The Murderess Must Die

Written by Marlie Parker Wasserman
Review by Cindy Vallar

Martha “Mattie” Garretson raises herself from a dirt-poor farmer’s daughter to the wife of an insurance adjuster. In between life with her abusive father and her current husband, she marries a grocery clerk and bears him a son, later adopted by another family after her husband abandons them. She keeps knowledge of her son a secret, but regrets giving him away. Now that she has a good home, she wants him to be a part of her family, but her stepdaughter, Ida, doesn’t want a brother. She has her father wrapped around her little finger, getting everything she wants while doing little things that help to drive a wedge between him and Mattie.

William Place, a widower with a young, teenage daughter, initially hires Mattie as a temporary housekeeper, but four years into their marriage realizes he made a mistake. The revelation of her son and the fact that she squirrels away house money to give to him—a fact divulged by Ida—aggravates the situation until Mattie’s self-control snaps, and murder ensues.

This novel tells the story of the first woman executed at New York’s Sing Sing prison in 1898 and the first woman in the world to die in the electric chair. It unfolds from 29 perspectives: Mattie, William, Ida, and various relatives and people who come in contact with Mattie, such as a minister, lawyers, police, and prison personnel. While this technique has a good flow and makes a compelling narrative, readers never truly connect with Mattie, and some aspects of the murder become so cloudy it’s difficult to discern what actually takes place. This is an intriguing examination of choices and consequences, as well as questionable investigative techniques. At the same time, Wasserman captures 19th-century life in a way that makes it easy to visualize.