Classic Crime: Talma Gordon

Today: the second Lizzie Borden-inspired crime tale, and of the earliest (possibly the first) published mysteries by a black author. “Talma Gordon” appeared in the October 1900 issue of Colored American Magazine, an early literary and cultural journal for African-American readers. The author of “Talma Gordon,” Pauline Hopkins, was also the magazine’s editor, and one of its most profilic contributors.

Pauline Hopkins
Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins (1859-1930). Source: coloredamerican.org

I wrote about Pauline Hopkins for my Women Writers of Folklore and the Fantastic series, so I’ll quote what I said about “Talma Gordon” there:

Lovely golden-haired Talma Gordon is accused of the grisly murder of her wealthy father Jonathan Gordon, her stepmother, and her infant half-brother. During the investigation it comes out that Talma did not get along with her stepmother, that her father had forbidden Talma’s marriage to struggling artist Edward Turner — and that Gordon had been planning to leave the bulk of his wealth to his son, with only a small annuity to each of the two daughters of his first wife. Talma is acquitted legally, but not necessarily in the court of public opinion. What really happened?

You can read “Talma Gordon” here.

If you’ve read Hopkins’ fiction before, you’ll recognize the themes in “Talma Gordon.” On the plus side, it’s a crisp and engaging crime tale, and if there had been an American equivalent of The Strand Magazine at the time, “Talma Gordon” would have been right at home. On the other hand, I do have to give it a point off for a Deux ex machina ending, and some aspects of the story haven’t aged well—because some of the cultural attitudes of the time are, thankfully, no longer acceptable.

All in all, if you’re looking for a unique take on the Lizzie Borden story, as well as an interesting piece of literary and African-American history, do check out “Talma Gordon.” I hope you enjoy it!

Classic Crime: The Long Arm

Today’s Classic Crime is one I’ve shared before, but it’s a story I really like, by an author I admire. “The Long Arm,” by Mary Wilkins Freeman, is the first of two women-authored murder mysteries I plan to present that were probably inspired by the infamous Lizzie Borden case.

Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman
Mary Wilkins Freeman Source: Wikimedia

Sarah Fairbanks is an unmarried schoolteacher who’s been engaged to her beau for five years. But for some reason, her father disapproves of the relationship. Sarah argues loudly with him about her fiancé one night when she is home for summer vacation. The next morning, she finds her father in his bed — murdered. Suspicion falls quickly on Sarah, and soon she’s arrested.

At the trial, Sarah is acquitted (like Lizzie Borden was), but she is shunned by the community, which still suspects her guilt. So to clear her own name, Sarah decides to investigate the murder herself. Can she find the murderer and prove her innocence?

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The Long Arm

While reading some commentaries on Pauline Hopkins’ short story “Talma Gordon”, I came upon a mention of another short story that is likely based on the Lizzie Bordon case: “The Long Arm” by Mary Wilkins Freeman. Oooh! I thought; I didn’t know she wrote crime fiction! And of course I had to go find it.

Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman
Mary Wilkins Freeman Source: Wikimedia

The heroine of “The Long Arm” is one Miss Sarah Fairbanks, who is, like many of Wilkins’ protagonists, an unmarried schoolmarm. Sarah has a sweetheart, one whom her father objects to, for some reason. He berates Sarah loudly about her sweetheart one night during Sarah’s visit home for the summer vacation. The next morning, Sarah discovers her father’s body in his bed, murdered. Soon, Sarah is the only plausible suspect.

Like Lizzie Borden, Sarah is arrested, put on trial, and eventually acquitted–but not in the public mind. Unlike Lizzie Borden, Sarah decides to investigate the case herself, and she does a pretty good job, up to a point. Will Sarah be able to clear herself?

You can read The Long Arm at the Women’s Genre Fiction Project, here.

It’s an interesting short story, and Sarah is a strong protagonist (as are the majority of Freeman’s heroines), with a highly analytical mind. Freeman wrote the story for an anthology called The Long Arm and Other Detective Stories (1895), which is available in its entirety at the Women’s Genre Fiction Project, though the other three authors are men. The rest of the anthology is enjoyable as well. I particularly like “The Twinkling of an Eye” by Professor Brander Matthews.

Enjoy!