Hacking Away at Our Ongoing Obsession With Lizzie Borden

One hundred and twenty-three years after Lizzie Borden was accused of giving her mother and father 40 and 41 whacks, respectively, we still can't stop talking about what really happened that night.

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Oct 29 2015, 3:15pm

Screenshot via Lifetime

At the gift shop next to the Lizzie Borden house in Fall River, Massachusetts, the woman at the sales counter—where I was buying an "I love my mommy to death" bib for my baby—slid a picture over to me. The picture depicted the back of the house next door; its edges were curling.

"Look at the top window," she said.

I did and I held my breath, trying to remain calm. In the second story window was a pale circle of light, with two dark hallows—eyes. "Is it Lizzie?" I asked.

"Some think it was Abby," the woman said, referring to Mrs. Borden, Lizzie Borden's stepmother.

"Could it be Brigid?" I was trying to pretend like I saw ghost pictures every day, mostly because my friends were sitting on the sofa giggling. I glared at them, so they would know I had to seem entirely serious—you can't get good information from people who feel like they are being mocked. Plus, I'm not sure I don't actually believe in ghosts anyway.

Even if you don't believe in ghosts, Lizzie Borden still haunts America.

"Some people have ideas about Lizzie and Brigid," the woman sniffed. Brigid was the maid's name. "Probably wasn't true anyway since Brigid married a man later."

I stared at the picture, trying to convince myself that it was a reflection, a mistake made in the development process. The woman picked the picture up and put it back in a drawer. "Lizzie's still here," she said.

I smiled. I imagined they did this for tours. The admission price was $20 a person, and everyone in the gift shop looked like they wanted to be haunted. But I believed her. Even if you don't believe in ghosts, Lizzie Borden still haunts America.

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Lizzie Borden is the subject of numerous made-for-TV movies, TV shows, and documentaries. She is the subject of intense debate on web forums where everyone seems to have an autodidactic knowledge of criminal law, cobbled together from TV shows and their brother-in-law who as an actual degree. Psychic blogs claim to know the "truth" about Lizzie. Ghost hunters claim to have seen her. Conspiracy theorists cling fast to her innocence. Earlier this year Lifetime aired a lurid TV show called the Lizzie Borden Chronicles, which imagined Lizzie after the trial as a cunning serial killer, played by a smirking Christina Ricci. And yesterday it was announced that Kristen Stewart and Chloe Sevingy are in talks to star in a "psychological thriller about the grisly murders of the Borden family." Three decades ago, Angela Carter wrote a short story, "Mise-en Scene for a Parricide," transforming the murder into an artful look inside the stifling world of frustrated woman. And then, there is the charmingly gory children's rhyme, "Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks/When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one." Catchy, if inaccurate.

Each of these portrayals of Lizzie are an attempt to understand her, to find her, to take her mystery and make it our own. Christina Ricci's Lizzie is a sly manipulative killer. Angela Carter's Lizzie is a woman who is suffocating. For some biographers she is an innocent woman lost in the world of male violence. A woman I met on my own tour of Lizzie Borden's home declared Lizzie to be a feminist hero, who exploited the patriarchy to get away with murder. Each attempt to solve the mystery of her life is an attempt to remake her in our own image. An unknowable woman is a menace, after all, and Lizzie is as inscrutable as they come. Each documentarian, TV writer, author, and Internet detective obsessed with Lizzie wants to push her life into a narrative: Perhaps she was abused. Perhaps she was a lesbian. Perhaps she was psychotic. Perhaps there was a crazed illegitimate brother. But the mystery lingers precisely because the actual facts of the case eschew comfortable categorization.

Lizzie Borden. Image via Wikipedia.

Under this cavalcade of our cultural obsession the story of Lizzie Borden has become more fiction than fact. What we actually know of her and her life is brief and not very satisfying: Lizzie Andrew Borden was born to Sarah Morse and Andrew Jackson Borden on July 19, 1860. She was their third child. Their first daughter, Emma, was 10 years old when Lizzie was born. Their second, Alice, died when she was two. Lizzie's mother died in 1863, when Lizzie was just two. The official cause of death was "uterine congestion." Two years later, shortly before Lizzie's fifth birthday, Andrew Borden married again, to a woman named Abby Gray.

Andrew Jackson Borden, just like his namesake, was a man of power. He was the president of a bank, the director of three clothing mills, and a real estate investor—making him one of Fall River's most wealthy residents. Some biographies portray him as a mean miser with many enemies, but Lizzie's own letters to a friend, which she wrote during her 10-month stay in jail, show that she had a close relationship with her father. Whoever he was, Lizzie loved him

The miser part may have been true however—Andrew Borden's home at 92 Second Street wasn't ostentatious by any means. Originally built as a two-family home, the house was converted when the Bordens bought it; it was converted cheaply, they simply knocked out some walls and added a staircase. This resulted in a house in which Lizzie and Emma had to walk through the mother and father's room to go up and down the stairs.

A house full of locked doors that open only into other rooms with other locked doors.

In her short story, Angela Carter describes the house perfectly: "A house full of locked doors that open only into other rooms with other locked doors, for, upstairs and downstairs, all the rooms lead in and out of one another like a maze in a bad dream. It is a house without passages. There is no part of the house that has not been marked as some inmate's personal territory; it is a house with no shared, no common spaces between one room and the next. It is a house of privacies sealed as close as if they had been sealed with wax on a legal document."

The one fight Lizzie ever admitted to having with her stepmother was over property. (Although rumors of Abby's mistreatment of her stepdaughters run rampant, there is no evidence to support such accounts.) Twenty-two years after Abby and Andrew married, Lizzie stopped calling her stepmother "Mother." In her testimony at the murder trial, Lizzie said this happened because of a dispute over property. Her father had bought a home that belonged to Abby's family and gifted it to Abby, who in turn, let her sister live there. In her testimony, Lizzie said that she asked her father for equal treatment. The matter was settled when he bought property for both Emma and Lizzie a few months before the murders.

Despite that, Lizzie insisted that she and Abby were cordial. But even on its surface, this statement belies strangled feelings. And below the surface, well, Lizzie's own attempts to make their relationship sound friendly during the inquest come off defensive.

Q. You have been on pleasant terms with your stepmother since then?
A. Yes sir.
Q. Cordial?
A. It depends upon one's idea of cordiality perhaps.

The trial transcripts reveal a home of close quarters, closed doors, locked passageways, and cordial avoidance. Lizzie herself notes that she hardly spoke to her mother or father for the forty-eight hours before the murders. Her uncle John Morse, brother to her mother Sarah, was in the home at the time and Lizzie denies ever speaking to him as well—a feat in a house with no hallways.

The Lizzie Borden house. Image via Wikipedia.

In the year before, there were an assortment of odd details and events that I will just list here: On June 21, 1891 the home was robbed. Cash was taken from Andrew's room, and trinkets and knickknacks were stolen from Abby's. The culprit was never found. In June of 1892, Andrew Borden killed all the pigeons in the barn outside the house, either with a hatchet or his bare hands. Lizzie had considered the pigeons something like pets. When she was asked about them during the trial, her words were flat. She told the lawyers her father twisted their heads off but that she could not be sure he didn't use a hatchet.

A. I don't know, but I thought he wrung their necks.
Q. What made you think so?
A. I think he said so.
Q. Did anything else make you think so?
A. All but three or four had their heads on. That is what made me think so.

He did it so Abby could make a pigeon pie.

The next month, Lizzie and Emma traveled to New Bedford. On August 2, 1892, two days before the murder, Abby and Andrew woke up sick. Abby told her doctor she might have been poisoned. The following day, Lizzie was seen trying to buy prussic acid. (She denied this, but there was eyewitness testimony to the contrary). The next day, Lizzie discovered the body of her father in the sitting room. Moments later, Bridget discovered Abby dead in the guestroom. (Lizzie and Bridget, the maid, were the only ones home at the time.) During the murders, Lizzie claims to have been sitting in the barn loft, eating pears and looking out of the window. She claimed she went up there to find weights for her fishing lines. She was planning on taking a trip the following Monday. During the inquest, she was questioned about these idle moments and insisted that she spent "15 to 20 minutes" in the loft.

Her questioners are incredulous at the idea of her idling in a hot barn in the middle of summer, eating pears—a building in which, only months before, her father had wrung the necks of dozens of pigeons so his wife could make a pie. 123 years later, we are too.

Little Lizzie still doesn't seem capable of what the crime scene photos reveal 100 years later.

On August 11, Lizzie Borden was arrested for the murder of Abby and Andrew Borden. Ten months later, on June 20, 1893, she was found "Not Guilty." After the trial, Lizzie and Emma bought a home in Fall River that they called "Maplecroft." In 1905, Emma and Lizzie separated after Lizzie held a party for actress Nance O'Neil. And Emma and Lizzie never spoke again. Lizzie died on June 1, 1927 of pneumonia. Emma died days later.

Yet, Lizzie will not die. We can't let her. Her ghost is constantly resurrected, the subject of rumors, legends, fiction and folktales. She cannot die—not just because society is convinced she was a murderer, but because she got away with it.

Violence has long been held the domain of the masculine. And little Lizzie, at 5' 2", with her ruffled collars, wide incredulous eyes, and indirect way of speaking, still doesn't seem capable of what the crime scene photos reveal 100 years later: brutal, horrific, force. The pictures of the crime scene show a man, Andrew Borden, sprawled sideways on the couch. His hands and legs rest awkwardly on his body, as if he was a doll posed by a child. Where is head is supposed to be is just a black hole, edged by half a face. The picture of Abby Borden is less shocking, but still the violence of the act is apparent all these years later. She lies flat on the floor, and her body looks soft and swollen, like newly risen dough. The back of her head is a void.

Read more: Japan's 'Black Widow' Arrested Again After Poisoning Her Eighth Victim

In her book When She Was Bad, Patricia Pearson writes, "Women commit the majority of child homicides in the United States, a greater share of physical child abuse, an equal rate of sibling violence and assaults on the elderly, about a quarter of child sexual abuse, an overwhelming share of the killing of newborns, and a fair preponderance of spousal assaults." Yet, the most abiding myth about women is that they have no part in violence.

Lizzie Borden, America's most famous murderer, remains popular because she both confirms and challenges that myth. She was acquitted precisely because of her femininity, because it seemed that she couldn't possibly have the strength to smash in her father's head over and over. Or perhaps it her femininity that gave her the perfect cover for murder. After all, in a home with no place to herself, with locked doors and tight spaces, how could she breathe—much less find a place to place her rage? The answer, possibly, is right there on the floor of the guest room and later, on couch.