Friday, August 6, 2021

"She was very unkind to her father and mother": A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight (1967), by Victoria Lincoln

Lizzie Borden House in Fall River, Massachusetts, site of the 1892 Borden murders
Victoria Lincoln's uncle, boosted by his elder brother, Victoria's father,
would have looked through one of the middle first floor windows pictured above,
where he would have descried Andrew Borden gory remains on the couch
Abby Borden's body was found in the guest room at the left upper front 

Well, the Lizzie Borden house in Fall River, Massachusetts has changed owners.  

Or, I should say, the house of Lizzie's father: miserly, eccentric millionaire Andrew Jackson Borden, where he lived up until his sudden untimely death with his two daughters, Emma and Lizzie, and his second wife, Abby, Emma and Lizzie's stepmother.  (The girls did not like it when second wife Abby was called their mother.)  

This is the house where, on August 4, 1892, someone brutally hacked to death both Andrew and Abby.  Abby died first, around nine in the morning, as she made up the second story guest bedroom where her husband's brother-in-law was staying (having first sent the Irish maid, Bridget, outside on the hot summer day to wash the windows).  Andrew was sent to his account about two hours later, after he had returned home and was taking a nap on a couch in the first floor sitting room.  

Was it Lizzie in the sitting room
with the hatchet?

Lizzie and Bridget were the only two people, among those who survived the day, who are known to have been in and out of the house at the time.  Sister Emma was out of town, as was Emma's and Lizzie's uncle, John Morse, who had been staying in the guest bedroom in the house since the previous night.

Younger daughter Lizzie, 32 at the time of the murders, famously was arrested for the crimes, indicted, tried and then righteously acquitted by a jury of her "peers," apparently a dozen unimaginative male farmers.  She lived out the rest of her life in the mill town of Fall River at an elegant new house which she bought with money inherited from her horrifically slain father, for part of that time with her elder sister Emma (41 at the time of the murders), for the rest by herself with a succession of housekeepers and maids. 

This elegant new house she dubbed Maplecroft, and it's been up for sale too.  In fact it still is.  Take a look at the house and its interior here, and you will see that Lizzie's material lot in life greatly improved after the brutal deaths of her father and stepmother.

Of course you know the jingle, Lizzie Borden took an ax/And gave her mother forty whacks/When she saw what she had done/She gave her her father forty-one.  (Actually, I think it was eighteen and eleven whacks respectively, or maybe twenty and ten, but that upsets the rhyme scheme.)  It's probably the most famous juvenile rhyme outside of the pages of Mother Goose.  

Or Bridget in the guest room 
with the hatchet?

Even Lizzie's well-bred, wealthy neighbor children chanted that doggerel and steered clear of her house. However, one little girl named Victoria once chatted in quite a friendly manner with Lizzie, who was out in her yard filling her bird and squirrel feeders (Lizzie loved animals), when Victoria was on her way to school.  Young Victoria was born in 1906 and at this time she was seven years old, so this event took place in 1913/4, when the murders were over two decades old and Lizzie was in her fifties.

Two decades later, in 1935, when she was promoting what was often erroneously called her first novel, the bestselling February Hill, Victoria, now grown up author Victoria Lincoln, recalled this incident:

"I thought that anyone so fond of animals would be pretty entertaining, so I played skips on my nurse and got acquainted.  But Mother found out and said she wouldn't play with Miss Borden if she were I, and when I pressed her reasons she said, 'Well, you see, dear, she was very unkind to her father and mother.'  An all-time classic of understatement."

During the 1920s and 1930s (during which time Lizzie died at the age of 66 in 1927), esteemed criminologist Edmund Lester Pearson wrote extensively about the Lizzie Borden case.  (He himself died in 1937, a decade after Lizzie.)  

As the premier Lizzieologist of his day he did much to convince the country, if it needed convincing, that Lizzie was indeed actually guilty of the Fall River murders, whatever those twelve good and true local farmers said.  However, in 1961 criminologist Edward Radin, in his book Lizzie Borden: The Untold Story, attacked Pearson's veracity and presented the theory that it was the maid, Bridget, who killed the Bordens, being infuriated that Abby had told her to wash the windows on that hot August day.  (Truly, it would seem, Bridget was one of those maids who "don't do windows.")

In her laudatory notice of the book in the New York Times Book Review, true crime and detective fiction writer Lillian de la Torre pronounced that Radin's solution was "highly probable."  Crime critic Anthony Boucher, who wouldn't go that far, proclaimed, however, that Radin had established at least that Lizzie's not guilty verdict was the just one.  So when Victoria Lincoln came out with her take on the Fall River tragedy in 1967, she was striking a (hatchet) blow for those traditionalists who maintained their faith in Lizzie's guilt.  

Victoria Endicott Lincoln
in the 1930s

It was Radin's book which probably pushed Lincoln to tackle the subject herself, because it's clear that she grew up in Fall River, back when Lizzie was alive, firmly believing in the younger Borden daughter's guilt, when she was old enough to be told the story, without her mother's delicate euphemisms.  In 1962, a year after the publication of the Radin book, bookman and occasional detective fiction writer Vincent Starrett in his nationally syndicated Books Alive newspaper column published his recent correspondence with Lincoln concerning the Borden case.  He had been inspired by a contention in the Radin book that a beneficent Lizzie Borden in her later years sweetly "bought church raffle tickets, liked animals and fed cookies to toddlers," one of whom happened to have been young Victoria Lincoln.

Lincoln was having none of that when Starrett queried her on the point: "The cookies, I assure you, were pure dream.  [There was] no child for miles around [old enough to know Lizzie's story] but was scared of that house."

"However," she continued, "when I was seven I didn't know it...."  She then tells her 1935 story about meeting Lizzie again, ending with the same terrific punchline.  

She adds some more personal family detail too:

My grandfather [manufacturer Leontine Lincoln], a  vastly civilized and tolerant person, knew the Andrew Borden family well--generations well, that is, from-way-back-when well.  He felt that they were all and always eccentric to a degree--and when an old Falls Riversite calls someone odd, believe it, boy, they're odd.  

What I mean is, this was a town which accepted the individualist.  If Grandfather, so wholly accepting, wrote off the elder Bordens as remarkably murderworthy and poor Lizzie as a borderline paranoid, I can't help feeling that there was something in his point of view....I never met anyone from Lizzie's own milieu and generation who ever had the remotest idea that she might possibly, possibly be innocent.  There was no malice in it--just a feeling that there had always been a delicate equilibrium, and one hot morning it flopped over with no motive--just a rage that got out of hand.

Leontine Lincoln I (1846-1923)

Lincoln claims that when they heard the news of the murders her own father, Jonathan Thayer Lincoln, and his brother, Leontine, Jr. (Lon), who were then 22 and 19,

got on their high-wheel bicycles and took off [for the Borden house] right away.  The authorities hadn't yet cleaned up and a crowd was around the house.  The [sitting room] window was too high to look in and Father, always beautifully unselfish, offered to give Lon the first boost up because he was the youngest. 

However, when Lee [after looking in] promptly became sick and then had a convulsion, Father decided he would forgo the pleasure for himself.

Victoria Lincoln published A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight in 1967, when she was 61 years old.  The next year it won the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime, a feat that Edward Radin had been unable to pull off six years earlier with his much vaunted Lizzie Borden: The Untold Story, which was nominated for an Edgar but did not win (although the be fair to Radin he had won Edgars twice before).

In my view Lincoln's book amply deserved its Edgar.  Along with Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which won the Edgar for Best Fact Crime two years earlier, it's probably the best true crime study I've ever read, in my estimation.  Part of my enjoyment from this book is derived from the way in which Lincoln's book is marinated in the juices of Fall River society.  I, like other Lizzieists I'm sure, wish that more of the locals, the people who knew Lizzie and Fall River society, had spoken out about the affair.  But that Would Not Have Done, of course.

As Lincoln writes it was Fall River's--or rather Fall River society's--private disgrace.  She writes of Lizzie, who lived on in stubborn, proud, isolated splendor in her elegant house Maplecroft for thirty-five years after the murders: "[S]he was the skeleton in our cupboard, the black sheep in our family, a disgrace, but a private disgrace."

Lincoln reflects that in preparing the book she felt a sense of social guilt, like she was betraying her Fall River set, even though she had left the city for good, outside of occasional visits, when she graduated from Radcliffe College, some sixty miles away from Fall River, in 1927, the same year Lizzie died: "Somewhere in my marrow I am shocked to discover that I am the sort of person who would talk to outsiders about Lizzie."

But talk she did!  And of course she had obviously had been making an anecdote out of the "Lizzie was unkind to her parents" story for decades.  But I'm glad Lincoln was a Chatty Cathy, because it lends the book much of its fascination.

first paperback edition, 1969

So like the rest of her Fall River set (the wealthy people who lived, like Lizzie post-murders, on the hill), Lincoln was convinced that Lizzie did it, outsider Radin notwithstanding, and she set out to prove it in A Private Disgrace.  As Lincoln writes of Lizzie:

[S]he had her good points, but I believe that she plotted one murder and committed two, and it's not a belief to laugh off or sentimentalize away.

What fascinates Lincoln is her view that "the factual evidence of [Lizzie's] sole opportunity and her guilt is so overwhelming, yet the bare idea of her guilt is so humanly incredible, so absurd."

Lincoln posits that Lizzie carried out the first murder, that of her stepmother Abby, in a form of epileptic fit, an idea which I think has been pretty much discredited today.  But her basic theory of the crimes makes compelling reading. 

One of the points I personally can never get past in the case is that Lizzie apparently tried to buy prussic acid during the fortnight before the crimes and that shortly before the crimes Abby made one of rare excursions from the house to tell a doctor across the street that she was afraid she was being poisoned.  Although the pharmacist's evidence was excluded from the jury by the panel of judges who heard the case (who contra Boucher seems to have been unfairly biased in Lizzie's favor), I can't exclude it from my brain.

Abby Borden was set upon and killed first in the guest room
From Edwin Porter's Fall River Tragedy (1893), which 
Lizzie was said to have had suppressed (see PBA Galleries)

Lincoln goes through the years of petty animosities which simmered to boiling point in the Borden house, stemming from the fact that the girls resented their stepmother and especially a settlement of property which Andrew had made upon her.  Though in terms of modern worth Andrew was a multi-millionaire, he kept his family in an old-fashioned, cramped, inconvenient house (given their economic circumstances), when he easily could have moved them to a fine mansion on the hill.  Emma, for whom the term mousy spinster might have been invented, could live with this, but it must have bothered Lizzie, who had pretty notions of bigger and better things in life.

Lincoln thinks Lizzie had been planning to poison Abby (poison being the classic gentlewoman's weapon in the Victorian era), but then had her fit on the morning of August 4 and hacked stepmom to death instead.  Even without resorting to an epileptic fit, however, I can see Lizzie having simply gone plumb off her rocker that day.  It can happen, even to genteel people.  (Andrew's death Lincoln sees as unplanned, but a necessary concomitant to the first murder as actually carried out.)  Lincoln posits a fascinating theory to explain what might especially have set Lizzie off at this time.  

Andrew was next to go, as he slept in the sitting room
(see PBA Galleries)

And this brings me to the other reason I like this book so much,  These terrible crimes, where the times and the movements of the people and the layout of the house are so very important, where the setting is genteel but the circumstances savage, is like something out of a Golden Age detective novel (more plans of the Borden house and grounds here).  And Lincoln brings the ingenuity of a first-rate Golden Age detective novelist to bear on the problem.  

What happened to Lizzie's missing bloodstained dress (assuming Lizzie was guilty) and the murder weapon?  What exactly was Lizzie's and Emma's visiting uncle, John Morse, up to that day (and the day and night before)?  Why did friendless, homebound Abby get a message on the murder morning urging her to come visit a sick friend? Well, let me tell you, Lincoln comes up with answers to these and many other questions! 

What did Bridget see?
Bridget Sullivan, the Borden's maid
26 at the time of the murders
In Lincoln's hands Morse becomes a major player in the ghastly and tragic train of events, rather than the usual bit actor.  I find her reconstruction much more convincing than Radin's Bridget theory (The Irish maid did it!), although I am compelled to admit that over at The Hatchet website, devoted to myriad Lizzieana, Eugene Hosey, who knows a heck of a lot more about the Borden affair than I do, has taken issue with the book on a  number of points.

Lincoln thinks that Bridget was guiltless of involvement in the crimes, although she does speculate that the maid was paid off afterward for not telling all she knew.  (Plus, she genuinely liked Lizzie and thought she was getting a raw deal in life.)  Lincoln found new detail in her book about just what happened to Bridget after Lizzie's trial.  (Her fate was unknown in Edmund Pearson's day.)

Lincoln also has interesting details about Lizzie's life after the trial and just why Fall River society turned against her, after supporting her during the trial.  First, there was the fancy house she bought and the fact that dared give it a name, Maplecroft, engraving it "on the front step like a grave maker."  Ostentatious and vulgar!  Then Lizzie began calling herself Lisbeth.  Pretentious!  Observes Lincoln:

There is an odd amoral streak in your southern New England Yankee.  Many who in time could have taken the murder in stride--a thing that probably happened, but all water under the bridge now--could not stomach that bit: Lisbeth of Maplecroft.

Maplecroft today

Then there was Lizzie's 1897 shoplifting of a pair of tacky but dear paintings on porcelain, Love's Dream and Love's Awakening, from a local jewelry and gift shop.  "[W]e usually went there to buy wedding presents," writes Lincoln.  "Lizzie was a regular customer, but the plaques were as expensive as they were ugly," and Lizzie, once exposed as a thief, had to reimburse the store or face the law again. She forked over the cash. Interestingly, it appears that years before Lizzie had stolen some jewelry and cash from Abby before the hatchet murders, an action Andrew had tried mightily to hush up.  

"[P]etty theft is not only easier to believe in than murder, it is somehow less socially acceptable," writes Lincoln.  "The Borgias had family pride: they did not pick pockets.  Old rumors, vaguely consonant with this episode, which had largely been discounted up to that time as a shade too peculiar, became more widely believed."

Love's Awakening, painting on porcelain
(original by Hortense Richard)
the cupid might be said to resemble a young Lizzie

Then there were Lizzie's visits to Boston and to the theater and her doting friendship with a lovely actress fourteen years younger than she, one Nance O'Neil, who, I was interested to discover, later enjoyed a career in silent films and even made it to the early talkies.  

One night in early June 1905, just short of 13 years after the murders, Lizzie held a bash at Maplecroft for her friend Nance and her theater friends.  "[F]or once," writes Lincoln, "Maplecroft fulfilled its intended social function as Lizzie must have imagined it when she bought it....The house blazed with lights from top to bottom and blared with music." 

Sister Emma, who emphatically did not like Show People, promptly packed up and left Maplecroft for good, relocating to Providence, Rhode Island.  This event actually made national newspaper headlines, where Emma was characterized as "sedate and retiring" and Lizzie as "fond of good times and jolly company."

Lizzie Borden later in life
after she had become
Lisbeth of Maplecroft

This was damming indeed in the eyes of Fall River society, which felt that "a woman who had stood in Lizzie's shoes--whether or not those shoes had ever been stained in blood--should thereafter lead a retired life.  She had been acquitted largely on the ground of being the picture of piety and domesticity....the WCTU [Women's Christian Temperance Union] had been one of the trumps with which Lizzie made grand slam."  Now Lizzie had exposed herself as being not quite the model Victorian miss.

An extraordinary 1913 article in the Boston Sunday Herald by journalist Gertrude Stevenson, which was carried as well in the Fall River Globe, savaged Lizzie as a "social pariah.

The younger Borden girl was contrasted unfavorably with her sister Emma, "as staid and gentle and as meek as Lizzie was forceful, domineering an strong-willed."  The piece all but pointed the finger of guilt at Lizzie and shrieked "Murderess!"  When intrepid Gertrude marched up the steps of Maplecroft and knocked on the front door, asking to see Lizzie for her side of the story, the timid maid who answered at her mistresses' instruction denied Gertrude entry.

Nance: Lizzie's eyes dazzled

Both this and a follow-up newspaper interview with Emma, in which Emma denied Lizzie's guilt of the murders while admitting that Lizzie was "queer," are reprinted here at The Hatchet.  Emma, who died nine days after Lizzie in 1927, apparently never spoke with her sister again, even though she returned to visit friends in Fall River in 1912.

Lincoln affirms that Stephenson's article "was not overwritten.  I was [Lizzie's] neighbor then, I can remember."

And, yes, Lincoln does mention the incident of Lizzie, the cookies and the toddlers which was recounted in Radin's book and she again affirms that it was utter bosh. 

"The 'toddlers'"
whom Radin referred to, including herself, "would as soon have taken cookies from Lucrezia Borgia." 

Now Maplecroft is again up for sale.  (More pictures here.)  Personally if I had the financial resources I would buy it in a minute.  The witch's hat atop the front tower seems ever so appropriate and today there is a great view, looking down the hill and across the river, of the cooling tower of a nuclear power planet--a macabre touch which Charles Addams surely would have appreciated.  It's just too perfect.  And no murders were actually committed there (that we know of), which would be a relief to us timid souls.

Lizzie's old house, the murder house, a lone survivor on its downtown street, I think, from that terrible day, has been sold, to buyers promising to hold "ax-throwing contests" in the backyard and to put more emphasis on lucrative, if highly dubious, paranormal investigations. 

Even under the previous owners, visitors were wont to photograph themselves on the replica of the sitting room couch where Andrew Borden was brained, smirking like they are on a thrill ride at Disneyworld. You can even sleep in the room where Abby was struck on the head, felled, and smote again and again until the back of her skull was splintered and crushed.  Fun times for all!

sitting room where Andrew was killed (note hatchet on couch)
facing that wallpaper and that carpet I think I would have been suffering from vertigo

One has to wonder what Lizzie would make of it all.  (Emma I'm sure would be utterly horrified.)

Maybe that part of Lizzie 

Elizabeth Montgomery in
The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975)
where I first found out about Lizzie
(Montgomery later learned she was a sixth 
cousin of Lizzie and Emma)

which basked in the glow of her dramatic courtroom victory, when the audience (the trial was not held in Fall River) broke out in cheers for her

which basked in the glow of her friendship with dazzling Nance O'Neil

which, despite her confused explanations at the inquest--fortunately for her excluded from the trial--of her whereabouts during the murders and other matters, had the cool headedness, if you believe she indeed was guilty, to get rid of her bloodstained dress and hatchet 

would be fascinated to be the center of so much attention (much of it sympathetic), nearly 130 years after the untimely demises of her father and mother--pardon me, stepmother.  Today Lizzie is the fatal femme of Fall River and the cornerstone of a major tourist industry.  She has transcended snooty old judgmental Fall River society and risen to the pantheon of those who daring young women who "got away with it."

Lizzie Borden house by nightfall
open to brave guests

Why, she's even a "feminist icon" in some quarters.  For youngsters, we now have in print, for reasons I cannot fathom, a series of Lizzie Borden, Girl Detective books, described by one Goodreads reviewer as "cute, fun Nancy Drew-style mysteries solved by a plucky teenager in 1890s [1870s?] Fall River."  That scamp Lizzie was nothing if not plucky!

For adults, the 2018 film Lizzie would have us believe that Andrew sexually assaulted Bridget, who was really Lizzie's lover.  It has also been speculated that Andrew was molesting not Bridget but Lizzie. In these scenarios Lizzie may be a murderess, but she is a righteous avenger, standing up for generations of abused women.  

Certainly the Bordens, as Victoria Lincoln's grandfather thought, were an odd family.  Victoria Lincoln comments that they never read books, though they did subscribe to newspapers, which Andrew thriftily had his womenfolk use as a substitute for toilet paper.  (Now, there's a motive for murder!) 

Yet contained within their manifold dullness and drabness are multitudes of weirdness which have entranced generations now.  "All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," wrote Leo Tolstoy.  With regard to the horrid murders in the hapless Borden household, we want to know why, and we know we really never will on this side of the grave, which makes it all so fascinatingly frustrating.  Searching for soothing clarity, I opt for Lincoln's inspired exegesis.  It may not be right but it certainly is damned ingenious.

For an earlier post by me on the Borden case, see here.

Chloe Sevigny as Lizzie (I think she looks rather more like Emma.)

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