Saturday, August 4, 2018

126 Years Later and We're Still Axing Questions about It: Lizzie Borden and the Fall River Horror

The theory of Lizzie's guilt...springs from some sadistic instinct, latent in almost everyone, which thrills to the thought of a respectable, churchgoing New England virgin bludgeoning her parents to death with an ax.

To me, however, it is grotesque that Lizzie should be held guilty simply because it has been fictionally fashionable to make villainesses out of virtuous spinsters....

 --Q. Patrick, The Case for Lizzie Or A Theoretical Reconstruction of the Borden Murders

Lizzie Borden
Will the black brocade curtain ever be parted
so that we learn the truth about what happened
at the Borden house on August 4, 1892?
There's something about the month of August--possibly the "August Heat" (to recall the title of a superb William Fryer Harvey horror tale--and murder. 

In the United Kingdom the first of Jack the Ripper's shocking and horrific serial slayings was committed in the early morning hours on August 31, 1888, while across the Atlantic four year later in the United States, on the morning of August 4, 1892 (126 years ago today), some unknown in Fall River, Massachusetts infamously took an ax and gave a decidedly unhealthy number of whacks to the elderly heads of Andrew and Abby Borden, father and stepmother of two proper Victorian ladies, Emma and her younger sister, Lizzie.

Is the Borden murder case America's most fabled real-life murder story?  Today people continue to spin theories about just whodunit (if not Lizzie)--despite the fact that there is rather a shortage of on-the-spot suspects.  Both Lizzie's sister, Emma, and a visiting maternal uncle (who seemingly had no motive for the crimes anyway) had alibis, which as far as I know no one has ever broken.

Andrew Borden House
the scene of the crimes
and now a bed & breakfast.
One can even sleep in the room where
Abby Borden was axed (no thanks).
(Photo by The Passing Tramp)
That leaves, apparently, Bridget, the proverbial Irish maid (whom the family lazily called Maggie, after their previous Irish maid) and Lizzie herself.  Or was it some passing stranger (surely not a tramp) who somehow got into the house undetected, slew Abby is the upstairs spare bedroom, where she was making the bed, then lurked around the house for over an hour, avoiding both Lizzie and Bridget until he/she slew Andrew, who to his misfortune had returned home and was innocently napping downstairs on the stiff horsehair couch in the sitting room. 

And then somehow made his/her escape from the house, blood spattered from the ax blows, yet again undetected, like GK Chesterton's invisible man.  Talk about an "impossible crime"!

Famed criminologist and Lizzie Borden obsessive Edmund Pearson was certain that Lizzie was guilty (she resented her stepmother and was unhappily tied to her father's purse strings), but she had an equally vociferous defender in a later true crime writer and Pearson nemesis, Edward Radin. The latter man argued that the manic ax-wielder was actually the maid Bridget, whom, he posited, freaked out after being told by Abby to "do windows" on a sultry August day. Evidently you just couldn't get good help anymore.

Alternatively, crime writer Ed McBain scandalously suggested that Lizzie and Bridget were lovers who had been caught in the act, so to speak, prompting Lizzie to resort to murder to hide her shame.  Judging by its just-released trailer, a new film about Lizzie, bearing that title, adopts the McBain lesbian lovers theory, while positing that Andrew was not merely a skinflint, but a something of a sex fiend as well. (See video below.) 

I've always found this theory a stretch.  Whatever Lizzie's sexual inclinations (and they may have been same-sex), I tend to doubt she was having it off with Maggie, erm, Bridget.  Class was really a long bridge to cross in those days!  There is no evidence, either, which I'm aware of, suggesting that the Irish lass was inclined in that direction.

For a few years in the 1960s Radin's "I don't do windows" theory held sway, with both that esteemed democratic American mystery critic dean, Anthony Boucher, and the brilliant cosmopolitan mystery enthusiast and confirmed elitist Jacques Barzun believing that Bridget was a better bet as murderess than Lizzie. 

A onetime mystery writer himself, Boucher, I imagine, disliked going with the obvious solution, while Barzun, I suspect, deemed someone of Irish country stock far more likely to fatally flip her lid than an elite New England WASP gentlewoman. But as Q. Patrick argues at the top of this page, I think it's just that very notion--that a proper Victorian miss might have committed a bloody double ax murder--that has fascinated people for so many years.

A very desirable residence
Maplecroft, the swanky house on the hill
which Lizzie and Emma purchased in 1893.
Lizzie lived here from 1893 to her death
in 1927. Emma moved out in 1905,
for reasons unknown. (Passing Tramp)
In 1942 Anthony Boucher was looking for contributors to The Pocket Book of True Crime Stories, a true crime anthology he was editing.  (You can learn all about this, as I did, in Jeffrey Marks' 2008 book Anthony Boucher: A Biobibliography.)

Boucher, a true true-crime aficionado, produced an excellent anthology indeed.  Of special interest to me, naturally, are two essays from crime writers Richard "Rickie" Webb and Hugh Wheeler, one submitted by "Q. Patrick" and the other by "Patrick Quentin." 

I have a strong suspicion that the Patrick Quentin essay, on accused murderess Florence Maybrick, was written by Hugh Wheeler, while the Q. Patrick essay, on Lizzie, was written by Richard Webb. What follows is in accord with that assumption.

Webb's essay, The Case for Lizzie Or A Theoretical Reconstruction of the Borden Murders, is, like his crime fiction, heavily plot-focused, while the Wheeler essay is more concerned with character and exhibits finer literary flourishes.  But Webb's essay is quite readable and, best of all, succeeds, in my estimation, in fashioning an original and plausible new culprit of the murders (though there is one major hitch, I think).

Anthony Boucher himself, then still a believer in Lizzie's guilt, was delighted with, if stubbornly unconvinced by, Webb's essay, wryly writing Rickie of the piece, "I am delighted with it and entranced by it and I don't believe a word of it.  I wish I'd thought of it and I can't poke a possible finger through its logic, but I still think Lizzie did it."

The Passing Tramp outside Maplecroft
You can see where in 1909 Lizzie had her house's name
inscribed on the steps, an action said to have been
deemed tacky by her snooty neighbors
Webb opened his essay by declaring that he had informed Edmund Pearson of his theory in correspondence shortly before Pearson died in 1937 and that the eminent anti-Lizzieist had replied that his, Rickie's, theory of the case was a "new and original one."  Webb added that Pearson "assured me that, so far as he knew, I had in no sense transgressed against facts, and he acknowledged the possibility and plausibility of my argument while tacitly admitting that it did not agree with his own."

Webb expressed "forlorn hope" that the late Pearson's "mantle may descend, if but rustlingly, upon me."  Yet this never happened; and, indeed, I have never seen Webb's theory acknowledged anywhere on the internet. 

Happily, however, Rickie Webb's enlightening essay, as well as Hugh Wheeler's fetching Florence Maybrick piece, are soon to be reprinted.  Lovers of Lizzieana (and Maybrickabrac) everywhere take note!  Maybe filmmakers should too.  There's sure to be another Lizzie movie in the works someday.  Whether or not she wielded that infamous killing ax, Lizzie Borden, as a result of the Fall River murders and the mystery surrounding them, belongs forever to the annals of the bloodstained ages.

journey's end
view from Maplecroft of cooling towers 
at Brayton Point Power Station
(Passing Tramp)


  1. Have you read "The Cases that Haunt Us" by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker? It has a chapter on the Borden case, together with material on Jack the Ripper, the Lindbergh kidnapping and others.

    1. Indeed I haven't, Jonathan O, I will have to check that out, for certain! It certainly is a case that haunts us.

  2. Very interesting as always, and I am particularly thrilled by the apparent possibilities for reissues of this and other material by this "author".
    In the "Puzzle of Pseudonyms" I confess to be a little intrigued by another true-crime story, "The Girl on the Gallows" which appeared under the name Q. Patrick in 1954. Chronologically we'd expect this to be by Wheeler alone, the partnership having ended at this point - but would Wheeler really want to publish a story which was written by him alone, under Webb's old pseudonym rather than as Patrick Quentin?
    A possible explanation could be that Wheeler (or the PQ publishers?) did not want to 'dilute' the Patrick Quentin brand with this true-crime story for another publisher, but now I see from your post that "Patrick Quentin" also at least HAD written true crime.
    The Catalog of Copyright Entries for January-July 1954 lists "The Girl on the Gallows" as being "by Q. Patrick [pseud. of Hugh Wheeler & R. Wilson Webb]". Admittedly this could be a standardised message for this pseudonym, but I am tempted by the thought that Q. Patrick still signalled some Webb involvement. Not that he would have co-written it in 1954, but could it be that the novel was based on Webb's old research (I think he was the main true-crime enthusiast of the two), or that Wheeler finished a story the two had worked on together in happier days, or even that it was based on an earlier magazine story written while Webb was still involved?
    Maybe I am reading too much into it, it's just that I feel there must be a clue in there ...

    1. Rickie was very possessive of Q. Patrick and wanted to continue the pseudonym in the Fifites. Another late QP work, Danger Next Door was an old serial from the Thirties which I doubt Hugh was much involved with either. I think Gallows likely was a substantial Rickie piece. But I would have to look at the writing style again. I'm feel I'm starting to get a sense of the differences in the writing of the two men. Fortunately Gallows has been reprinted.

      I agree Rickie was more the true crime person, Hugh really used to look down on this sort of thing. (Ironic given Sweeney Todd's origins.) But Hugh seems to ahve really become enamored with Florence Maybrick!

  3. So glad you managed to bring Quentin and Lizzie Borden in one post! The Borden post will always fascinate, and surely a definitive solution unlikely at this stage...