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the trial of lizzie borden
21 may 2020
I've been interested in Lizzie Borden as long as I can remember. Most people even vaguely interested in true crime are. I read several of the available books back in the 1970s, and admired the mid-'70s TV movie starring Elizabeth Montgomery as Lizzie. I recently saw the 2018 feature film with Chloë Sevigny as Lizzie and, wanting to catch up on Bordenography, went on to Cara Robertson's recent book The Trial of Lizzie Borden. And yet in all those decades, I doubt my insight into the mystery has progressed much at all. Lizzie Borden remains perpetually out of reach.
On the one hand, Lizzie Borden was obviously guilty of the ultra-grisly 1892 axe murders of her father and her stepmother. On the other, that statement depends on a class assumption. The bourgeois Lizzie and her servant Bridget Sullivan are the only plausible suspects. (Lizzie's sister Emma is sometimes adduced, but can't be placed at the Borden home on the morning in question, and if Emma was the killer, both Lizzie and Bridget would have to be in on an increasingly unmanageable conspiracy.)
If Lizzie was the killer, Bridget might have covered for her, for remuneration, out of affection, maybe out of deference. But if Bridget killed the elder Bordens, the proud, class-conscious Lizzie would certainly have turned her in. (The Sevigny film posits an understanding between the two women to commit the crimes together; that also works.)
Motive? Observers have had to infer motives, the usual conclusion being that Lizzie was jealous of her stepmother but also hated her father. Robertson cites theories that the murders arose out of emotional and sexual abuse, theories that the Sevigny version elaborates. There's also plain greed. The salient fact of the case is that Abby died first; the killings seem staged to make that fact inescapable. If Andrew had been killed first, Abby would have inherited part of his estate. As it was, Lizzie and her sister Emma inherited it all.
Means? The murder weapon was never found. (It was likelier a hatchet than an axe, but "hatchet murderer" isn't euphonious, and "hatchet" does not rhyme with "whacks.") From the trial records that Robertson cites, there were too many candidates for the murder hatchet rather than too few. The Borden household seems to have been a virtual armory of killin' tackle. But the forensics of the 1890s couldn't establish any definitive links between the hardware and the murders. Again, the important thing is that any intruder would have had to escape through populated streets, bloodstained and toting a gory hatchet.
Some Amazon reviews of The Trial of Lizzie Borden, evidently posted by people who don't read covers or title pages, complain that Cara Robertson hews too closely to those trial records. But Robertson's choice to cover the trial rather than the case more globally is the great virtue of her book. She turns transcripts into a taut narrative that retells the murders through the formalities that the legal system imposed on them. Robertson is very conservative when it comes to speculation about the "real story." The trial is the real story, after all, or what remains of it. Lizzie Borden was acquitted because there was no direct evidence against her. At the same time, the process shows starkly that she had to have been guilty of something. Lizzie either wielded the hatchet, or protected the servant (or perhaps the sister) who did.
Robertson shows how assumptions and reticences about gender played into Lizzie's acquittal. Lizzie Borden was at once too refined to be suspected of brutality, and too brutal (in late-Victorian conceptions of her sex) to be held responsible – if one supposes that repressed hysteria or her "monthly sickness" somehow drove her to chop up Mom and Pop. Such hermeneutics were not the sole province of patronizing males. A key character in Robertson's narrative is Elizabeth Jordan, a pioneering journalist who covered the trial and would write both nonfiction and fictionalized accounts of the case. Jordan was distinctly on Team Lizzie throughout. One senses more than an undertone, in Jordan's writing, of the idea, not fully worked-out, that if Lizzie killed her elders she must have had excellent reasons to do so, reasons linked to her sex, her economic dependency, her domestic captivity.
In a brief epilogue, Robertson traces Lizzie Borden's subsequent self-actualization as the scandalous heiress of Fall River, Massachusetts. If Lizzie killed her father and stepmother to be free of stifling conventions, she made the most of her inheritance and her liberty. Maybe that's what makes people most uneasy about Lizzie Borden: literally or figuratively, she got away with murder.
Robertson, Cara. The Trial of Lizzie Borden: A true story. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019.