Lizzie Borden: Why a 19th-Century Murder Still Fascinates Us - Rolling Stone
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Lizzie Borden: Why a 19th-Century Axe Murder Still Fascinates Us

In 1892, she was accused of her parents’ murders – and she’s been in the public consciousness ever since

It didn’t take long after Lizzie Borden was accused of murdering her father and stepmother for the public to start obsessing over the case. Newspaper coverage began immediately after that hot August day in 1892, and centered on the fact that a prim, proper, churchgoing woman in Fall River, Massachusetts, may have brutally killed two members of her family with a hatchet.

Lizzie’s acquittal in June 1893 only stoked the interest – and that interest never died down. Deborah Allard, a staff reporter at the local Herald News and a lifelong resident of Fall River, has covered everything from a couple who got married after meeting during the annual dramatization on August 4th, 2012 (the bride played Lizzie and the groom played a detective), to the renovations of Maplecroft – the home where Lizzie lived out her life after the murders – which is set to open to the public soon. Recent discoveries of new materials have made the paper, like letters and journals that belonged to Andrew Jackson Jennings, Lizzie’s attorney, and Lizzie’s meatloaf recipe. “As the unofficial Lizzie Borden reporter, you’d be surprised how newsworthy a 124-year-old cold case murder can be,” she says.

Outside of the press – and the ubiquitous “Lizzie Borden took an axe” schoolyard chant – Lizzie has been a lasting figure in pop culture. There was Agnes de Mille’s 1954 ballet Fall River Legend and the 1965 opera Lizzie Borden, the concept recently updated as a rock opera called Lizzie: The Musical. The 1975 made-for-TV movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden, starring Bewitched’s Elizabeth Montgomery – who in real life was sixth cousins with Lizzie – brought the story to a new generation. Almost 40 years later, Lifetime aired the Christina Ricci vehicle Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, and followed it with a series called The Lizzie Borden Chronicles. While both were panned by critics, they did bring the case back to the public eye, opening the door for an upcoming psychological thriller starring Chloe Sevigny as Lizzie and Kristen Stewart as Bridget Sullivan, the family maid.

The facts of the case are fairly straightforward: During an oppressive heat wave in August 1892, prominent Fall River residents Andrew and Abby Borden were brutally murdered in their home; each had received multiple blows to the head with a hatchet. The only serious suspect was Andrew’s 32-year-old unmarried daughter, Lizzie, who was at the house during the killings. His other daughter, Emma, was out of town, and their live-in maid Bridget Sullivan was in her third-floor room, resting from a morning of window washing and vomiting following the consumption of spoiled mutton stew. But the finer details of the Borden murders were hazy from the beginning, starting when thousands of curious townspeople visited the crime scene, unintentionally tampering with evidence. Moreover, Lizzie’s inquest testimonies were inconsistent, perhaps owing to the fact that she was prescribed morphine after the murders to help calm her nerves.

But it’s not just the act of murder that keeps us coming back well over a century later. What separated this from other crimes was the combination of an unlikely suspect, the rise of sensationalized journalism, and the fact that it offered a morbid and wry critique of high society – and we have never lost interest.

Lizzie Andrew Borden, 1860 – 1927. American Woman Accused Of Killing Her Father And Stepmother With A Hatchet. She Was Acquitted At Her Trial.

“I think we’re still fascinated by the case to this day largely because it has all the elements of a Greek tragedy or a Victorian melodrama, and the fact the case is unsolved gives it cultural longevity,” Richard Behrens, host of The Lizzie Borden Podcast says. “Lizzie Borden has been elevated to an American tragedy at the same level as the sinking of the Titanic.” There have been many theories regarding Lizzie’s potential motives, including that she was the victim of incest at the hand of her father, or was angry with him for killing her pet pigeons, or simply sick of his strict and rigid ways, ready to inherit his wealth and stop living under his thumb. None can be proven – but that only adds to her mystique.

“I think the case has gotten so much attention because our proper Victorian ancestors couldn’t fathom that someone among the upper class – especially a woman – could commit such a heinous crime,” Allard says. “It has endured for those same reasons, and because it offers something for everyone today – history, brutality, mystery, the supernatural, and even sex.”

The salacious elements and the uncertainty surrounding the Borden murders has become modern American mythology. In addition to the fact that the only real suspect was acquitted and the case was never solved, the murder and trial occurred during a time when the quantity, quality and content of American newspapers was changing rapidly.

Lizzie’s was one of the first trials in American history that both fueled and was fueled by major mass-market newspapers and magazines. Moreover, she was a media sensation because her trial exposed the sleazy shortcomings of high society, delighting the poorer masses. “The case ripped aside a curtain that covered and concealed a kind of dry-rot, a concealed pathology, ” wrote Stanford legal historian Lawrence M. Friedman. “One which (arguably) was eating away at the pillars of respectable society.”

Typically, explains Dr. Jean Kim, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at George Washington University, a memorable historical murder highlights a particular social insight or reality that society had repressed or ignored until that moment. The Borden murders, she suggests, “reflect a key moment in our modern public consciousness about the reality of violence in private families, even ones that seem outwardly affluent or normal.”

Kim cites other cases of note, including Jack the Ripper, which highlighted the “underbelly of prostitution and the contrast between their social class and their sometimes surprisingly well-to-do customers,” and O.J. Simpson’s case, which drew attention to “issues of racial perceptions of the police, the invulnerability of celebrity, and domestic violence even in a wealthy household.”

“Murders that stay in the public imagination often are bellwethers or signposts or precedents for key moments in our collective social consciousness,” Kim continues. “They are events that challenge the status quo, for good, and resist prior covering up of shameful repression, or they shock societal norms, confirm our worst fears about ourselves, or reflect the anxieties of the era they occur in which we can look back upon with more objectivity.”

In the Borden case, the prosecution – and in turn, the media – used the trial to convey that the wealthy are not exempt from unsavory, violent behavior. Lizzie’s defense was, in some ways, a defense of upper-class society; an attempt to demonstrate that someone from her background could not have possibly committed a brutal murder. This clash of ideologies and opposing narratives made for compelling copy, and newspapers and the public ate it up. Once the media created Lizzie Borden as a persona and celebrity, the process was self-sustaining: the more Lizzie became a household name, the more newspapers people would purchase.

Newspapers often took liberties when reporting the facts – not an uncommon practice in 19th century reporting culture, which focused more on crime and vice than accuracy. Because the case and trial had so many easily sensationalized components, articles often featured very dramatic accounts of what happened in the courtroom – for example, when Lizzie fainted at the sight of her father and step-mother’s severed heads, which were brought in as evidence. On slower news days, reporters would comment that Lizzie was yawning or looked bored during the trial, planting the seed that a woman exhibiting boredom by such a gory event might be capable of murder. Her every move made headlines, but that still doesn’t explain why, all these years later, we still pore over the evidence in search of something new. 

Perhaps one place to look for answers is the Lizzie Borden Museum and Bed and Breakfast, the family’s home, reconstructed to look just as it did when the murders took place – one of the preeminent locations of “dark tourism” in the country. Visitors can take a guided tour of the house, visit the gift shop where the barn once stood (Lizzie bobblehead, anyone?) and stay overnight, including in Lizzie’s bedroom or in the room where Abby was murdered. The museum has several thousands of visitors each year, says manager Lee-Ann Wilber, coming from as far as Germany, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

The Borden home on Second Street in Fall River, Massachusetts, where the murders of Lizzie Borden's parents occurred, is now a bed and breakfast.

According to Wilber, there are several factors that play into the crime’s enduring appeal, including the fact that the primary suspect was a woman, and that the murder weapon was a hatchet, at a time when poison was the method of choice for most female Victorian killers. Many are drawn to the house in the hopes of interacting with supernatural beings. The juxtaposition of the meticulously decorated middle-class Victorian home with the brutality of the crime that took place within its walls is hard to resist.

In addition to the unlikely suspect and violent murder weapon, one thing that makes the Borden tragedy so fascinating is simple: time. The fact that the Borden murders took place so long ago detaches us from the trauma and violence, making it a compelling story. According to investigative journalist and true crime expert M. William Phelps, historical crimes are somehow not real because they took place so long ago,

Phelps suggests that the case’s “voyeuristic magnetism” stems from the fact that she may have pulled off the perfect crime, literally getting away with murder, and that we like that version of the story far better than the alternative. “It’s more fascinating, comforting and compliant to the crash-and-burn-on-live-TV society we live in today to accept that a young woman murdered her parents,” he explains. “We expect it. Lizzie is the perfect archetype; the Jodi Arias or Casey Anthony of her day.” Our obsession exists because we’re simultaneously scared of and fascinated by death – as long it happens in somebody else’s community and someone else’s era.

This blurring of news and entertainment during the initial coverage of the Borden trial has only become more pervasive today, making it unlikely that the fascination with Lizzie will end anytime soon. Between being a permanent fixture in popular culture and the center of one of the most famous cold cases in American history, Lizzie is now as much a part of American mythology as Paul Bunyan. Recent developments like the discovery of her attorney’s journals, and the renovation of Maplecroft make Lizzie more accessible to the public, offering the possibility that the case could be solved – perhaps for the 125th anniversary. Or maybe she’ll forever be the smirking spinster who got away with one of the most memorable murders in history, and we won’t be able to look away. 

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