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
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?
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)
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)
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 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.
view from Maplecroft of cooling towers
at Brayton Point Power Station