At 5:30 this morning, while suffering my usual early morning insomnia, I found myself brooding over the strange case of Lizzie Borden.
As an aid to the brooding process, I summoned up on my iPad “The Trial of Lizzie Borden: edited, with a history of the case.” The author of this document is Edmund Pearson. Pearson, as it turns out, was one of the bright lights of true crime writing in the early twentieth century. Published in 1937, this is probably his most famous work.
There is a quality in Pearson’s prose that I find curiously mesmerizing. Perhaps this is due to the combined effect of grace, eloquence, and a deeply ironic world view which comes to bear powerfully on the events and people of which he writes. The writing itself has a slight touch of antiquity, of formality, yet it is in some ways curiously modern.
First, Pearson set the scene for us. The Fall River of 1892 was still firmly rooted in the nineteenth century. Gradually he turns his focus onto the Borden family, who lived, in varying degrees of unhappiness, pretty much smack in the middle of town. The author fills us in on the family’s background. Andrew Borden’s first wife died when he was in his forties. He was left with two young daughters: Emma, twelve, and Lizzie, not yet three. (A daughter born in the years between these two died while still a toddler.)
Here, Pearson describes the scene as it unfolded, just before the murder of Andrew Borden. The old gentleman had just returned from a walk into town. His wife Abby already lay dead, in the upstairs guest bedroom which she’d been tidying, but only one person knew this.
Lizzie has employed – or seemed to employ – a stratagem whereby Bridget the maid might be induced to go out.
“There is a cheap sale of dress goods at Sargent’s, at eight cents a yard.”
Bridget expressed a polite interest, but still made no move to leave the house. She did, however, do something equally convenient to the plans which must have been rapidly revolving in the brain of someone close by. She went up the back stairs to her room, intending to use her half-hour’s leisure taking a nap.
Mr Borden was overcome by weariness and the sultry air. He had moved from his chair to the sofa against the north wall of the sitting room. Here he stretched himself out almost at full length, but with his feet resting on the carpet.
His wife had been surprised alone, and in a place from which there was no escape. The old man had walked into his home as unsuspecting as an animal going to slaughter. But he was a tall man, still on his feet, and with his senses about him. A doubtful enemy to attack, he could at least shout for help.
But now everything was made secure for his assassin. He lay down and slept.
How long Bridget was in her room on the third floor, she never knew. Perhaps ten, probably twenty minutes. She heard the nearby clock on the City Hall strike eleven. She lay on her bed and dozed. It was a drowsy, hot hour; the energy had gone out of the day, and out of everyone. The neighbors and the few people who passed the house dragged their steps; the sun blazed through the dusty street; men stopped in the sparse shade of the trees and wiped the sweat from their foreheads.
And then suddenly, in the midst of this pervading torpor, Lizzie calls to Bridget, demanding in strident tones that she present herself at once:
“Come down here! Father’s dead; someone came in and killed him!”
In the hours following, in the days, weeks and months that followed, and down through the decades, a single question has been persistently asked:
“Where were you, Miss Lizzie, when this happened?”
Pearson reviews various theories of the case, among them the suggestion that in order to avoid bloodied clothing, the killer perpetrated the attacks while in the nude:
The thought is so precious, the notion of the secretary of a Christian Endeavor Society [a post held by Lizzie at the time of the murders] prancing through the house like a blood-drunken nymph at the Witches’ Sabbath is so delightful, that it is with great sorrow that I must say that all evidence for it is wanting, and, on strictly practical grounds, it is most improbable. There was calculation and scheming in the murders; a plan hastily executed, to be sure, but nevertheless a plan. The possibility of interruption or premature discovery must have been considered, and, in that event, it would be easier to explain away a drop or two of blood on the clothing than to be surprised, at eleven o’clock of a Thursday morning, stripped to the buff.
There’s more, but you get the idea. Certainly Pearson cannot resist having a bit of a lark with this notion, especially as it gives him a chance to skewer people’s pretensions and hypocrisies. It’s an opportunity that he invariably took advantage of, often with considerable glee.
But in the end, he offers extremely compelling evidence that Lizzie herself was the perpetrator. Indeed, from a purely logistical standpoint, it could hardly have been anyone else.
As for the motive, one component was probably greed. Old Andrew Borden had amassed a considerably estate, but he was parsimonious in its outlay. The house in which the family lived was modest to a fault; it did not possess amenities as basic as indoor plumbing.
After Lizzie’s acquittal, she and her sister Emma, who had been visiting friends in Fairhaven at he time of the murders, moved to a far nicer established up on “The Hill.” Lizzie grandly named their new domicile Maplecroft. She became an aficionado of the theater and began to entertain actors, actresses, and other folk from that world. Emma became increasingly unhappy with this influx of what she considered questionable associations. In 1905, she moved out of Maplecroft. The sisters never saw each other again.
Lizzie continued to live at Maplecroft up until her death in 1927.
Lizzie Borden strikes me as a woman seething with frustration and resentment. Beneath her starchy, proper exterior she must have yearned desperately for something resembling a normal social life. Instead, she moved in a constricted, narrow sphere in which church activities were the only acceptable outlet. All because she lived in a house that was unpretentious to a fault, with an apparently passive older sister and stepmother and an oblivious, unsympathetic father. She could not break out and establish her own household elsewhere. It simply wasn’t done at that time. And besides, unless her father agreed to support her, what would she live on? She had no proper profession. And, of course, she had no husband to support her.
Oh no – such a thing was not possible. Certainly not while Andrew and Abby Borden were still alive. And so we are left with a portrait of barely suppressed rage and misery.
The full text, in PDF format, of Edmund Pearson’s work on Lizzie Borden can be found on Murderpedia. Many are the online sources and resources on the Borden case. The Wikipedia entry is as good a place to start as any. I found one of the more thoughtful articles on the subject in the archives of Yankee Magazine.
I regret that in the course of the True Crime class, I had virtually no time to spend on this notorious case. It receives scant mention in the True Crime Anthology, though editor Harold Schechter does include a “murder ballad” on the subject. He mentions that although these scurrilous little ditties are usually anonymous, the author of this one not only published his name, but also included his likeness and appended his address:
Interest in this subject never seems to flag. As with a number of other high profile murders, the Lizzie Borden case has found expression in various media and art forms. There’s the opera Lizzie Borden: A Family Portrait,” by Jack Beeson, premiered in 1965 by the New York City Opera. There’s Fall River Legend, one of Agnes de Mille’s best know ballets, set to music by the American composer Morton Gould and premiered by American Ballet Theatre in 1948.
Several days ago, while working at the library’s Central Branch, I cam upon a novel entitled Maplecroft on the new book shelf. I said to myself, Oh, this can only be about…