More about Lizzie

I rather liked my last post, the move from Lifetime Movies to Lizzie Borden. While it might have seemed random (no less random than half of my other flights of fancy) it was actually because I'm trying to sketch out the Lizzie Borden chapter of my Wicked Women book. That is, I've got it sketched out, by I need to practice the actual writing of it. I don't really have a tone yet for the book.

At any rate, we left off at the Hatchet. On August 4, 1892, Andrew Borden, a prosperous banker and commercial landloard, was found dead in his living room, his skull crushed in by numerous blows from heavy, sharp instrument. Upstairs, his wife Abby was lying on the floor of the guestroom, her neck and head bleeding from nineteen blows by the same weapon. Andrew's daughter (and Abby's stepdaughter) Lizzie Borden found her father's body and had the maidservant Bridget call for the police. On August 11, after an inquest, Lizzie Borden was charged with the murder of Andrew and Abby Borden. The authorities knew almost immediately that the murder weapons was an ax or a hatchet.

This was in Fall River, Massachusetts--Small Town, USA--over a century ago. Since then we have seen some of the worse serial killers in the world--Dahmer, Gacy, even that BTK guy--not to mention numerous genocides at the hands of dictators and those two world wars. Why then, does everyone nod with at least some recognition when I mention the name Lizzie Borden? Especially--and this is a significant, but often overlooked detail--she was tried and acquitted of her crime?

The answer is two-fold. Number one, so little was known or remembered of Lizzie before the crimes that she had to become iconic. A 36-year old woman who still lived with her father and older sister, who had few or no suitors, who didn't cry or fall apart or scream or faint upon the murders, but instead remained preternaturally composed, who had very little that was girly or feminine in her--at least by Victorian standards--Lizzie Borden never became a real person. She never fed the public's fascination with her, never tried to clear her name, never became human. She just inherited her father's money, partied with theater folk, and let everyone continue to believe that she was a murderess.

And that leads to the second reason. We, as a public, love people like that--people who invite our curiosity, and then shut us out. We project our fantasies and nightmares onto them, simply because they are so unreadable. Lizzie Borden was acquitted not because the case against her was weak, or because she was necessarily innocent. She was acquitted because she wasn't a person, but a category. And that category is Respectable, Well-Bred Spinster.

Spinster. What a lousy word. But that word is the key to Lizzie Borden, and the reason the tempting idea of Lizzie-the-Pre-Feminist is really just a lot of hot air. Lizzie Borden wasn't a feminist; she was a spinster. And as our attitudes towards Spinsters changed, so did our view of her guilt or innocence.

Because, yes, there is a cottage industry about Lizzie Borden, a whole subculture of people obsessed with this case, just like it happened yesterday. Just like OJ or Michael Jackson's molestation trial or even the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. The murders of the Bordens remained unsolved, but not for the lacj of trying. There are dozens of books, dating back to the time of the crime, written by legal scholars, conspiracy theorists, descendents of witnesses and neighbors. Unsurprisingly, they vary in quality. There is the Lizzie Borden Society, which has forums on anything pertaining to Lizzie (Fall River, Lizzie memorabilia, writings about Lizzie). The Hatchet Online is the online journal of Lizzie Borden studies; the Lizzie Borden Quarterly is the hard copy periodical. The Lizzie Boren Newzletter is distinct from these. All publications extensively discuss every bit of trivia, every minute detail, about the case. You will find articles on how hot it really was the day of the murder; whether Lizzie tried to poison her parents earlier in the week; whether Lizzie was sexually molested by her father; whether Lizzie was a lesbian; reviews of books, movies and documentaries about Lizzie; psychology studies of Lizzie's mental state...well, the list goes on. There have been plays and operettas and works of fiction and essays. A visit to the Lizzie Andrew Borden Virtual Museum and Library reveals poems, jokes, press reports and court documents.

I've read through a lot of these. The tricky thing about the law is that it really is only as good as the evidence presented. We don't know what wasn't at the trial, how someone looked or sounded. Most of the Lizzie Borden writings rely on the same evidence and interviews and books and other sources. The question remains, however--did she do it?

And the answer to that, and how that answer changes over the years, says a a lot about who we think she was--the Respectable Spinster--and how we feel about what that represents. Once again, our views of female violence and female sexuality are linked, and you can follow how the views of the connection between the two changed in the changing views of Lizzie Borden's guilt.