We’ve all heard the playground song, “Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother forty whacks,” right? I don’t know if kids still sing that, but if they do, I have to wonder if they know where the chant came from, or who Lizzie Borden was.
For those who are unfamiliar with her, Lizzie Borden was an unmarried woman living with her father, Andrew, stepmother Abby, and sister, Emma in Fall River, Massachusetts. Lizzie seemed upright, teaching Sunday school and arranging flowers as a hobby. Andrew Borden was a furniture and coffin salesman who had worked his way up the social ladder. He was ridiculously cheap, denying his family indoor plumbing and electricity, even though he could easily afford them. Andrew was not well-liked around town, even if he was upper-crust.
The Bordens weren’t a happy family. Lizzie and Emma usually didn’t eat their meals with Andrew and Abby, and Lizzie refused to call Abby her mother or to let anyone else do so. Bridget, the maid, said during the trial that she didn’t suspect there was anything wrong with the family, but others noticed the undercurrent of tension.
Then on August 4, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were found dead at home. Both had been hacked to death–Abby in the guest bedroom, and Andrew on the couch in a sitting room where he had been napping. I’m not going to post photos of either of the bodies, as they’re easily accessible on the Web and rather gruesome, so no, we won’t be going there.
There were several suspects, but Lizzie was the only one who faced trial. Proceedings began on June 5, 1893 and ended on June 14th. Naturally, the whole thing was a media circus. Lizzie entered a plea of “Not Guilty,” and after a ninety minute deliberation by the jury, was acquitted. She had two marks in her favor. One, people in the nineteenth century had very definite ideas as to what a woman criminal looked like. Ideally, she would have a pointy chin, a brutish forehead, and an untrustworthy disposition. Sunday school teacher Lizzie, with her round face and respectable background, couldn’t possibly be a murderer.
Two, and this one is more to the point, the prosecution failed to make an adequate case against her because their focus was too narrow, built just on the idea that Lizzie was the only logical perpetrator. In spite of the preconceived notions a lot of people had about what female criminals looked like, though, the police believed she was at fault. The papers weren’t kind in their assessment of the case, either. The New York Times called the Fall River police muddle-headed and untrained.
Personally, I think Lizzie was the culprit. The Borden house has a weird layout, particularly on the second floor, and whoever killed Abby Borden would have to be in and out of those rooms quickly. Someone unfamiliar with the house wouldn’t have been able to do that.
Not only that, but Lizzie exhibited odd behavior before and after the murders that got people’s antennae up, such as trying to buy a bottle of prussic acid on August third. She was also seen burning a blue corduroy dress with mysterious stains on it after Andrew and Abby were found dead. Victorians were meticulous about not wasting material, reusing whatever they could, and clothes would have to be seriously messed up to warrant burning.
Everyone in town knew Lizzie and Abby’s relationship was just above estrangement, although Emma said in her trial testimony that Lizzie had a good relationship with Andrew. Both Lizzie and Emma were incensed that their father wasn’t considering their needs and wants as his unmarried daughters, though. So the motive was there, although we don’t know what specifically made Lizzie snap.
After the trial, Lizzie and Emma returned to their old house, but didn’t stay long. They came into some money due to Andrew and Abby’s deaths, and purchased an eight-bedroom home at 306 French Street they called Maplecroft. Lizzie was ostracized by the people of Fall River, but continued to live in the house until her death in 1927.
Lizzie Borden’s story has been adapted for stage, screen, books, movies, and even as a ballet. This year another iteration premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and tomorrow will open in limited release, starring Chloe Sevigny as Lizzie and Kristen Stewart as Bridget Sullivan.
For once, though, I’m not going to include the trailer. I don’t like it. I loathe it, actually. Lizzie looks like revisionist trash.
That, and it’s clearly a ripoff of Evan Hunter’s 1984 novel, Lizzie, which the author freely admits is a work of fiction. Everything I’ve read about the film fails to mention any connection with the novel. Gee, how original, guys. And how ripe for a possible plagiarism suit. What’s really funny is that some early reviews have called the movie a “biopic,” and “well-researched.” Um, no. Just no.
The first misstep I noticed is Mr. Borden telling Bridget to leave her door open at night, after which he sneaks in to abuse her. While it was common practice for the help in rich houses to leave their doors unlocked and not uncommon for employers to get very familiar with their maids, this was an Edwardian thing, not Victorian. There may have been exceptions, but definitely not at the Borden house. All of the Bordens, including Andrew, were neurotic about locking doors. Oops. And anyway, Andrew and Abby shared a bedroom. Anyone else doubt that there was much sneaking around after lights-out in the Borden abode? I sure do.
The film’s second big faux pas is the way the filmmakers saw the crime happening. Bridget was not an accomplice in the murders; she was washing windows at the time, and then went up to her attic bedroom to lay down. She was never accused of the crime or put on trial. The trailer also shows Lizzie swinging the hatchet while in the nude, which actress Chloe Sevigny is very proud of. We actually don’t know if that happened or not, but it was something the prosecution threw into their case when the tide turned against them. It seems pretty lame and desperate, because it doesn’t explain Lizzie burning her dress after the murders.
Lizzie’s most serious error is the relationship between Lizzie and Bridget. While we know they were on friendly terms, we have no evidence that they were lovers. The Bordens called Bridget “Maggie,” which some saw as derogatory, but it was only because their previous maid was named Maggie. Whether the Bordens did it out of habit or spite, the fact that they didn’t even call Bridget by her own name put them in separate spheres. Seeing as they were in different social classes, and that Lizzie was known in the community as an honest woman, it’s highly unlikely that she and Bridget were carrying on an illicit affair. They sure wouldn’t have done anything in the barn, as shown in the trailer, where anyone could easily see them from the street.
When one looks at the aftermath of the murders, what really happened is pretty clear. If romance was a factor, it stands to reason that Bridget and Lizzie would have found a way to live together or otherwise continue the relationship. Bridget is said to have gone back to Ireland on a visit, but there’s no proof of that. However, she did get as far from Fall River as she could.
Bridget went to Montana, married a fellow named John Sullivan (no relation) and had no children. Photos of her later in her life have recently been made public, courtesy of her grandniece, Dianna Porter, who revealed that her aunt was stolid and humorless, always wearing a dust cap. We also know that Bridget is buried in Anaconda, Montana, after dying in Butte in 1948. Meanwhile, Lizzie lived out the rest of her life alone at Maplecroft and probably didn’t keep in touch with Bridget.
In fact, the only real speculation that Lizzie was gay comes from her being enamored with actress Nance O’Neil, but even that is unsubstantiated and sketchy at best. It’s more likely Lizzie was a starstruck woman who was looking to get into society in any way she could, and a friendship with an actress probably seemed expedient. We don’t know for certain, but a party Lizzie gave for O’Neil and some of her other friends angered Emma enough that she left Maplecroft, never to set foot there again.
Given that facts preclude any lesbian angles to the Borden murders, it was presentist and tacky of the filmmakers to go in that direction. It smacks more of pandering to the social justice crowd than presenting history properly, which isn’t shocking, but always galling and disappointing. That they thought an event that was already tense, mysterious, and grisly deserved more drama, was, quite frankly, a stupid decision.
What would have served the story better would have been to keep the drama in the courtroom, with its murky aspects left intact. There are two thousand pages of trial transcript that no doubt could have provided plenty of material. Or maybe show Lizzie late in her life. Someone new to Fall River could strike up a friendship with her without knowing who she is, spawning flashbacks by townspeople or possibly Lizzie herself. That would have been feasible. Instead, the filmmakers chose to beclown themselves and history with steamy fabrication. It’s very probable that Lizzie will die at the box office, and it deserves to.
And on that happy note, I hope you’ll join me tomorrow for this month’s Shamedown. Thanks for reading, all!