convictions for everybody that was involved in the murders. At least that’s how I (who had never heard of this case before this book) understood it. So either there were more doubts than the author let on which means he did a bad job at presenting the case, or the case was pretty clear-cut. In that case, he did a bad job when he decided to include it in a book that’s supposed to be about cases where there’s doubt about the true guilty party.
If that book was a paper that got handed in for grading it would come back with ‘missed the topic’…