The Murderess Must Die
by Marlie Parker Wasserman
August 16 – September 10, 2021 Tour
On a winter day in 1898, hundreds of spectators gather at a Brooklyn courthouse, scrambling for a view of the woman they label a murderess. Martha Place has been charged with throwing acid in her stepdaughter’s face, hitting her with an axe, suffocating her with a pillow, then trying to kill her husband with the same axe. The crowd will not know for another year that the alleged murderess becomes the first woman in the world to be executed in the electric chair. None of her eight lawyers can save her from a guilty verdict and the governor of New York, Theodore Roosevelt, refuses to grant her clemency.
Was Martha Place a wicked stepmother, an abused wife, or an insane killer? Was her stepdaughter a tragic victim? Why would a well-dressed woman, living with an upstanding husband, in a respectable neighborhood, turn violent? Since the crime made the headlines, we have heard only from those who abused and condemned Martha Place.
Speaking from the grave she tells her own story, in her own words. Her memory of the crime is incomplete, but one of her lawyers fills in the gaps. At the juncture of true crime and fiction, The Murderess Must Die is based on an actual crime. What was reported, though, was only half the story.
Praise for The Murderess Must Die:
A true crime story. But in this case, the crime resides in the punishment. Martha Place was the first woman to die in the electric chair: Sing Sing, March 20, 1899. In this gorgeously written narrative, told in the first-person by Martha and by those who played a part in her life, Marlie Parker Wasserman shows us the (appalling) facts of fin-de-siècle justice. More, she lets us into the mind of Martha Place, and finally, into the heart. Beautifully observed period detail and astute psychological acuity combine to tell us Martha’s story, at once dark and illuminating. The Murderess Must Die accomplishes that rare feat: it entertains, even as it haunts.
Howard A. Rodman, author of The Great Eastern
The first woman to be executed by electric chair in 1899, Martha Place, speaks to us in Wasserman’s poignant debut novel. The narrative travels the course of Place’s life describing her desperation in a time when there were few opportunities for women to make a living. Tracing events before and after the murder of her step-daughter Ida, in lean, straightforward prose, it delivers a compelling feminist message: could an entirely male justice system possibly realize the frightful trauma of this woman’s life? This true-crime novel does more–it transcends the painful retelling of Place’s life to expand our conception of the death penalty. Although convicted of a heinous crime, Place’s personal tragedies and pitiful end are inextricably intertwined.
Nev March, author of Edgar-nominated Murder in Old Bombay
The Murderess Must Die would be a fascinating read even without its central elements of crime and punishment. Marlie Parker Wasserman gets inside the heads of a wide cast of late nineteenth century Americans and lets them tell their stories in their own words. It’s another world, both alien and similar to ours. You can almost hear the bells of the streetcars.
Edward Zuckerman, author of Small Fortunes and The Day After World War Three, Emmy-winning writer-producer of Law & Order
This is by far the best book I have read in 2021! Based on a true story, I had never heard of Mattie Place prior to reading this book. I loved all of the varying voices telling in the exact same story. It was unique and fresh and so wonderfully deep. I had a very hard time putting the book down until I was finished!
It isn’t often that an author makes me feel for the murderess but I did. I connected deeply with all of the people in this book, and I do believe it will stay with me for a very long time.
This is a fictionalized version of the murder of Ida Place but it read as if the author Marlie Parker Wasserman was a bystander to the actual events. I very highly recommend this book.
Read an excerpt:
Marlie Parker Wasserman writes historical crime fiction, after a career on the other side of the desk in publishing. The Murderess Must Die is her debut novel. She reviews regularly for The Historical Novel Review and is at work on a new novel about a mysterious and deadly 1899 fire in a luxury hotel in Manhattan.
Q&A with Marlie Parker Wasserman
What was the inspiration for this book?
As I wrote a different novel, about Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to the Panama Canal, I did a lot of reading about that president. He had many public service jobs before becoming president, and one of those was governor of NY. I came across a newspaper story on how as governor he denied clemency to a woman named Martha Place, so she became the first woman to die in the electric chair. She had been convicted of murdering her stepdaughter in Brooklyn in 1898. That story piqued my interest, and the rest is history, my history and hers. I decided to imagine her life, and her death.
What has been the biggest challenge in your writing career?
As many debut authors will tell you, the first challenge is writing a novel, but in some ways the biggest challenge is finding a literary agent and/or a publisher. Entire handbooks and hundreds of articles can guide you on the path, but even with such help the process is daunting. I was fortunate. A wonderful, insightful editor at Level Best Books, a publisher with a superb track record fostering mysteries, saw the value in my work.
What do you absolutely need while writing?
Many people would list the skills a writer needs, and of course that is the case, but above all writers need persistence. Writing is not like junior high, where the teacher gives a pop quiz every now and then so you and she can assess your progress. Until you get to the point where you have friends, or better yet experts, read drafts and offer suggestions, you are pretty much on your own, self-judging your work, revising, and trying not to get down in the dumps on a bad writing day.
Do you adhere to a strict routine when writing or write when the ideas are flowing?
I thrive on routine. Every morning, after breakfast, I go to my laptop and begin writing, even if no muse hovers over me. If nothing seems to work, I reread the previous day’s writing, looking for threads to follow through on. Or I research some small point like, in my case, the historic role of a coroner.
Who is your favorite character from your book and why?
I have three or four favorite characters but let me single out one—Aunt Evelyn. Most of my characters were actual historical figures, but Aunt Evelyn is a product of my imagination. She is a wealthy woman, trying to help her poor niece, the murderess of my story. A charitable woman, Aunt Evelyn encourages her niece to begin a dressmaking business. But even Aunt Evelyn reaches her limit at one point, over a relatively minor matter, and refuses to offer help when it is most needed. So, like everyone, she combines the good with the bad, and offers assistance that is sometimes perceived as patronizing.
Tell us why we should read your book.
Have you ever wondered how a murderer could kill an innocent human being? Have you felt it impossible to put yourself in his shoes, or maybe I should type her shoes? For me, trying to imagine someone else’s motivations is a way to greater understanding of human nature. Martha Place was silenced in her era. No one cared about her, no one wrote about her except as a cold-blooded murderess. Read my book and think about whether you too could be driven to evil.
Give us an interesting fun fact or a few about your book?
A story about a woman who allegedly murdered her stepdaughter is unlikely to be full of laughs, but I do have a bit of gallows humor every now and then. Have you ever thought about the concept of the last meal—the public seems oddly fascinated by what the convict eats as he—usually he—faces death. I play with that a bit.
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Although this book is set in a particular past time—1898-1899—it is very much crime fiction. We have a murder, along with an assault, a trial, a conviction, and a year in prison. We have mysterious elements as well. Why did Martha Place kill, and did she really kill, and who will help her and who won’t? In short, I write for readers who appreciate crime fiction, not just those who appreciate historical fiction.
Tell us a little about yourself and your background?
For many decades I managed a university press that specialized in scholarly books in the humanities and social sciences. Now I focus on my second career—writing. In addition, I love to travel. For my bucket list, I want to visit every one of the nation’s 63 national parks. I’m up to 38. When I’m not traveling, I live in Chapel Hill, NC, with my historian husband, and spend time with my son, daughter, and grandson.
What’s next that we can look forward to?
I am hard at work on another book—a look at the Windsor Hotel fire in Manhattan in 1899. The hotel burned to the ground. About 50 hotel guests lost their lives, including many women who jumped from upper floors. The NY coroner ruled the fire accidental. Those are the historic facts. But I write to imagine the related crimes that the official accounts never covered.
Catch Up With Marlie Wasserman:
Instagram – @marliepwasserman
Twitter – @MarlieWasserman
Facebook – @marlie.wasserman
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This is a rafflecopter giveaway hosted by Partners in Crime Virtual Book Tours for Marlie Parker Wasserman. There will be 1 winner of one (1) Amazon.com Gift Card (U.S. ONLY). The giveaway runs from August 16th until September 12, 2021. Void where prohibited.