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Sweet, Victorian, Spinster Lizzie Borden
Upper middle class Victorian New England: Polite conversations, genteel ladies, dapper gentlemen, beautiful architecture, and a 32 year old spinster taking a hatchet to her parents. Or did she? The woman that we discuss in this episode was propelled into the center of a media frenzy and controversy solely based on the events of one hot summer day in 1892. And the speculation continues to fascinate 120 year later!
The life of Lizzie Andrew Borden was quite unremarkable. Born to Andrew Jackson Borden and Sarah Morse Borden July 19th, 1860 in Fall River Massachusetts, Lizzie was the youngest of their children. Emma, who was nine years older, and Alice, who had died at age three. When Lizzie was three, Sarah died as well, leaving 12 year old Emma to be the woman in the family.
Two years after Sarah’s death, however, Andrew remarried Abby Durfee Gray. Abby, who was 37 at the time, gave up her own spinster lifestyle to become the step mother to Andrew’s daughters. However this relationship never developed into a warm and fuzzy mommy/daughter/daughter trio. Actually, the dynamics of the entire Borden clan, well, let’s just leave it as, “a certain level of dysfunction”.
Andrew Borden and his everpresent black suit
Abby Borden, wife, step-mother, victim
We do go into some detail on the podcast, not only about the family dynamics, but the players and the events in this Whodunit. Andrew is quite a penny pincher- not even investing in indoor plumbing; Abby is not liked by her step-daughters; how they all got along- or didn’t-and how they spent their days. (We also add in some some nifty deets about Victorian life in general.) There is A LOT written about this case, we talk about what we think is key, but who knows what is really important?
Well, this is: On the morning of August 4th, 1892 someone killed Abby Borden in the guest room with 18-19 hatchet or axe chops. One to two hours later, someone did a similar hatchet-job on Andrew Borden as he rested on the sofa downstairs, with another 10 or 11 whacks.
So the ditty is wrong. You know the one: ”Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother 40 whacks, when she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.”
Wasn’t her mother, it was her step mother.
Was it an axe?
Wasn’t 81 total, but closer to 28.
Did Lizzie do it?
We give you some common speculation about the initial suspects and general oddities immediatly following the murders, but Lizzie was arrested in short time.There was plenty of circumstantial evidence building a case against her, and she was held until trial.
What evidence you ask? Seriously? Come on, you know we like to get you so excited about someone that you want to look into it on your own. We do spell out some of it in the podcast—but this case hasn’t lived on this long because just a tiny amount of evidence clearly points to one person. It has lived on because of the things NOT known, as well as the things known that don’t add up. The fun part is playing detective yourself. We can’t deny you that thrill.
But, if not Lizzie, then who? And why?
Was it Lizzie who somehow managed to wield a heavy axe so accurately?
Was it Emma Borden, Lizzy’s sister, because she was denied love?
Was it Uncle John Morse, who was staying with them at the time?
Was it Bridget”Don’t call me Maggie” Sullivan,pissed off ‘cuz she had to clean windows when she was sick and it was a bajillion degrees?
Was it a mysterious and unidentified man seen lurking about before the murders?
Within a year of the murders, Lizzie Borden was on trial for them. The trial began June 5th,1893, and Lizzie never took the stand. On June 20th, after a mere one and half hour deliberation, Lizzie Borden is found not guilty of the murders.
Lizzie chose to stay in Fall River despite her notoriety. She and her sister, Emma, purchased a home fitting their station in life- with indoor plumbing!- and named it Maplecroft. Lizzie, now in control of her own inherited wealth and going by the name Lizbeth, has several rumored affairs, and is often linked romantically to an actress named Nance O’Neil.
Maplecroft, home to Emma and Lizzie after the murders
Beautiful Nance O’Neil
Twelve years after purchasing Maplecroft, Emma moves out –seems she did not agree with the lifestyle choices her sister was making. 22 years after that, the estranged sisters die within days of each other. Lizzie- then 66- dies of pneumonia. Emma of nephritis. Both are buried in the family plot in a Fall River cemetery.
Marker at Lizzie Borden’s grave
Even Lizzies funeral was odd: she had written out her final wishes which included using the name “Lizbeth” on her headstone, and inviting certain people to the funeral and when they arrived, they were told it was held the day before. Way to go out with some drama, Lizzie!
For a quiet, Sunday school teaching, pear picking, Victorian spinster, Lizzie Borden left quite a legacy of mystery in her wake. The hoopla surrounding this case is often likened to the OJ Simpson trial. Let’s just see if there are hobby investigators talking about that case in 120 years.
Time Travel With The History Chicks
Ok…*cracks knuckles* THIS is where things get fun!
First off, you could plan a trip to Fall River, MA and stay in the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast and Museum. The Borden home, where the murders occurred, is a Bed and Breakfast now. Even if you can’t make the trip to southeastern Massachusetts, go to the website. There is A LOT to see including some pretty nifty video reenactments. If you are into the macabre- we aren’t but hey, this is your thing now-this is also a good place to start down that spooky path.
To immerse yourself in all things Lizzie, click on over to the Lizzie Andrew Borden Virtual Museum & Library. Read through the history- all the details of the investigation, check out the photo gallery, investigate the paranormal aspects, and when you are good and creeped out, find Harry’s Morphs and watch Lizzie become Marilyn Monroe.
Want more? By far, the most detailed blog we could find that revolves around this case is Lizzie Borden: Warps &Wefts. ALL kinds of interesting facts and pictures about Lizzie, her family, her life, Victoriana and other oddities —even a link to The Virtual Toilet Paper Museum-this wild, wacky web sure has some cool stuff!
There is a magazine, The Hatchet, which deals with issues surrounding this case. It appears that the last issue was published a couple of years ago, but lurking around a messageboard we found that they may be firing up the presses again. Even if not, you can get lots of nifty intel from this site:
If you just want to hang out with a bunch of other people who celebrate Victoriana, Fall River and all things Lizzie, click on over to the Lizzie Borden Society Forums. For a group of people who have been debating details of a 120 year-old murder for quite some time, we must say that this is one of THE MOST polite messageboards we chicks have ever seen. Don’t make us come hurt you for not playing nice with them!
Like books? There is a new one coming out soon, we have NOT read it, but if the Fall River Historical Society is pimping it, that’s good enough recommendation for us. Parallel Lives: a Social History of Lizzie Borden and her Fall River, by Michael Martins, and Dennis A. Binnette.
Beckett recommended the most awesome graphic novel – the one with illustrations that remind us of Ripley’s Believe It or Not: The Borden Tragedy: A Memoir of the Infamous Double Murder at Fall River, Mass., 1892 by Rick Geary: (There are both floor plans and street maps in this one!)
Movies you ask? There was a 1975 version The Legend of Lizzie Borden with Elizabeth Montgomery. We did not make it through the whole movie (what? We have other jobs you know!) but you can watch it online here, here via the Mondo Lizzie Borden blog.
Our plan of action? We are kinda giddy to watch the upcoming HBO movie about Lizzie Borden starring Chloe Sevigny. It’s only in preproduction, but we love us some Big Love…and this actress has the kinda creepy eye thing going on already…she’s gonna rock it!
There you have it: How one day changed an unremarkable Victorian spinster’s life into a legacy of legend, controversy, intrigue and mystery.
As always, music for our podcast comes courtesy of Music Alley. Visit them at music.mevio.com.