Wednesday, August 25, 2021




On a winter day in 1898, 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, and suffocating her with a pillow. The crowd will not know for a year that the alleged murderess becomes the first woman in the world executed in the electric chair. None of her 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? We have heard only from those who abused and condemned Martha Place. Speaking from the grave she tells her own story. 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.

Book Details:

Title: The Murderess Must Die

Author: Marlie Parker Wasserman

Genre: historical crime fiction

Publisher: Level Best Books, Historia Imprint (July 6, 2021)

Print length: 248 pages



A few of your favorite things: the desk where I write each day. The desk belonged to my father, so I can still envision him sitting there, paying bills, sorting through papers. My family has lugged that desk from one home to another, five or six times. Now I carefully arrange my laptop on the surface, my research material, my pens, my coffee.  I’m not sure I could write anywhere else.
Things you need to throw out: all the items in my pantry and refrigerator that have turned green as I’ve been writing at my wonderful desk.

Things you need in order to write: in addition to the desk I just mentioned, I need time to think, to let the characters talk to me, to weigh the logic of different plot ideas. The characters talk the most at night, and when I shower. If I try to quiet them so I can focus on what to make for breakfast or whether the weather will allow for a hike, then I’m in trouble.
Things that hamper your writing: one of my biggest problems with writing will sound familiar to others—breaks in the process. If I write every day, I can recall where I’ve been with the story and where I am going, but if I take a vacation or a break to do another project, and then I return to my novel, I have lost the momentum. It takes me days just to refresh my memory. I have to recover the strands of the plot and all the hundreds of details I had in my head the week before. I do write down some of the strands, of course, but even more remain in my head.

Things you love about writing: writing is like a giant jigsaw puzzle or boardgame. So many options lie in front of the writer, who must decide what path to follow. I believe writing keeps the pathways in my brain open and active. I think of writing as brain exercise.
Things you hate about writing: when I wake up in the morning, reread what I wrote the day before, and feel like I’ve wasted my time. But I take another sip of coffee and try again.

Easiest thing about being a writer: well, nothing about writing is easy, but I do get pleasure from coming up with an idea that connects one scene to another, or that connects one character’s motivation to her actions.  In historical fiction, I get pleasure in my research when I come across a nugget of information that helps explain events. For example, in writing The Murderess Must Die, after a year of research I came across an article that mentioned that the victim’s girlfriend’s fiancĂ© was on the coroner’s jury. That led me to a subplot that helps to explain motivations for many of my characters. 

Hardest thing about being a writer: plot. Plot. And plot. We all start with an idea, and maybe an ending or twist, but to sustain action and tension for, let’s say, 250 pages, remains a task. And once you do have the general form of a plot, you need to ensure that it is logical, and that you have created continuity.  Too often, as I revise, I realize I’ve confused dates. Sally unwraps her birthday gift but her party is not until the next scene.

Things you love about where you live: I have never been attached to any one place. I’ve lived in Illinois, Virginia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and now North Carolina. Each place feels special. In North Carolina, I admire the mix of long-time residents with new residents from other regions of the country, I enjoy the smells of the foliage, and I enjoy southern barbeque and biscuits. But I am a firm believer that every area has its charms if you keep an open mind and look hard enough.
Things that make you want to move: I don’t like to focus on moving, but I do like to focus on seeing new places. From North Carolina, we can get to the beaches, to the mountains, and to a few large cities easily. I value travel for all the cliched reasons—new sights, new people, new tastes. But for my friends who cannot travel for one reason or another, I always add that I don’t believe in the idea that to be fully alive you must have traveled to Paris—or London or Jerusalem or the Grand Canyon—before you die. You can transport yourself to other places through novels and films just as easily as by travel.

Words that describe you: I am alternately introverted or extroverted, depending on the circumstances and the day. I would like to think of myself as sensitive to other people’s needs and feelings. On the negative side, I can focus so much that I forget those around me and I am stubborn about foods I don’t like and activities I don’t like. My children would probably call me judgmental, but my friends would not, so make of that what you will.
Words that describe you but you wish they didn’t: frizzy-haired and beady-eyed.

Something you’re really good at: I am moderately gifted at sketching, and I love to draw. Writing has taken time away from my art projects.

Something you’re really bad at: sports and Marlie do not get along. I can’t hit a tennis ball, a golf ball, or a volleyball.  I am bored by baseball and do not understand football or soccer.  On social occasions, when the topic turns to team sports, I zone out.  Right after sports comes the guitar.  Despite four years of lessons, I cannot play Old McDonald.

Things you’d walk a mile for: I would walk a mile for ice cream, with no hesitation. When I travel to a new city or country, the first thing I do is Google “best ice cream in x.”  Here in North Carolina, we have found our go-to ice cream shop in the town of Cary.  I don’t understand why the entire world is not lined up there.
Things that make you want to run screaming from the room: I am afraid of all bugs, mice, dogs, cats, etc.  If I see even a small ant I want to run, screaming. My discomfort with dogs and cats poses problems for my social life and means I’ll never write a cozy mystery.

Things you always put in your books: I have learned to always add smells into my writing. Often, this means cigar smoke. Sometimes body odor. At first, I was so busy trying to get the plot down that I forgot about the senses. Now I do my best to remember.

Things you never put in your books: I tire of too much foul language. Not that I think it’s sinful—just boring. I do have an occasional swear word, but the less you have the more weight it carries.

Favorite places you’ve been: here’s a shout out for my city of birth—Chicago. I know stories about crime tend to deter tourists, but that’s a shame. Take an architectural boat ride on the Chicago River. Yes, your boat will be filled with tourists, but sometimes crowds are present for a reason. Visitors know a good thing when they see it. A second favorite place, less well-known, is Black Canyon of the Gunnison. This is a relatively new national park in Colorado. Candy for the eyes.

Places you never want to go to again: OK, I know this is controversial, but I think Seattle is overrated. Once you’ve walked the waterfront and eaten at Pike’s Market, what’s left? Sorry, Seattle lovers.

Favorite books:
historical crime fiction. You can see I am biased toward the genre in which I write.  With historical crime fiction you get mystery and an educational setting.  
Books you would ban: no one will agree with me, but I would ban sci fi.  I believe the real world is strange enough without making up new oddities.  I try to overcome this bias from time to time, but it’s a heavy lift for me.

Favorite things to do: writing and drawing. They are alike, each requiring choices, creativity, and working the brain.

Things you’d run through a fire wearing gasoline pants to get out of doing: any sports. I am sooo bad at both team sports and individual sports. Can’t even manage croquet.

Things that make you happy: my answer is immediate—my grandson. He lights up my life. I don’t care if that’s a clichĂ©.
Things that drive you crazy: here’s a trivial annoyance that everyone will understand. I go crazy when I want to leave voicemail but must first listen to “I’m out fishin’ and havin’ a good time,” followed by more chit chat. Just let me leave the message.  I go equally crazy when Sue uses email to invite ten people to her party and then all ten push reply all, filling up my inbox.

Most daring thing you’ve ever done: as you can guess, I can’t swim.  But the college I attended required students to swim the length of a pool before graduating. If I had realized that when I applied and was accepted, I would have chosen another college.  Anyway, wonder of wonders, I swam the length. It was one of the greatest and most surprising feats of my life.

Something you chickened out from doing: my pre-teen daughter and I planned to go to the mall to get our ears pierced, together. She went first and nearly passed out from the experience. When I helped her to a bench in the mall to recuperate, I realized I could not go second. We simply went home. For months I didn’t live down my cowardice. Eventually I went to the mall alone and did the deed.



Martha Garretson, that’s the name I was born with, but the district attorney called me Martha Place in the murder charge. I was foolish enough to marry Mr. William Place. And before that I was dumb enough to marry another man, Wesley Savacool. So, my name is Martha Garretson Savacool Place. Friends call me Mattie. No, I guess that’s not right. I don’t have many friends, but my family, the ones I have left, they call me Mattie. I’ll tell you more before we go on. The charge was not just murder. That D.A. charged me with murder in the first degree, and he threw in assault, and a third crime, a ridiculous one, attempted suicide. In the end he decided to aim at just murder in the first. That was enough for him.

I had no plans to tell you my story. I wasn’t one of those story tellers. That changed in February 1898, soon after my alleged crimes, when I met Miss Emilie Meury. The guards called her the prison angel. She’s a missionary from the Brooklyn Auxiliary Mission Society. Spends her days at the jail where the police locked me up for five months before Sing Sing. I never thought I’d talk to a missionary lady. I didn’t take kindly to religion. But Miss Meury, she turned into a good friend and a good listener. She never snickered at me. Just nodded or asked a question or two, not like those doctors I talked to later. They asked a hundred questions. No, Miss Meury just let me go wherever I wanted, with my recollections. Because of Miss Meury, now I know how to tell my story. I talked to her for thirteen months, until the day the state of New York set to electrocute me.

We talked about the farm, that damn farm. Don’t fret, I knew enough not to say damn to Emilie Meury. She never saw a farm. She didn’t know much about New Jersey, and nothing about my village, East Millstone. I told her how Pa ruined the farm. Sixty acres, only thirty in crop, one ramshackle house with two rooms down and two rooms up. And a smokehouse, a springhouse, a root cellar, a chicken coop, and a corn crib, all run down, falling down. The barn was the best of the lot, but it leaned over to the west.

They tell me I had three baby brothers who died before I was born, two on the same day. Ma and Pa hardly talked about that, but the neighbors remembered, and they talked. For years that left just my brother Garret, well, that left Garret for a while anyway, and my sister Ellen. Then I was born, then Matilda—family called her Tillie—then Peter, then Eliza, then Garret died in the

war, then Eliza died. By the time I moved to Brooklyn, only my brother Peter and my sister Ellen were alive. Peter is the only one the police talk to these days.

The farmers nearby and some of our kin reckoned that my Ma and Pa, Isaac and Penelope Garretson were their names, they bore the blame for my three little brothers dying in just two years. Isaac and Penelope were so mean, that’s what they deserved. I don’t reckon their meanness caused the little ones to die. I was a middle child with five before me and three after, and I saw meanness all around, every day. I never blamed anything on meanness. Not even what happened to me.

On the farm there was always work to be done, a lot of it by me. Maybe Ma and Pa spread out the work even, but I never thought so. By the time I was nine, that was in 1858, I knew what I had to do. In the spring I hiked up my skirt to plow. In the fall I sharpened the knives for butchering. In the winter I chopped firewood after Pa or Garret, he was the oldest, sawed the heaviest logs. Every morning I milked and hauled water from the well. On Thursdays I churned. On Mondays I scrubbed. Pa, and Ma too, they were busy with work, but they always had time to yell when I messed up. I was two years younger than Ellen, she’s my sister, still alive, I think. I was taller and stronger. Ellen had a bent for sewing and darning, so lots of time she sat in the parlor with handiwork. I didn’t think the parlor looked shabby. Now that I’ve seen fancy houses, I remember the scratched and frayed chairs in the farmhouse and the rough plank floor, no carpets. While Ellen sewed in the parlor, I plowed the fields, sweating behind the horses. I sewed too, but everyone knew Ellen was better. I took care with all my chores. Had to sew a straight seam. Had to plow a straight line. If I messed up, Pa’s wrath came down on me, or sometimes Ma’s. Fists or worse.

When I told that story for the first time to Miss Emilie Meury, she lowered her head, looked at the Bible she always held. And when I told it to others, they looked away too.

On the farm Ma needed me and Ellen to watch over our sisters, Tillie and Eliza, and over our brother Peter. They were born after me. Just another chore, that’s what Ellen thought about watching the young ones. For me, I liked watching them, and not just because I needed a rest from farm work. I loved Peter. He was four years younger. He’s not that sharp but he’s a good-natured, kind. I loved the girls too. Tillie, the level-headed and sweet one, and Eliza, the restless one, maybe wild even. The four of us played house. I was the ma and Peter, he stretched his

back and neck to be pa. I laughed at him, in a kindly way. He and me, we ordered Tillie and Eliza around. We played school and I pranced around as schoolmarm.

But Ma and Pa judged, they judged every move. They left the younger ones alone and paid no heed to Ellen. She looked so sour. We called her sourpuss. Garret and me, we made enough mistakes to keep Ma and Pa busy all year. I remember what I said once to Ma, when she saw the messy kitchen and started in on me.

“Why don’t you whup Ellen? She didn’t wash up either.”

“Don’t need to give a reason.”

“Why don’t you whup Garret. He made the mess.”

“You heard me. Don’t need to give a reason.”

Then she threw a dish. Hit my head. I had a bump, and more to clean.

With Pa the hurt lasted longer. Here’s what I remember. “Over there.” That’s what he said, pointing. He saw the uneven lines my plow made. When I told this story to Miss Meury, I pointed, with a mean finger, to give her the idea.

I spent that night locked in the smelly chicken coop.

When I tell about the coop, I usually tell about the cemetery next, because that’s a different kind of hurt. Every December, from the time I was little to the time I left the farm, us Garretsons took the wagon or the sleigh for our yearly visit to the cemetery, first to visit Stephen, Cornelius, and Abraham. They died long before. They were ghosts to me. I remembered the gloom of the cemetery, and the silence. The whole family stood around those graves, but I never heard a cry. Even Ma stayed quiet. I told the story, just like this, to Miss Meury. But I told it again, later, to those men who came to the prison to check my sanity.

Penelope Wykoff Garretson

I was born a Wyckoff, Penelope Wyckoff, and I felt that in my bones, even when the other farm folks called me Ma Garretson. As a Wyckoff, one of the prettiest of the Wyckoffs I’m not shy to say, I lived better than lots of the villagers in central New Jersey, certainly better than the Garretsons. I had five years of schooling and new dresses for the dances each year. I can’t remember what I saw in Isaac Garretson when we married on February 5, 1841. We slept together that night. I birthed Stephen nine months later. Then comes the sing-song litany. When I was still nursing Stephen, Garret was born. And while I was still nursing Garret, the twins were born. Then the twins died and I had only Stephen and Garret. Then Stephen died and I had no one but Garret until Ellen was born. Then Martha. Some call her Mattie. Then Peter. Then Matilda. Some call her Tillie. Then Eliza. Then Garret died. Then Eliza died. Were there more births than deaths or deaths than births?

During the worst of the birthing and the burying, Isaac got real bad. He always had a temper, I knew that, but it got worse. Maybe because the farm was failing, or almost failing. The banks in New Brunswick—that was the nearby town—wouldn’t lend him money. Those bankers knew him, knew he was a risk. Then the gambling started. Horse racing. It’s a miracle he didn’t lose the farm at the track. I didn’t tell anyone, not even my sisters, about the gambling, and I certainly didn’t tell them that the bed didn’t help any. No time for shagging. Isaac pulled me to him at the end of a day. The bed was always cold because he never cut enough firewood. I rolled away most days, not all. Knew it couldn’t be all. So tired. There were no strapping boys to 

help with the farm, no girls either for a while.

As Garret grew tall and Ellen and Mattie grew some, I sent the children to the schoolhouse. It wasn’t much of a school, just a one-room unpainted cottage shared with the post office, with that awful Mr. Washburn in charge. It was what we had. Isaac thought school was no use and kept Garret and the girls back as much as he could, especially in the spring. He needed them for the farm and the truth was I could use them for housework and milking and such too. Garret didn’t mind skipping school. He was fine with farm work, but Ellen and Mattie fussed and attended more days than Garret did. I worried that Garret struggled to read and write, while the girls managed pretty well. Ellen and Mattie read when there was a need and Mattie was good with her numbers. At age nine she was already helping Isaac with his messy ledgers.

I was no fool—I knew what went on in that school. The few times I went to pull out Garret midday for plowing, that teacher, that Mr. Washburn, looked uneasy when I entered the room. He stood straight as a ramrod, looking at me, grimacing. His fingernails were clean and his collar was starched. I reckon he saw that my fingernails were filthy and my muslin dress was soiled. Washburn didn’t remember that my children, the Garretson children, were Wyckoffs just as much as they were Garretsons. He saw their threadbare clothes and treated them like dirt. Had Garret chop wood and the girls haul water, while those stuck-up Neilson girls, always with those silly smiles on their faces, sat around in their pretty dresses, snickering at the others. First, I didn’t think the snickering bothered anyone except me. Then I saw Ellen and Mattie fussing with their clothes before school, pulling the fabric around their frayed elbows to the inside, and I knew they felt bad.

I wanted to raise my children, at least my daughters, like Wyckoffs. With Isaac thinking he was in charge, that wasn’t going to happen. At least the girls knew the difference, knew there was something better than this miserable farm. But me, Ma Garretson they called me, I was stuck.


Excerpt from The Murderess Must Die by Marlie Wasserman.  Copyright 2021 by Marlie Wasserman. Reproduced with permission from Marlie Wasserman. All rights reserved.



Marlie Parker Wasserman writes historical crime fiction, after a long career in academic publishing. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with her husband Mark, a historian. Marlie is at work on two other novels, one set in Panama in 1906 and one centered around the Windsor Hotel fire in Manhattan in 1899.

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